BBC BLOGS - The Editors

Archives for January 2009

Sensible tippling?

Rod McKenzie Rod McKenzie | 13:19 UK time, Friday, 30 January 2009

How old were you when you had your first drink?

I'd be interested to know if starting early made you less or more likely to drink more later in life.

Radio 1 logoThe reason I ask is, of course, that new government guidance for England advises that children shouldn't be allowed to have any alcohol until they're at least 15. After that, it recommends all booze should be drunk under supervision until the age of 18.

Our audience on Radio 1's Newsbeat - our young audience - was not impressed. Most seem to think it's another example of nannying, don't-do-this-do-this government.

Kimberley texted us to say:" i lived in a pub when i grew up and i had my 1st drink at the age of around 6ish. I am now 25 and i no my limit and with seeing people drunk when i was younger made me not want 2 look like that".

Dave in Filey, North Yorkshire agrees: "it's about time the govt started to actually run the country and stopped interfering in the public's personnal lives-we are not as incapable of rational decision making as many people in govt think we are".

But Georgina from Leeds says: "Alcohol is a drug and potentially poisonous. It can damage developing organs and seriously affect judgement. The argument that the more adults say no the more children will do it is a cop out by parents who do not take their responsibilities seriously. It is our job to keep children and young people safe".

Other listeners cited the European family drinking culture, which seems to work well for the Italians, Spanish and French, they say: not much binge drinking there, thanks to a sip or two with mum and dad at the dinner table. A view endorsed by David Cameron when he was interviewed by Newsbeat last year - he's all for an introduction to sensible tippling.

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And by the way, I had my first drink aged 11: do I drink sensibly? Well... mostly.

Rod McKenzie is editor of Newsbeat and 1Xtra News.

Have we got bad language for you?

Tom Giles | 16:58 UK time, Thursday, 29 January 2009

Bad or offensive language (as opposed to the politically, socially, legally or even factually contentious variety) isn't usually at the forefront of Current Affairs' concerns.

Panorama logoCertainly not in the way it is for, say, comedy, drama or entertainment. Panorama's historically robust attitude to the subject is best typified by Richard Dimbleby here in 1965 in a clip uncovered by a fellow blogger.

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But the fall-out from the Ross-Brand affair has had a wider impact on what the BBC does. There's been a tightening of pre-transmission "compliance procedures" for all programmes, and e-mails have been sent to all staff asking them to formally confirm they accept BBC editorial guidelines around which this compliance is focused.

The compliance teams themselves are currently being "audited," and an internal Special Task Force examining where "the appropriate boundaries of taste and generally accepted standards should lie across all BBC output" will report in the spring. Blimey.

The BBC is overreacting, complain some. They say it's being too sensitive to criticism from any quarter - this, for example, from Jeremy Clarkson, who's not averse to a little controversy himself. Others feel the BBC has been hopelessly compromised by its association with the likes of Jonathan Ross and needs to re-embrace its traditional, mainstream audience.

So it seemed a legitimate matter of public interest for Panorama to investigate - was the furore generated by Ross-Brand affair a flash-in-the-pan or a glimpse of wider unease about broadcasting standards?

Frank SkinnerWe asked the comedian and broadcaster Frank Skinner to present it - partly because it's his job to decide where he draws the line with his own comedy and partly because he had written thoughtfully about whether swearing had gone too far and had experimented with taking it out of his own act.

We've carried authored or part-authored pieces on the programme before for example, the author Bill Bryson looked at litter in the UK last year but of course there will still be complaints. Frank himself responded to these, slightly tongue-in-cheek, in a newspaper column last week.

The bigger problem with this issue was in the nuts and bolts. Aside from the views above, there are few statistics to help objectively measure it. On swearing, for example, the last major attempt to count the amount on the main terrestrial channels was carried out by Ofcom and the BBC nearly six years ago. That pointed to a sixteen-fold increase in the use of the most serious swear words over the previous decade.

Since then, nothing - even at a time when new digital channels have proliferated and pressures to appeal to a younger audience, distracted by the internet, have risen. Polling audience views is hazardous too. We were limited to discussing swearing after being told that any polling on "offensive material" would need a full breakdown of all the areas that might cover - from sexism to violence to religious offence.

The results of our polling on swearing and offensive language did suggest, however, that the audience was concerned broadcasters hadn't been listening to their views on the subject.

The feeling was that swearing had increased since that last survey in 2003 and that the amount was currently too high. So how will the BBC and other broadcasters actually deal with this audience perception?

Interviewed in the programme, Channel 4 seemed happy to carry on as before - arguing it plays well to their core audience. ITV said they would rein in their own use of swearing as the all-important advertisers saw it as a "family channel" and the BBC would "think harder about the use and purpose" of language.

Whether the Corporation will actually step in to censor material, as of yore - for example, with the ever-risqué George Formby - will be thoroughly monitored. And Panorama may yet resort to the Dimbleby swear-box again.

Tom Giles is deputy editor of Panorama.

Green light for weed?

Rod McKenzie Rod McKenzie | 10:40 UK time, Wednesday, 28 January 2009

The issue of cannabis always provokes strong reaction for audiences to Radio 1 and its urban music sister station 1Xtra.

