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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.


  • 1.
  • At 05:56 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • gregor aitken wrote:

i dont think anyone has a problem you sticking with a story till yoyu know its end, and it will take time to assemble the facts and find out whats going on.

you just dont have to do this as a live broadcast. just go back to normal telly and then when you have the facts, make it a short report.

As for terrorist attacks i thought you would be given enough notice for that sort of thing

  • 2.
  • At 06:07 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Scot Ewe wrote:

Let's be honest, the reason this was a big story was that visibility was unusually good in London on Monday. The impact of smoke against a clear sky visible for miles around meant that everyone subconsciously conjured up images of the World Trade Center attacks. As soon as the reality of the situation became apparent the BBC should have dropped it.

What I find even more worrying is the state we have got into over terrorism, even the merest suggestion of it. When the IRA were carrying out their mainland campaigns in the 70s and 80s, we quite rightly adopted a stoic, unflustered, life-goes-on approach. Since 9/11, with the hugely overblown US reaction to those attacks, it has become generally accepted that we should run around like headless chickens at even the threat of a bomb.

Rolling news media feeds this, but the attitude is something we ourselves must take responsibility for. When did we forget the old truth that if we change our behaviour as a result of terrorism, or the threat of terrorism, then the terrorists have won?

  • 3.
  • At 06:21 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Luke Sproule wrote:

You say that it would have been irresponsible to let the story develop without reporting it but it is not more irresponsible to scare people with a non-story when full information is not clear? It would appear that this has been a desperate scramble to get the story before anyone else has with complete disregard to facts or the shock effect it could have on people with family members in the area where the fire broke out.

  • 4.
  • At 06:29 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Milander wrote:

I've been reading BBC news for, well, ages and I have noticed that the BBC site seems to be lagging behind other news sevices, Ananova for one, in that the way news stories are presented seems to lend a bias towards what journalists consider important and not the reading public. Maybe if this issue was addressed you would get a more balanced commentary from readers as well as an insight into what the public actually want to read about. This would lead your journalists to A) concentrate on what peple actually want to read about and B)provide a service which would increase your websites hit rate.

As the BBC is not a commercial venture (as yet) I would also like to see a broader range of external links to sites from the news page which provide other sources of information on what you are reporting, it does you no disservice as you are not running the site for money or advertising revenue and would provide a wider base for readers to make their own judgement on the veracity, completness and amount of information they would like to get on the subject.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.


  • 5.
  • At 06:34 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Alex Swanson wrote:

"the number of people watching News 24 doubled during the first half hour of the live coverage of the fire"

Well of course it did. It suddenly seemed possible that you might actually run for an hour without even once mentioning soccer.

  • 6.
  • At 06:37 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Andrew Pollitt wrote:

Ofcourse the webpage was well read, people would have initially thought worse of it from the headline. However, once the whole thing has been dismissed it was still being run as a major story and even made it on the 10 o'clock news which was shocking. It did look very much like the London-centric kind of story and it does get the backs of the rest of the population up.

There was a fire just like this in Salford (outskirts of Manchester) which sent a big cloud of smoke across our city centre but it never made the national news and I wouldn't have expected it to.

This story should have been run on the 10pm edition of BBC LDN News.

  • 7.
  • At 06:43 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Anthony wrote:

I think you're being disingenuous, Mr Waldman.

First of all, I'm not impressed by the justification of viewing figures going up. You make the news. If you tell us there's a huge fire or an explosion, inevitably we'll tune in. We think lives may be lost, we don't know if it affects people close to us, or even, on a more mundane level, whether it will impact our journey home that evening.

How big was it really?

Secondly, you're not mentioning the fact that it was on a site designated for the Olympics. A large number of headlines referred to "Fire at London Olympics site". Currently anything with the phrase "London" and "Olympics" in close proximity is almost guaranteed to be hugely emotive. There are enormously divided views as to eventual value of the expenditure involved. (I am, frankly, neutral, so have no axe to grind on this subject) But, there, I think, lies part of the media mischief. The media are suggesting, by implication that Olympics are contentious, we're not being told the whole truth about cost, ownwership, impact and so on, so here's something that might be a bit fishy. What you are really saying - and pardon the pun - is that there's no smoke without fire.

  • 8.
  • At 06:45 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Richard, Edinburgh wrote:

This viewer, at least, thinks you were "grossly irresponsible" precisely BECAUSE you pushed the story so much "before establishing the basic facts". As for the number of hits on the website - that's because your overblown headline implied it was a significant fire at the Olympic site, not a disused warehouse somewhere nearby. I do understand why you overracted, but I'm disappointed you're trying to justify it this way.

  • 9.
  • At 06:46 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Tim, London wrote:

You say it "would have been grossly irresponsible to have left a developing story before establishing the basic facts."

I would argue that it is grossly irresponsible to REPORT a developing story before establishing the basic facts.

Are you Fox News?
Didn't think so.
Please act like the BBC.

I think that the BBC was perfectly justified in reporting the fire, giving it so much coverage and for so long, though I have to point out that I work by London Bridge and have seen at least one other plume of smoke coming from a similar area in the last year with barely a mention of it in the media.

What I objected to was the manner in which it was reported; giving the impression that we Londoners are a bunch of overreacting panicking fools, running scared at the least opportunity. Give us some credit and don't cheapen for the sake of a story the real fear we've felt this decade.

  • 11.
  • At 07:15 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Al wrote:

The story continued with its utter pointlessness in the 6 O'Clock News.

