Educate, inform, empower
Michael Hastings
Monday November 8, 2004

Take any group of professionals and most will be unhealthily focused on their own discipline. Media people are exceptionally curious about their own business, their competitors and their colleagues, even though common sense and perspective would encourage us to focus beyond our self-obsessed myopia.

We are, say those outside, often over-indulgent about our own world. Yet our role is primarily to condense the complexities of the real world into intelligible, digestible chunks and help readers, viewers, listeners and web users make sense for their own lives out of complexity. We exist to look beyond the product - a paper, a programme, a sound, an image, a text. We exist to add wisdom to events, humour to ordinariness, colour to dull days, imagination to routine, authority to information. Above all else the media is not about tangibles - buildings, paper or pages, posters or programme or products. The media is all about intangibles - ideas and information, perspectives and views and those most essential assets of all - facts and truth.

Ask any pollster. The media as a whole doesn't rate very highly on the trust or truth stakes. Yes, it's better for TV and radio than it is for print journalists and of course, it's a whole lot better for the more serious broadsheets than the red tops. But whichever way you cut it, it's not the best of all stories. The realities are stark - the public mistrusts big business, estate agents and politicians but trusts the family doctor and the local policeman. Thankfully, in the BBC's case, public trust is high and certainly higher than for politicians but irritatingly - for the media as whole - it is vulnerable and in some cases waning fast. Yet we debate for hours, even days over what to say, when, how and with what images. For public service organisations, we are laden with values and purposes and public interest commitments; yet it doesn't always cut through.

I don't want to analyse the media's problems with trust and truth. There are enough big studies out there assessing every twist and turn of the issues and proposing solutions. We all know that ethical and principled journalism is hard to achieve in today's competitive and liberal environment. What I want to propose for media organisations - most of which agonise over editorial complexity, sometimes minute by minute - is that we think equally hard about our "citizenship" impact as our audience appreciation, opportunities to view, or readership. By impact, what I mean is our capacity to bring lasting public benefit and to empower the great majority of citizens in their own responsible decision making.

Let me be specific. The CSR world has long been obsessed with environmental sustainability - through energy usage, waste management, minerals extraction, supply chain purity and "healthy" buildings. Nothing wrong with that, and very important too. But for media organisations - who should of course ensure safe, sustainable energy and sound measured environmental policies, the key impact we can have is not through these processes but through communicating the issues, arguments and opportunities of responsible sustainability so that the public can learn to practise responsibility themselves and not just tut-tut about it.

By educating and informing we empower people towards effective action on environmental issues and we can help people see why and how to get involved. Being responsible ourselves and helping others determine how to act is a double benefit that only a media organisation can deploy.

Take HR or "people" policy. How we employ our staff, their diversity and their security are key issues of corporate responsibility that apply everywhere, but they are not the dominant issue for media organisations. The impact of our programmes in searching and exposing unethical practices, in giving people the tools to challenge those in power, and in helping the public be intelligent consumers and effective citizens is where our real people impact comes.

We can do the right thing inside our organisations and we must - not just because of legislation - but because of our commitments to ethical business practice. We must, however, do the right thing for those outside. Shining light in hidden corners is a public service. It is social responsibility. It is real empowerment.

In a previous generation, certain newspapers were well known for social campaigning and broadcasters, too, have assumed aspects of that role. The public needs true and reliable information and when the media highlights or campaigns, then the public feels we are on their side - close to the real issues of public pain and personal need. And trust can be rebuilt.

Even charity needs a rethink. Most companies give cash or support in kind. This whole publication is about it. Media organisations - and here I have to say, especially the BBC - can galvanise the public like no one else to part with their cash and support domestic and international relief projects, year in year out. Next year Comic Relief, through one big night on BBC 1 will get us all talking and giving to relieve poverty and distress in Africa. It will be part of the Make Poverty History campaign led by a network of charities, including Comic Relief, which will put the spotlight on the long problem of seemingly intractable poverty, especially in Africa.

This month too, BBC Children in Need will, for the 25th time, challenge us to support thousands of Britain's children whose lives are more impoverished, confused and hurting than our own. Children in Need is at the sharp end of delivering cash with massive public awareness. It's great stuff. It's what public service broadcasters like the BBC should do. And the BBC is not alone. Newspapers run appeals for charities, and marketing organisations help charitable causes to get public attention through social marketing campaigns with big business. Everybody gains.

But is this our key impact? Ask parents what bugs them about the media. They complain about the relentless pressure on children, let alone adults, to be consumers. If the media does one thing really, really well, it's glitz and glamour. We can light even the dullest room to make it look like perfection. The power we have to convey compelling images, through words or pictures of a fast, showy and material world, where getting and having things can seem sometimes to be more important to valuing people or relationships, is beyond argument.

So what then is the media's social responsibility, where the contrasts between rich and poor are increasingly sharp, where parents panic about their kids being pressured into adulthood when they are only really children, and where the credit card crisis is now serious, with debt for many outstripping the capacity to pay? This is a big question.

Are we in the media just reflecting the world as it is or do we present a world of fame and fashion that is so very attractive, yet in reality is hard to achieve without spending lots on image and without aspirations to possess which bypass the hard realties of "can we afford it?" and "is it responsible to buy and throw away at the pace we do?"

These are tough questions for editors and producers, for presenters and reporters, for crafts people and camera operators. How we determine which images to capture and how we package it all can affect how the public spends. After all, that's what advertising does. And if we overspend and we waste, the bill reduces our ability to give and affects our attitude to those in need. Is the media fuelling greed and self indulgence and by default, complacency and carelessness?

So, where does media responsibility begin and end? Well, to answer that question we must ask whether responsibility is simply an operational duty or truly a corporate responsibility? You'll have to decide that. That's what empowerment enables you to do.

Michael Hastings is head of corporate responsibility at the BBC. This is his personal view.

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