BBC BLOGS - The Editors

Archives for May 2008

Providing context

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 16:02 UK time, Friday, 30 May 2008

A man walks into a pub. "Hey, I've just not been mugged," he says.
"That's amazing, " a bloke at the bar says as he puts his pint down. "I didn't strangle my wife today."
"You two are weird," said a third bloke. He was a journalist.

Youths in hooded tops (generic)Reading the papers this week, you'd be forgiven for thinking there is carnage on our streets - partly because one newspaper said exactly that.

The truth is, there isn't carnage on our streets and very few of us are victims of or witnesses to crime more than once or twice in our lives - even fewer are victims of serious crime.

In any rational description of the world, our risk of dying in, say, a knife attack or a serious assault ranks way behind our risk of dying in a road accident or from the effects of cigarettes or alcohol. And if you happen not to be a city dweller and are over 25, your chances of being shot or stabbed are vanishingly small: your chances of being attacked or killed by a stranger, approaching nil.

Except, we don't learn about the world from a rational description. We learn about it, for the most part, from "news" - and crime is news precisely because it is both shocking and uncommon. Except, of course, when it seems to confirm our society is sick and broken. Then, the more common and apparently true-to-type the gruesome violence can be made to seem, the better.

One of journalism's great father figures, American commentator, media critic and diplomatist Walter Lippmann, struggled nearly 90 years ago with this paradox. On the one hand, news is the way we learn about the world; on the other hand, you would be mad to rely on it to learn about the world.

"All the reporters in the world working all the hours of the day could not witness all the happenings in the world," he wrote. So, a thing becomes becomes "news" only when it is a "manifestation" at one of the places journalism has "watchers stationed" - the police station, the courts, the crime scene.

So how to put the deaths of Amar Aslam or of Jimmy Mizen or of any of the other 20 teenage victims of violence so far this year into context? They are terrible, sad events and we all have great sympathy for the boys' families. But beyond the personal tragedies that they represent, they tell us nothing about teenagers, gangs, knives or crime. Most of all, they tell us nothing about how concerned or fearful we should be for ourselves and our own families.

KnivesThree years ago, a Home Office survey found that 4% of 10-to-17-year-olds had carried a knife at some time in the previous 12 months: or to put it another way, 96% had not. This month, in Operation Blunt2, the Metropolitan Police seized 193 weapons in more than 4,000 searches: or to put it another way, 95% of those stopped were not carrying knives.

Or try this question. In England and Wales, were you more or less likely to be murdered last year than five years ago? Were you more or less likely to be stabbed last year than five years ago? Bludgeoned to death? Strangled? You'll have guessed the answer to each - according to official statistics (pdf file) - is less likely. There were 734 murder victims in England and Wales last year - almost 10% down on the 805 murdered in 2001-2002 and about 5% below the average for 2001-2006.

Is there another, better way of reporting crime that doesn't risk distorting what we think we know about our world? Take the trial at the Old Bailey of the two young men and two youths charged with the murder of 14-year-old Martin Dinnegan.

What are the alternatives to covering the trial as the news story that it is? Not covering it at all? Holding back details of the evidence? Pointing out repeatedly that most 14-year-old boys don't get stabbed? Using a chart within the story to show how deaths by stabbing and beating are falling not rising?

Maybe part of the answer is for us all - journalists and audiences - to understand that "news" is what it is: a semi-ritualised set of snapshots of a small sector of our common lives. No more, no less.

Maybe journalists should resist the temptation to make links where none exist: are we really in a "battle to fix broken Britain" as the Sun's banner for each report of teen violence claims? And maybe audiences have a job to do, too: to understand the limitations of "news" that Walter Lippmann wrote about all those years ago. And to realise it's the unusual that's weird, not the everyday.

Hostile response

Rod McKenzie Rod McKenzie | 09:37 UK time, Friday, 30 May 2008

To Blackburn for a conference. A couple of petrol stops during the journey leave me in service station queues with grumpy drivers of trucks and cars. Let's just say you wouldn't have wanted to be Gordon Brown.

Radio 1 logoNot a hugely revelatory observation, though what struck me was that this was much stronger and more hostile than British people's traditional humorous cynicism and dismissal of elected representatives. More like hatred and contempt. Radio 1's listeners, in far greater numbers, have reflected those views.

Our first coverage of the road tax and fuel protests stories on the Chris Moyles show brought a rapid, furious and voluminous response. Later in the day, our computer which gathers listeners' texts crashed: it apparently couldn't cope with the weight of response. During the day the texts were running 90% plus hostile to the government.

Petrol pumpMy other editor colleagues have noted similar responses - though one said to me he was a bit surprised ours weren't a bit more, well, green. Younger audience after all: big gas-guzzling cars bad, bicycles good?

Jenni, who's 17, told us she'd already paid £600 to learn to drive and once she's passed, paying for petrol, insurance and road tax will take up more than half her wages: she can't afford a car - but she needs one.

Another texter pointed out that driving his inefficient car was still cheaper than the train - and with public transport in the South East as expensive as it is - it's a trap people can't escape.

Younger people are often the ones driving older cars - and facing big hikes in car taxes as a result. Not fair, they say, from a party supposed to represent poorly-paid working people - that was a view of many people.

Back to my garage queue in Lancashire: as one lorry man raged about ministers' inability to "get" the 10p tax issue and the cumulative effect of rises in motoring costs, it struck me we BBC journalists have busy political times ahead...even if next time, I might just get the train for a quieter life.

Reporting China's quake

Peter Horrocks Peter Horrocks | 13:05 UK time, Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Our Beijing correspondent James Reynolds has blogged some interesting thoughts about the sensitivities of covering the earthquake in China. He (and I) would be interested to know your thoughts.