Lots of footage of the smoke cloud followed by interviews with people saying there was a large cloud of smoke.

Ignoring the complete lack of a newsworthy story, the whole package just stank of lazy journalism and time-filling.

  • 12.
  • At 07:19 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Dom wrote:

I don't live in London any more, but if I did I'd probably have been very relieved to be able to tune into News 24 and find out that the alarming, very large, plume of smoke, wasn't particularly significant. Sad it has to be that way these days.

  • 13.
  • At 07:32 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Sean Hodges wrote:

The City of London is the main economic driver of the UK. A vast plume of smoke appeared close to it, at a time when London has been the victim of terrorist bombs, both successful and attempted.

It would be ludicrous to suggest that an event such as this, which occurred while people were out on the streets at lunchtime, would not be given top billing for at least a few hours.

Reporting apparently major events that happen in the UK's capital is not London-centric.

  • 14.
  • At 07:33 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Malcolm Powell wrote:

In the final section where you quote statistics you seem to be admitting that good ratings are more important that significant news. Oh dear.

  • 15.
  • At 07:37 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Jules wrote:

Your viewing figures are not a measure of how newsworthy a story is.

Figures went up because you had given blanket rolling coverage to the fire, resulting in a false impression that something much more important was happening.

Why not make up a few dramatic stories tomorrow? You could announce the queen has been abducted or that Scotland has declared independence. I'm sure you'd see a similar increase in your viewing figures for an hour or so.

  • 16.
  • At 07:43 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Sunida wrote:

Huge fire at the Olympic-site-to-be NOT news??
Yet a football club manager has a fling with his secretary makes the headlines everyday!
Or someone gets insulted on a non-reality show and that too dominates the headlines.
It certainly tells a lot of the mentality of the country --and BBC bosses.
I first read about the fire online on the front page headline of a Spanish newspaper and quickly logged on to BBC. Nothing....except a tiny sidebar.
Give back to France the Olympics honours. UK doesn't deserve it.

I wonder if one of the reasons harks back to BBC News 24's coverage of 9/11? I can remember watching the live picture of the first tower burning on News 24 - but the channel then decided to make the bizarre switch to live coverage of the TUC where Tony Blair was due to make a speech. I - and no doubt may like me - immediately turned to Sky News to follow the real story. On the London-centric point, I doubt very much whether News 24 would have carried similar live pictures of a fire in Newcastle (or Cardiff) for more than an hour.

  • 18.
  • At 07:50 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Ian Nartowicz wrote:

Your claim that a fire in Newcastle would have received similar coverage is pretty self-congratulatory. I have seen a similar fire and smoke plume in a fairly obscure suburb of Manchester, actually at a working factory. Not only did it not receive a visit from the BBC helicopter or appear live on News24, I didn't note any reference to it on any national news broadcast.

Carried away? You betcha. Every day requires a news story that changes the world (except at the weekend). If there isn't one then one is made up, I think we're all used to it by now.

  • 19.
  • At 07:52 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Dirty_Idea wrote:

The reporting of the story, even the rolling reporting of a developing story, is not what upsets people. What annoys is the sensationalism of the reporting. If you find yourself having to report that an event wasn't terrorism after all, you have to question the light in which you originally portrayed the story. Your viewers do not want unfounded speculation, they want simple facts. Report what you KNOW, not what you believe a story to signify. At the point of reporting it WASN'T a story about terrorism, or multiple casualties. Have the infrastructure in place in case the story develops, but don't gamble from the outset on the off-chance that you might have scooped the big one. Temper your excitement and report soberly.

  • 20.
  • At 08:00 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Joey Hanson wrote:

As a northerner I often find the London focus annoying but I feel that the most critical aspect of reporting breaking news stories is getting the right balance between over the top shock tactics used by other news agencies and giving a misleading report just to be conservative. I remember waking up on Boxing day to see the ticker bar read "13 people had been killed in the Asian Tsunami" while the amature video showed the wave hitting a particular beach washing over 100 people away. Clearly in that instance the figure of 13 (which I assume came from 1 hospital or was the number of bodies that one of your reporters identified) was such an inaccurate reflection that it should not have been used. During the following days the BBC didn't seem to put any estimate on the death toll choosing to report gradual increases when they were confirmed.
When estimates are reported the BBC is usually very clear in stating this, I believe the public would also benefit from knowing what early "confirmed" figures are based upon and where they are more misleading than useful, not reported and considered estimates used.

Your comment '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' strikes me as a little concerning.

Surely it would be better to start from a position of calm curiosity rather than ingrained fear. Perhaps find out what's going on then inform the public if there is an event of interest?

  • 22.
  • At 08:01 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Nicola wrote:

I have to agree with all the others posting that it was irresponsible to report on a story without knowing even the basic most facts. What the BBC has done here, and what you are in fact suggesting is 'responsible' is nothing more than fear mongering.

That the reporting itself was irresponsible is one thing. However, to justify it with this useless babbling about it being irresponsible to NOT report on news without all facts at hand, shows a much darker and deeper irresponsibility within the BBC, one that clouds all of your reports as it is now clear that sensationalism means more than facts to the BBC. And facts are *supposed* to be the underlying holy grail of all reporters. Shame on you BBC!

Re: Sean Hodges' post. London has also had several fires before, in fact, I would bet that it sees several every week, some quite major. Reporting on ever fire with such sensationalist headlines is pure idiocy that would drag the BBC News teams to a standstill if they were to do so.

>"I apologise, but would like to offer some statistics in mitigation"

Was it Benjamin Disraeli who once said "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."?

