Richard Sambrook on the future of journalism and leaving the BBC

February 24, 2010

By Michael Haddon

With a career spanning 30 years at the BBC, Richard Sambrook, director of the organisation’s global news division, has revealed how he once carried a resignation letter with him every day, in the expectation it would eventually have to be offered.

That was in the torrid time after the Hutton Report into the death of government scientist Dr David Kelly, but the resignation was never required and he has now finally decided to leave the corporation of his own accord to take up a new role at blue chip PR firm Edelman, as chief content officer.

Speaking at the Frontline Club, Sambrook told colleague Vin Ray, of the BBC College of Journalism, at the Frontline Club about his time at the organisation, his views on the future of journalism and his new job. Here is the full video of the event…

Andrew Gilligan and the Hutton Report

Much has been written about Andrew Gilligan’s early-morning claim on Today about the "sexing up" of a government dossier, but the episode was perhaps the defining moment in recent BBC history and Sambrook admitted that mistakes were made: 

"It wasn’t a very good piece of broadcasting – in terms of script there isn’t anything wrong with it and I could defend every word of it. The problem was he didn’t have the evidence hard enough to be able to stand behind it. That is what David Kelly said and believed – and we know he had good grounds to say it. The story was right but the journalism around it was sloppy."

Gavyn Davies, the BBC chairman, quit and then Greg Dyke tendered his resignation – expecting it to be rejected – and it was accepted.

Sambrook said: "The next day I kind of had my resignation in my hand – not because I’d done anything wrong. You could just tell that was the way it was going."

Looking Back at the BBC

Sambrook showed clips of some of his favourite moments from the archives, singling out Brian Hanrahan’s reporting from the fall of the Berlin Wall and Martin Bell’s reporting from Bosnia, which was a "really good example of properly reporting horrific incidents without showing gruesome images, but still conveying the shock and awfulness of what happened."

On the tricky subject of editorial judgement in portraying such difficult subjects for audiences back home, Sambrook said:

"As broadcasters we have repsonsibilty for what goes into people’s living rooms. You can do it without showing the most awful images, but I think in the 2003 Iraq war we oversantised. It’s a very difficult judgement to get right."

Given the problems experienced by reporter Fergal Keane in Rwanda, Sambrook discussed the support methods he had helped introduce and oversee at the BBC:

"Hostile environment training is pretty established and there’s a commitment to it. We’re moving more now into the psychological area. We put people through the most extraordinary experiences and we have reponsibilty to suppport them and help them. The overall need is growing for it – not getting less."

Future of News

Sambrook believes that journalism "still has a long way to go" to be trusted on the basis of editorial judgements. Journalists should "show the evidence of why you’ve arrived at that judgement". Failing to show this could appear "closed and defensive".

Sambrook gained a reputation for being at the forefront of technological change in the industry and he now fears for the future of international and investigative reporting is under threat. "Costs for big bureau are unsustainable," he said.

"The internet for breaking and daily news is going to be more important but where is the space on the web for current affairs and investigative journalism? I don’t really see it at the moment."

New career

But why is he leaving such an illustrious career at the Beeb? "There’s not another job for me [at the BBC] – I’ve run out of road. I don’t see another job in news or journalism that would be a step on from what I’ve done. The lines are getting redrawn by digital at the moment," he said.

With Sambrook still waiting to take up his new role,  there has been much interest in what such a journalist can offer to public relations – and the answer is his experience in original content production:

"They will be making websites and documentaries paid for by corporate clients – my job is to oversee that and put a framework in place to help companies outside the media create their own content."