By-election saddos

Peter Barron | 16:22 UK time, Friday, 23 May 2008

Newsnight logoLast night on Newsnight we set out to establish what was the most significant by-election of the post-war period - a subject close to many of our hearts here. Newsnight staffers have had a long association with by-elections and related special programmes.

The late great Vincent Hanna practically invented a new form of television with his classic by-election films - a form to which Michael Crick and David Grossman pay homage today.

Simon Hughes and Peter TatchellWhen we announced our search yesterday, the current newsroom head Peter Horrocks - a former Newsnight and election special stalwart - grew excitable and posited Bermondsey (1983), where he then lived, for pure eventfulness and drama. Personally, my favourite moment has to be Dudley West (1994), as I was Peter Snow's producer when the huge swing there managed to break our shiny virtual reality swingometer. Happily we are not alone in our sadness. My favourite viewer comment from Guy:

    "I admit I am a very sad man. So, when I got married last December, my new wife and 200 guests had to sit and listen to me explain why I thought Orpington was the most significant by-election of the last 50 years, because the old Establishment was humbled by the first proper grassroots campaign. It was only when we were on our honeymoon that I remembered Ashfield. My wife and I are still together - after all these months!"

Thanks Guy, Ashfield (1977) was up there, but the consensus among our viewers is Orpington (1962) and it was great to see the winner, Lord Avebury, on last night's programme. Unless of course there's now a new contender for the most significant post-war by-election - Crewe and Nantwich (2008)?

Power to the people

Gavin Allen | 10:20 UK time, Wednesday, 21 May 2008

"Paxman on steroids". Not (yet) a newspaper headline - thankfully, so calm down Jeremy - but instead a somewhat curious ambition. It's what Politics Show's panel member Bob declared he wanted to be when grilling MPs over their expenses and allowances. We'd invited a trio of viewers to investigate the system, question politicians and experts and then draw up their own conclusions as to what could be deemed fair in the eyes of the public (and not just in eyes of the MPs who currently decide).

Politics Show logoAcross two programmes and two weeks, Bob, Margaret and Jude got stuck in and ended it by sitting face to face on air with the deputy Labour leader - and member of the Commons' own expenses inquiry team - Harriet Harman.

And the panel's conclusions, printed out on a handy pledge card for Harriet, were far from the noses-in-trough, sack the lot of 'em type she might have feared. A £36,000 pay rise for starters. "What will Kelvin McKenzie's tabloid front page look like?" replied one MP, astonished at the prospect. "He will whip our backsides over this" (which we took to be a concern rather than an aspiration). But to balance the salary hike there'd be no second home allowance. Receipts for EVERY expense. No family members could work for an MP. And performance-related pay.

Harriet Harman with panelThe panellists argued intensely amongst themselves over the finer points of pay or second homes allowance, and threw direct and difficult questions to their interviewees. And to their credit, MPs from all three main parties took part. Not quite pumped-up Paxman in the end - Bob conceded it was harder than he thought, to be so tough in the flesh when an MP can be so charming - but pulling no punches, rather than Punch and Judy, nevertheless. Isn't that how Parliament's meant to work? And did it make a difference? Well it did to the Politics Show trio, who felt better informed as a result, if eager to probe still more. And enlightening, if awkward, for the politicians too. Whether Harriet Harman truly "listened" will only be known when her own report comes out this summer.

And the Politics Show's panel, with a new line-up, will be used again. Of course it's only a snapshot, and one limited by the time it takes to make TV, linking shots and all ("I like the research but not the TV thing at all," said a frustrated Margaret), but it brings our politicians in touch with at least some of us. What better way to make politics accessible than by giving everyone access to the policy-makers. So if you want to join up, analysing a policy of your choice and debating with the politicians, e-mail us at: No steroids required.

Olympic viewing

Peter Knowles | 10:38 UK time, Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Why did the BBC decide to drop BBC Parliament from Freeview for three weeks in August, in favour of Olympics coverage? The Guardian's website reckons it's designed to bump up ratings to BBC Parliament on the back of all the Games viewers. Not so. It would be madness for us to claim soaring ratings one summer only to see them vanish again, the next.

BBC Parliament logoRatings to BBC Parliament have come along very nicely without any such tricks. The channel has been averaging a monthly reach of 1.3 million so far this year. It was only last year that we reached an average of one million for the first time.

By taking BBC Parliament off air on Freeview for three weeks the BBC will be able deliver a sports service on Freeview that is much closer to the service being offered on the other platforms. It makes complete sense from the viewer's point of view to bring the service on Freeview, where bandwidth is most scarce, up to strength and to have as many interactive streams, showing as many different sports, as possible.

Freeview viewers will get BBC Parliament back in time for the Democratic National Convention in Denver, starting 25 August, when we'll be showing C-SPAN's gavel to gavel coverage of the conventions through the night, with daytime repeats. The conventions roll on into the TUC and the party conference season.

Olympic flagBBC Parliament has a tiered approach to the schedules when Westminster is in recess. Some recess weeks allow us to show live the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies. At Easter, we had all three.

In Whit Week we will have two specials: Permissive Night on 26 May with Joan Bakewell marking the big social and legal changes sweeping through Britain 40 years ago, and on 30 May a broadcast of the 1983 general election night programme coming up to its 25th anniversary. Look out for changes in accents and manners, even over that time span.