  • 24.
  • At 08:10 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Sean wrote:

What nonsense. "Had it happened in Newcastle" I doubt for one second it would have been given the same prominence. The simply fact is a few BBC types got exited because they saw smoke out of their window!
The justification that the "pictures" were good, is a nonsense too. Once the BBC helicopter was above the scene (hello? Isn't the BBC supposed to be saving money?) it became apparent it was an old factory and it was highly unlikely to be anything to do with terrorism.
The terrorists no longer need to attempt anything in Britain again - the BBC will simply ensure, everytime there's a plume of smoke, that the nation's left to fear the worse on the terrorists behalf.
Please BBC - report, factually, news events - don't make "non-news" issues in to something it isn't!

  • 25.
  • At 08:16 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • timoftheblues wrote:

Why is it easier to jump to the conclusion that we're under attack from unknown assailants than some old warehouse is on fire?

Because news is now another form of entertainment maybe? Sad really, whatever happened to the facts?

"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 sounds like you wished it were those things.

If we can't rely on the BBC who can we rely on.....?

  • 26.
  • At 08:18 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Hazel Johnson wrote:

I live in London, and thought it was pretty much a non-story. And I really didn't like the implication that the first thought on everyone's mind was terrorism. Actually, it wasn't. WE don't live our lives fretting about the next attack, only you journalists seem to do that.

Please don't sensationalise like that again just because you have some pretty pictures of a fire.

  • 27.
  • At 08:29 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Geoffrey Horan wrote:

I see no problem in running these things over.
But the BBC is very london oriented.
During the gale a few years ago, you would have thought WW3 had broken out, when it only affected a very small part of the country.
But if you had started talking about the TUC conference on 9/11 instead of staying with the story there would have been uproar.
You cant win.

  • 28.
  • At 08:30 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • jim jones wrote:

err, you blew it Waldman; that's the nature of an ed's job - no need to defend it by quoting spurious figures eh.

  • 29.
  • At 08:41 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Steve wrote:

This gained so much coverage and so many viewers primarily because of one single element: spectacle.

It looked spectacular.

And however much in bad taste it sounds, and whatever sympathy we have with victims or dread we feel for the future, most of us find spectacle quietly exciting, especially in our otherwise dull lives. Whether we like it or not, news tends to feed this hunger for excitement, even though we would never wish to belittle a genuine tragedy by declaring such a thing publically (or, even privately).

It's why the images of 9/11 still have the power to bring a lump to the throat, whereas the steady drip drip of dead soldiers/Iraqi civilians/IRA victims - for the most part (to most of us) - do not.

The BBC can't be held responsible for responding to this "spectacular looking" event. It was unusual. It was unsettling to see such a cloud of smoke billowing across recognizable London landmarks. Particularly against a crisp blue sky (as with 9/11). With the current political climate, it could quite easily have represented something far worse.

Little wonder we all tuned in and the networks went into overdrive.

  • 30.
  • At 08:46 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Jason, Belfast wrote:

I would tend to agree that the coverage of this particular non-incident was way over the top and of little national interest once it was established that it was a disused warehouse and nobody had been hurt.

By comparison there was very little coverage today of a fire which broke out early this morning in Northern ireland which claimed 7 lives including those of 5 children. it had already been widely reported by mid morning in Northern ireland but the BBC UK webpages had yet to catch up. I would presume had a similar tragedy struck a little closer to Broadcasting House then it may have rated as being of greater importance.

  • 31.
  • At 08:46 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Rich wrote:

This farce is only a symptom of a much deeper malaise at the heart of BBC News and the organisation as a whole. It is becoming frighteningly clear that the worth of a story is now judged only in terms of how many viewers change channels to view it or how many extra website hits are elicited.

Monday was quite obviously a very slow news day; that much is demonstrated by the decision to emphasise a small non-story about some Australian doctor who wants fat people to pay more for flights by putting it on the front page.

Interestingly I could find nothing about this on the ABC site - but even more unforgivably, you then twisted the tale to make it all about TAXING fat people ('Can we? Pleeaase!?!') and THEN opened a HYS thread about it which remains active even as I write this three days later.

It is categorically NOT YOUR JOB to set an agenda or attempt to influence public opinion even on non-political topics and certainly not why I (increasingly resentfully) pay my TV licence. It's bad enough having a morass of unelected pressure groups lobbying for tougher restrictions on everything from fat people and alcohol to loud music in clubs and 'green taxes' without the equally unelected BBC uncritically pushing the same line.

And you're certainly not there to chase ratings by exaggerating and over-dramatising the stories which ultimately YOU have the power to decide whether or not they're published.

You seem determined to squander the legacy of trust, goodwill and support built up over decades in just a few short years. When a once-avid supporter of public broadcasting like myself is wondering how the license fee can now be justified you really should be worried, because I suspect there are increasingly millions nationwide who feel the same way.

If I wanted 'OMG TERRORISM!', OMG OBESITY or even 'who's been kicked off Saturday night's edition of "Fat Celebrity Gardening Hairdressers Dancing Strictly On Ice" I'd watch Sky or read some 'opinion-paper'.

'Scare stories and fear-mongering hyperbole - it's what we do'.

