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Tuesday / 18 September / 2018

The Journalists’ Charity inaugural annual lecture was presented by James Harding, the former Director of BBC News and Times editor. Written by Milly Vincent and Peter Rutzler

The Journalists’ Charity inaugural annual lecture was presented by James Harding, the former Director of BBC News and Times editor.

Turning up on his bike at the Geological  Society he started by explaining the reason he was so hot is that he had gone to the Royal Geographical Society building in Kensington by mistake, only to find that his former  Times colleague  Ben MacIntrye was talking there.

It reminded him of his interview with the Financial Times where he had turned up at the Express building three minutes before it was due to start. He raced do the other bridge so fact that during the interview he was sweating profusely. “ I am sure that is why he gave me the job –  he thought I was  really nervous and and felt sorry for me.”

 Mr Harding  said journalists  had missed the three biggest stories of the past decade in the financial crash, the growing influence of technology and the rise of nationalism.

 But that we should not be blamed for it. ‘We are not and never have been in the predictions business… but did we listen enough to experts?’

And he claimed so-called fake news, popularised by Donald Trump’s regular criticisms of the press on the President’s official Twitter account, is not a serious issue.

He said the public’s lack of faith in journalism  was largely due to  the quantity of articles and the speed of their publication which means reporters don’t have time to speak to enough experts.

The 49-year-old spoke of the weeks in the aftermath of the Brexit vote in the summer of 2016 where the Nice terrorist attacks and the Turkish coup left everyone feeling overwhelmed.

He stepped down from his role at the BBC at the start of 2018 and start developing Tortoise, a new media project which will offer a slower supply of news sourced from experts across a wide range of fields.

The project is co-founded by Harding and former Times colleague Katie Vanneck Smith and Matthew Barzun, who worked with former U.S. president Barack Obama during the 2008 election campaign.

Harding aims to ‘open up’ journalism by advocating discussion forums and ‘organised listening’.

He said: ‘We’re trying to establish a new kind of newsroom. Out mantra is slow down, wise up.

‘We’re trying to see how we might think about opening up journalism, how we might think about systems of organised listening in every form, whether that’s in live open leader conferences but also in forms of digital journalism.’

He also urged caution regarding the imposition of a tax levy on tech giants Facebook and Google.

The Silicon Valley tech firms have dramatically changed the media landscape with many news organisations blaming the likes of Facebook and Google for squeezing revenue streams.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn suggested tech firms could pay a ‘digital licence fee’ to fund public interest journalism during a speech in August at the Edinburgh TV festival.

But Harding expressed caution at any levy, saying that Corbyn’s proposal would be a  cheap way out for tech firms. He said: ‘I’d be very wary of it [a levy].

‘Having worked in both the commercially funded and publicly funded media, while you’re taking some form of public funds, the question is what can and can’t you do.

‘There are a lot of things journalistically that are really important like having a point of view, campaigning, picking certain fights, taking certain stands. But once you take public money, taking  a stand is a harder thing to do given that it’s the public’s money.

‘I’m wary of it. That said, I do think there is a question here that we are all scratching towards, which is how are we going to create a public square that exists in our digital lives as it has in our physical lives.

‘I personally think we are going to need to look at those people who operate in that digital square and say you need to contribute to the health of our society and contribute to it in terms of information, education and the extent to which we can communicate.

‘I was quite struck by Jeremy Corbyn’s speech. When I did the Hugh Cudlipp  lecture I talked about this idea we discussed at the BBC of what would it be like to create a British Digital Corporation, how might that operate and how might those companies in Silicon Valley that are changing the shape of media in this country contribute to that public square.

‘I have to say, if I were one of those companies and I heard Jeremy Corbyn suggest something similar I would have bitten his arm off, because that is a way of getting tied into culture and society at a relatively low cost. So if anyone does do something like this, they must make sure that it’s properly and fully funded.’

The project is co-founded by Harding and former Times colleague Katie Vanneck Smith and Matthew Barzun, who worked with former U.S. president Barack Obama during the 2008 election campaign.

Harding aims to ‘open up’ journalism by advocating discussion forums and ‘organised listening’.

He said: ‘We’re trying to establish a new kind of newsroom. Out mantra is slow down, wise up.

‘We’re trying to see how we might think about opening up journalism, how we might think about systems of organised listening in every form, whether that’s in live open leader conferences but also in forms of digital journalism.’

At the lecture, Mr Harding was put on the spot by a young journalist who quizzed him on The Times’ reporting of the phone-hacking scandal when he was editor of the national paper.

Rupert Murdoch owned both The Times and the News of the World at the time, and the scandal resulted in the closure of the famous tabloid.

Mr Harding said that there was no influence from Mr Murdoch and he was very proud of The Times’ reporting of the story which was dealt with as thoroughly as it would any other.

But the BBC chief avoided any questions on the corporation’s decision to publish live footage of the police raid on Sir Cliff Richard’s house in 2014 over historical child abuse allegations.

Sir Cliff was never arrested or charged by the police and then launched a successful privacy suit against the BBC in which the singer was awarded an initial £210,000 in damages.

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