Radio 1 logoIt's certainly true that younger audiences have a more tolerant attitude to the drug than a succession of governments: they are, after all, much more likely to be users - but beyond that generalisation, the detail of the argument is fascinating and illuminating. That's why we're spending this week focusing on the arguments for and against the re-classification, as well as the health issues - myths and facts.

Rich from Wakefield texted 1Xtra to say he started on ganga when he was eight. But added: "Gave up for 2 years and started again, still smoking it and I'm fine." Over on Radio 1 another texter said: "I've been smoking green for 4 years now and I also know lots of people who have been smoking cannabis for 10 years...none of us has experienced any problems with our body and brain." Others contacted us to say that alcohol is far more harmful.

So our audience thinks it's harmless and are all for legalisation? Er, no.

Man smoking a cannabis jointOn 1Xtra: "I think weed is pretty bad cos I was getting panic attacks and I cudnt even get on bus. My boyfriend has panic attacks 2." Others said they'd developed schizophrenia and depression, lost friends and split from partners because of their use.

Students claimed their studies and grades had been affected and that social lives had been damaged. Many blamed strong weed, skunk, for the problems. Memory loss, mood swings and loss of confidence were also blamed on green.

"I work in a homeless hostel and would say a quarter of our cannabis users have drug-induced psychosis. The other three-quarters suffer from depression which results in lack of motivation" (to work). Another user added: "I also had a friend who committed suicide due to paranoid schizophrenia which we believe was caused by cannabis."

But on the other hand back on 1Xtra: "I'm 25 I pay my rent, my bills, my child maintenance, if after a day at work I want 2 have a smoke I don't feel any1 is in a position to tell me otherwise."

So cannabis and schizophrenia. Is there a link? The government's top drug advisor, Professor David Nutt, told Newsbeat evidence is building to prove there is. But he reckons the risk is small - and alcohol can be just as damaging.

Marc Middlebrook, 27, was sentenced to life imprisonment last year for stabbing his girlfriend Stevie Barton to death because he believed she was part of a plot to kill him. The court heard that he had made his mental problems worse by "stubbornly" continuing to smoke cannabis after doctors told him to stop.

Newsbeat spoke to Stevie's mother Jackie, a former psychiatric nurse. She said she doesn't blame the drug for her daughter's death.

"I always say cannabis didn't kill my daughter, Marc did," she said. "I know lots of people - doctors, professionals, nurses - who have smoked cannabis for years and do not commit crimes." It's no good standing there wagging your finger and saying this is wrong. People need to be able to know the facts and there is a lot of information and counter-information around cannabis use at this time."

And if you want to join in, you could even do our online questionnaire.

Rod McKenzie is editor of Newsbeat and 1Xtra News.

BBC and the Gaza appeal

Mark Thompson Mark Thompson | 18:38 UK time, Saturday, 24 January 2009

It's not often as editor-in-chief I use our 'editors' blog' to highlight a BBC issue, but with strong views about our decision not to broadcast a Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for Gaza, I wanted to write directly and explain our thinking.

When there is a major humanitarian crisis, the DEC - which is a group of major British charities - comes together and, if it believes various criteria are met and a major public appeal is justified, asks the BBC and other broadcasters to broadcast an appeal. We usually - though not always - accede to the DEC's request and as a result have broadcast many DEC appeals over the years.

A few days ago, the DEC approached us about an appeal for Gaza and, after very careful reflection and consultation inside and outside the BBC, we decided that in this case we should not broadcast the appeal. One reason was a concern about whether aid raised by the appeal could actually be delivered on the ground. You will understand that one of the factors we have to look at is the practicality of the aid, which the public are being asked to fund, getting through. In the case of the Burma cyclone, for instance, it was only when we judged that there was a good chance of the aid getting to the people who needed it most that we agreed to broadcast the appeal. Clearly, there have been considerable logistical difficulties in delivering aid into Gaza. However some progress has already been made and the situation could well improve in the coming days. If it does, this reason for declining to broadcast the appeal will no longer be relevant.

But there is a second more fundamental reason why we decided that we should not broadcast the appeal at present. This is because Gaza remains a major ongoing news story, in which humanitarian issues - the suffering and distress of civilians and combatants on both sides of the conflict, the debate about who is responsible for causing it and what should be done about it - are both at the heart of the story and contentious. We have and will continue to cover the human side of the conflict in Gaza extensively across our news services where we can place all of the issues in context in an objective and balanced way. After looking at all of the circumstances, and in particular after seeking advice from senior leaders in BBC Journalism, we concluded that we could not broadcast a free-standing appeal, no matter how carefully constructed, without running the risk of reducing public confidence in the BBC's impartiality in its wider coverage of the story. Inevitably an appeal would use pictures which are the same or similar to those we would be using in our news programmes but would do so with the objective of encouraging public donations. The danger for the BBC is that this could be interpreted as taking a political stance on an ongoing story. When we have turned down DEC appeals in the past on impartiality grounds it has been because of this risk of giving the public the impression that the BBC was taking sides in an ongoing conflict.

