Doorstepping Kelvin: what would the BBC have done?

Thursday 20 September 2012, 14:47

Roger Sawyer Roger Sawyer is deputy editor of The World at One, PM and Broadcasting House and editor, Foundation programmes, for the BBC College of Journalism

Alex Thomson Alex Thomson chez MacKenzie for Channel 4 News Someone sent me the link to Channel 4 News’ doorstep of Kelvin MacKenzie about Hillsborough, asking whether I thought Alex Thomson, the reporter, had overstepped the mark.

Thomson shouts to Kelvin through his front door and then waits outside his house until Kelvin emerges to get into his car, when Thomson tries to question him from a spot which stops Kelvin from shutting the car door.  

It is compelling television, especially given the profile and history of the subject. It is undoubtedly good gladiatorial sport: the biter bitten, man bites dog, that sort of thing.

It stirred up some fond memories of my own (sadly distant) background of having done a quite a lot of such work for the red-tops as an agency reporter.

But my initial reaction as a BBC news editor was that I would have been uncomfortable broadcasting some parts of the doorstep. There are obviously privacy issues... was it harassment?

Alex is an exceptional and very experienced journalist, it is a great piece of television, and our first and strongest instinct as journalists should be: PUBLISH!

What would the BBC do in such a case?

I had a look. It turns out that this is a classic case where the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines are there to help us find ways of broadcasting, not hinder us. Alex would have been bang on the money. He went as far as he could and should - and no further.

You need to see, and take account of, the full report and the cue as broadcast. That makes it clear that attempts were made to arrange an interview and that Alex initially approached Kelvin without a camera crew.

The doorstep infringes Kelvin’s privacy - obviously. But is that infringement warranted? This is where the public interest argument comes in.

There is huge a public interest element to this story: Hillsborough was one of the most terrible events in the UK’s peacetime history. There have been public inquiries, incompetence, cover-up. The Sun, under Kelvin’s editorship, took its line, causing huge offence and a lasting effect on the paper’s sales in Liverpool.

BBC Editorial Guidelines say doorstepping is normally a last resort. They go on:

"Approval will normally only be given when there is evidence of crime or significant wrongdoing and for one, or more, of the following reasons: 

  • The subject of a doorstep has failed to respond to repeated requests for interview in connection with the wrongdoing alleged
  • A request for an interview has been repeatedly refused without good reason and substantial allegations of wrongdoing have been avoided
  • There is a history of failure to respond to interview requests or refusal to be interviewed.”

Channel 4’s report stated that repeated efforts had been made to get an interview. Alex had made a direct, personal approach - without a camera - and had been refused. There were significant new claims/evidence from a BBC programme, on 9 September, that the Sun reporter who’d written the story was unhappy with the newspaper’s controversial headline ‘The Truth’.

So reasons one and two (above) apply.

But is Alex harassing Kelvin when he shouts through the front door? If it had gone on much longer, possibly. But as it is he is making a reasonable attempt to have his questions, clearly in the public interest, answered.

Likewise with the car door. Much longer and it might have constituted harassment. It’s a fine line but Alex stayed on the right side of it.

It would be interesting to see the reaction if Kelvin were to lodge a complaint with Ofcom.

So I say ‘Chapeau, Alex Thomson!’

Channel 4 News reports on reaction to Alex’s doorstep.

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