BBC BLOGS - The Editors

5 live News: Looking back, looking forward

Steve Mawhinney Steve Mawhinney | 14:15 UK time, Wednesday, 16 February 2011

So, three months in (and boy, does it feel like more) I've been asked to share a few thoughts about life as head of news at 5 live and my vision for the station.

I've picked six reflections. They are, I fear, neither definitive nor comprehensive and I am sure I have forgotten lots of important things but I hope they will provide some insight into where I hope our news programmes are going and what we are trying to do.

Read more and comment at the 5 live blog.

Steve Mawhinney is 5 live's head of news

Storm over Corfu

Steve Mawhinney Steve Mawhinney | 12:02 UK time, Thursday, 23 October 2008

I suspect that never before has the holiday island of Corfu received quite as much attention in the British media as it has in recent weeks. The extraordinary gathering this summer of politicians, media magnates and billionaires has spawned a plethora of stories.

Lord Mandelson and George OsborneAt the centre of most of them, of course, have been two major figures in British politics - Lord Mandelson, the new business secretary and George Osborne, the shadow chancellor. What they said, and to whom, has received massive coverage across newspapers and other news organisations, ironically it appears kicked off by a conversation they had with one another at a now infamous taverna on the Greek isle.

Amidst the storm, questions have been raised about the BBC's coverage. Of course those questions are many and varied as always but there has been a particular accusation from some complainants that we did too much on the allegations against George Osborne and not enough on those against Lord Mandelson.

Let's deal with the Osborne story first. Here was a specific allegation of wrongdoing - indeed possible law-breaking - against the man holding the most sensitive post in the shadow cabinet outside of the leader. The claim - vehemently denied - that he solicited a donation to the Conservatives from a Russian billionaire, Oleg Deripaska, and talked about ways to secretly channel that donation to the party, on the face of it could have put him in breach of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

What's more, that allegation - made in a letter to The Times, who understandably led on the story - came from Nat Rothschild, someone who up until that point at least had been a long-term friend of Mr Osborne's, so much so that he was hosting Mr Osborne and his family at his Corfu home, and his mother had been funding the shadow chancellor's private office to the tune of £190,000. The BBC also learned that Mr Rothschild was willing to go to court to back up his claim and had another witness who would support his story.

In the light of the seriousness of the allegations - and the seriousness of the person making the claim - many BBC News outlets made the decision that this was an important story and chose to lead with it, as did every other major broadcaster and nearly every national newspaper.

But what about Lord Mandelson and his links with Oleg Deripaska? After all, while holding the position of EU trade commissioner he had stayed on Mr Deripaska's yacht in Corfu and indeed had dined with him previously on a number of occasions. This at a time, where he had supported moves to cut EU aluminium tariffs to the enormous benefit of Mr Deripaska, who owns the world's largest aluminium producer.

Well, the first thing to say is that there was no ban on reporting this and other questions, and BBC journalists immediately began looking into them. More importantly, when the BBC had its first opportunity to do a proper interview with Lord Mandelson following his reappointment to the cabinet, before the Osborne story broke, he was questioned robustly about the allegations (which you can watch here).

The reason the coverage so far has not been at the same level as that of George Osborne is that up until now there has been no similar specific allegation that Lord Mandelson has broken any laws. Nor, in Lord Mandelson's case, was there a specific, credible complainant in the same way as there was with Mr Osborne.

Nor does it appear at this stage (though questions are still being asked) that Lord Mandelson breached any EU code of conduct, however questionable his relationship with Mr Deripaska may or may not appear. Crucial to this, is the fact that while the UK ministerial code has rules about a perceived conflict of interest, the code of conduct for EU commissioners does not in the same way. Thus far the European Commission says he has done nothing wrong and has made it clear that the decision to cut aluminium tariffs followed a long debate amongst member states and was supported by them. It was not in his gift.

So, while the story was checked and questions were asked of Lord Mandelson by the BBC, the story did not make it on to our main news programmes. However in our coverage of the allegations against Mr Osborne, we have repeatedly made it clear that Lord Mandelson also faces questions about his relationship with Mr Deripaska.

We also spelt out the tangled relationships involved in the story in enough detail to allow audiences to make their own judgment about what role, if any, Lord Mandelson had in promoting the allegations against the shadow chancellor.

So, editorial decisions have been based on the seriousness of the allegations and the strength of the evidence. That will remain paramount in any future coverage of politicians who find themselves in the spotlight, though I suspect next summer there won't be quite such a rush to Corfu.

Public conversation

Steve Mawhinney Steve Mawhinney | 15:12 UK time, Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Reporting a party conference is always something of a multi-layered affair. In fact, reporting politics is, full stop.

David MilibandBut at conference time everything is much more intense and mixed up, what with hundreds of politicians, party members and journalists all crushed together in a confined space. This week's Labour conference in Manchester has been no exception.

There have, of course, been the official speeches in the main conference hall: briefed and despatched in the full glare of the media. Not much controversial there.

Then we have had the myriad fringe meetings, where politicians can sometimes be tempted to reveal a little more, though usually again they are fully recorded and reported if the organisers can drum up sufficient interest.

Then there are the gazillions of private conversations in bars and dusty corners, where gossip is exchanged and information shared under the strict understanding that the source is not revealed. This is then reported in the annoying but seemingly unavoidable code that political journalists have invented. More on that, perhaps, another time.

What rarely happens is that a leading politician says something newsworthy that they don't want anyone to report but somehow it finds its way into the public domain. This is exactly what happened last night.

The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, got into a lift with his aide and started a conversation about the speech he had delivered to the conference earlier in the day - a speech which strayed far from his foreign affairs brief and was seen by many here as an attempt to sell himself to the party as a potential future leader.

In an age of instant feedback, he was interested in how it had gone down. Reflecting on it, Mr Miliband, went on to say: "I couldn't have gone any further. It would have been a Heseltine moment." His aide agreed, saying he had gone as far as he could and it was what the party needed.

In the febrile atmosphere of a party conference, this was fascinating stuff. It is, of course, open to a number of interpretations but any reference to Michael Heseltine, the man who so openly challenged Margaret Thatcher when she was PM, is intriguing to say the least.

Of course, we would not have known any of this if it weren't for the fact that (a) there was another person in the lift where this conversation happened and (b) that person just happened to be a BBC journalist.

The question, of course, is, having heard this conversation, should we have reported it? Surely politicians are owed a right to privacy as much as anyone else? Should we be in the business of revealing details of an exchange that was meant to remain private?

On this occasion, the answer seemed to me to be yes, we should report. It would not have been yes in all circumstances. If the conversation had taken place somewhere where the participants could legitimately have expected it to be private, then that would have been different.

But this was a conversation in a lift used by hundreds of different people, at a conference teeming with journalists who had every right to be there. Unfortunately for Mr Miliband, the anonymous person with him in the lift happened to be one.

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