However, BBC News and the BBC as a whole takes its responsibility to report the human consequences of situations like Gaza very seriously and I believe our record in doing it with compassion as well as objectivity is unrivalled. Putting this decision aside, we also have a very strong track-record in supporting DEC appeals and more broadly, through BBC Children In Need, Comic Relief and our many other appeals, in using the BBC's airwaves to achieve positive humanitarian and charitable goals. This is an important part of what it is to be a public service broadcaster. It is sometimes not a comfortable place to be, but we have a duty to ensure that nothing risks undermining our impartiality. It is to protect that impartiality that we have made this difficult decision.

Finally, it is important to remember that our decision does not prevent the DEC continuing with their appeal for donations and people are able to contribute should they choose to.

Mark Thompson is director-general of the BBC.

Recession coverage

Jeremy Hillman Jeremy Hillman | 16:15 UK time, Friday, 23 January 2009

On the day the UK has moved into an official recession, I thought it would be worth returning to a subject which has come up before but on which we still receive a regular flow of e-mails and comments.

There's no doubt that a proportion of audiences for TV and radio, and here online, feel that the BBC is just too gloomy in its reporting of the economy. Some of you feel that the coverage is just relentlessly downbeat and while you don't question its accuracy, you tell us that it's just a switch-off and that you've heard it all before. Others, even more worryingly, feel that our reporting is positively undermining confidence and has actively contributed to the situation we're in.

On the first question, whether we're just too gloomy: it's something that we're acutely aware of and which we regularly discuss. It's a concern which has been shaping our coverage in different ways. A simple example may illustrate.

It's clear that reporting every single house price survey that comes across our desks, can, by simple dint of repetition, create an overall impression of a picture more gloomy that it is. For instance, if we report a 2% house price fall three times in one month from different organisations, it may be completely accurate. Yet some regular viewers will take away the impression that house prices are falling much more steeply, assaulted week after week by essentially the same story.

For that reason, we are very choosy about which surveys and statistics to report and we plan our coverage more broadly than a simple "on-the-day" reaction. Similarly, our "downturn" graphics with the plunging red arrow have attracted some criticism. Seen once or twice, they have a far milder effect than constant repetition many times a day over a period of weeks or months. That visual power and the reinforcing effect of repetition is something we've taken into account in designing our new "recession" branding which began today.

We've also made real efforts to reflect the nuanced picture of the economy. We understand that many people are unaffected by this recession and that some have even benefited. You can see some examples of the variety of coverage here and here. Only yesterday, we widely reported gas price cuts which will benefit millions.

Secondly, the allegation that our coverage has somehow contributed to the worsening economic conditions. It's a that view I reject, but I'm not going to pretend that we do our journalism in a total vacuum.

Clearly, confidence plays a part in any economy. Yet I don't believe that accurate and factual coverage, of the sort we provide, does anything other than help people make sensible, rational judgements about their own economic behaviour. The UK is in the midst of global financial crisis and financial reporting can surely have had nothing to do with governments around the world being forced to inject trillions of dollars into their banking systems?

The BBC has a duty to accurately report and reflect the facts and statistics of the UK economy in a proportionate and measured way and I believe we do that to the best of our ability. Our audiences would not expect us to talk up the economy any more than they would want us to talk it down.

Jeremy Hillman is editor of the business and economics unit.

Quizzing the home secretary

Rod McKenzie Rod McKenzie | 09:36 UK time, Friday, 23 January 2009

Newsbeat and 1Xtra listeners have been putting the home secretary on the spot. We broadcast an interview with Jacqui Smith on the day the new crime figures came out - and not surprisingly for our young audience knife crime and cannabis were the big issues.

We asked five of our listeners to do the inquisition. We find this gets a very different and often more stimulating response than the journalist v politician style favoured elsewhere on BBC News.

Did she do well - or not? You can judge for yourselves by watching the video - and I'd love to hear your views:

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The five Newsbeat and 1Xtra listeners spent more than 40 minutes grilling her. Afterwards, most of them said they were disappointed by the way she dealt with their concerns.

"I expected a text-book answer," said James Kennedy, a 28-year-old highways worker from Leicestershire, "and that's exactly what I got. She treated us as if our opinions didn't count."

Mechanic Adam Richardson, 27, from Bury St Edmunds, said, "She didn't give a straight answer. She isn't someone I'd go for a drink down the pub with."

Young mum Jodie from Crawley was also frustrated, saying, "She just sat there gabbing on. By the time she'd finished, you'd forgot what she said because it wasn't directed at the questions that were asked."

Jodie explained to the home secretary that she's frightened, because her younger brother goes out on the streets at night with a knife in his pocket. She said he carries a blade to protect himself.

And it's this point that was picked up by listeners to 1Xtra. Some echoed comments made by a contributor to Panorama's investigation into knife crime that there's a perception that jail terms for carrying blades are seldom enforced - and even if they are, time behind bars is preferable to being unarmed on dangerous streets.

Of those who contacted 1Xtra News afterwards, 80% were in favour of legalising cannabis. The argument that strong weed, such as skunk, is contributing to mental health problems was raised by the home secretary, who admitted she "didn't know" whether cannabis was more or less dangerous than alcohol. Radio 1's listeners couldn't agree on that either:

Adam said: "I've been in trouble for getting in a fight when I was drunk. If I'd had a smoke, I would have avoided it. I've seen so many people become aggressive on alcohol." An anonymous texter replied: "I go out drinking in London every weekend and have never had a fight. I've seen much more damage done with people smoking weed. The mental health effects are massive also the fact that cannabis sales go towards much worse things."