  • 32.
  • At 08:51 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • James wrote:

I saw the picture coverage of this item when I skimmed the BBC Online news during my lunch break but that was it. I am more disturbed by this item in the editor's blog. More so, coming after the item in Newswatch at the weekend where the BBC editors who are called to account by that programme NEVER admit that they might have got it wrong or that a member of the public (remember it's 'our BBC', as we are frequently told) who pay your wages might actually have a valid point. As noted, the reported excessive coverage appears to be the worst kind of tabloid journalism that many railed against in Peter Horrocks blog yesterday. And then to say the coverage was justified by the audience figures actually makes it worse. BBC News should NOT be considering audience figures. It is a public service broadcaster. I would suggest that the reported coverage of a large fire in an empty warehouse (but in London) and your pathetic attempts to justify it here represent some kind of death knell for your rolling news service. Unacceptable.

  • 33.
  • At 08:53 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Margaret wrote:

I think it was highly questionable, misleading and even mischievous for the BBC to use pictures of the Gherkin and other City skyscrapers sillhouetted against the smoke in the earlier stages of the fire, which was many miles distant from the financial heartland. The clear inference from the pictures was of some sort of 9/11 attack and helped make it an international news story (and will certainly have been noted in ill-disposed circles). Filmed from the east rather than the west the fire would have looked like what it was: a "quite interesting" local story.

  • 34.
  • At 08:54 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • John Barton wrote:

A brilliant explanation/justification of your stance which shows you truly are, a journalist.
Your use of statistics to support your argument must also leave you feeling good.
It would not occur to you perhaps that the reason why more people logged on and watched the report was they thought that, if the BBC was putting all this time effort and licence payers money into it, that there would have been a story there.
Or could it be that the other recent warehouse fire realy was news and a of genuine newsworthy interest and a lazy newsroom was just jumping on the bandwaggon.
The BBC have the best resources of all the UK news broadcasters. Why don't you take time to use it effectively.
We want the BBC to live up to it's reputation and report the news as accurate facts. Not speculation or assumption or fabrication.
Being first to bradcast a story does not make you the best. Being first to report a story accurately does.

If there had been a fire in Newcastle and you had live footage available you "daresay" you would have used it?

No, you wouldn't.

Was this covered on the national news? No. Is there a BBC production centre closer to there than there is from the London fire, yes.

Why on earth this item was covered on the 6pm National News is still beyond me. It had been established hours earlier it was a fire where no-one had been hurt, in a building that was due to be demolished.

The apparent news-worthiness of something just because it happens in London has been going on for decades and there really isn't any sign of it abating.

  • 36.
  • At 08:56 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • James Bucknall wrote:

Yeah viewers doubled becos lunchtime channel hoppers thought it was a terrorist me!

Sensational pictures like 9/11 only this time, no story. I was mystified to glance at the pictures at lunchtime only to find nothing on the website in the evening.

  • 37.
  • At 09:00 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Pete wrote:

Not a criticism of the BBC per se, but I really believe that the quality of news broadcasting has fallen through the floor since 24 hour news broadcasts began. Now there is pressure to find news to fill up every minute of the day instead of having time to sort the wheat from the chaff, assemble a good half hour bulletin of the important events of the day and deliver it clearly and concisely.

With 24 hour news there is an idea that if nothing is happening you go out and make the news, commenting on worthless celebrities and pulling up things of no interest to anyone. The impact power has gone. A few bulletins a day and you get that instant shock value of something happening in a far off corner. The whole day rolled into a few minutes. With 24 hour reporting, you're sitting waiting, for hours on end just for one new development to turn up.

Nowadays we will never have news like the Ethiopia Famine. Famines will still happen, but we'll see them every minute on our News screens, we'll become innured to it so fast and just demand the next piece on the Spice Girls. 24 hour news has destroyed proper journalism and if proper journalism is to be regained then 24 hour news should be shut down.

So let me get this straight, your reasons for running a story that was incredibly London centric and as soon as the facts were established, a small story to boot were:

1 - "When we first spotted a massive plume of smoke over East London, we had no idea of what exactly what we were dealing with."
So that would place you in the same spot as everybody else then, it's your job to find out what's going on, then tell us, not provide a running commentary when you don't know what's going on. I can do that, on any subject, from the comfort of my own home.

2 - "There was clearly a thirst for information, which we tried to provide as comprehensively as possible." So a news ticker would have been too little? No no, a hour had to be spent saying: "There's a big plume of smoke."

3 - "The final reason for covering the fire in the way we did was the availability of live pictures"
My God! So the reason a story gets more coverage is because you've got better pictures? The budget cuts starting to bite are they? Not enough journalists to find some real stories based on their importance, rather than the pretty pictures?

And then, to cap it all off, you shove a bunch of "statistics in mitigation" in our faces.
Last time I checked, I was forced to pay your salary or go to jail if I wanted to watch TV. Your viewing figures do not matter at all to your revenue, so why on earth should anyone care that you doubled your News 24 figures?

  • 39.
  • At 09:18 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Ben wrote:

I am in Australia and watched as the story broke on the BBC - I mentioned to my wife that I suspected it was a 'non event' as far as news worthiness goes. I also mentioned the BBC must have some fixed camera positions allowing them to cover it cheaply. I strongly suspected that was why we saw so much of it.

  • 40.
  • At 09:19 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • muckypup wrote:

Only one sensible comment - from Sean Hodges - in a tide of invective from pompous people who have no understanding first of journalism and second of what an excellent job the BBC does.

My first thought on seeing the plume of smoke was that there had been a terrible accident or a terrorist attack. So did everyone in my office and so the BBC (and Sky, for that matter) was not over-reacting: it was reflecting what was on everyone's minds.

