Mark Thompson: News is not a commodity – it is a vital part of our democracy

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Three years ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury gave a thoughtful but trenchant speech about the British media. While he accepted that a thriving media was vital to a "mature democracy", he also claimed that the news media often acted in ways which were "lethally damaging" to journalism's own reputation.

High levels of adversarial and suspicious probing send the message that any kind of concealment is guilty until proven innocent. And he suggested a root cause of the problem: "there is a tension at the heart of the journalistic enterprise," he said: Its justification is that it promises to deliver what other sources can't – information needed to equip the reader or viewer or listener for a more free and significant role as a human agent. But at the same time it is bound to a method and a rhetoric that treats its public as consumers and the information it purveys as a commodity.

So: negative, suspicious, prejudiced and instrumentalist. Hm, so what's your point, Dr Williams? Well, no one would deny that all of those things are sometimes true of some of the media, perhaps sometimes true of all of the media. The accusatorial tradition – centuries old in our journalism as well as in our courts and in Parliament – means that whether in radio or TV or in the op-ed pages of our newspapers, the bowling is fast and hard. As far as the BBC is concerned, I believe our audiences want us to be tough in holding public figures to account. But hectoring, character-assassination, exaggeration are all wrong. I believe they're rare, but they should be rarer still.

Rowan Williams' point about news as a commodity and about readers and audiences as consumers is an interesting one. I sometimes wonder if part of the problem isn't almost the opposite of commoditisation and if it isn't the frantic attempt to stand out from the crowd, to shout louder, to find a bigger, more shocking headline; if, in other words, it isn't the attempt to de-commoditise what might otherwise be undifferentiated, generic news. Again, I don't believe – and audiences tell us they don't believe – that sensationalism is a major issue in BBC News. And even the exceptions, the occasions when we do go a little over top, are often eccentric rather than malicious.

This is an extract from a speech given by the Director-General of the BBC to the Theos think-tank last week