BBC BLOGS - The Editors

Archives for November 2007

Blogging awards

Steve Herrmann Steve Herrmann | 16:15 UK time, Thursday, 29 November 2007

I wrote here recently about the launch of the tenth in our series of correspondent's blogs and looked back at how they've developed into a key element in our journalism.

A graphic of the BBC News websiteThis week I was delighted to hear that two of our bloggers have won awards. Robert Peston won the digital media category of the BVCA Private Equity & Venture Capitalist Journalist of the Year Awards for his work on Peston's Picks (more details here), while Nick Robinson was the recipient of the Political Studies Association's 'political journalist of the year' award. The judges commented on the "clarity and verve" of his political coverage, his ability to "convey accurately and concisely key political and electoral developments", and commended his Newslog for encouraging "lively political debate".

Both Robert and Nick have been blogging particularly energetically of late, as they have chronicled the Northern Rock and Labour donations stories, and the recognition is very well earned.

Live and direct

Simon Waldman | 15:24 UK time, Thursday, 29 November 2007

Dramatic live coverage this morning from Manila as troops and police stormed a luxury hotel where a group of rebel soldiers were holed up. The rebels were demanding the resignation of Philippines President Arroyo - essentially trying to mount a coup d'etat. The security forces fired teargas and used an armoured personnel carrier to batter their way in. And we watched it all live on News 24 (you can see some of the footage here).

BBC News 24 logoI've blogged in the past about the compelling nature of live pictures, but today's events posed even more problems than usual.

Problem 1:
What exactly was going on?

As well as conveying the latest information - in a rapidly changing situation - we had to provide analysis and background for those of us not intimately familiar with the latest twists and turns in the power struggle in the Philippines. Which meant the newsroom team were frantically trying to find eyewitnesses to describe what THEY could see, as well as getting the political context from - amongst others - our world affairs correspondents in London and newspaper journalists in Manila.

TroopsOne highlight was a British tourist who ended up trapped in a shop opposite the hotel - she gave us a fascinating eyewitness account and is perhaps the first person to have had a foot massage interrupted by an attempted coup.

Problem 2:
Our one man on the spot - who gets him?

BBC Manila correspondent Michael Barker was reporting live - for News 24 and BBC World as well as World Service radio - from the hotel lobby as the drama unfolded. It is often quite a juggling act to make sure all the various BBC outlets get a fair share of the one correspondent in the thick of the story. Today, Radio 5 Live were the unfortunate victims of a lost phone connection just as they were about to interview him. They used some excellent local journalists outside the hotel instead.

Problem 3:
Live pictures - really?

TroopsMost of the feed from Manila was live - with cameras both outside the hotel and in a corridor inside. But sometimes, with no warning, the news agency switched to recorded images. I think we managed to make clear to the audience which bits of our coverage were live and which were not.

Problem 4:
Could this turn really nasty?

The biggest issue facing us this morning - and an ever-present consideration when transmitting live pictures. Even on a news channel, which does what it says on the tin, we don't want to show viewers overly graphic images of injury or death. We take great care to try to convey the seriousness of a story, but without being gratuitous or sensational in our use of pictures.

Today, we were ready to leave the live stream of pictures at any moment - and when we saw the APC firing into the hotel lobby, we came very close to making that decision. As it happened, the most distressing pictures were of journalists and rebels clearly affected by tear gas.

There is a tried and tested plan B for these circumstances: to show potentially shocking pictures not live, but with a 10 or 15 second delay. Some radio stations do this with phone-ins, so they can stop the real nutters getting on air. And WE do it so that someone monitoring the live feed can yell "too gory - don't show this bit" - allowing us to switch instantly to some acceptable recorded pictures before the unacceptable images were broadcast. Today, we stayed - slightly nervously - with the live feed. But it was a close call.

By the end of today, I expect that this morning's coup attempt will have disappeared from the headlines - but it was riveting while it was happening. I hope we conveyed that, and helped explain why it was important.

Update, Tues 11:00 AM: Thanks for your comments, I've replied to some here.

Secret liaisons?

Husain Husaini | 14:59 UK time, Tuesday, 27 November 2007

It's the kind of thing that would make some suspect a conspiracy.

BBC Asian Network logoAs our colleagues at Newsbeat were working up their story about MI6 (Rod blogged about it here yesterday), the Asian Network's reporter, Anna Cunningham, was interviewing two officers at MI5.

But as far as we can tell, MI5 and MI6 had not been liaising over the their public relations strategy.

After some detailed negotiations, Anna went into Thames House to meet two officers, Jayshree and Shazad. We assume they aren't their real names but we can't know for sure. They talked about their work and motivations. They were clearly passionate and committed to their jobs, believing that they were working for the good of the country. They spoke about how the July 7th attacks on London's public transport system convinced them of the value of what they were doing. We weren't allowed to ask them about MI5 policy but they did reject suggestions that they targeted Muslims. They told us they only focussed on individuals who they believed to be a threat.

Our audience reacted strongly to the story. We asked on our phone-in programme with Nihal, "would you join the security services?" Most callers, e-mailers and texters said no.

One said, "anyone who joined the security services is a 'coconut' and untrustworthy." Another said that, "after Iraq it would be impossible to expect a British Muslim to help the security services." Even on the other side there was some scepticism, "I would join the secret services - the best way to correct a system is 2 become part of it".

It seems obvious that MI5 agreed to the Asian Network request for an interview - amongst the many they must get - because they feel the need to recruit more British Asians. If what our audience tell us is anything to go by, they still have plenty more work to do.

Spying on Newsbeat

Rod McKenzie Rod McKenzie | 10:10 UK time, Monday, 26 November 2007

Dinner jackets, gold Rolex Oyster Perpetual day/dates, a Walther PPK and a few exploding cigarette cases. Actually, not one of these was on show the night Newsbeat went to have dinner with the staff of MI6 at their ultra-secret headquarters by the Thames in London. Well, not that ultra-secret, actually - you'll have seen it on Bond films and the odd piece-to-camera behind a reporter on News 24.