Adrian Luke, a 25-year-old from Bedford, told the home secretary that he needs to get a job or he risks going back to his old life of selling crack on the streets. He says he's spent 18 months in prison, and now he wants to stay straight. But he told Jacqui Smith, "I need to support myself and my kids and my family. I'm very tempted to go back to doing what I was doing before".

"I'm sympathetic to you, Adrian," she told him, "because it sounds like you're really trying hard."

Rod McKenzie is editor of Newsbeat and 1Xtra News.

Inauguration coverage

Simon Wilson Simon Wilson | 13:00 UK time, Thursday, 22 January 2009

Barack Obama's inauguration as US president was an extraordinary event to be part of and is already posing some interesting editorial issues.

Barack Obama
For many, perhaps most Americans it was plainly a profoundly moving day to see an African-American installed in the White House. As a Brit who's lived abroad for more than a decade I was left reaching for comparisons - the best I could come up with was that it felt something like a landmark British election victory - 1979 or 1997 - and a Royal wedding rolled into one and then held on the coldest day in January.

In our coverage, we obviously need to reflect the genuine sense of excitement here without getting carried away ourselves or suspending the BBC's traditional approach of holding those in authority to account. I think we're broadly getting that right.

But it's interesting that in my e-mail inbox on Wednesday morning there was already a set of comments culled from our online audience beginning to criticise us and other news organisation for giving Obama too easy a ride. "Same wolf, different clothing" was the tenor of some of the messages I saw, although it's only fair to reflect that the messages were overwhelmingly favourable.

My sense is that this will resolve itself as the Obama administration begins putting out policies and we in the media start getting our teeth into reporting them. One seasoned Washington observer said yesterday that, despite his current huge approval ratings, he thought Obama might have the shortest honeymoon period for any recent American president.

On a practical level, we have a whole new set of contacts to build. For some years, the BBC has had a specialist White House producer based in the Bureau in Washington. His day started at 0700 am on Wednesday morning down at the White House, pressing flesh and making sure he picks up every snippet of information.

Politics in Washington is very personal and it's often who you know as much as which news organisation you work for. Traditionally, the main American TV networks and newspapers get the lion's share of access and interviews.

We're hoping that a new, outward-looking administration will look closely at the global audience of tens of millions the BBC can offer - in English but also in dozens of other languages including Arabic and Farsi.

Oh, and one thing I'm still working on - pronunciation. The new president is Bahr-AHK Obama with the emphasis on the second syllable. I'm afraid some BBC colleagues have still not quite caught on...

Simon Wilson is editor of the BBC's Washington bureau.

Dissenting voices

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 09:45 UK time, Thursday, 22 January 2009

On the day of President Obama's inauguration, The World Tonight, (listen here) did a special programme from Alabama where the civil rights movement was born in the 1950s.

The World TonightOur presenter, Robin Lustig, talked to veterans of the civil rights movement about their memories of their campaign for equality, their reactions to the installation of the country's first black president and their views on where civil rights go from here.

Given that Mr Obama did not win Alabama in the presidential election and in fact attracted only around a tenth of white voters, we believed it was important to hear from people in the state who were not supporters of the new president. In fact, across the southern United States, only about half as many whites voted Democrat last November as in the previous presidential election when the candidate was John Kerry.

Barack ObamaMany analysts in the US say the only logical explanation is that many southern whites find it impossible to vote for a black candidate. So Robin Lustig interviewed an activist with a right-wing group called the Council of Conservative Citizens who said he opposed Mr Obama's policies.

Robin went on to ask him if he had a problem with the new President's skin colour because the group he belongs to says it believes that Americans are a European people. The answer was that he regarded a black president as a "deviation" and he also said he would have preferred to live in the old, segregationist Alabama.

Some listeners found this interview offensive and have criticised our decision to broadcast it. One listener wrote: "It is unclear what type of editorial policy could possibly justify the decision to give a racist airtime."

We also received similar complaints before Christmas when we interviewed a BNP councillor in Barking and Dagenham during a report on the local economy.

I appreciate that some of the audience do find it unacceptable that we interview people with views they find offensive. However, if an organisation is legal, its comments conform within the law and reflect a view held by a significant number of people, in the interest of balance and accuracy we interview them when they are relevant to the story we are covering.

In these two cases, I believe both interviews were justified. The BNP is the second largest party on the council in the area we were reporting from; and the white activist in Alabama reflected a negative view of the new president which, judging by the voting patterns in the election, merited an airing.

The alternative is a form of self-censorship which is something, I'm sure, most of our audiences would not approve of.

Alistair Burnett is editor of The World Tonight.

Inauguration online

Steve Herrmann Steve Herrmann | 18:20 UK time, Wednesday, 21 January 2009

My colleague Rory Cellan-Jones has made some interesting observations here about whether the Obama inauguration was best followed (for those of us not actually in Washington DC yesterday) on new media or old, streaming online video or good old TV.

A graphic of the BBC News websiteFrom the traffic figures on the BBC News website yesterday I'd say the most noticeable thing to me was the amount of video consumed by visitors to the site - in particular the number of people simultaneously watching the live stream, which was a new record.

