Can television news survive the Twitter revolution?

"Can broadcast journalists truly compete with news that’s happening at the speed of life?" asks BBC's Chief International Correspondent Lyse Doucet

Ben Ali is in exile, Colonel Gaddafi is dead, Hosni Mubarak is in prison, Bashar al Assad is under unprecedented pressure from his people. And a revolution is now threatening to oust TV news, too. Power is literally in the hands of the people.


They’re texting and tweeting, filming and photographing, all from their smartphones or computers, in a growing social media revolution. They don’t need television networks to broadcast their stories – there’s Facebook, YouTube, a host of other social media servers, and Twitter.

Twitter? 140 characters on the internet can’t beat us at our own business?

We broadcast journalists like to think people love us! They wait for the 10 o’clock news, they stay up for Newsnight, our 24-hour BBC News channel is always on their screens. We’re still news leaders! Err… are we? Can we truly compete with news that’s happening at the speed of life?

In the last two years of revolutions and uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, there’s also been a revolution in the way news reaches our world. When people took to the streets calling for “the downfall of the regime,” they also sent out a tsunami of tweets and videos on social media. Millions of internet users around the world knew what was happening immediately. A free-flowing stream of emotion and excitement made us all feel like we were there.

Minute by minute people in Britain are also breaking their own stories: gripping details as last summer’s riots unfolded; jest and jubilation during the royal wedding; record levels of tweeting during the Olympics.

There’s a whole new news world out there. And I have a confession. I’ve joined the revolution. I am texting and tweeting, filming and photographing, all from my smartphone. It was too powerful to resist. Believe me, I tried.

I remember the first text message I received on my telephone about ten years ago. It was from a British friend, a QC. I didn’t answer it. He sent another. I didn’t bother to read it. He called me to complain. “Texting is for teenagers,” I replied.

Then came Twitter. “What’s the point?” I asked. I was too busy for this new fad in brevity. It was of no real use to me, or to my journalism. One of our BBC editors told us if we didn’t get on social media we’d lose our jobs, because we wouldn’t be doing our job. I ignored him.

But it became impossible to ignore that so many people were signing on – bloggers in Cairo, women activists in Kabul, foreign ministers across the globe, and a growing number of people everywhere who were simply on the scene, when and where it mattered.

I needed to hear from them. I wanted them to hear from me. And now I’d like to think we’re all on the same side in this revolution – except we’re still keeping some of our powers. We have to.

At the BBC, we have a dedicated team of journalists to focus on following and fact-checking the huge volume of information that’s coming at us. It’s got an old fashioned title – UGC – user-generated content. But its impact is revolutionary. It gives us access to places we can’t get to. It gives us feedback from audiences on how we cover the story, and to contribute to it. It makes our own story telling stronger.

But in our business, we have to ensure we’re not just first with the story, but also right. Not for us the tantalising buzz that can sometimes sweep across social media only to emerge as being more about feelings, not facts.

Most of all, we need our people not just to love us, but to trust us. Unlike deluded dictators, we’ve agreed to share power… before it’s too late.

Lyse Doucet is the Chief International Correspondent for BBC World News Television.


She gave the RTS Huw Wheldon 2012 lecture, which is on BBC2 on tonight at 11.20pm