In the long recesses we show a loop of highlights from the term just gone, mixed in with documentaries and landmark speeches. It is not realistic to expect big audiences to BBC Parliament in August and it would be a bit odd to pour resources into this part of the schedule. If Parliament were recalled in the event of a national crisis, of course the channel would be back on air on Freeview, straight away. The loop will continue to run on all other platforms (Sky, Freesat, cable, Tiscali, online) throughout the summer.

Strange to tell, the idea for the sharing of the bandwidth for the Olympics actually came from BBC Parliament, when we started thinking about the prospects for the London Olympics. The BBC is trying to get away from thinking in terms of departments (what used to be described as output 'baronies') and to start working as one organisation. The idea is simply to do the best we can by the licence payer.

Report mistake

Alison Ford | 09:50 UK time, Tuesday, 20 May 2008

A news item we broadcast on 23 April on television and online reported that a Ukrainian manufacturer was producing dolls of Adolf Hitler. The item also included an interviewee who said that the policies of Ukrainian leaders were contributing to a revival of neo-Nazism in Ukraine.

Breakfast logoThe pictures came to the BBC from a Russian television station via a trusted agency route. When we take material from other broadcasters we scrutinise it under our normal editorial guidelines, but on this occasion it was not subjected to the required rigorous examination. There was a factual error in the report, in that the figurines are actually made in Taiwan. In addition, the interviewee should have been challenged.

After receiving complaints, we investigated the item and immediately decided not to run it again on television and to remove it from the website. We apologised to those people who had told us they were offended by the piece, and of course we're happy to repeat that apology publicly.

Taking foreign policy seriously

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 16:40 UK time, Friday, 16 May 2008

A couple of months ago, I was at a reception to mark the 10th anniversary of the think tank, the Foreign Policy Centre, and the keynote address was made by the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. I was struck at the time by the serious intent of his remarks and how he was attempting to give intellectual coherence to British foreign policy.

The World TonightOver the past decades, various descriptions have been applied by foreign secretaries to what lay at the root of the UK's foreign policy such as being 'a bridge between the US and Europe' or 'punching above our weight'. But it seemed to me that Mr Miliband was attempting something more ambitious and a quick internet search showed he had been making a series of speeches laying out his themes but these had attracted very little attention. So I decided to ask the foreign office if David Miliband would be interviewed in depth for a special edition of the programme. You can listen to it here.

David Miliband and Robin Lustig
To my (pleasant) surprise, the proposal was taken up with enthusiasm by Mr Miliband and his communications team. It took a couple of months to get together - we had to commission four pieces to illustrate and critique his four themes and they had to find a slot in his diary - the first attempt was postponed at the last minute as Mr Miliband went on an unannounced visit to Iraq on the day we'd earmarked.

The four themes Mr Miliband has identified as the key policies the UK is pursuing are:
- counter terrorism
- preventing and resolving conflict
- promoting a transition to a low carbon, high growth global economy
- reforming and strengthening international institutions like the UN and the EU

Robin Lustig opened the programme by asking him about Burma and the debate over whether humanitarian relief should be delivered in the face of opposition from the Burmese military regime because they have not apparently been doing very much to help the victims of Cyclone Nargis. The interview gave us a news story as well as an opportunity to analyse policy in depth, because Mr Miliband told us the UN's Responsibility to Protect principle could be invoked in the case of Burma even though it was originally designed to enable intervention to prevent genocide or crimes against humanity. This was picked up by various commentators and has led to a lively debate on other websites such as the Guardian.

And speaking of blogs, the foreign secretary himself commented on the programme on his. It was his turn to be surprised as he said we journalists were taking foreign policy seriously.

We ended the interview by asking Mr Miliband about the problems the Labour Party has faced in recent weeks and the particular criticism levelled at the prime minister. Although, this issue is very much of the moment and we are a news programme, it did mean there was less time to question Mr Miliband on his defence of his argument that we can help China to promote low carbon growth despite the criticism of Beijing's human rights record, and on his assertion that recognising the independence of Kosovo did not undermine the authority of the UN.

Take a listen and tell us what you think.

Picture error

Peter Horrocks Peter Horrocks | 14:21 UK time, Friday, 16 May 2008

Last night the BBC broadcast a still which we said showed dozens of bodies lying in the waterfront of the Irrawaddy delta. We have since discovered that the picture was actually taken in Aceh, Sumatra following the tsunami of 2004. This was a mistake, and we will be correcting it on all BBC output where the still was used.

The BBC has first-hand evidence from its correspondent Natalia Antelava, who recently travelled in the delta, that there were many bodies in the water a week after the cyclone. However the picture we used yesterday to illustrate that truth was itself inaccurate. BBC News apologises for that.

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We will be reviewing our processes for checking pictures we receive.

Hating teenagers...

Rod McKenzie Rod McKenzie | 14:30 UK time, Thursday, 15 May 2008

Clare is a teenager and she's angry; the park in Belfast where she and her friends used to play in as children, then chill in as teenagers has been shut. There's a padlock on the gate. The reason? Complaints from adult residents that gangs of teenagers congregated there, they felt threatened and thought there could be trouble. Clare denies that she and her friends were troublemakers or drunk.

Teenagers wearing hoodsThe story illustrates the frustration many teenagers in the UK face today. Excluded from adult meeting places like restaurants and pubs - no space at home - they head for open spaces, friends - and a bad reputation. Hoodies, litter, drunkenness, sex, fighting, drugs - the lot. Some of it is clearly true but much of it is not.

This Saturday BBC News launches a new programme - aimed at issues in the news which affect teenagers. We've called it "Revealed" and it's part of the BBC Switch zone on BBC2 on Saturday afternoon. Presented by two new-to-TV presenters Charlotte Ashton and Anthony Baxter, produced by Amy Burton who's come to us from Newsround, our first programme explores the negative public image of teenagers - in the press and the rest of the adult media.