Radio One logoA reporter from Newsbeat has become the first journalist ever to record an "on the record" broadcast interview inside MI6 headquarters in London. Andy West's movements inside Vauxhall Cross were strictly controlled so he was prevented from seeing anything that could be sensitive to any active operations, or compromise the identity of staff or agents. However, he interviewed two MI6 officers and the head of MI6 recruitment, in their work place. It's part of a week-long series of special reports on the British Secret Intelligence Service starting today on Radio 1.

"Mark" (of course, not his real name) the head of MI6 recruitment, speaking to a broadcast microphone for the first time, revealed the need to recruit a wider spectrum of officers from different ethnic backgrounds. He said that SIS's decision just over a year ago to try "open" recruitment - as opposed to a surreptitious tap on the shoulder of potential recruits while they're still at Oxbridge - has yielded great benefits. He also said the service has sometimes suffered because of the James Bond association.

MI6 headquarters, London“To be honest I think sometimes we're hindered by it - because I think it gives people a false impression of what working for the organisation is actually like, so it does tend to turn up quite a lot of thrill seekers and fantasists and we're really not interested in them".

He also said the notion of a "Licence to Kill" is not real. He stressed how important it is to recruit from a wider spectrum including British Muslims - but not just them: “We need people to deploy into a range of situations around the world and people who have a different ethnicity can often go places and do things and meet people that those from a white background can’t… There are some places that white males can't go".

Newsbeat also interviewed a serving MI6 operational officer, the role people outside the service would think of as "special agent" or "spy". "Yasmin", who's in her late 20s and from the Midlands, is a Muslim.

"My job is to identify, target and recruit people from abroad who will provide us with secret intelligence - for a particular part of the world - I can’t tell you which one"

She revealed the areas of interest which MI 6 officers look at. "They include things like counter terrorism, the international drugs trade, the wider nuclear threat; it can also include promoting British economic interests abroad, so just making sure Britain isn’t being ripped off."

She described working with informants abroad or what MI6 refer to as "agents".

"It's something that runs through every day of my job - their lives and their safety is my responsibility... We will do everything in our power to make sure our agents are safe."

When asked if she got the job because she's a Muslim, "No I don't think I was. The area of the world I work in, it would make no difference whether I was a Muslim or not."

Responding to the accusation that there may be some elements of the British Muslim community who feel the Establishment or government is out to get them, and they may even view "Yasmin" as a traitor to their cause she said, "I would challenge that view very strongly... The way I feel is my duty to God is totally compatible with my duty to my country... I feel very, very strongly that if you are able to do something to make a difference you should make that difference."

And what about dinner? Not very Ian Fleming at all - in a windowless room protected by an alarmed steel door - sandwiches and soft drinks. It's so not like the movies and not even a bottle of Bollinger '37 in sight.

Market sentiment

Peter Barron | 16:53 UK time, Friday, 23 November 2007

The history of Newsnight's nightly markets update has not always been a happy one. On Thursday we reported that in New York the "Dow Jones was substantially down amidst more credit crunch fears". That's odd, many of you told us, as - being Thanksgiving - Wall Street's finest were on a day-off. Our economics editor Stephanie Flanders was mortified - "unforgivable and embarrassing" was her verdict.

Newsnight logoThis is, I am ashamed to say, not the first time we have made such a mistake. The markets information is almost always the last thing we do on Newsnight and in the scramble of a particularly lively programme last night we neglected to notice that the US markets were shut and blithely reported the day before's figure. I'm sorry and I'm determined this won't happen again.

A couple of years ago we thought one way of avoiding problems with the markets was to abolish the spot altogether, but the outrage then means we won't try that again. Instead, we have inserted a note in the markets page which will read for ever more:


Paranoia of politics

Gavin Allen | 09:28 UK time, Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Such is the paranoia of politics. On Thursday we thought we'd been handed that rare Westminster gift: a gaffe on a platter (though in this case for platter read e-mail). Now I'm beginning to wonder.

politics_show_logo.jpgAhead of a Clegg-Huhne Lib Dem leadership debate at the weekend, a Huhne office researcher had helpfully sent us a briefing note on the policy differences between the two contenders. It was entitled "Calamity Clegg".

So much for positive politics and one party united for liberalism. Instead here was one camp united in bitterness against the other, openly lambasting them as a disaster, a flip-flop candidate who couldn't make his mind up one week to the next. Poor naive researcher, sure. And we felt for her. Briefly. But thank you God - this was too good an opportunity to miss.

Could we reasonably reveal the contents of the e-mail? You bet - it hadn't been sent as an off-the-record document and hadn't even been directly solicited. And it threw light on what one candidate's team really thought.

Maybe, mused our presenter Jon Sopel, we'd get Chris Huhne to apologise publicly on air for such a personal attack?

Chris Huhne and Nick CleggNot a bit of it. Instead Nick Clegg looked alternately surprised, aghast, irritated and finally insulted as Chris Huhne meticulously disassociated himself from the contents of the e-mail and then proceeded to lift attack phrases from it. (You can watch the debate here.)

And the daggers were still there in the green room afterwards - the potential stab in the back made all the easier by an apparent determination not to look at, let alone talk to, each other.

So, a thoroughly bad day for the Lib Dems? Perhaps. But winning is everything and I've been wondering if it was all a cunning plan and we were the stooges. Flick through the newspaper coverage yesterday - what's the phrase that sticks in the mind from every broadsheet and half the tabloids? Huhne apologetic? Huhne red-faced? Huhne humbled? Nope. Calamity Clegg. You might think that's as good as a free press release from the Huhne camp to the one in 1000 of you who'll be eligible to vote in the contest from this week.

I would ask the Lib Dem researcher - but either way I'm guessing she couldn't possibly comment.

Central question

Peter Horrocks Peter Horrocks | 14:37 UK time, Monday, 19 November 2007

I should have known that in asking BBC News users about their views on editorial diversity (see my last blog), I would inevitably get a highly diverse range of views in response. Many commenters raised general editorial concerns, which I will deal with later. On the main question I posed – whether BBC News should move in the direction of greater diversity or greater coherence - there was a split with a small majority in favour of greater editorial range.

