Ceri Thomas

Reporting restrictions

BASRA: Visiting Iraq is a sobering experience but, as we get ready to leave after two editions of Today (which you can read about here), one particularly sobering thought lingers: once UK forces pull out, as they say they will "sometime soon", will any reporting from here be possible?

The Today programme logoAll of us would prefer to be here without the help of the military but, at the moment, that’s very difficult to envisage. In a land where some policemen are also members of the death squads which terrorise this city, where patrol cars are found carrying roadside bombs, where the long arm of the law may also be the strong arm of religious extremism or a criminal gang, the risks that local journalists run are terrifying. Without the military safety blanket, the risks to outsiders would be incalculable.

The Today programme's John Humphrys broadcasting from BasraSo we’re with the armed forces, and grateful for the protection they offer. But, at the same time, it’s hard to ignore the limits they impose. As journalists, we spend too much of our time glimpsing Basra through razor wire fences or the bullet-proof windows of a Land Rover. We get out of the fortified bases into the city and the villages beyond as often as we can, but each trip is immensely labour-intensive – and much more dangerous for the soldiers who accompany us than it is for us.

Maybe those who believe that the presence of British troops and diplomats here exacerbates the situation are right. They’re certainly a lightning rod. I’ve lost count of the number of mortars and rockets that have landed on the base where we’re staying in the past four nights – perhaps it’s 40 or 50 – and each one runs the risk of falling short and landing instead on an Iraqi house much less able to withstand the impact than the breeze-block bungalows where we sleep. So, certainly, some daily acts of violence happen because the British are here. But, at the same time, we’ve heard stories of lives that have been saved by their presence. And however appalling the state of the Basra police, is it really possible to imagine that they’d be better without the efforts of ex-coppers from Northern Ireland, South Wales and every other corner of the UK to train and improve them?

It’s too early for any final accounting of the British mission here, but the army is certainly one very strong thread in the fabric of what little security remains in Basra. If we pull it out, will what’s left support a society where foreigners can come and go in peace?

In Baghdad, of course, BBC colleagues do manage to move around the city independently – but the level of protection they need means it’s a fiercely expensive business. And even an organisation with the resources of the BBC couldn’t afford to do that everywhere.

Let’s be optimistic for a moment. Let’s assume that when the UK withdraws from this corner of southern Iraq the situation doesn’t get worse. Let’s assume that it even gets marginally better – that there are fewer death squads roaming the streets, that the police are less well-infiltrated by members of the violent militia. Even then, it will be far too dangerous to travel here independently.

And while Baghdad – the centre of everything in this country – continues to grab the headlines and catch the eye, the risk is that this city of nearly two million people slips from view.

In one sense, no surprise: there are plenty of cities of that size around the world that we barely hear from. But, without in any sense wishing more suffering upon this place, it’s possible that some pretty awful things will happen here in the years ahead – and it would be tragic if we didn’t know about them.

Ceri Thomas is editor of the Today programme

Peter Knowles

Re-sizing Parliament

Today, as every day, I got a viewer's letter pointing out that the picture on BBC Parliament, crammed illegibly into one quarter of the Freeview screen, is not good enough. They even sent me a photo, to show me. Our announcement that from the 13th November it will be a normal broadcast picture (just in time for the Queen's Speech on the 15th) has come not a moment too soon.

bbcparliament.jpgWhat was meant to be an improvement to the audio-only service offered in the days of ITV Digital was neither understood nor appreciated by anyone. Many viewers assumed that the 3/4 of a screen filled with (mainly) dead text was a whim on our part, a symptom of advanced mania for graphics. Others concluded that they were doing something wrong with their remote control and could we please tell them which button to push? Bandwidth constraints... nah, that didn’t wash.

After receiving thousands of angry and perplexed letters and emails, there’s one that sticks in my mind - “it’s like looking at a postage stamp while listening to the radio”. Quite.

BBC Parliament, as it currently appears on FreeviewThanks to some brilliant work by the BBC's distribution department, the bandwidth issues finally got sorted and the channel on Freeview will look just like a proper one, as it already has done for years on cable and satellite. Sitting next to BBC News 24 on the EPG at channel 81, it makes that transition from the first part of a major statement or debate - which both channels are likely to carry - to the handover to BBC Parliament, both natural and easy.

BBC Parliament already reaches between three quarters of a million and a million viewers a month - this will go up with the growing success of that platform.

We’ve one more hurdle to cross. A lot of Freeview boxes are not very clever, and it means that many existing Freeview viewers will have to re-tune (from the 13th) to pick up the new full-screen channel. I think there may be one or two more letters and emails...

Peter Knowles is the controller of BBC Parliament

Simon Waldman

Inside line

A bit of a first yesterday for News 24: we went to jail. Our home affairs correspondent Jane Hughes was granted exclusive access to Britain's biggest prison - Wandsworth in South London. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think it's the first time anyone's been allowed to broadcast live all day from behind bars.

BBC News 24 logoBut it wasn't easy getting to this point.

It was back in February that the first contact was made with the Prison Service press office. "How about letting me in?" said plucky Jane. "You seem like a trustworthy sort of cove," came the reply. She then had to undergo detailed questioning from the Prison Service, the Governor of Wandsworth and assorted other officials - some of whom were extremely wary. She had to send a formal written proposal to the Home Office, which eventually acquired the ministerial seal of approval. At last, Jane, her producer and the technical team went for a full day's "recce".

It was all going rather swimmingly. But then the row over foreign prisoners blew up and Charles Clarke resigned - the day before we were due to go live from Wandsworth. Frustratingly, but not surprisingly, the Home Office told us the deal was, temporarily, off.

Yet more negotiations finally got us to Tuesday's live broadcasts.

Our team had to arrive with all the technical kit you'd expect: cameras, lights, cables etc - but they also turned up armed with a ladder, a saw and lots of rope. Which caused much amusement among some of the older lags. Especially when the engineers had to saw a hole in a door and throw a rope over the perimeter wall - all to facilitate the live broadcasts, you understand. They've not had so much excitement at Wandsworth since 1965 when Ronnie Biggs jumped the wall.

Simon Waldman is morning editor on BBC News


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