Teenagers are much talked about in the adult media but the mainstream press rarely talks to them. We want to give young people the opportunity to tell their stories and look at the headlines from a different point of view. That's not to say we won't challenge teenagers - the usual rules of BBC News apply: we will be rigorous and impartial.

Our next programme explores the issues around getting rich young. It's an aspiration for teenagers - but how realistic is it to make a fast buck - and keep it? We'll be talking to people who want to - and who have made a million - and lost it.

The BBC offers current affairs and news programming for children in the form of Newsround - and for young adults and 20-somethings from Newsbeat on Radio 1 and 1Xtra but there is a gap in the market for 13-17 year olds and it's this gap in the audience Revealed is aiming to fill.

Teenagers have many demands on their times, busy lives and plenty of TV options - so serving this audience with a relevant, engaging and accessible programme is a big challenge but the team we've assembled is right up for the challenge. We'd love to hear what you think...and your story suggestions...especially if you're a teenager!

Gold standard

Liliane Landor | 09:42 UK time, Thursday, 15 May 2008

Last July, in the wake of Alan Johnston's release, I wrote on this blog that I felt slightly uncomfortable about the media hyping of World Service news. My point was that here in the UK, the WS usually goes unnoticed until something happens that sharply propels it back to the centre of people's attention.

World Service logoWell, something HAS happened this week, and happily it wasn't a hostage crisis. But this time, I am sorry that the British press has failed to hype us!

At the Sony awards on Monday my department, WS News and Current affairs, won seven out of the eight awards we were nominated for. We swept the board - three Gold, three Silver and a Bronze. Hardly a mention in the British press, and even the BBC internal publication Ariel did not think we deserved more than a couple of lines.

Gathering so many awards in one big swoop is totally unprecedented for the WS...not because we do not deserve it or do not do brilliant journalism, but simply because of the context of the Sonys. We're competing with domestic BBC and independent sector colleagues for the most prestigious awards in the British radio industry. To overcome that hurdle and win so many awards was a major achievement. And for the British radio establishment to recognise that we in the World Service do gold standard radio, lead the field on creativity and interactivity, and possess some of the best presenters in the country gives us a ringing endorsement.

Having it publicly recognised would have been the icing on the cake. But hey, I don't want to exaggerate the sense of disappointment. The fact is that the BBC World Service focuses on its audience - 40 million worldwide, including 1.35 million in this country. The programmes made in Bush House have a far larger audience than every other BBC radio station combined. The reason is that we make good intelligent radio and even if the British press hasn't noticed that fact, I am delighted that the Sony committees have.

Boating glory

Richard Sambrook | 15:11 UK time, Wednesday, 14 May 2008

World Service logoI'm delighted to see the Bangladesh Boat Project amongst the BBC World Service prizewinners at the Sony awards. This fantastic journey won the newly-created Multiplatfrom Radio Award. Here, my colleague Ben Sutherland, who was onboard the boat itself, will describe its success in more detail.


By Ben Sutherland.

"Among the prizes given on BBC World Service's astonishingly successful night at the Sonys was the inaugural Multiplatform Radio Award, handed to the Bangladesh Boat Project.

MV AbosharIt was richly deserved. Although of course I would say that - having personally been on the boat for two weeks , writing and editing stories and pictures detailing each step of the journey - it is the truth. Nodi Pothe Bangladesh - Bangladesh By The River in Bengali - was one of the most extraordinary efforts ever attempted in 75 years of the radio station.

At its heart, the project was about climate change, and specifically the sharp realities of having to live with the consequences of a heating world.

If predictions about sea level rises come true, much of Bangladesh will simply be erased from the map. Our aim, therefore, was to hire a boat and use it to travel the long, wide rivers of the country to meet the people most at risk.

bangladeshhome203.jpgThere were amazing stories - tiger attacks, of collapsing villages, of people living on bare earth thrown up by the river. And then, of course, halfway through there was Cyclone Sadr, which turned the whole operation on its head. Suddenly we were no longer talking about a potential threat, but a huge disaster that we were right in the middle of.

But not only was the method of getting these stories remarkable, but so was our way of getting it out.

We weren't just using tri-media, and we weren't just World Service. We were on Radio 5 Live, News 24, Radio Scotland - and on Twitter, iTunes, Google.

In the words of the judges, "it embraced everything from podcasts to GPS and Googlemaps to add value to the listener/user experience and met those listeners where they really lived using third party sites such as Flickr."

The project was the brainchild of James Sales, the man whose idea the whole thing was and who instantly and outrageously successfully went from studio manager to project manager.

To some, the words "BBC World Service" still conjure up images of evening dress, stuffy studios and plummy accents. But this award comes hot on the heels of the Webby for Best Radio Website, and highlights how a radio station celebrating its three-quarter century is showing the way in broadcasting innovation."

Gold award

John Cary | 15:05 UK time, Tuesday, 13 May 2008

The first thing to say about the winner of Speech Broadcaster of the Year at the Sony Radio Awards is that he knows when to shut up. It was five minutes of silence that probably swayed the judges in favour of Simon Mayo, Radio 5 Live's weekday afternoon presenter.

Radio Five Live logoLast December, Ricky Gervais was in to talk about the Christmas Extras special, and the Archbishop of Canterbury was waiting to start his own interview. The two of them got talking about their shared loved of The Simpsons, and Simon had the confidence simply to let them get on with it. Watch what happened for yourself.