It's hard to establish facts from a desk many miles from the scene of an incident, and let's not forget that it's not unheard of for the authorities to be economical with the truth: on 7/7, they were telling Londoners and the news organisations for quite some time that incidents on the tube were down to electrical failures.

It's not the job of the BBC, or any other news outlet, to reassure: it's their job to report news. Rolling news is a difficult form which I think we're still getting to grips with. It's hungry for material and can be undiscriminating in the material it consumes, which means that, as Simon Waldman points out, sometimes the importance of a story is, in hindsight, less than it might have seemed when it was breaking.

To the person who suggested that news organisations get warnings: we don't (I'm a newspaper journalist). Do keep up; that was back in the days when the IRA was bombing us, not Al Qaeda.

Like it or not, viewing figures are the crude measure by which the success or failure of a station is measured. It would have been bizarre, to say the least, if Sky had been all over the story like a rash and the BBC had been loftily eschewing it saying "Tsh pshaw, we don't do vulgar ratings-chasing".

Futhermore, the nature of news is that it is changing all the time. If we waited until the dust had settled and all was clear, well, we'd only just now be reporting Thatcher's downfall. You cannot sit around waiting for it all to make sense - that's not how it works.

Finally, do a search on Google Blogs (oh, OK, I'll do it for you or on Flickr (here, I'll do it for you again and you'll see that the fire caught the attention of many, many people across London. The BBC and Sky were reflecting that concern in their reporting.

And like it or not, the pictures were fantastic. I saw the plume of smoke belch forth and tower into the sky and it was amazingly powerful and dramatic. What is TV about if it's not the pictures? When they're used to tell a story, they're doubly powerful.

So before you sit back smugly and knock the BBC, or indeed any other news organisations, pause to think about the hardworking professional people there who are doing their best to tell you what's going on.

I don't think Waldman had to come and justify himself to anyone; having decided to do so, why don't you respect him for it and respect him for his professionalism and his desire to tell you the thought processes that led to the coverage?

  • 41.
  • At 09:37 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Stephen S. wrote:

To Dom, #12, News 24 could have carried just as much information on the fire in the news ticker at the bottom of the screen without wasting the newsreader's time. That, surely, is what the ticker is there for.

Reporting the fire, sure, makes sense. It's abnormal, something unusual. You're correct when you self-evaluate and realise that it was all a bit London-centric (oh, for the sale of BBC Television Centre to move the BBC's UK-level output somewhere closer to the centre of the UK...), but I expect it extends a little beyond just having good camera viewpoints: the multiple articles, the multiple "In pictures..." pages I'm sure I saw, the maps of the area, the endless reporting on News 24. While I'd like to think that, say, Glasgow or Manchester would have gotten the same coverage, can you honestly say they would have? Even in the presence of well-positioned cameras?

That, however, is not a gripe so much as confirming your point.

Nay, my biggest gripe was not actually with the reporting of the event in general, but more the tabloid "Shock! Horror!" style reporting in this article:

"In a city still nervous of terrorist attacks after the 7 July 2005 bombings, this spiralling pall of blackness could probably only mean one thing."

Yes! It means there's a fire! What more, we cannot possibly know until we have more information! However, the author, one Jackie Storer, seems perfectly happy to assume the public's pre-disposed conclusions in the absence of information, and is perfectly happy to quell our fears:

"But, thankfully, it turned out not to be terrorism."


There was a large fire at a disused warehouse which happens to be the site of the future Olympic games.

Sloppy reporting of this calibre is not a good way to justify the license fee.

  • 42.
  • At 09:47 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • David wrote:

"Popularity" is not the same thing as "newsworthy". That is to say "viewers" are not "customers". Is not an editor in charge of working out what is news, i.e worth broadcasting, and what is popular, i.e worth going in the 'entertainment' bin?

  • 43.
  • At 09:52 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Roger Carr wrote:

3 points, which you should think about carefully

1 - "It would, I think, have been grossly irresponsible to have left the developing story before establishing the basic facts." You are the BBC, not the man on the bus. We expect basic facts to be established before you run a news item with such a high profile

2 - I am firmly of the view that you had not been able to say include "big plume of smoke", London and Olympics, this would not have been reported nationally.

3 - You are facing a cash crisis, according to the DG. So why fly a helicopter to take pictures of smoke? Surely you're not trying to compete for viewers with Sky News?

And, for the record, I have not yet met anyone who watches News 24. We actually want reports and analysis of events, not live coverage of nothing to fill a gap until the next sports headlines

  • 44.
  • At 10:01 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Sean Kelly wrote:

Simon Waldman wrote: "The final reason for covering the fire in the way we did was the availability of live pictures."

It isn't news just because you've got pictures, I'd have thought that's pretty basic.

  • 45.
  • At 10:23 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Robert wrote:

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.

Purely playing devil's advocate here, it could be argued that live pictures were available simply because the BBC is London-centric, as that's where the resources are.....

  • 46.
  • At 10:33 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Corrine wrote:

I'm not surprised you have taken a lambasting over the reporting of this issue, and again for your ingenuous excuses. Admitting the mistakes would have been much better, if unfashionable. The coverage was ridiculous - I had friends in Germany calling me to find out what was going on.

I don't believe for a moment that a similar occurrence in the North of England would have been treated similarly, even given the availability of live footage, do give up defending the current London-centric nature of the BBC national news.

Finally, I'm a bit disappointed to see your spurious use of statistics as another justification for the overblown treatment of the story. Was the news agenda really that poor, or was it knee-jerk reactions and laziness, as many here seem to suspect?