The number of those watching the live stream concurrently peaked at about 230,000 (just after 1700 GMT) and the top 15 clips for the day were all coverage of different aspects of the Obama inauguration story, totalling over two million page views.

More than seven million users came to the site overall, which is high but below the numbers we recorded for the US election itself. Of those, roughly 1.5m unique users accessed video (or audio).

Our technical team reckons that, putting all traffic together (streaming, pages, the lot), the video exceeded 100 gigabits a second for the first time.

At one point - around 1730 GMT - the provider we use to carry our video streaming hit some problems which meant that for a while users who tried to start watching couldn't access it, although people who were already watching will have been unaffected.

The problems seem to have been fairly widespread, with other sites also affected - a result of the historic nature of the event and people's desire to watch it live and online.

Steve Herrmann is editor of the BBC News website.

Lively debate

Gavin Allen | 16:58 UK time, Friday, 16 January 2009

"Great fun tonight with the audience at each others' throats," texted Annie, from Westhill. Interesting definition of fun. It was about 15 minutes in to the Question Time recording in Leeds when I started to wonder what I'd do in the event of a riot. There isn't a box on the otherwise-comprehensive BBC compliance forms for that. I did check.

Question Time logoAfter all it's not often that David Dimbleby is forced to have a microphone removed from above an audience member because she's refusing to obey his request to stop arguing. "Don't shake your finger at me," he said calmly, dismissing her complaint that another side of the argument had been allowed to speak for longer than her.

But Annie the texter had a point. The best Question Time debates are invariably when the audience feels passionately and gets truly involved in the arguments. Climate change vs economic growth at Heathrow. Israeli self-defence vs Palestinian bloodshed. Green shoots of recovery or Brown debts of despair. It's safe to say there were a fair few cats let loose amongst the watching pigeons. And the pigeons pecked back with heartfelt heckles, some pantomime hisses, spontaneous bouts of applause - it all helped fire up the panellists and the energies fed off each other.

David DimblebyAnd when the feeding got too frenzied, there was David to firmly intervene. "You must stop when I ask you to stop," he told the impassioned finger-wagger. And the joy is that Question Time audiences invariably do. Cities being bombed, jobs being lost, runways being built - the most enraged Angry of Leeds was still happy to wait in the queue until given the nod by the chairman.

"David is enticing us to get worked up," complained James, another texter. "It rather belies the real point of fuelling good rational debate".

But to his credit David didn't. He enticed people to get involved, taking more than 20 different audience points and ensuring their questions and concerns got addressed. And the audience - in the main - respects the rules. They weren't whipped up and didn't need to be. They were naturally opinionated. It was lively and vehement, but it was still rational debate. And surely healthier democratically for people to sometimes overstep the mark than never to dare go near it in the first place.

So no riot this week. The compliance form is safe for now.

But it's Crawley in six days. Will they pick up where Leeds left off? Will they go for the throat physically and not just metaphorically? Will David pull back the microphone in time? Find out in next week's instalment.

Gavin Allen is editor of The Politics Show and executive editor of Question Time.

Covering Gaza

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 11:45 UK time, Thursday, 15 January 2009

Three weeks after Israel's military operations began, the BBC along with other international broadcasters is still being prevented from sending independent reporters into Gaza.

For 20 days, my colleagues Rushdi Abualouf and Hamada Abuqammar have dodged bullets and missiles to report on the situation in the city. This morning one finds himself pinned down in his home, caught in the cross-fire between Hamas and the Israeli Defence Force - the other is unable to return to his home because of IDF operations en-route. Meanwhile their friends from our Jerusalem bureau can only watch from a hill in Israel as smoke rises above Gaza.

True, the BBC did manage a short trip into Gaza last week; a BBC cameraman was taken in to Northern Gaza by the IDF to witness their operations. Embedding with the military is a useful piece of the jigsaw - whether in Gaza, Afghanistan or Iraq - but it is not substitute for independent, eyewitness reporting.

That is why the BBC has kept bureaux in Baghdad and Kabul to ensure that we can report the story outside the military bubble in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is why the bureau in Baghdad has never been inside the protected international or "green" zone. It is why journalists from the BBC and other organisations need to be given access to Gaza.

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No-one makes the case better than the Israeli Prime Minister's spokesman, Mark Regev. On "Today" this morning, he said he thought allowing international journalists into Gaza would allow a "balanced picture" of what's going on to be reported, and that whenever international journalists went into Gaza it was "good" for Israel. It's certainly good for our audiences.

However, the Israelis say the situation is too dangerous for them to allow international journalists access to Gaza - they claim to do so would put the Israeli staff needed to process them at risk of attack. In the meantime, independent reporting is just one of the many casualties of the conflict in Gaza.

• Your comments on the BBC's reporting are welcome below; for general comments about the Middle East and its politics, please use this Have Your Say discussion.

Jon Williams is the BBC's world news editor.

The Battle of the Tens: One year on

Craig Oliver Craig Oliver | 16:57 UK time, Wednesday, 14 January 2009

A year ago today ITV relaunched News at Ten. It was a big moment in the TV News industry - could a once dominant brand return to its glory days? Would BBC News at Ten lose its position as Britain's most-watched news programme?