Simon won the Sony DJ award in the early 90s during his stint on the Radio 1 breakfast show. There were doubters at first when he switched to 5 Live seven years ago, but now, according to Woman's Hour's Jane Garvey (formerly of 5 Live herself): "Simon Mayo performs more intellectual somersaults in half an hour than most Radio 4 presenters do in a fortnight."

For me, the award comes as I say goodbye to editing Simon after five years. I'm moving the next programme along in the schedule, Drive, which I guess will keep me too busy to listen live to Simon each day. Time for me to sign up to the programme's clutch of podcasts, showcasing Simon's best interviews, the weekly books panel and, above all, the Friday movie wittertainment with the incomparable Mark Kermode.

Mundane truth

Ceri Thomas | 14:40 UK time, Monday, 12 May 2008

Political blogs are running hot this morning with suggestions of a "stitch up" - a conspiracy between Today and the Labour backbencher Frank Field to distract attention from the launch of a government consultation on how we pay for social care. The accusation runs that we deliberately held back some comments from Mr Field in order to ambush a cabinet minister with them this morning.

The Today programme logoHere goes with the mundane truth: Frank Field gave an interview to the BBC World Service yesterday evening in which, among other things, he questioned whether Gordon Brown would lead his party into the next general election. (You can listen here.)

We on Today failed to spot it - and the BBC system which monitors our multitude of outlets for news stories didn't pick it up either (possibly not anticipating a domestic UK story breaking on the World Service). So it wasn't until someone involved with the original programme wondered why we weren't making more of the story that we were aware of it at all, and that was at precisely twelve minutes to eight this morning. At that point we listened to the interview and decided it was worth a place on Today - and at around eight o'clock we told the Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, that as well as talking to him about social care we'd get a reaction to Frank Field's comments. (You can listen here.)

Small cock-up on our part for not picking up sooner on the World Service interview. No conspiracy at all.

Reporter deported

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 11:30 UK time, Monday, 12 May 2008

Last week I wrote about the difficulties of reporting from Burma. As you may know, since last Tuesday, my colleague Paul Danahar has been reporting from Rangoon and elsewhere, against the wishes of the Burmese authorities. His reporting on the website, the World Service and on our global TV service, BBC World News as well as for the UK based programmes has shown the true impact of Cyclone Nargis, as well as the limited response of the regime. But it's a story the generals who rule the country would rather you didn't know about.

A family stand outside their damaged house in the Irrawaddy Delta on 11 May 2008On Saturday, we became concerned for Paul's safety. He'd entered Burma on a tourist visa and was reporting illegally. We don't do these sorts of things lightly. However, I believe there were - and are - genuine public interest reasons for us entering Burma without permission. Yesterday, Paul was deported from Burma - less than a week after Andrew Harding was also expelled after he'd also tried to enter the country. Despite the staggering numbers of dead and injured, the Burmese authorities had diverted significant numbers of people to try and find Paul - presumably, people who otherwise could have been deployed to bolster the aid effort. Is silencing those telling the world of the catastrophe unfolding inside Burma, really more important than helping those most in need?

Paul was not alone in defying the wrath of the generals. A number of reporters are also operating inside Burma. But don't believe everything you see on television! While the BBC and most other UK broadcasters are reporting from Rangoon or the Irrawaddy delta, this weekend one news channel set foot across the Thai border, many hundreds of miles away from the areas worst hit by the cyclone, and claimed to be reporting from "inside Burma". It's not a lie - but it is misleading. Burma is a big place - "day-trippers" are allowed to go to some tourist parts of the country. But it doesn't equip those who travel there to comment on what's going on elsewhere. The truth is not always as it appears.

Panorama redesign

Derren Lawford | 10:05 UK time, Monday, 12 May 2008

I'm just starting a new job looking after the multi-media presence of the BBC's longest running investigations programmes, Panorama, and I'd like to ask you for some help.

Panorama logoIt's been a big 12 months for Panorama, covering a wide range of topics from corruption in the UN to teenage sex for sale in the UK and everything in between.

We've also seen our past stories hit the news again, most recently with Princes, Planes and Pay-offs coming back into the fore following a review into business practices at defence firm BAE Systems.

One of my responsibilities will be completely relaunching the Panorama website. In the next few months, I hope we will be bringing you a new and very much improved site. That's why I'd like to hear from anyone who already uses it, what do you rate and what do you hate? Your feedback here will help us as we set about redesigning the way it looks and works.

It's also clear to me on starting the new position, however, that as a team we don't always know how our stories affect people. Do they alter people's perceptions of the world? Do they change their behaviour? Do they stick in the mind for days or weeks after broadcast?

So please let me know about how past Panoramas have affected you or your thoughts.

UGC on Newsnight

Peter Barron | 11:15 UK time, Friday, 9 May 2008

We've often had debates among the staff (and presenters) of Newsnight about the value of user generated content (watch Jeremy Paxman's views here). In general we think our viewers don't particularly want to hear the views of other viewers on air. And they don't want to decide what goes in the programme. They want to leave it to us to come up with good material. But where does that good material come from?

Newsnight logoOn Wednesday we led the programme with an exclusive story about a loophole which means that foreign criminals can work airside at UK airports without undergoing criminal record checks. That story came from a viewer who was concerned about security at the airport where he works and sent an email to the BBC's UGC hub, who passed it to us.

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After the report aired, several further viewers wrote to us with their concerns and we followed up with a report on Thursday's programme.

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One viewer wasn't happy. He wrote: "I would prefer it if Newsnight reported the news and stopped asking us viewers to grass on people to help your program."

I think that would be a pity. These days there are millions of potential sources for news stories we could never have got to in the past. On Newsnight we won't often put your opinions on air (though you can leave them here on the website) but if you have a good story which you think should be told we'd like to hear it.