Many of you who supported stronger editorial coherence expressed surprise that the BBC had previously been organised in separate platform-based teams (ie different newsrooms for TV, radio and the internet). These users were concerned that the BBC deploys too many reporters to stories and they want us to be more efficient - but they also saw the advantage in having a similar agenda on our different services. And that seems largely about having a less tabloid agenda, especially on TV.

The other camp was keen to ensure that BBC News on the web does not reduce its range, in the words of one contributor that “however efficient a centralised news gathering service is, it’s the very diversity of styles and editorial decisions that gives richness to what the BBC does”. And some respondents replied, not unreasonably, that they would like both depth and range.

However, providing quality in both dimensions is a costly exercise. Under the BBC’s new financial settlement the Newsroom department that is responsible for the core news TV, radio and web services is due to make efficiencies of 5% a year for the next five years. So we need to find ways of being more cost effective while meeting the demands of users.

And you, our users, are very demanding. We wouldn’t have it any other way. But in the responses of a group of news enthusiasts, such as the respondents to the Editors’ blog are likely to be, there is a strong desire to have all BBC News on these users’ terms. We certainly will ensure that the largest part of BBC News meets your requirements for depth, complexity and sophistication. However the BBC benefits from a compulsory levy and, in return, should provide news that touches a large proportion of the population. Our aim is to ensure that 80% of the population watches, listens to or reads something from BBC News at least once a week.

Our most popular services are on mass audience channels such as Radio 1, Radio 2 and BBC One. Our aim for the news on those services is high quality, but accessible to a wide audience. Some news aficionados may occasionally find some of the news items on those popular services insufficiently in depth. I would ask such users to consider the good public reasons why the BBC seeks to keep its news accessible.

By reorganising, we can be more explicit in using these popular services as shop windows to the richness of BBC analysis and context, especially that which is available on the web and in longer TV and radio programmes. We will make it easier for our audiences to find their way between our different services, so that they can all get the news and information they need. And in doing so, we hope we will provide a common reference point of high quality information - for our audiences both in the UK and around the world.

Climate sceptics

Steve Herrmann Steve Herrmann | 12:00 UK time, Thursday, 15 November 2007

Richard Black, our website environment correspondent, has been tackling an ambitious challenge he set himself earlier this year. He wanted to get a better understanding of what so-called "climate sceptics" think, what arguments or evidence they have to counter the view that human activities such as industrial emissions of greenhouse gases and deforestation are bringing potentially dangerous changes to the Earth's climate.

A graphic of the BBC News websiteHe sent a set of questions to a group of signatories of an open letter which had urged the Canadian government to hold hearings on the scientific foundations of the nation's climate change plan.

He also asked website readers to email him with any research or data they had which supported the view that the scientific establishment is itself biased against climate sceptics.

He got a lot of feedback (though not as much as he expected) and it’s taken him more or less until now to sort through it. You can see the results here and in a series of articles this week by Richard and others on the website science pages.

They do a great deal to shed light on the arguments and investigate the evidence behind them. We wanted to give them proper consideration, in part to counter accusations that we simply ignore the sceptics’ views. But this also raises issues about how much weight, over time, we should give to their views, and what impartiality means on an issue like this. Richard and his colleague Roger Harrabin (BBC News' environment analyst) have written a thoughtful piece in the BBC’s in-house magazine, Ariel, explaining what they think. You can read it below.


By Richard Black and Roger Harrabin.

    Two significant climate conferences in the next few weeks offer the BBC a huge opportunity to improve our audiences’ understanding of this fraught and complex issue but they also present a challenge to the BBC to ensure that we report impartially. Because if we do not have a strong grasp of the fundamentals of the climate debate we risk presenting our audiences with a set of opinions which is out-dated, driven by spin or simply wrong.