BBC News at Ten logoI can't pretend I wasn't concerned. An audience analyst sent me a note a week before the big day saying the programmes would split the available news audience - meaning the BBC would lose one-and-a-half million viewers.

There was an added frisson for me - I had worked at ITN for much of my career, and had been a proud member of the ITV News at Ten team before it was axed. I wrote in this blog at the time saying that we may lose out initially, but that I was confident a year later that we would still be the market leader.

So was I right?

On 15 January last year I waited nervously for the overnight viewing figures to drop into my inbox. I was surprised to see that despite all the hoopla surrounding the return of Sir Trevor, the BBC had the most viewing figures, winning by more than a million viewers.

Over the year we have never been overtaken. In fact I am pleased to say that BBC News at Ten has actually slightly increased its audience in the past year to 4.9 million (following an increase of 250,000 the previous year). ITV has averaged around 2.3 million.

I'm also glad to say that our audience is not purely driven by "inheritance" (that is, people who have been watching the programme before the news who don't change channel) - we often have up to two million people joining BBC One at 10 O'Clock.

In the past year the BBC News at Six has increased its audience by 200,000. What's encouraging is that in a world of ever-increasing channels and fracturing audiences, television news programmes are fighting fit, and can attract new viewers.

ITV News at Ten has been a very sharp programme which continues to keep us on our toes. The competition is a great thing, and long may it continue.

Craig Oliver is editor of BBC News At Six and BBC News At Ten.

School league tables data

Steve Herrmann Steve Herrmann | 16:10 UK time, Wednesday, 14 January 2009

The secondary school league tables for England are published at 0930 GMT this Thursday, and this website will, as usual, be making them available to you, in detail, as soon as possible thereafter.

A graphic of the BBC News websiteBut not in as much detail as usual, or as we'd have liked, at least to begin with.

This is because the government has tightened up on the media's pre-release access to official statistics.

Legislation now limits the access that anyone not directly involved in compiling statistics should have before they are published and available to all. The aim is to avoid any undermining of public trust by ensuring that data of this sort is collected, stored and prepared for publication with due care, and that the process is not vulnerable to political or any other interference.

So this week we'll aim to publish tables for each of England's 150 local authorities, ranking schools on their Level 2 (including GCSE) and CVA (associated Contextual Value Added) results, and on their Level 3 (including A-level) results and - new this year - Level 3 CVA.

School league tables screenshotWe'll also aim to provide a 'top/bottom 200' tables nationally on the various measures - including schools that fall into the controversial National Challenge category of less than 30% good GCSEs with English and Maths, or equivalents.

But we will not, initially, be able to do the usual page-for-every-school service or the same comprehensive overview and analysis we usually provide. We reported on this here.

In the past, we have generally got the official results a week in advance, under embargo, to compile and check tables. This time, we will have had sight of the data for just 24 hours.

But the school results that are supplied to the news media are not in a readily accessible form.

In the case of the secondary schools, there are two large spreadsheets, each with a number of pages, covering GCSE and A-level and equivalent results and associated local and national averages and other information.

Each sheet has dozens of columns, and a row for each school and college.

Formatting the essential benchmarks from all this for publication, using computer scripts to interrogate the data, compiling and then proofreading them, takes hours of work.

A statement published on the DCSF website says: "The Pre-release Access to Official Statistics Order 2008 that came into force on 1 December 2008 and the Code of Practice for Official Statistics published on 6 January 2009 means the Department must change the arrangements for the release of the two sets of achievement and attainment tables from previous years."

We could, perhaps, simply wait until the statistics were published officially and then commence work.

But that would mean rather meaningless news stories saying "the league tables have been published - but we cannot bring you them yet".

It would risk turning the process into a rush to publish the data, with little room for checking or analysis.

To keep this in perspective, we are not talking about market sensitive financial information, but simply the practicalities of handling and commenting on exam results which the schools themselves have had since the late summer and often have published themselves anyway.

And it's not about the rights and wrongs of having the school league tables (about which there is considerable debate), it is about how they can best be presented to the public and in particular to parents.

The impact of the new legislation on the school league tables does not seem to have been foreseen within the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

It was, according to the Schools Secretary Ed Balls, an "unintended consequence" - and he is minded to legislate to correct it for next year.

For now, senior editorial figures at the BBC have, with national newspapers and the Press Association, signed a joint letter of complaint to DCSF chief statistician Malcolm Britton.

It says, in part: "With less than 24 hours' preparation time, it will be much more difficult to produce any meaningful analysis of the information and to ensure there are no errors.

"The result is that the main aim of the government and of our organisations - to provide an essential service to parents choosing a secondary school for their sons and daughters - will be thwarted. This is a service which we believe your office also values."

Providing you with the source data that underlies the news stories we cover is an increasingly important aspect of what we do, especially on the website.

There are new ways being developed of presenting and visualising data on the web, and we see that as a growing part of our journalism, an opportunity to interpret information and present it to you in new ways.

But in order to do that, we rely on being able to get access to the source data in time to properly order and make sense of it.

Steve Herrmann is editor of the BBC News website.

