Queues or no queues
The BBC's reporting of financial turmoil has helped to move markets and excited much comment. Last year Robert Peston's report on the government's rescue of Northern Rock was followed by much discussion of whether the BBC should have reported in advance of an official announcement. Last week's exclusive by Robert on the impending takeover of HBOS by Lloyds TSB had a major impact on the market and the Mail on Sunday reported that there will be an investigation into possible trading prior to Robert's story being broadcast.
The current financial turmoil and the high potential sensitivity of the stories we cover means we need to think carefully about what we broadcast and publish. Our first duty is to accuracy and our absolute presumption is in favour of publication. Of course BBC financial journalists operate under legal restrictions and the BBC's own strict guidelines which prevent them from taking any personal advantage from any of the information they possess as a result of their professional activities. But we do sometimes hold things back. I thought it might be interesting to describe two instances of that.
Last Wednesday, after the announcement of the likely HBOS takeover, we received initial reports of queues forming outside HBOS branches in Middlesbrough and Glasgow. We were aware that there was a possibility of outflows of deposits from HBOS. However we decided that queues in two places were not conclusive evidence of a widespread financial phenomena. We decided to wait and watch. The queues later dissipated. I have no doubt that if we had gone ahead at once with broadcasting pictures of those queues that could have had an impact on HBOS.
It made me recall what had happened almost exactly a year earlier after Robert's initial report on Northern Rock. In that case we had information early the following morning that queues were forming in a number of places. However we held off running those pictures until we were absolutely sure of the scale of the queues. By definition they were happening spontaneously not caused by seeing pictures of queuing.
What is the right thing to do in these circumstances? Our normal presumption should be in favour of publication of information. Many in the audience would wish to know financially sensitive information as soon as possible. However in reporting volatile public sentiment we have taken the view that we need to wait until a phenomenon is clearly established before we broadcast.