Global warming cartoon from the BBC's in-house magazine

    Back in the 1980s the battleground was defined in caricature as bi-polar, with naive lentil-eaters on one side and ruthless big business on the other. But in the new reality the centre ground in climate science, economics, politics and business has shifted seismically, leaving us struggling sometimes to locate a new core of impartiality. We are still living with criticism over our coverage of MMR when we gave the impression that each side was underpinned by science of approximately equal weight. We must get it right on climate.
    In the new reality, there is all-party agreement in Westminster for the UK to cut CO2 emissions by at least 60 percent; climate change has become a dominant theme at the Davos business forum; people round the world are expressing alarm about the climate; a recent survey showed a majority in Britain now regard being concerned about the environment as a social norm.
    A main reason for the shift in global opinion is the resolution of the most fundamental questions in climate science by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Earlier this year the IPCC concluded that it is beyond doubt that the climate is warming and more than 90 percent likely that human activities have driven most of the recent change. These findings will probably be underlined at this week’s meeting of the IPCC in Valencia and should feature prominently in our reporting.
    The IPCC is the world’s official climate change assessment forum. It relies on published research and peer-reviewed so its prognoses are inherently conservative. Its reports are by acknowledged leaders in their fields surveying thousands of pieces of evidence and employing the scientific method of sceptically testing hypotheses to reduce uncertainty.
    The IPCC process is bloody, and some scientists are upset if they believe their work to be under-represented in the policymakers’ summaries that are vetted by the world's major governments. Sometimes politicians do try to sway IPCC conclusions but their endorsement of the final report means that all governments involved, including the US and Australia, agree that greenhouse gases should be cut. The disagreement is over how much emissions should be cut, how soon, and by whom.
    In a recent survey of 140 climate scientists, 18 percent found the IPCC too alarming but 82 percent either thought the IPCC represented a reasonable consensus – or said it was not alarming enough. No one agreed with the statement that global warming is a fabrication and that human activity is not having a significant effect. All the world’s major scientific bodies have endorsed the IPCC concerns about the risk of increasing greenhouse gases.
    Given the weight of opinion building up around the IPCC it makes sense for us to focus our coverage on the consensus that climate change is happening, is serious, but is manageable if tackled urgently.
    We do not need consistently to ‘balance’ the reports of the IPCC. When we broadcast outlying views we should make sure we do not over represent them and we should keep a rough balance of views from either side of the IPCC. If we do not, we will distort the issue and risk misleading or confusing our audience.
    We must also be more savvy about the way we treat outlying views – and we should make it clear to our audience when an interviewee holds a minority position.
    On one side of the IPCC are some knowledgeable, sceptical climate scientists. They mostly agree that the Earth is heating, and agree that greenhouse gases are probably contributing. But they think future temperatures will be determined much more by solar changes than atmospheric changes – and they do not think IPCC computer models are smart enough to forecast the climate accurately. They mostly think the economic benefit of using fossil fuels outweighs the risk of increasing CO2 levels.
    A more extreme position is taken by some libertarian commentators who distrust government and big institutions and who characterise climate change as a swindle. Their views appear to be supported by hardly any climate scientists.
    Then there are the ‘sceptics’ (particularly in the US) funded by big business to run ‘think tanks’ spreading uncertainty and thus delaying action. We need to think hard about how and when we invite these various groups to contribute to the debate. Would we, for instance, serve our audiences by inviting lobbyists for tobacco firms to challenge the scientific links between smoking and lung cancer?
    To the other side, the scientific outliers (17 percent of the survey above) fear that the IPCC’s statement of alarm is not expressed loud and hard enough. They think the IPCC’s need to proceed with governmental consensus forces it to suppress the most worrying science.
    At the extreme of this group is James Lovelock who forecasts that the temperature will not rise steadily as the IPCC graphs suggest, but will suddenly jump 6C to a new (and catastrophic) stable state in a matter of decades, eventually leaving the earth unable to support more than a billion people. It’s too late to stop the process, he says.
    No member of an independent expert panel on Lovelock run by the Today programme last year was prepared to say he was definitely wrong. But if we over report the Lovelock view we will be accused of fostering alarmism and despair.
    If an individual approaches the climate issue with a distinct ideological position from the left or the right it makes sense for us to explain their political position to the audience. We should avoid all the jargon hurled by some of those at the extremes of the debate – such as climate change deniers, climate believers, doomsters or warmers.
    We must be smarter, too, with the language and labels that we use when describing groups. The Scientific Alliance, for instance, is run by a scientist but was set up by a businessman to counter green fears and campaign against green taxes. Friends of the Earth’s views on climate science are close to the IPCC consensus. But our recent broadcasts referred to Friends of the Earth as a ‘green group’ and The Scientific Alliance as a ‘group formed to promote rational debate about science’.
    We must also be smarter in the way we interpret the often vociferous views expressed on climate in our vibrant inter-active space. While welcoming a diversity of voices, we must make sure that we do not conflate self-selecting audience responses with a broad audience opinion.
    Where then should our priorities lie? Well, some important scientific debates on climate are still running – but most governments have taken a position based on risk analysis that they cannot wait for 100 percent certainty on the science because that will be far too late to act. Based on the broad IPCC consensus governments are developing policies to cut emissions and adapt to changes that are projected to happen, so it is surely in this area of policy that the BBC should expend most of its effort. That means keeping more extreme views from either side in proportion and when we do report them, giving them similar space.
    That does not mean we need soft consensual journalism – because as many nations attempt to make the leap to low-carbon economies the policy cauldron contains a rich mix of controversial ingredients: how to save rainforests (the most efficient way of protecting the climate), biofuels, equity between rich and poor, the deal to tie in big developing nations, the response of the United States, how to force clean technology on to the market, fair eco-taxation, how to finance adaptation, carbon pricing, the most economic ways of saving emissions, political leadership, public ambivalence, population, consumption, off-setting, nuclear and many more...
    We should confidently take these debates forward, with a modern, accurate sense of impartiality in mind. This will help us to follow the BBC Trust’s goal of engaging people as citizens as well as audiences, and it will maximise the BBC’s unique contribution to an informed democracy.

States of emergency

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 16:12 UK time, Wednesday, 14 November 2007

We have been devoting a lot of air time so far this month to the political instability in two countries a long way apart but with quite a bit in common - they are both allies of Washington in strategically important parts of the world - I am talking about Pakistan and Georgia.

The World TonightBoth countries are seen as key places in the view of Western strategists. Pakistan is in the frontline of what the Americans call 'the war on terror' and Georgia is in the frontline of the growing confrontation between the West and Russia, which regards the Caucasian state as part of what we used to call its 'sphere of influence'. Our presenter, Robin Lustig, has written about the issues on his new blog.

Both countries' presidents, who have been seen as key allies by the West, have responded to opposition by declaring states of emergency, restricting broadcasters and deploying the security forces against protesters but promising elections in the New Year. Of course there are differences between the leaders. President Musharraf took power in a military coup eight years ago, while President Saakashvili was elected following popular protests he led against his predecessor, but the diplomatic noises from Western countries have been similar.

The overall audience reaction to these two stories has been interesting.

President MusharrafOn Pakistan, listeners have written in to our debate page on what the West should do about General Musharraf given his refusal so far to end the state of emergency and restore constitutional rule. One listener told us in no uncertain terms to stop giving it so much airtime. But given the size and strategic importance of Pakistan for the future of Afghanistan and the stability of South Asia - bearing in mind the country is a nuclear power and has outstanding territorial disputes with its nuclear-armed neighbour, India - I would argue it has been worth the coverage we've given it.

President SaakashaviliOn Georgia, audience reaction has been different – no-one has accused us of doing too much - after all it's not a country that gets into the news that often. Instead, one listener complained that we had not made it clear enough we were talking about Georgia the country, rather than Georgia the state in the USA, while another criticised us for describing it as 'the former Soviet republic of Georgia' as he said this was patronising. These contradictory criticisms caused us to pause and ask ourselves if 16 years after the collapse of the USSR, we still need to refer to its Soviet past, we decided it was a quick way of locating it in listeners' minds because Caucasus is probably not as easily identifiable to many listeners. Let us know if we're right.