Using Prince Harry's words

Peter Horrocks Peter Horrocks | 11:40 UK time, Wednesday, 14 January 2009

There has been much controversy prompted by media coverage of the language used by Prince Harry in the video he recorded. Most of the discussion has been about the words he used. But we know it upset some of our audience that we repeated the words in our own coverage. We have also had many comments that we have given the episode too much coverage and that it was a fuss about nothing. This blog examines our editorial thinking and includes, in case you want to avoid being offended, the words in question.

Prince HarryWhen the News of the World broke the Prince Harry story on Saturday night we had to decide whether to use the words "Paki" and "rag head" in our coverage online and in broadcasting. We took the decision that in order for audiences to understand the story we would need to use the words, but that we should use them sparingly. Presenters were told not to over-use the word and to convey, through their tone of voice, that the words, particularly "Paki", are controversial.

It is clear from debate on BBC message boards, blogs and discussion programmes that there is a wide range of views about the word. The majority of comments from the audience have argued that it was a "nickname" and not racist. However within the audience that contacted the Asian Network, most felt it was an abusive term; but not all Asian listeners felt that the use of the word should be prohibited on air.

Given that the word is clearly offensive to an important part of our audience, why did we use it at all? Firstly, for clarity. Prince Harry used the word so that is why we did, as the most straightforward way of explaining the story to the audience. Not using the word could have confused audiences and possibly made them think other terms were used. The response to the debate itself shows that there is no established consensus about the word, with some people believing it can be "affectionate" and "innocuous ", while others would prefer us to avoid using it. In this context the BBC avoiding the word would, in itself, have represented us taking a position on the use of the word which would have not been impartial. Not using the word might also have meant we needed to require contributors to radio phone-ins to avoid it. This would have been unworkable.

The BBC will always be sensitive to the views of all our audiences. In this instance the best thing we can do it is to be moderate and factual in our use of contested language and to hold the ring for the public debate that follows. And the strong views expressed on all sides probably indicate that, one way or another, it was a story well worth covering.

Peter Horrocks is head of the BBC Newsroom.

DC countdown

Rome Hartman | 10:35 UK time, Wednesday, 14 January 2009

A sure sign that we're getting close is the equipment. The hallways of the BBC's Washington News bureau are lined with open shipping cases, coiled wires and bits of electronic gear sticking out, as an extremely small but skilled team of engineers again transforms this newsgathering office into a production centre.

BBC World News America logoWhat is normally a small conference room is becoming a technical control room. The studio from which our World News America programme is broadcast is now being re-fitted to accommodate everything from Hardtalk to Newsnight as well.

And everyone from Huw Edwards and Matt Frei to camera and sound people are digging through their closets trying to find their warmest clothes, because they'll be spending many hours braving the elements on camera platforms and along parade routes. Dress in layers, folks.

The inauguration of an American president is a carefully scripted event, planned down to the minute. The US Constitution requires that Barack Obama be sworn in at precisely noon on 20 January, and so he shall be, like 43 others before him.

Barack ObamaBut there are several ways in which this time will be different from all the rest. The most obvious, of course, is that no one who looks like Barack Obama - and no one with anything like his story - has ever taken the oath.

And many believe that when it's over, more people will have witnessed this inauguration in person than any previous presidential swearing-in. Three million? Five million? Who knows? There will never be a precise count.

Extraordinary measures are being taken to accommodate - and control - the enormous crowds. Most of the bridges into DC will be closed to vehicles. The BBC bureau is located within the "no drive" zone...most of us will be walking here from wherever we live.

I know for sure that most spare bedrooms in most DC area homes are already spoken for. Ours certainly is; the daughter of a good friend asked weeks ago if she and one of her college chums could sleep in our guest room. Of course! That sort of thing is happening all over town.

It will be an exciting day. I just hope I can get to work!

Rome Hartman is executive producer of BBC World News America.

BBC Persian TV

Richard Sambrook | 09:00 UK time, Wednesday, 14 January 2009

The BBC launches its latest TV channel today - BBC Persian. It will be a daily eight hour service, for audiences in Iran, Afghanistan, and the wider region, broadcasting at peak times for the market. It will run from 1700 to 0100 local time in Iran (that's 1330 to 2130 GMT).

Behind the scenes at BBC Persian TV with presenter Farnaz Ghazizadeh

The backbone of the schedule will be news, together with a rich mix of current affairs, features and documentaries, culture, science, business and arts programmes - all broadcast in Persian from a new newsroom in central London.

Iran is obviously geopolitically important with significant influence across the Middle East. And Afghanistan is a high priority for BBC World Service, with very large radio audiences. The BBC has been providing news and information on radio in Persian for six decades. But these days, TV is the preferred news medium for Iranian audiences.

The BBC is well respected by opinion formers within Iran and brand awareness is high - despite government media restrictions. Media freedom is severely limited - so we hope BBC Persian TV will build a following by providing free and independent news and information - the traditional role of the BBC World Service over the last 75 years - and provide a window for Iranian viewers to the rest of the world in an open and unbiased way.

The Iranian authorities have been a little apprehensive about the launch, describing it as "an illegal channel", refusing us permission to work within Iran and suggesting anyone found working for it will be arrested as a spy. However, we hope once they have seen the service they may recognise the independence and quality of the channel - and hopefully take part in its programmes.

