Satchwell Lecture 2019

June 10, 2019

Times editor John Witherow called for the breakup of the digital giants Google and Facebook at the Society of Editors annual Satchwell lecture.

And he predicted that the BBC would be forced to become a subscription service.

Witherow, the UK’s longest serving national serving editor said there was a very real chance that if re-elected an American government under a Trump second term presidency could take on the major tech players.

“Facebook and google have taken the digital advertising revenue we hoped to rely on and refused to pay a fair price for the copy that fortifies their platforms.”

“They are unregulated, unchecked and unedifying in their disregard for the fractured society that is a by-product of their commercial success.”

Witherow spoke to a capacity audience at the lecture held at Stationers’ Hall in central London Monday evening (June 10th).

His theme included how he believes quality journalism will ultimately survive in the new digital age.

“Constructive journalism is one way in which the trust in the mainstream press can be restored. How? By adding one more element to the mix. What Now? 

Many of us have become immune to the relentlessly negative slant of much of our news coverage. 

Taking the old adage that news should be “something that someone, somewhere wants to suppress”, we can easily commission stories digging up dirt and crime and exposing evils. 

And of course, we should do this. But constructive news aims to empower the reader by spending more time on the What Now.”

Witherow concluded with predictions of the political and media world: “I would predict too that, in due course, the internet giants will be regulated and deemed to be publishers, bound by the same restraints that we have to accept. I hope too that they will be broken up. 

And that the BBC will ultimately move from having a compulsory license fee to a voluntary subscription. 

All that means a more level playing field in which competition can thrive, fairly.

And finally, breaking the short-term prediction code. That Boris Johnson will be the next prime minister, that we will achieve Brexit and that Donald Trump will be re-elected as president of the United States next year. And whether you like it or not, that will be good for journalism.

Whatever happens it is going to be interesting. 

One of the most invigorating things about journalism is that no two days are ever the same. 

There is a clue in the word “news”.”

  • The Satchwell Lecture is organised by the Society of Editors and is named in honour of Bob Satchwell, founding executive director of the society, who retired through ill health in 2017.
  • John Witherow’s full lecture speech can be found here – John Witherow Speech to Society