Oh - and by the way, we're returning to both countries in tonight's programme as President Musharraf has rejected Western calls to end the state of emergency while President Saakashvili has announced - following a visit from a middle-ranking American diplomat - that the state of emergency will be lifted on Friday.

Great fire of London?

Simon Waldman | 16:59 UK time, Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Much discussion, both inside the newsroom and elsewhere, about News 24's rolling coverage of that warehouse fire in East London on Monday.

BBC News 24 logo"Where's the news?" asked several viewers - and a couple of very senior BBC bosses - once it began to emerge that...

• No one had been hurt;
• The police were confident that there was no terrorist involvement;
• The fire was relatively quickly brought under control.

Among the flood of text messages to News 24 - most of which provided some very helpful information in the early stages of the story - were a couple which, shall we say, questioned our news judgement:

• "So boring - have you any pictures of paint drying instead?"
• "We don't care in the rest of the country, you London-centric numpties!"

So, why did we run - for so long - with a story about a fire in a disused warehouse?

An image of the fireWhen we first spotted - from Television Centre, several miles away - a massive plume of smoke over East London, we had no idea of what exactly what we were dealing with. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but - at that time - we could not be sure we weren't in the early stages of reporting what could have been a huge story: another terrorist attack on London, or a major explosion involving multiple casualties.

It would, I think, have been grossly irresponsible to have left the developing story before establishing the basic facts.

This highlights the fundamental difference between a continuous news channel and a traditional bulletin: it is our job to report the news as it unfolds, as it develops. And this sometimes means reporting "live" on incidents at some length which, in the end, turn out to be less than earth-shattering.

The second factor was the immediate response of so many people in and for many, many miles around London: "I can see smoke from Watford. What's going on?". There was clearly a thirst for information, which we tried to provide as comprehensively as possible.

The final reason for covering the fire in the way we did was the availability of live pictures - from fixed cameras on at least two BBC buildings in central London, and later from the BBC News helicopter. There is something compelling about live images which appeal not only to journalists - you can never be quite sure what is going to happen next, and our audiences generally seem to appreciate this type of unmediated coverage. And, let's be honest, the pictures were pretty dramatic. Which is why - controversially - we stuck with them for over an hour.

Were we London-centric? Up to a point: had the fire been in, say, Newcastle and we had live pictures available, I daresay we would have covered it in much the same way.

To those who felt it was a waste of airtime, I apologise, but would like to offer some statistics in mitigation:

• the number of people watching News 24 doubled during the first half hour of the live coverage of the fire;
• when News 24 carried on covering the fire instead of simulcasting the One O'Clock News, our audience was three to four times higher than normal;
• our online - and publicly available statistics - show the item about the fire was the most read on the BBC News website - beating the next most popular story by a factor of three to one.

Update, Wed 02:05 PM: Thanks for all your comments - I've responded to some of them here.

Multimedia news

Peter Horrocks Peter Horrocks | 09:49 UK time, Monday, 12 November 2007

As a consumer of BBC News on the web, do you expect it to cover the same stories as BBC News on TV and radio? I ask, because today is a very big day for BBC News which has now been re-organised in a fully multimedia fashion. As the head of the new multimedia newsroom that is responsible for our core output on web, TV and radio, I want to know about our audiences’ preferences in the world of multi-platform news.

I hope you agree, if you use our services on a number of platforms, that the BBC has a generally strong reputation in all media. But up until today the editorial decisions have been taken separately in three different departments – Radio News, News Interactive and TV News. Now those proud departments are no more. Instead we have a new system that allows the great strengths of each of our editorial areas to create an even stronger editorial proposition. We have re-organised into two main departments responsible for our audience-facing services:

• The multimedia newsroom comprises the BBC News website, the radio summaries and bulletins (except for Radio 1), BBC World Service news, BBC News 24, BBC World, BBC Breakfast and the bulletins on BBC One at 1, 6 and 10, among others.

• The multimedia programmes departments contains Five Live, the Today programme, World at One, Newsbeat, Newshour, Newsnight, Panorama, the Andrew Marr Show, Hardtalk and a wide range of other diverse programmes.

This new structure will help us to be more efficient and so save money to invest in improvements to BBC News. We will be putting more into on-demand news – for instance developing content for new platforms such as mobile and IPTV; increasing personalisation and providing purpose-made audio/video for the web.

The new organisation also allows for our journalism to be used more dynamically across our three main existing platforms – web, radio and TV. But I'd like to know how far we should go with this. So for web users such as you I’d like to know if you mainly look to BBC News for an in-depth approach on the day's most significant stories, or do you value more diversity in the range of subjects we cover?

If we drive our stories more across platforms you will see greater consistency within BBC News – with similar editorial judgments being made across different services. We could concentrate resources on developing the most significant and original stories in greater depth. However the downside could be a narrowing of the range of stories we cover, with less coverage that is distinctive and tailored for each medium.

Of course, I’m painting a somewhat polarised view of the strategic choices available to us. In reality we will choose a balance between these two extremes. But it would be helpful to know your broad preference– should we move in a more coherent or a more diversified direction in our core news?

For thousands of journalists in BBC News, today is the start of one of the biggest changes we have ever been through. Many of the people who bring you the news are uncertain of their own futures, but I know that all of us are determined to improve further the service we bring to you. BBC News wants to be the most successful multimedia news operation in the world – competing with and excelling against the best newspapers, broadcasters and news aggregators on the globe. Your comments will give us some indications to help us do that.

UPDATE, MON 19th NOV: Thanks for all your comments. I've responded to them in a new post, which you can find here.

Taking stock

Steve Herrmann Steve Herrmann | 14:32 UK time, Friday, 9 November 2007

This week we launched the tenth in our set of correspondent’s blogs, with Justin Webb's America. It seems a good time to take stock.

A graphic of the BBC News websiteOver the past couple of years they have quietly changed the way in which the best of the BBC's journalism gets out to our audiences.