Winning website

Steve Herrmann Steve Herrmann | 13:10 UK time, Thursday, 8 May 2008

The results have been announced of the 12th annual Webby Awards and I'm delighted to say that the BBC News website has won the People's Voice award in the News category.

A Webby awardThis award is decided by public vote, so THANK YOU to everyone who voted for us. It means a great deal to everyone working on the site - journalists, designers, developers and others - to know that you appreciate what we are doing.

Congratulations, too, to the New York Times, which won this year's Webby award for best News site (an accolade which we've been the proud recipients of in the past) as well as both prizes in the category for best newspaper website.

For the BBC News website, this year has seen some fairly big changes, and there are more ahead.

Behind the scenes, we've changed things around quite a bit organisationally, merging the online department with TV and radio news last October to create a multimedia newsroom. That has meant a lot of change for people working in our editorial teams - new bosses, different meetings, wider editorial discussions, and a physical move of the main online news desks to the new combined newsroom, which happens next month. There have been some early dividends from all this for the website, for example a clearer remit for all BBC correspondents and producers out reporting on a story to be thinking of and filing for the website as well as broadcast outlets.

Other changes on the site in recent months have included the launch of a new look and wider pages (these changes are still rolling out across the various sections of the site), the introduction of advertisements on the site when viewed outside the UK, and - most recently - the inclusion of embedded video clips on stories, which has already significantly driven up usage of video.

It is not the first time we have won the Webby People's Voice award, but in the midst of all these changes, and with more developments to come later in the year, it is especially appreciated now, so thank you again.

Cameras in court

Mark Coyle | 09:00 UK time, Thursday, 8 May 2008

There was a slightly surreal element to the experience of watching three Scottish judges delivering the Nat Fraser murder conviction appeal ruling.

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Surreal in the sense that only in exceptional circumstances - such as the Lockerbie trial - have cameras been allowed into our courts.

On this occasion, BBC Scotland had been given permission to record the Fraser decision being announced.

A number of their lordships, we were told, were keen to demystify the work of the courts and make what goes on there more transparent.

Certain ground rules were laid down in advance. We were only able to show the three judges and we could not show Fraser or any of the lawyers involved in the case.

If there were any interruptions from the packed public benches, we were prohibited from including this footage online or on television. In the event, there was none.

The judges rejected Fraser's claim that there had been a miscarriage of justice in finding him guilty of murdering his wife Arlene, whose body has never been found.

The ruling delivered, a tape was taken from the court in Edinburgh and beamed from a satellite truck to Glasgow.

BBC Scotland was the designated "pool" broadcaster, meaning that we supplied the footage to other media outlets as well.

Once received, the entire hearing, lasting just short of 18 minutes, was put on our website and excerpts were used later on television.

Between about noon and midnight on Tuesday, this video was viewed 7,400 times. A second, shorter clip was viewed 5,329 times.

But there was another act still to come. As he was led out of court, handcuffed to a custody officer, Fraser was walked past the waiting media. This too was captured on camera and the resulting footage was accessed 3,829 times online.

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The questions rang out: "Has justice been done?" "Where's Arlene, Mr Fraser?"

Fraser stopped and replied: "The fight will go on, as will the, the..."

The custody officer was pulling him towards the waiting prison van but Fraser wanted his moment.

In his North East dialect, he told the officer: "Hud on a second..." in the same way he might have asked a friend to wait for him while he chatted to a third person.

Before the officer's persistence won and Fraser was hauled towards the van, he stated: " will the fight to get to the truth." And then he was gone.

On a footnote, we hear through the grapevine that their lordships were pleased with the way their proceedings were handled by the media. It may be that more cases will be opened up in this way.

It transpires that shortly after we put the first video clip online, a grandchild of one of the judges rang him to say they'd seen him in court.

M'luds are, after all, human like the rest of us.

Banned reporters

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 11:10 UK time, Wednesday, 7 May 2008

It's the iron law of newsgathering - stories happen in the least convenient places. After two months of dodging the authorities first in China and then in Zimbabwe, we're at it again - this time in Burma. The country is one of the last "closed" nations on earth. But unlike Zimbabwe, it's not just the BBC that's banned from Burma - all foreign journalists are unwelcome there.

Residents clean up in a damaged Rangoon suburb on 4 May 2008Reporting natural disasters are difficult at any time. Our teams endure the same conditions as the people affected - operating without electricity and clean water, sometimes without shelter. Most of the time, we're able to take our own supplies into the affected area - but in Burma, our team has had to pose as tourists. So reporting the devastating aftermath of Cyclone Nargis is even more difficult than usual. Particularly when the reporter is deported on arrival.

BBC reporters are recognised all the time - most of the time, they enjoy it. Our Asia correspondent Andrew Harding arrived in Rangoon just hours after the cyclone hit on Monday morning. But after passing through immigration, an eagle-eyed policeman spotted our intrepid reporter in the baggage hall. Andrew was put on the next plane to Bangkok. Despite everything else going on in Burma, Andrew's deportation was considered sufficiently news-worthy to make the evening news in Rangoon last night.

So it is, that Paul Danahar - more used to being behind the camera as our Asia-Pacific bureau chief rather in front of the microphone - finds himself as the only British broadcaster inside the country. Paul is normally based in Beijing and has spent the past six weeks leading our coverage of the protests in Tibet, and the aftermath. During the Iraq War, he ran the operation in Baghdad, braving the coalition air strikes and the wrath of Saddam's regime. As South Asia bureau chief, he led the BBC's response to the Bam Earthquake in Iran, the Asian Tsunami and the Pakistan earthquake. So when it comes to natural disasters, he's got form. Leading the Today Programme and the BBC News at Ten - well that's a different matter!

