The Future of News: Old Values, New Mediums

by Roger Mosey

 Roger Mosey is Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge

Roger Mosey is Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge

Living here in the Fens, it can feel a galaxy away from my old life in the media.

In Oxbridge colleges we take a long view: we’re in institutions that go back through the centuries, and our education is designed to last for a lifetime. So, it’s a sharp contrast with a newsroom where you’re bombarded with information every second of the day and instant reactions are mandatory.

I still keep a strong interest in the media, not least as a consumer; Cambridge colleagues are used to me slipping away from dinner to catch the News at 10 as my final news fix of the day. And I greatly admire much of what I see – especially the bravery of reporters and crews when they’re covering conflicts.

But in stories from home and abroad, news programmes are also valiantly attempting to make sense of a world where craziness can seem like the new normal.

When I was asked by my own college, Selwyn, to do a talk about the current state of the media for alumni and friends in London, I wanted to start from the premise that conventional broadcast news is still a very good thing.

In an era of claims and counterclaims about ‘fake news’, and as we get to grips with the way social media is destroying our privacy and potentially subverting our democracy, the case for public service broadcasting is stronger than ever. Public service broadcasting means more than just the BBC, of course. It’s also about recognising the commitment of many other commercial news organisations to accuracy and truth.

Thoughts about what ‘conventional’ news could do to make itself better are raised here. I wanted to avoid any sense of being a dinosaur lecturing a new generation, because they do some things better than we ever did. However, there are times when you hear or see items which ring an alarm bell about the way, for instance, social media flurries can over influence editorial judgements – or how the rush to break news can eradicate the cool, calm questioning about the extent to which it matters. Others have been exploring the same territory, as in James Harding’s advocacy of ‘slow news’.

 Selwyn College, Cambridge. Photo:  Diliff

Selwyn College, Cambridge. Photo: Diliff

My own version was to offer a list of 10 things that would make the news better – starting from the reinforcement and the proper resourcing of public service media, to avoid the ghastly free-for-all we see in the United States. I then went on with a mix of long term concerns about how we defend the primacy of truth, along with some much-loved hobbyhorses which will be familiar to people from editorial meetings in my BBC News days.

Forgive me if I don’t share them all now, because there’s been some interest in the list being expanded and becoming a book – which would aim to be supportive of the big newsrooms while also offering some challenges. But what I found fascinating was that my list of 10 items was rapidly expanded to 15 within the space of the Q&A session after the talk. The suggested improvements ranged from ‘presenters should stop interrupting so much’ to ‘editors shouldn’t keep looking over their shoulders at what rivals are doing – they should trust their own judgement’.  

What this shows, I think, is that the public are really engaged in the debate that is happening within journalism. People can see that the media is part of the maelstrom of current politics, and you can’t fix one without getting a grip on the other. There is still a hunger for sources that can be trusted, and for a more considered view than is found in abusive Tweets.

In other words, there is everything still to play for; and it’s time for us to celebrate the values in which we believe. I’m pleased the Oxford University Media Society is celebrating those values, and the more people it can include, the better.

Roger Mosey is Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, a former editor of ‘Today’ and head of BBC Television News, and a Patron of the Society. He is the author of 'Getting Out Alive: News, Sport and Politics at the BBC'.