  • 47.
  • At 10:34 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Bill Sinclair wrote:

"had the fire been in, say, Newcastle and we had live pictures available," Says it all really. There would be no live pictures availabe in Newcastle. Why? Because of London-centric guided budget-making (cutting). There can be no denying that the BBC has consistently cut regional news gathering budgets over many, many years. Which perhaps partly explains why people in flooded Hull felt so aggreived.

  • 48.
  • At 10:44 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Andrew wrote:

You say you would have been happy to broadcast live images of a fire in Newcastle, yet when there was a major fire in an old warehouse in the heart of the city centre I had to wait until the local news to a) Find out what had happened and b) Be told whether bridges across the river were still open due to the large amount of smoke. I'm afraid this is just yet again another example of the London-centric nature of the BBC. As soon as it became apparent that this was not a terrorist attack, but rather an accidental blaze that was quickly put under control you should have moved on to more newsworthy items.

  • 49.
  • At 10:48 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Robert wrote:

It's interesting that the website devoted so much time to the fire which turned out to be nothing really important, as well as having it as one of the 3 main stories on the main page.
Yet a house fire in N.Ireland which cost 7 people their lives, was generally hidden away on the side links. And then you claim your not London centric ...

  • 50.
  • At 10:52 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Jonathan Brooks wrote:

They're not "publically available" statistics, really. There are no actual figures, there are no archives, there's no 'analysible' or quotable data, just a flashy (no pun intended) presentation. REALLY available means large spreadsheets with thousands of numbers - which might then be of some use, not just of vague interest.

  • 51.
  • At 11:14 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Adam Neilson wrote:

"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."

I've often wondered who all these 'audiences' are; they seem to be mentioned so often in mitigation both here and on NewsWatch. Regardless, this is a poor excuse for yet another x thousand pounds wasted on the BBC helicopter.

  • 52.
  • At 11:15 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • PJ Monaghan wrote:

Defending a broadcasting decision on the basis of viewer figures may be acceptable for Big Brother, but not for BBC News. Poor show, and poor response.

  • 53.
  • At 11:16 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • Graham wrote:

People suggesting that ratings-chasing is more important than significant news are slightly missing the point.

I saw the plume of smoke from my office, so naturally I turned on News 24 to see what was going on. When I found it wasn't a major incident, I turned off. News 24 had done its job.

Can't comment on how long they led on this story, nor for how dramatic they made it sound on the Six, but it does suggest that people were concerned enough for it to be deemed worth covering.

  • 54.
  • At 11:23 PM on 13 Nov 2007,
  • John Bendix wrote:

In April this year there WAS a fire in Newcastle, the biggest for decades, with 100 foot flames which were described by local people as 'like a volcano'. It melted steel and glass in surrounding buildings.

Rack your brains, Simon. Did you cover it 'in the same way' .. or at all?

We should be thankful for small mercies, though. At least it wasn't plugging a book, a gadget, a film, or a TV show, unlike so much of your output.

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

If you have no facts you have nothing to report. Sensationalist rubbish.

Actually, News 24 started covering over stories long before I was bored of this, so I switched over to Sky! Guess you can't please everyone...

  • 57.
  • At 12:13 AM on 14 Nov 2007,
  • Paul Johnston wrote:

I would be interested to see if you would go through with the promise to provide Newcastle with as much coverage, should a similar event occur.

News24 is a Global channel and I suspect this thinking had a significant impact on the importance of this and other 'London-centric' news items. 6 billion people around the world are more interested in a possible disaster in London than in Newcastle, as reflected by this also being the lead story on the CNN international website.

  • 58.
  • At 12:22 AM on 14 Nov 2007,
  • Dan wrote:

It would not be responsible to to leave the story before establishing the basic facts. In fact the story should not have been reported before the basic facts where there. Without facts news is just rumour cheapens the real journalism that goes on.

  • 59.
  • At 12:33 AM on 14 Nov 2007,
  • shane wrote:

Well fair enough simon. Whatever.

But you are in the language business.

Look back at what you have written.

Have a think about these two adjectives: grossly; and massive.

Neither is apt. Neither is accurate.

You must learn to murder your little darlings.You must learn not to sensationalise.

  • 60.
  • At 01:22 AM on 14 Nov 2007,
  • mick wrote:

I said to my wife that it must be a thin news day. A disused warehouse, due for demolition that very day, caught fire, caused a lot of smoke, no casualties, no threat to life, just a massive over-reaction by the Beeb, the fire service, the police, and everyone else, basically.

Top billing by the the UK's premier news agency? Pulleeeeze.....

  • 61.
  • At 01:30 AM on 14 Nov 2007,
  • Nathan wrote:

Surely at least the basic facts should be established before running a story on such a large scale.

So many things wrong with the thought processes in this blog, which Tim, Malcolm and Jules have pointed out.

The only saving grace is that we are able to have this discussion because it's the BBC

  • 62.
  • At 01:38 AM on 14 Nov 2007,
  • aaaarf wrote:

Wow - You are in serious denial. It's time to recognize your errors and take corrective action to ensure that you don't make similar misjudgements in the future.

You state - "When 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. "

Given your ignorance about the circumstances surrounding the fire, it was a basic error to broadcast your cluelessness for an hour while pushing aside all other legitimate news stories.

Your coverage reminded me of the time that ITN news sent Trevor McDonald to Lyneham airbase to report on the return of John McCarthy, the Beirut hostage. Unfortunately, McCarthy's flight didn't land until the end of the program and ITN had taken its eye off the rest of the news - so Trevor McDonald repeated the same clueless, empty platitudes to the camera while waiting for something to emerge. It was an embarrassment to ITN at the time - and you should be equally embarrassed at your failure to recognize that you had a "non story" and should have moved on to the real news until such time as you had some concrete information about the fire.