The UN says it's still waiting for visas for its aid workers. We hope the regime may relax its restriction on western journalists. The aid agencies argue they need the coverage to generate donations to fund their relief efforts. At its best it becomes a virtuous circle. Without it, the danger is that hundreds, maybe thousands of those fortunate to survive may not do so.

Attenborough on small audiences

Peter Knowles | 15:47 UK time, Friday, 2 May 2008

The BBC is hosting three lectures in a series about the role of public service broadcasting and first up was Sir David Attenborough, in a speech delivered on the evening of 1 May in London.

David Attenborough holds a Giant Atlas mothBBC Parliament has developed a two hour slot in its schedules - 2100 Saturday evening - for speeches and lectures of a broadly political and historical nature. This one fits the bill. But, to be honest, if it had been David Attenborough reading out loud from a plant catalogue, I would probably have gone with that. Next in the series are lectures from Stephen Fry and Will Hutton.

Sir David spent some time describing the physical characteristics of the early TV studios in Alexandra Palace, when short stories were declaimed to camera by men in comfy armchairs. Having knocked the microphone off his lapel, the first three minutes of the lecture found us unexpectedly re-enacting some of the limitations of those early years.

David Attenborough gave a very short definition of public service broadcasting in the modern era: "programmes with small audiences".

Sir David fears the effect of reducing the habitat of a genre to just one or two occasional programmes and makes the point that the world-beating units - the Natural History Unit in Bristol being the prime example - have size and continuity on their side. His dislike of faddish popular genres, such as the makeover shows, is expressed clearly and was picked up in news coverage of the lecture:

He argues that niche channels haven't done too well for audiences and that they therefore miss the point of broadcasting.

So I'm not entirely sure whether the broadcast of this lecture on BBC Parliament 'counts' as public service broadcasting, by Sir David's definition. We're showing it (or hiding it, depending on your point of view) on a channel which reaches more than a million viewers a month. But not, as you may have guessed, all at the same time.

Sir David's vision of public service broadcasting is that it must be appropriately funded and played out on a whole and coherent network dedicated to the purpose. And it must have a healthy audience.

He describes what he sees as the toxic effect of foisting publicly funded public service programming onto a commercial schedule where, inevitably, the programme would be treated as a pariah by the scheduler.

I hope you find the time to watch the whole thing at 2100 BST on BBC Parliament and then on iPlayer. If you feel that your Saturday nights have, for too long, been given over to hedonism, you can follow it with a lecture by Baroness James of Holland Park on Police And The Public In The 21st Century (2135 BST) and round off the evening at 2215 BST in the company of the Archbishop of Canterbury, lecturing on Religious Faith And Human Rights to the London School of Economics.

All three lectures were delivered this week and they offer first-rate public discourse that you won't find anywhere else. Saturday nights are never going to be the same again, are they?

The story is dead

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 11:17 UK time, Friday, 2 May 2008

Another week, another book about journalism.

This one - Can We Trust The Media? by Professor Adrian Monck of London's City University.

Anyone interested in British journalism should read it - not because it gives the right answers to its title: it doesn't. But because it asks the right questions. And at least it's been written by someone who's actually worked in a newsroom.

Prof Monck's purpose is unambiguous: "What I aim to do in this book is burst the trust balloon. I want to question just why it is we want to trust the media and lay out why that will never be possible."

Two things: one, he portrays the BBC's promotion of trust to value number one as an act of choice, not the (welcome) inevitability it is for a publicly funded broadcaster. Two (for different reasons and by a different route) he's joined me in diagnosing 'the story' as the malignancy in journalism's sick body.

Journalists want to be trusted, broadly in inverse proportion to the trust in which surveys say they're actually held. But there's a missing proposition in the question normally asked. Trusted to do what? Portray the world as it really is? Not possible - any account of the world can only ever be a subset of all the facts. Trust resides in the journalist's motivation in selecting the facts he/she does and in the realisation of that motivation.

Prof Monck tells us that "trust is not important. Not being trusted never lost anyone a reader or a viewer". And, he adds, it's journalism's job to aggregate facts and "get the entertainment values right". This may well be a description of the current state of journalism: but it's not much of an aspiration for the institution of journalism that - still - plays the defining role in the public sphere.

And it's simply not tenable for a publicly (and more or less universally) funded broadcaster like the BBC to accept Prof Monck's lowest common denominator description without some aspirational pushback. Nor is it possible for the BBC to be in the same game as the commercial press which can, say, choose its facts to suit its readers.

Even if it wanted it - and it doesn't - the BBC can't choose to make its way in the world by mimicking the exhausting diurnal anger of the Mail ('woe that the 1950s are gone') or the hand-wringing of the Guardian/Independent ('woe that global warming/capitalism is taking us to hell in an organic hand-basket').

But the really big thing in Can We Trust The Media? is this: journalism itself isn't the problem. The problem is journalism's fetish - 'the story'. And so it's no bad thing that 'the story' is dead... or dying.

That's an awkward paradox. 'The story' - in the sense that journalists mean it rather than the broader idea of narrative - is the source of all that's great in journalism and all that's vile in it.

On the credit side, you can go from Russell of the Crimea through Hersh of My Lai, Woodstein of Watergate to Peston of Northern Rock. In all of these, 'the story' has been the only way journalism could happen. The only way of handling the information asymmetry, the inevitability that power has information and journalists (on behalf of citizens) have to spanner it out, chunk by chunk.

