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Global agenda

David Kermode | 16:47 UK time, Thursday, 2 November 2006

I'm in Istanbul (at the News Xchange annual conference) getting to grips with the global agenda and, right now, the Turkish keyboard configuration. Both are challenging.

Breakfast logoThere's a small group of us here from the BBC. Well, okay, not that small. But it's at these kind of events you realise just how enormous the BBC's news operation is and just how varied is its agenda.

Our domestic television output is represented, radio too, then of course there's BBC World and World Service radio. There's also a big safety focus to this event, with the people who specialise in keeping journalists and crews out of harm sharing their experience and knowledge. The morning session ended with a grim roll call of those who have died in the name of journalism within the last year - almost two hundred.

The day had two really big themes I suppose - war and terrorism.

The keynote speaker was Jan Egeland, UN Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, a man who speaks his mind. He told us how much he wished we'd be more consistent in our approach to war and disaster. He said that coverage of global catastrophes was like "a lottery", with some getting a huge amount of coverage and others getting next to nothing.

Mr Egeland talked about Darfur, which had a lot of attention from the world's media, then asked us why we had largely ignored the situation in Congo or Northern Uganda? He also talked about the media's obsession with celebrity, contrasting the time the American media devoted to Darfur versus the amount of airtime given over to Martha Stewart's brief spell behind bars. He clearly wasn't in Britain for coverage of the McCartney-Mills separation, but I suspect he'd have been less than impressed.

After a short break, while we digested what Mr Egeland had had to say, the rest of the morning was given over to the debate on embedding with the military. This subject is familiar territory now, but here was a chance for some senior military figures (retired, or about to retire) to give us their perspective on fighting with journalists in tow. There was debate about the extent to which objective journalism is compromised by being embedded with the military. The consensus, from where I was sitting, appeared to be that while embedding was useful in terms of getting access you would not otherwise get, there was still the need to have unilateral journalists going their own way.

That, of course, was what Terry Lloyd was bravely doing when he was killed. He was very much in delegates' minds today.

When is a terrorist a terrorist? It's frequently raised as an issue at the BBC and that question dominated the afternoon's proceedings as we debated the way we cover terrorism.

The person with the most experience of such matters at the BBC is probably the current affairs journalist Peter Taylor, who has frequently reported on al-Qaeda. He shared his thoughts on the challenge of covering "terrorism" and the obvious difficulty in getting access to those who seek to promote it. Yosri Fouda of Al Jazeera has had such access. He defended his decision to interview those involved in terrorism, reminding us of the importance of context.

At the BBC, we know that hearing all sides of the story is really important to our viewers, but we also know from some of the reaction to the recent Taliban film that it's a divisive issue. One person's "context" is another's "enemy propaganda". This debate rages on, as I write, and I suspect will be back on next year`s agenda.


  • 1.
  • At 08:51 PM on 02 Nov 2006,
  • Jenny wrote:

You made the conference sound very predictable. Was there anything said or done that could not have been done on the Net, without incurring all the carbon-emitting travel from all points of the globe to Istanbul? Apart from the tourist stuff of course.

  • 2.
  • At 09:26 PM on 02 Nov 2006,
  • Mark wrote:

Whether BBC likes it or not, it is to a large extent the product of over a thousand years of British history and culture. No matter how politically skewed its current management and staff, and no matter how biased and contaminated with opinions its so called news reports, it cannot divorce itself completely from the fairness and objectivity of being British. That is why Al Qaeda will use Al Jezeera as an outlet for its propaganda disguised as news in strong preference to BBC. Even token efforts at impartiality no matter how imperfect are in conflict with the culture of the Islamic world. It is common to be told stories which are greatly exaggerated or worse to make a point. They accept that without question, Brits don't. Ironically, when reporting the Middle East, BBC can be duped nearly every time. That's how an appartment building collapse resulting from an attack can quickly be attributed with causing 60 deaths when the actual death toll later turns out to be less than half that number. What is the definition of a terrorist? BBC, stop being coy, you know very well what it is. Palestinian commandos prepared to attack bathers at a public beach are, Israeli soldiers attacking an apartment building believing that there are weapons stored there and mistaken that the building has no civilian residents aren't. Don't kid yourselves, the ONLY reason your reporter wasn't killed in Pakistan was that that the Taleban felt he would be useful spreading their propaganda, not because they had a sudden twinge attack of humanity.