The claim that you would have devoted as much time to a fire in Newcastle is delusional. Distance gives you perspective - and you lost all perspective with this story. It's time to recognize your failings and improve your game.

  • 63.
  • At 02:11 AM on 14 Nov 2007,
  • Jonathon Cobbe wrote:

Your justification for this coverage is viewing figures. A quality news service should exist not to garner viewers, but to report what is important news to the public.

The justification you use is a prime example of what has been wrong with the BBC as a whole for quite some time; a simplistic desire to chase viewers rather than the much more welcome desire to produce high quality programming.

  • 64.
  • At 02:54 AM on 14 Nov 2007,
  • bazz wrote:

The BBC? London-centric? Never! not in a million years. Oh look, at little cockney kid has just popped his football, Get ready for the famous BBC "breaking news" ticker bar.

Oh yeah I'm from "up north", if you need to know where it is, I'm sure you could use OUR(not just London's) license fee to buy a map.


  • 65.
  • At 06:28 AM on 14 Nov 2007,
  • Clifford wrote:

"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."

I think that the above comment gives the game away. The driver for you is not newsworthiness but picture availability. Would you have sent the BBC helicopter up to Newcastle? I don't think so. At least fires in Manchester will get greater coverage when you move up there!

  • 66.
  • At 07:25 AM on 14 Nov 2007,
  • merle wrote:

"the number of people watching News 24 doubled during the first half hour ... our audience was three to four times higher than normal;"
The BBC's narrow obsession with viewing figures is revealed here and explains much.
Driving on the freeway we came across an accident with a dead body protruding from a windscreen. The number of cars slowing down to gawk doubled in the first two minutes and after five minutes the number of cars in the traffic jam was three to four times higher than normal. News? Common voyeurism? Waste of time given the bigger picture?
If it was 'terrorism' your top-notch, Kratos-trained police force would have been all over it. If the implication was a fear-inducing 'Could this be terrorism?' then BBC journalists need to re-view Curtis' documentary 'Power Of Nightmares' and read Tarpley's "Synthetic Terror' in order to up their game.
I'm afraid this type of curtain-twitching reporting reveals Auntie Beeb to be an out-of-touch old biddy in a bedsit...

  • 67.
  • At 08:31 AM on 14 Nov 2007,
  • Chris W wrote:

Mr Waldman asserts that a similar fire would have been covered had it occurred elsewhere in the UK. I very much doubt that it would have (as someone has stated above regarding a fire in Salford). Let's face it, the only location in the country that would see such a fire covered in the *national* news is if it occurs in London or the South-East.

Another recent example of inappropriate national coverage is the London mayoral election. The candidates are making it quite clear that their only interest is improving the lot of Londoners - they couldn't give a monkey's about the rest of the country. That being so, why do the rest of us have to see frequent coverage of it? Do you ever feature the Birmingham (say) mayoral elections on national news? No.....

Some of those who've commented on this blog seek to justify your coverage by saying that it provided useful information for people living in London. Isn't that what regional news bulletins and regional radio is for? Do you not have local radio stations down there? Londoners could easily have got all the information they needed on this fire via local TV and radio. However, simply because it was in London, it was nevertheless inflicted on the rest of us.

London-centric coverage yet again? Clearly.

  • 68.
  • At 12:04 PM on 14 Nov 2007,
  • merle wrote:

The BBC's narrow obsession with viewing statistics explains much about this report.
Driving on a freeway we come across a gruesome accident. The number of cars slowing down to gawk doubles in the first two minutes and quadruples after five. News? Waste of time given the bigger picture?
If the fire really constituted 'terrorism' your top-notch, Israeli-trained police force would have been all over it. If the implication was fear-inducing visual rhetoric - 'ohmygod, did one of those 2000 evil teens explode a shampoo bottle in a warehouse?' - then BBC journalists need to re-view Curtis' documentary 'Power Of Nightmares' and study Tarpley's "Synthetic Terror' in order to up their game.

  • 69.
  • At 12:29 PM on 14 Nov 2007,
  • Chris Mitchell wrote:

I believe you are more London centric than you realise. Living outside the M25 I am unable to get local news. I hear of gun crime in London and dawn drugs raids and other London based news stories.

We have to wait for something really big to happen before anyone even ventures outside the M25. Such as the recent F&M out break for example or even when Windsor Castle went up in smoke.

Mind you the 'competition' are exactly the same. I can't recieve Meridian news, even though it's news is more local than my BBC and ITV reception.

Frankly I think you're all caught up in your own little worlds oblivious to the existence of life outside London.

  • 70.
  • At 12:57 PM on 14 Nov 2007,
  • Andrew Langstone wrote:

I look forward to the BBC helicopter whirring its way up the M1 the next time I see a huge plume of smoke over the West Midlands conurbation when we next see one from our 18th floor offices. We've had two of these 'events' recently but no sign of the chopper or gettiing it onto News 24.

Then there's the word 'blaze' that seems to have overtaken the word 'fire' on the BBC. I seem to recall that in the good old days when Radio 5 Live started, the (then) managing editor said that they wouldn't be going in for speculative news or sloppy journalistic / tabloid phrases. How times change. The word 'blaze' is just that - sloppy and dramatic.

Don't even get me started on R5 Live's standards...