On the debit side, all those things that make journalists seem untrustworthy. Why this story and not that? Why these facts and not those? The lure of the unusual, the rogue (and unreliable) data? Sensationalism, half-truths, self-fulfilling prophecies.

'The story' can easily become the journalist's way of evading responsibility. 'It's only a story' equals 'I don't need all the facts or even the best selection of them'. 'The story' can be no more than waypoints in a convincing narrative... convincing, so long as the reader looks no further than 'the story'.

Which is why 'the story' is dead. The people we journalists used to tell our 'stories' to, with a 'trust me' wink, now routinely look beyond 'the story'. And we help them. Websites like the BBC News website are built on the basis that users will look out their own subset of facts, context and background.

More than that, news websites blur the distinction (a distinction that was only ever really relevant to journalists) between 'news' and 'information' while news aggregators make no assumptions about any individual's news agenda in the way that 'the story' has to.

In other words, the process of selection that used to be the province of the journalist - the process we used to call 'storytelling' - is now the province of each member of our audiences. Good.

This is where Prof Monck and I are in total agreement. He doesn't quite put it this way - but the death of 'the story' is part of the answer to the trust conundrum. Now journalists can get on with increasing the access of the people formerly known as the audience to the information they need and in the way they need it.

And that hand journalists once used to polish 'the story' can instead be held out to guide readers, listeners and viewers through their selection of facts, context and background and not ours.

Dangerous business

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 09:33 UK time, Friday, 2 May 2008

Tomorrow, 3 May, the United Nations marks World Press Freedom Day. Granted, it's not in the same league as World Aids Day, or as widely supported as flag days for Cancer Research or the hospice movement. But I hope you'll forgive me if I take the opportunity to reflect that journalism is a dangerous business - and getting more so.

In Zimbabwe in recent weeks, we've seen the dangers faced by reporters, arrested for simply trying to tell the world what's going on inside that country. And in many places, journalists face far worse. This week, the Committee to Protect Journalists - a US based campaign group - published what it calls an Impunity Index, a name-and-shame list of countries where governments have consistently failed to solve the murders of the journalists.

The war in Iraq makes Baghdad the most dangerous place on the planet for reporters. But most journalists who've died there were killed not in combat, but rather, were targeted for professional reasons and murdered. The vast majority are Iraqis - 79 deaths remain unsolved.

While Iraq tops the Impunity Index, followed by other war-torn countries such as Sierra Leone and Somalia, the most sobering statistic us that the majority of the 13 nations named are established, peacetime democracies.

This week I was in Mexico. There, reporters regularly investigate drug trafficking, organised crime and official corruption. Too many pay a heavy price. The families of seven reporters murdered in Mexico are still seeking justice. Also among those named-and-shamed are India, and its South Asian neighbours, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Protestor holds a picture of Alisher Saipov outside Kyrgyzstan's Interior MinistryI confess a personal as well as professional interest. Last October, a young journalist, Alisher Saipov, was shot dead in the city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan. The politics of Central Asia are murky and dangerous. Osh is on the border with Uzbekistan - a country where dissent about the regime of President Islom Karimov is not tolerated.

Alisher had worked for the BBC and other international news organisations - he was also the editor of an opposition Uzbek newspaper. He had just finished working on a film for Newsnight when he was gunned down as he left his office. His family and friends believe he was killed by an Uzbek gunman, hired to silence him. Alisher was 26 years old. His wife has just given birth to their first child.

Six months on, no-one has been brought to justice in Kyrgyzstan for Alisher Saipov's murder. Indeed, the investigation into his death has twice been suspended, despite assurances to the BBC by the Kyrgyz authorities that they would spare no effort in hunting his killer.

Journalists don't deserve special treatment - but the friends, families and colleagues of those who die doing their job, do deserve answers.

New partnership

Rome Hartman | 14:20 UK time, Thursday, 1 May 2008

For many years, the BBC has had a very important and productive partnership with public television stations in the United States. As you may have read in the last couple of days, that relationship is going to change over the next several months; what will NOT change is the simple fact that millions of Americans will still be able to see the work of BBC journalists around the world on their local public TV stations.

bbcwordnewsamerica140x100.jpgWe will simply have a different, very strong partner station, KCET in Los Angeles, the second-largest public television station in the US KCET will replace WLIW, one of several public stations in the New York area, which has been our partner for the last decade.

PBS, the Public Broadcasting System in America, is not a network in the traditional sense of CBS or NBC or ABC. There is no central network office directing or ordering local stations to run certain programmes at certain times. Each station is free to make its own daily schedule, from a large 'menu' of material. Larger PBS-affiliated stations often act in a 'lead' or 'sponsoring' role for programmes; either programmes they produce themselves, or programmes that they acquire via purchase and/or partnership.

That latter arrangement (a distribution partnership with WLIW) is the way in which BBC News programs have appeared on PBS stations across America since 1998. Beginning this Fall, KCET will be our new partner, and we're confident they'll be a very good one, working hard to see to it that strong daily BBC News bulletins air on strong public stations, in prime time slots. WLIW has decided to attempt to produce its own daily bulletin of international news, though that station doesn't currently have any newsgathering capacity of its own, and has not yet announced who its international partner might be.

Of course, the BBC DOES have an incredibly able and robust international newsgathering operation, AND we already HAVE a US-based nightly news program focusing on international events: BBC World News America, the program that I produce. We've been on the air for seven months now...airing in the US on the BBC America and BBC World News channels...and we're proud of what we've been able to accomplish, including winning a coveted Peabody award in our very early days. I'm convinced that the combination of this flagship US program, AND BBC News bulletins airing on PBS through a new partnership with a very strong station, will help the BBC to continue to grow - both in influence and audience - in America.


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