A conversation with...
Nik Gowing, Journalist, BBC World News
Nik Gowing has been a main presenter for the BBC’s international 24-hour news channel BBC World News, since 1996, where he presents The Hub with Nik Gowing, chairs BBC debates and presents location coverage of major international events. Earlier this year he visited Australia to give a series of talks to government officials, academic bodies and corporates on his study “Skyful of Lies and Black Swans.”
Your study looks at how institutions of power such as governments, the military and big corporations are being challenged by a new media environment, what did you find?
The public information space has been turned on its head in a very short space of time by the amazing digital environment that so many of us now carry in our pockets – the smartphone. Governments and corporate bodies now have far less power than they assume. Ultimately it’s about a new vulnerability, fragility and brittleness of power. There are billions of people out there who are watching and now reporting what they see and hear. In moments of crisis, whether they are in Christchurch during an earthquake or in North Africa during the Arab Spring, they are coming together to create new digital communities that demand accountability and challenge the status quo. It’s something that we take for granted now but what we are seeing is an inability of those in positions of power to understand how profoundly the information space has changed and how vulnerable that makes them.
It’s not just governments, like those in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia who find themselves forced out. Tony Hayward, former CEO of BP, had to resign over his handling of the Gulf oil spill and the public response to it. He has since said that he didn’t understand the media space – at the time of the spill 22% of the social media space was taken up by the crisis. Information now flows so fast, it is hard for governments and corporates to respond quickly enough and that creates a deficit in legitimacy. If the average person with a smartphone can see information there, they question why they are not hearing it from the government or CEO. This is one of the fundamental basics that companies are failing to realise – the importance of getting information out extremely quickly.
With the vast amount of information available, how do people know what is right and what is wrong?
That’s what good journalism is all about – we are about mediating and filtering. During the uprisings in Libya and Syria we received a lot of video that we didn’t use because we couldn’t verify it. There are lots of myths which emerge in the new media space which are partly due to the instant nature of the information. For example, the Tunisia uprising was said to have been sparked by a Mohamed Bouazizi who set fire to himself because his vegetable stall had been moved. Actually it was because he had spilt lighter fuel on himself and then had lit a cigarette. It’s the tyranny of real time information but it’s also fantastically empowering. The speed and volume of exchange can force good governance in India or expose a government cover-up of a train crash in China.
So how do journalistic organisations like BBC World News filter out the misinformation from the truth on such a short time-line?
By getting on the phone and checking. By finding two sources. It may take time and it may mean that we are not always first, but it’s better to have something right.
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