Perhaps when they move to Manchester, we may just get a taste of life north of the chattering classes of Islington.

Thanks to everyone for taking the time to respond: most of you have given me and the BBC a pretty good kicking!

Your criticisms generally seem to fall into three main categories:

1) you shouldn't have reported on the fire until you knew more about it;
2) you wouldn't have reported in a similar way had it not been in London - with arresting live pictures available;
3) you shouldn't use audience statistics to justify your editorial decisions.

Taking them in reverse order:

3) we are not, and cannot be, simply ratings-chasers - but we do have to take account of what drives our audiences. I offered those viewing figures to try to show that, at the time, there was a widespread desire for the fullest information on an unfolding event. Graham (53) posted to say:
"I saw the plume of smoke from my office, so naturally I turned on News 24 to see what was going on. When I found it wasn't a major incident, I turned off. News 24 had done its job."

2) a fair cop, with trenchant posts from many people - although we do try not to be overly obsessed with what goes on in the capital. "Must try harder" is the conclusion I draw.

1) continuous news, like it or not, has a duty to report fully and fast on developing stories. Were we irresponsible to report on the fire before establishing all the facts? Despite the powerful views expressed in many posts, I stand by our decision to "roll" with the fire as soon as we were able to. I would argue that we reported responsibly - not talking at any stage of an "explosion"; explaining, as soon as we knew this, that the emergency services believed there were no casualties.

But many people felt we stayed with the story for too long once we'd established that it was simply a big fire with lots of smoke. Point taken. We were indeed influenced by the "spectacle", as one poster put it. We might well have stayed on the story for rather less time had it not been for the fact that it was lunchtime: viewers were able to see all the other news in the One O'clock News on BBC One.

A minority view came from Rob F (56):
"Actually, News 24 started covering other stories long before I was bored of this, so I switched over to Sky!

Guess you can't please everyone.

There is much food for thought in all the responses here - I'm sorry I can't reply to each point. Our coverage, and your reaction to it, has sparked a genuine debate in the newsroom, which must be a good thing. Mustn't it?

PS. Not sure of your real name, muckypup (40) - but thanks!

  • 72.
  • At 02:34 PM on 14 Nov 2007,
  • Chad Henshaw wrote:

If the Beeb was getting calls asking what was going on, then its only fair enough that the Beeb report the story, if only to give the switchboard operator a break.

  • 73.
  • At 04:15 PM on 14 Nov 2007,
  • Matt wrote:

"let's not forget that it's not unheard of for the authorities to be economical with the truth: on 7/7, they were telling Londoners and the news organisations for quite some time that incidents on the tube were down to electrical failures."

This is the point that has resonated most with me.

Living in Sheffield, I was indeed concerned in hindsight at the lack of an actual story, but come on - surely it is the job of journalists at News 24 to reflect the events most potentially newsworthy, not just talk about events that have already been happened and analyse...

  • 74.
  • At 08:24 PM on 14 Nov 2007,
  • Luke Sproule wrote:

In the reply you say that you were not irresponsible at any stage yet you let the story run as a major story ahead of other more important stories such as the house fire in Omagh as someone pointed out. The blaze was described as massive and at one point as being in the 2012 olypmic site despite the fact that it was simply near the site.

It would appear that this has indeed been London centrism and ratings grabbing.

  • 75.
  • At 11:38 AM on 16 Nov 2007,
  • NotLondon wrote:

Given the importance of live pictures, the BBC only has one building to film from in Newcastle and the BBC news helicopter in based in Redhill (Surrey) in order to be able to film quickly in London, when you wrote that you would have covered a fire in Newcastle in much the same way did you in any way think that this might be true?

  • 76.
  • At 08:04 PM on 17 Nov 2007,
  • Jamie wrote:

I am amazed. After 70 comments, a reply yet thousands of comments on your 9/11 & WTC blogs & total silence from the BBC.As for #40 Muckypup, who you like so much, it appears he is one of your own, a journalist, a vague definition which stretches from tabloids to broadsheet, from privately funded, agenda driven TV to the BBC etc. I was in an office in London that day as I was on 7/7 in clear view of both events. When I heard of the fire I checked the web & got back to work. Panic & sensationalism is what terrorists are seeking, no? Increasing peoples fear with gratuitous shots of famous buildings in front of a very distant fire seems slightly over the top.Still congratulations for being one of the few in your organisation to respond to comments made in your blog.

  • 77.
  • At 12:38 PM on 19 Nov 2007,
  • Jools wrote:

I work in a building that had a view across to the site of the fire. When we saw the cloud of smoke the first thing we did was find a TV with rolling news coverage - at that point still nobody was running the story. I tuned in my radio to BBC LDN and listened for about five minutes before the presenter broke off from interviewing Jeremy Beadly (yes, really) to tell us about the breaking news story, about which little was known, e.g. the location, whether there had been an explosion, etc.

The best bit was a moment later when they cut to the travel news. It seems that the people who watch the roads are better informed as to what goes on around them, as they knew a lot more than the news desk did at that point!

But it *was* right for News 24 to run an hour of coverage when literally several million people potentially had a view of the smoke cloud and wanted to know what was going on. Other places without that kind of population density should expect the same kind of coverage too. If there were any in the UK, that is.

  • 78.
  • At 10:41 PM on 19 Nov 2007,
  • Matt wrote:

One of the BBC's values goes along the lines of 'the audience is at the heart of everything we do'. As the stats prove, the audience wanted to know and the BBC delivered. Good call, in my opinion.

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