When Nick Robinson started his blog – which was the first of these - someone in the newsroom likened it to a kind of hotline straight to Nick's brain – because by reading it you got to find out – often way ahead of his appearance on any broadcast outlet – what angles of a story he was contemplating, and what his take on events was going to be. You still can.

There have been some fine moments on Nick's blog, most memorably the time when he blogged as he was "eyeballed" by President Bush at a White House press conference, or when he explained (in what some readers told us was too much detail) how he'd had to get from being naked in bed to interviewing the home secretary in the space of just seven minutes. Thus helping prove that blogs are even more informal than TV "two-ways" (interviews between presenter and reporter).

And what Nick has done for our Westminster coverage, Brian Taylor, Betsan Powys and Mark Devenport have done for our political coverage of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland respectively.

The other correspondents’ blogs, as they have rolled out, have each had their distinctive character – as you'd expect. Robert Peston has made a habit of setting the day's business news agenda early in the day (in a businesslike way) on his blog – he did it right through the story of the Northern Rock crisis, which he broke. Evan Davis demonstrates, in his, how to make intimidating economic phenomena friendly and accessible – like here where he talks about immigration and the labour market in terms of a question about a bus driver’s job.

And Mark Mardell, who is very attentive to comments on his blog, went to the trouble of consulting website readers about whether he should start it in the first place. Mark's Euroblog is one of the most engaging ways I know of keeping up with European affairs – it also contains an intrepid experiment in long-term reporting – tracking
every step in the lifecycle of a certain piece of EU legislation.

Responding to comments consistently across the blogs continues to be one of the biggest challenges for all concerned. There are often hundreds, and the relevant editors are almost always having to focus on the next development, and the next deadline. After all that's what we – and perhaps you – expect from them.

So that's my assessment of where we've got to. How do you think they're going? What should we do differently? Or what should we do next?

Future of impartiality

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 10:59 UK time, Friday, 9 November 2007

There was something of the Tristram Shandy about it.

"The Future of Impartiality - is the Public Ethos Doomed?" is pretty weighty stuff on at least two fronts... existential, even, as far as the BBC is concerned.

But like Tristram Shandy, last night's joint BBC College of Journalism and POLIS event at the LSE never quite got to say what it was that it was talking about. Though it was no worse a debate for that.

In spite of Feedback's Roger Bolton pressing the panellists, none cared to define 'impartiality' - though that didn't prevent them discarding 'it' (Richard D North, author of 'Scrap the BBC'), redefining 'it' in terms of 'the right of reply' in an unlimited, webbed world (Emily Bell) or drawing a distinction between the intellectual case for 'it' - a difficult but not impossible one to make - and the instinct that it was right that 'it' is every BBC journalist's aspiration (Evan Davis).

Richard D North's case - that the BBC and other terrestrial broadcasters are constrained by an unnecessary obligation to be impartial - rested on his view that the market alone can deliver news and information (not just comment) from a limitless 'variety' of viewpoints. One, monolithic, impartial view was unnecessary. The British press, he asserted, was 'a beautiful thing', taken in the round - and had never needed an obligation to be impartial to make it so. Plus, the requirement to be impartial, he argued, had two important effects on BBC journalism; it encouraged the belief that its reporting was somehow 'more true' and an attitude amongst BBC journalists of 'perennial dissidence'. That it was enough to be 'equally unpleasant to everyone'.

Emily Bell's case rested on the web's ability to deliver limitless accountability, right of reply and fact checking. That overcame the need to try to define a particular standpoint or a particular way of embracing diverse standpoints. Emily even posed the idea of an editorless news organisation and deskless newsrooms - the audience deciding the order in which it uses information, the standpoint of that information, the depth and breadth of its use and, crucially, the extent to which it wants to play a role in creating and improving it.

Evan Davis's case was that impartiality was 'probably a public good' - though he acknowledged the intellectual difficulties that surround both its definition and its practice. His instincts, though, challenged his intellect; for all the difficulties in arriving at a definition and accepting that it's possible there's no market demand for it, the aspiration to be impartial, he thought, did mean that what the BBC did was 'a little bit different from what the Daily Mail does' - or any other newspaper for that matter. And, he said, he always tended to go with his instincts.

In the audience, two BBC (former) luminaries tried to help. Phil Harding spiced things up a bit by defining impartiality as 'truth, fairness and being unbiased'. Therefore, to be against impartiality meant being for untruth, unfairness and bias. While Will Wyatt observed that the level of trust in broadcasters - regulated and with a requirement to be impartial - was relatively high whereas the level of trust in newspapers - unregulated and with no requirement to be impartial - was low, 'at the bottom'.

So if impartiality was closely identified with the idea of the public ethos in broadcasting, did that ethos have a future? All agreed it probably did - but in different ways.

Richard D North foresaw its future embodiment as a kind of 'National Trust' of the air - relatively wealthy, educated middle class people clubbing together to preserve the kind of broadcasting they preferred, without state or taxpayers' interference.

Evan Davis likened this to the PBS model in the US - a worthy organisation with limited appeal and influence: he believed there probably was a future for the public service ethos within any future media market ... though in an entirely free market, without subsidy of some kind, he believed the product of that ethos would be smaller and lesser than it is at present.

Emily Bell had a very different, intriguing idea. A future BBC, she said, could be a kind of 'non-commercial search engine' interpreting its public mission in terms of ensuring equality of access to the world's information.

Unlikely bedfellows?

Peter Barron | 09:05 UK time, Friday, 9 November 2007

This week we did something we'd never done before. We brought together Newsnight and Radio Five Live for a live simulcast in the Big Immigration debate, presented by Gavin Esler and Richard Bacon.

Newsnight logoTaking phone-ins and reading out viewers' e-mails is something we have often said we won't do on Newsnight, but in the case of immigration where public opinion is such an integral part of the story it seemed appropriate that viewers and listeners should be able to question the politicians.

The response was huge - Richard received 3,000 texts during the programme and between them nearly 2,000 Five Live listeners and Newsnight viewers sent e-mails.