I'll agree with Jan Egeland to this extent, he is right about some wars getting over reported while others are under reported. The recent war between Israel and Lebanon killed only about 1000 people but got round the clock on-location reporting and analysts by BBC while the war in Sudan which has resulted in about 250,000 civilians killed so far with well over two million more lives in immediate grave jeopardy only gets reported sporadically.

Commercial television news networks in the US spend considerable time reporting the likes of Madonna and Martha Stewart in preference to Darfur because they have to pander to the interests of their audience in order to satisfy their sponsors and owners that they are reaching a satisfactory number of potential customers for their products. What is BBC's excuse?

I found it curious that you didn't connect the number of journalists killed in their work with embedding journalists with troops during wartime. Would they prefer to wander around the battlefield on their own and suffer even more casualties among their ranks? Frankly, it doesn't concern me terribly much one way or the other. Not given their tendency to "exaggerate" their stories...or worse.

  • 3.
  • At 10:33 PM on 02 Nov 2006,
  • J.G. wrote:

Amazing. The BBC spends £15,000 sending 24 people to Turkey to discuss whether to call a terrorist a terrorist. You then go on to boast aboout it in this "blog" (note scare quotes, because a blog usually means interaction, not preaching). This at a time when we learn from your link that 3000 BBC jobs are being lost, and that the redevelopment of Broadcasting House is £20m over budget.

Do you just not care that people are being sent to prison for being too poor to pay the TV-tax? Why are you wasting all their hard earned money?

I am glad you are listening to Jan Egeland, and others. But does not something in the back of your minds say this man has an important point and you should do something about it?

I understand that some stories get more viewers - or matter more to the UK population. But, hear me out, by showing these other stories more often we may bring people round - actually change what they are interested in. So they care for all people equally. So that a disaster in the US or Africa would get the same coverage. Could try doing it bit by bit. As the BBC is not about viewing figures, is about informing the British public. Keep thinking of ideas.

  • 5.
  • At 05:26 AM on 03 Nov 2006,
  • Dr. Henry I. Silverman wrote:

Please do digest what Mr. Egeland had to say about the BBC's unbalanced coverage. One notes for example, that while the BBC's website has scrupulously devoted daily front-page coverage to the Israeli military operation in Gaza, there is not a single mention anywhere of the scores of murdered civilians in Darfur's refugees camps (including 27 children under the age of 12) occurring at the same time.

Perhaps this is an example of what a BBC editor once explained to me is the BBCs "close-up" focus on the Middle East which is "not possible" in their African coverage.

Or perhaps it is just plain bias.

BBC war correspondents covering wars are very courageous individuals as terrorism often place their lives at grave danger. By embedding with the military they place themseves at extreme risk. Often their mission to seek the truth leads them to terrorist groups. Visiting a Taliban camp must be nerve-wrecking as any false move could mean losing one's life. Giving different perspectives is no easy task for journalists as terrorists often mask their wicked intentions very well.These terrorist groups often do not believe in the sanctity of life but their own aggrandisement, misplaced power and glory. Terrorism is like a malignant cancer which has deadly consequences. Terrorism has intruded on our lives in such a big way: we have got to find effective ways of ridding the world of this menace. The problem is that terrorists are so unpredictable and devious: trying to fathom their hatred and reasons that drive them are completely mind-boggling. But the real fight against them has to be fought on all fronts on the international, national and local fronts without any respite.Relgion is a convenient garb and the extremists who use religion for their own purposes are evil and self-seeking. Thanks to first-class reporting from journalists we are able to educate ourselves further and realise that the world we live in is an extremely unsafe place.

Whatever is said about the BBC, they are currently the best and most unbiased mainstream TV news out there.

It would be interesting to see what happened if equal coverage were given to loss of life regardless of country or conflict. Would the viewers just switch channels? Maybe we could try an experiment for a week? Maybe a more radical news programme like Newsnight would take up such an idea?

Something I am learning from reading Stephen Covey - is that nothing is solved by criticism. Understanding and respect are much more important.

  • 8.
  • At 10:02 AM on 04 Nov 2006,
  • Dr Anthony I. Walker wrote:

Let's remember that there are several good five star hotels in the Middle East, but it's much tougher for correspondents in Africa. Also, it's easy to work in an anti-American angle into stories regarding Israel, not so easy in Darfur or the rest of Africa. Lastly, the BBC sometimes gives the impression of institutional racism - lives in Africa are simply not, at least as judged by the relative coverage by the BBC, worth as much as lives in the Middle East.

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