James Harding Keynote Lecture

Freedom of expression in the internet age

On 1 February 2018, the Rafael del Pino Foundation and the Faculty of Communication of the University of Navarra organised the 6th edition of "Conversations with..." with the participation of James Harding, former director of BBC News.

James Paul Harding (London, 1969) has for the past four years been the chief editorial officer of the BBC's newsrooms, with an audience of over 250 million people worldwide. A Cambridge University history graduate, Harding joined the Financial Times in 1994. He opened the paper's first branch in China and was its Shanghai correspondent from 1996 to 1999. After his time in China, he joined the paper's Washington DC bureau and was subsequently appointed head of the paper's US bureau until 2006. That year he joined one of Britain's most respected newspapers, The Times, where he was promoted to editor within a few months. He became, at the age of 38, the youngest editor of the century-old newspaper. Under his leadership, The Times was named "Newspaper of the Year" at the 2009 British Press Awards.


He is not yet fifty years old, but James Harding can already be considered a legend of world journalism. He began his career at the Financial Times, a newspaper that usually recruits only the best graduates from Oxford and Cambridge. In 2007, at the age of 38, he was appointed editor of The Times, one of the world's great newspapers and an institution in the British press. He was the youngest editor ever at the conservative daily and, probably because of his age and his journalistic background, he was the best person to lead the paper's digital transformation. Five years later he left the paper, due to differences with owner Rupert Murdoch, and was appointed editor of Britain's other major news institution, BBC News, a post he has just left to start a new journalistic project, news of which will be available later this year. In the meantime, Harding has had time to visit Madrid to take part, on 1 February, in the event "Conversations with", organised jointly by the University of Navarra and the Rafael del Pino Foundation, in which he reviewed the current media landscape. And, as might be expected from a person who had to negotiate with Her Majesty's Government a new model of press regulation to establish an independent system, one of the main messages Harding left was that governments should intervene in the current disorder of the internet world. The call is surprising, to say the least, in that Harding argued very strongly that the new model of press regulation should be based on the strict separation of Parliament and newspapers. But his vision of the internet is that it is an enormous source of wealth generation, but also a vast arena of conflict, which dictatorial regimes exploit to pursue their own ends, in the face of the manifest passivity of free states. It is like an updated version of the Cold War. In fact, the former director of BBC News warned that democracy in the world is in retreat, due to the information war that totalitarian countries have unleashed and the lack of response from the West. The spread of fake news, especially in the digital world, is damaging confidence in freedom of expression in open societies. This is not an easy problem to solve, but one that necessarily involves, first and foremost, an objective measurement of what is circulating on the web. Harding is concerned about fake news. But he finds junk news even more dangerous, news that seeks to intoxicate with partially true pieces that have been cleverly assembled to disguise the real story. This is what authoritarian regimes rely on while the West continues to fail to put in order the workings of the big technology companies that transmit this information. Harding sees the internet as a revolution with great merits, to the extent that it was expected to expand people's freedom, just as the advent of the personal computer did in the second half of the 1980s. In fact, to underline the message, he used the video of Apple's announcement of the first personal computer as a way of emphasising this point. The problem is that the network, instead of redistributing power, has concentrated it in very few hands. To avoid this, and to redirect the situation, he believes that it is necessary to implement a system of incentives and prohibitions that establishes appropriate relations between governments and technology to guarantee freedom of expression and strengthen democracy. To achieve this, governments need to intervene to break the monopolies of the technology giants or to establish clear rules of the game if they want to prevent this sector from ending up in a position of privilege such as that enjoyed by the banks more than a decade ago. This debate, however, is long overdue, especially in Europe. However, it is not always easy to act, because in addition to the technological difficulties in doing so, there are the facts that the network is international and that Silicon Valley companies are too rich and powerful to be easily tamed. This fatalistic view prevailing in the West contrasts with the measures being deployed by countries such as China, Turkey and Russia. Harding believes that the state, if it wants to, can demand that companies behave in the public interest, and it can also intervene as the British government did in 1922, when it decided to create the BBC out of fear of the newspaper barons. From this perspective, Harding believes that the UK is very fortunate to have a BBC that creates a public space in the digital world, defined by specific purposes: responsible journalism, distinguished entertainment, lifelong learning and a shared experience of the great moments of national life. Despite all this, Harding also wanted to convey an optimistic message. In his own words, "we are living in the most exciting time since the advent of television to be a journalist" because of the enormous possibilities the internet offers to speak truth to power, even if the noise of the digital age muffles the news. But that ability requires reflection and hard work, something that is at odds with the immediacy of the web. From this point of view, the best antidote to the lies, distortions and exaggerations that are spread on the internet is slow, carefully crafted news. What's more, it can be a viable business model in that, Harding believes, people will pay for such information in the same way that they subscribe to film or music platforms. Social networks, of course, make unimaginable contributions, but they also wreak havoc by facilitating the spread of hate speech or child pornography, stimulating screen addiction or the plundering of privacy by hijacking personal data, encouraging communalism and polarisation, while the companies behind them avoid paying taxes and replace people with algorithms or robots. However, Harding believes that this situation is about to change in the face of the coming regulatory wave.

The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for the comments, opinions or statements made by the people who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their sole responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio González, are the result of the debates held at the meeting held for this purpose at the Foundation and are the responsibility of the authors.

The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for any comments, opinions or statements made by third parties. In this respect, the FRP is not obliged to monitor the views expressed by such third parties who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their own responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio J. González, are the result of the discussions that took place during the conference organised for this purpose at the Foundation and are the sole responsibility of its authors.