A few thought we make unlikely bedfellows, but I hope there were many more who didn't previously count themselves as Newsnight viewers or Five Live listeners who were pleasantly surprised. It's not something we plan to do regularly, but let us know if you think there are subjects we should occasionally tackle in this way.

By boat in Bangladesh

Rifat Jawaid | 14:59 UK time, Thursday, 8 November 2007

In less than 50 years time the rise in sea level could wipe out the area of Bangladesh bigger than Scotland in size displacing 17-20 millions of people. At least this is what we are led to believe by the Geneva-based Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

BBC Asian Network logoAnd going by their new status of the joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2007, we simply can't afford to take the credibility of their report less seriously.

The IPCC's predictions are chilling and I'm not surprised that the BBC World Service’s Bengali output wasted no time in weaving a radical editorial plan around this subject. Nazes Afroz (executive editor, South Asia region of World Service) approached me a couple of months ago and enquired if the BBC Asian Network too would be interested in joining hands on a project that would involve a boat journey through the rivers of Bangladesh. I was never going to say ‘no’ to this tempting offer largely for two, or should I say three, reasons.

First, I was pleased to know that the Asian Network will only have to pay towards their travel costs if we decided to send a team on the boat. The rest, including the expenses on accommodation and the use of technical equipments such as the ISDN lines and satellite phones to broadcast live shows will be taken care of by the organisers.

Panel of Bangladesh politicians in front of BBC boatIt was very comforting because the BBC Asian Network, as most of you would know, isn't a radio network awash with cash and the recent cuts in the news department across the BBC hasn't done any good towards our future ambitions to cover big news. Though, personally I've always believed that despite being a music radio station we ought to take the complete ownership of every big South Asian news story.

Yes, we should be bigging up Bollywood because it's hugely popular amongst the young British Asians. We must also work hard towards establishing our identity as a national radio station, which is a home to the British Asian music. But, we shouldn't also lose sight of our commitments towards covering big news especially from South Asia.

So, I was explaining the reasons why I found Nazes' offer irresistible. This came at a time when the Asian Network is busy finding ways to make inroads into the huge British Bangladeshi population mainly in the Brick Lane area of London. As the BBC Asian Network's languages editor, I've long been on the look-out for any editorial opportunity that will enable us to maximise our reach in London. And the boat show on climate change provided me a perfect excuse to reach this community in east London.

This is because like any other ethnic minorities, the Bangladeshi community in Britain is closely connected to their roots and destruction in their homeland is bound to affect their lives here as well.

The third and the most important reason being the subject itself. It's not just any climate change story that you often see scientists drumming home the message about. If the impact is anything close to what the IPCC's predictions suggest, then we're in for a great ecological disaster. As well as destroying the lives of nearly 20 million people, the rise in sea level at the Bay of Bengal by a metre would mean losing the whole of Sundarbans - the largest mangrove forest in the world and the natural habitat for Royal Bengal Tigers.

I think James Sales, who I know from my World Service days, has done a great job by single-handedly taking this project to fruition. I'm told that it was James who first mooted the idea of this boat show to create awareness on climate change amongst the poverty stricken Bangladeshis.

As I write the BBC-branded boat MV Aboshor is busy cruising along the various rivers of Bangladesh. My team consisting of Gagan Grewal (presenter), Rayhan Rahman (broadcast assistant) and yours truly will fly out to Dhaka next Tuesday to do a day-long special live programme from the boat on November 16.

Sceptics may continue to question the reality of climate change, but I'm glad that what started as a casual conversation in the corridors of Bush house (home to World Service) has now become a massive pan-BBC project. I'm sure it will go a long way in combating the threat posed by the climate change in the Indian sub-continent.

North America editor

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 10:18 UK time, Wednesday, 7 November 2007

A year from today we’ll know who’ll be the 44th President of the United States - or at least we hope we will (hanging chads and too-close-to-call results permitting). Put the date in your diary - Tuesday November 4th 2008 is polling day. But of course, the race to the White House is already underway. The first electoral test comes just a few days into the New Year, on January 3rd, when the state of Iowa holds its caucus – a complicated and arcane affair, where party members gather in small groups and vote by a lengthy process of elimination.

Election 2008 will be the biggest story of next year (unless you’re a sports fan, in which case the Beijing Olympics might run it close). Certainly the 2008 presidential election is a key moment in the history of the United States – a moment of potentially huge change. So we’re having our reshuffle in Washington ahead of the election. We’ve appointed Justin Webb as our first North America Editor.

Justin WebbJustin’s job mirrors those of Mark Mardell in Europe and Jeremy Bowen in the Middle East. He will lead our coverage of the 2008 election and its aftermath, shaping the style and tone of our editorial agenda in America, reporting for radio, television and the website (on his brand new blog).

He’ll also have a key role reporting America back to itself. Six weeks ago we launched BBC World News America – an hour long programme broadcast on both BBC World and BBC America, reporting the World to America and America to the World.

What happens in Washington really does matter. It can change lives for better or for worse right across the globe. Justin’s appointment as North America Editor – his understanding of what makes America tick, and its place in the world – will be invaluable as we countdown to November 4th 2008.

Carrying adverts

Steve Herrmann Steve Herrmann | 17:35 UK time, Monday, 5 November 2007

You may have read recently that the BBC Trust last month approved the launch of, which means international users of the BBC website will start to see advertisements on the site.

As I write this the first of these ads are rolling out – visible to our tech team here via remote desktop connections that show us what the site looks like viewed from various locations outside the UK.

An image of the BBC News website, seen outside the UK

Richard Sambrook, the BBC’s Director of Global News, outlined the reasons for this move here – and, as he explained, these are basically about funding the BBC’s public service journalism for our international online audience.

In editorial terms the journalists will not be involved in any of the dealing with advertisers or with the scheduling of the ads. There’s an "editorial guardian" - paid for by BBC Worldwide, our commercial partners - who will help assess possible ad campaigns and give guidance on what might produce a conflict of interests, clash with our own editorial values or in any way compromise our journalism. If he sees any campaign, or individual ad, as potentially unsuitable then it won’t run. Journalists, guided by him, will have the ability to prevent ads appearing, for example, on sensitive or distressing stories.

I very much hope that those of you who do see the site with ads will understand why we are taking this step and will find that they do not jar with you, or get in the way. We want to get the news to you and we want to make sure we are funded to do that to the best of our ability.

UPDATE, 9 NOVEMBER: Thanks to all of you who have sent in comments and concerns about advertising on the international website. There were a number of common themes which I've answered here.

Newsnight a la carte

Post categories:

Peter Barron | 11:32 UK time, Friday, 2 November 2007

This week on Newsnight we've launched a new experiment in which, instead of simply sending our morning prospects list to our producers, we send it to anyone who wants it (you can subscribe here) and post it on the website (you can find today's here).

Newsnight logoThe idea is that you can let us know what you'd like to see us tackle or the questions you'd like asked at 10.30pm. The response has been large and overwhelmingly positive, but there have been one or two quibbles. First, that it's our job, not yours, to come up with programme ideas. "Hey, I'm out all day slaving to make a living while you have nothing to do except watch the wire services to see what's happening," wrote Mark, "You think it's easy getting those sausages in those casings?" We don't want you to do our job, we just want to know what you'd like so we can do our job better. To continue Mark's culinary theme it's a bit like a restaurant. We'll still be slaving in the Newsnight kitchen but instead of simply serving up what we hope you might like now we're showing you a menu and asking how you'd like your eggs.

Another concern is that we're going to start reading out viewer e-mails on the programme. Don't worry - we aren't. Your e-mails are simply instant audience research so we can check that our ideas about what to put in the programme and your expectations aren't completely at odds, although we reserve the right sometimes to serve up dishes you might hate. We also hope that some of our viewers - who after all include the health professionals, the economists and the scientists on whose work we report - will already know the answers we are seeking. Are you ready to order?

Robin's blog

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 09:16 UK time, Friday, 2 November 2007

This week World Tonight presenter, Robin Lustig, has joined the world of blogging.

The World TonightThe blog will focus on global affairs because we felt there was room for a forum to discuss the main trends and events in international affairs which is what The World Tonight does. However, my entries on this blog relate to stories covered in the programme and editorial issues arising from our coverage and your responses to them.

Robin's blog will discuss the issues themselves. Robin says this is where he will share his thoughts on world events and point readers in the direction of interesting comments he's heard or read.

Take a look and let us know what you think.

Battle of the Tens

Craig Oliver Craig Oliver | 08:56 UK time, Thursday, 1 November 2007

It's official.

Sir Trevor is back.

ITV yesterday confirmed the story that was leaked to the MediaGuardian last week - it's reviving "News at Ten", with Sir Trevor McDonald back in the slot he was first told to vacate in 1999.

BBC Ten O'Clock News logoI stood in the newsroom at ITN when the programme was axed. There were tears from many, angry claims that it was an act of cultural vandalism from others. What hurt was the sense that a programme that had been daring, challenging and innovative for decades appeared to be being cast aside, with little respect.

Years on it's come to be seen as one of the great TV scheduling blunders. The then ITV director of programmes, David Liddiment argued that "News at Ten" was a fixed point in the schedule that was boxing him in - if only he could shift it, he'd open the way for a brave new world where ITV could run films, longer form dramas and experiment with new programmes. He believed viewers would flock to the channel. He was wrong - as Michael Grade has admitted, ITV has never got it right at 22OO since then. Moreover, it allowed BBC News to move into the slot, and have a clearer, simpler schedule earlier in the evening that has been seen as a big success.

Sir Trevor McDonaldThree years after that announcement I stood in the ITV newsroom once again to hear ITN's chief executive, Stewart Purvis say, "A few years ago I stood here to tell you News at Ten was being I'm here to tell you it's coming back!"

I joined in the cheers at that time - but as every good journalist should know, you should always check the small print. The decision was a fudge between the regulator and ITV. The programme needed only be on at 10pm an average of three times a week. The rest of the time it was shifted round the schedules, and it was quickly dubbed "News at When".

Not so long after, I stood in the ITV newsroom to hear that it had been agreed to move the programme to 2230, five nights a week.

I wasn't in the ITV newsroom this time to hear that News at Ten is coming back - but I imagine there was another cheer. I read it on my BBC Blackberry - I moved to become editor of the Ten O'Clock News 18 months ago.

Given all the comings and goings, it's strange to think I will be in direct competition with a programme I once worked for - and that competition will be fierce. Having worked there, I know ITV News will throw everything at trying to make sure they are seen as top dog in the slot - both journalistically and in the ratings.

The sheer fact that you are reading this blog online may make you one of the people who believe this is an analogue fight in a digital world. That's an understandable position - but I believe it is wrong. Rumours of the death of the terrestrial TV news programme have been wildly exaggerated.

In the last year the BBC's Ten O'Clock News has increased its audience by nearly 300,000. Its reach, the number of people who watch it at least once a week, is up by a million, to over 17 million people. It has the youngest profile of any BBC TV News programme. I'm quoting those statistics because I believe they prove there is still a big appetite for structured news programmes - and the fact that Sir Trevor's return made front page news proves others do too. More to the point, programmes with a deadline, give journalists the thinking time and the opportunity to gather "added value" material that can be sliced and diced for other formats.

So the big question - who will win the Battle of the Tens? One thing's for sure, the early ratings will mean little. In the "News at When" era, the first ITV programme received well over 8 million viewers - that audience soon died back after the initial surge in publicity. Sir Trevor is also a literary man, he will know Thomas Wolfe's assertion that, "You can't go home again." For the BBC it will mean its dominance in the slot is constantly under attack, and at a time when big changes are afoot here at Television Centre (including a move towards what will arguably be the most advanced multimedia newsroom in the world).

I'm under no illusion, ITV is a formidable adversary, but I believe in a year's time the BBC will STILL be the market leader for news at ten.

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