Persian TV is aimed at audiences in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan - totalling around 100m Persian speakers. The potential audience in Iran is young, highly educated and outward-looking. The projected audience figures for Persian TV are 10m within 3 years - with a total tri-media reach (radio, TV and online) of close to 20m by 2012.

The channel will cost £15m a year - funded by the Foreign Office via Grant in Aid.

The launch is much anticipated within the region and is already being discussed on blogs within Iran, Afghanistan and beyond. Clips have appeared on YouTube (see below). It will be available globally, streamed on the BBC Persian website.

Richard Sambrook is director, Global News.

Kids and knives

Tom Giles | 09:10 UK time, Tuesday, 13 January 2009

There have been few more emotive issues recently than that of teenagers carrying and killing with knives. At its height last year, British coverage of the subject attracted attention around the world - often for its perceived sensationalism.

Panorama logoAnti-knife campaigns - whether by newspapers, the relatives of victims, government
or the police - have become a recurring event, as has the sparring between political parties over the rights and wrongs of knife crime statistics. Here's a few recent cases.

Unravelling these statistics is difficult. The time-lag doesn't help. The latest annual figures for cautions, prosecutions and convictions cover 2007. Categories often overlap and, historically, knife-crimes haven't always been counted separately. Scotland also records their figures in a different way from England and Wales. So interviewing those whose actions are at the heart of all this controversy - the teenagers convicted of murder and manslaughter with knives - couldn't be undertaken lightly. Some would say that it shouldn't be at all. So it's worth explaining how this week's Panorama - Jailed for a Knife - happened.

The reporter Raphael Rowe first approached the Ministry of Justice for permission to do so after talking to a mother whose daughter had been stabbed to death by another teenaged girl. Many months after a harrowing trial, she told him that she was now willing to meet the killer in prison to ask her why she had carried a knife, what had prompted her aggression and anger.

Young offender from Panorama's Jailed for a Knife looking out of a windowFilming or arranging this meeting wasn't possible but, after a long wait, the authorities instead saw merit in allowing Raphael into two selected Young Offenders' Institutions to speak to convicted knife offenders who had expressed remorse for their crimes.

Eight were selected by the Ministry of Justice and the Prison Service. Our interviews with five of them reflect a range of crimes - some inner-city and gang-related, some the result of teenage fights in smaller towns. We could never assume that the families of their victims, or the victims themselves, would be comfortable with these interviews. They might find them traumatic and unacceptable. So, wherever possible, we wrote to those affected - via the Ministry's Victim Liaison team - to make it clear what we planned to do.

We said we aimed to challenge the offenders about their behaviour, to throw light onto what had led to their crimes and to show other youngsters, who might be tempted to carry a knife, the consequences of doing so. In subsequent letters, e-mails or phone-calls, some families expressed very strong views about the punishment (or lack of it) they felt these offenders had received - feelings which were put to our interviewees.

It should be pointed out that expressions of remorse and changed behaviour can affect how long offenders continue in prison after their minimum recommended sentence - 12 or 13 years in some cases - has passed. But those we spoke to did appear remorseful, understanding that "sorry" would never be enough. They didn't expect sympathy for the circumstances of their crimes, arguing that sentences could be stronger. Viewers will have to make up their own minds.

It was a sobering four days for the team, including producer Katy Stead and assistant producer, Alison Priestley, seeing young men grasping to understand their crimes, the lives they had destroyed and the grim future many resented them even having. By the end though, they hoped there was some value in trying to warn other young people away from what they had done.

Much later, Panorama commissioned a poll about views on knife crime. It seems to suggest a large majority (especially among 16-24s) could see clear benefit in young people hearing what offenders like our five had to say. We're hopeful there is.

Tom Giles is deputy editor of Panorama.

Reporting from Gaza

James Stephenson | 10:31 UK time, Tuesday, 6 January 2009

The BBC is lucky to have two outstanding producers in our Gaza office, Rushdi Abu Alouf and Hamada Abuqammar. They have been well trained, not least by Alan Johnston, and are giving calm, accurate, accounts of what is happening. Hamas has not imposed any restrictions on their reporting and they have been a model of impeccable journalism, in terrible personal circumstances. Most of us go home when the story is over. Gaza is their home.

The great frustration so far, is that we have not been able to send colleagues to help report the story in Gaza. The Israelis have not let any journalists in since the fighting started, despite a ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court that they should do so. We are obviously pressing as hard as we can to get in.

Since we can't get our own crews and correspondents into Gaza, we are dependent on our shots from the border and news agency pictures from inside. The aerial bombardment on Gaza has been easily visible, both on the Israeli and Egyptian border. The continued rocket fire out of Gaza has also been clear to see and film.

So far we have not seen any footage of the fighting on the ground. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the conflict, we are certainly seeing images of its consequences - destroyed buildings and many dead and injured Palestinians and the more limited death and destruction on the Israeli side.

There is a military censor in Israel and we've received text messages reminding us that any material touching on national security is meant to be submitted before broadcast. In practice, we haven't cleared anything before use. At one point, we had a live position next to Israeli artillery near the border with one cannon in clear view. We were not allowed to show a wide shot revealing the extent and location of the battery - and we said so in the live broadcast.

The Israeli military declared a closed military zone around Gaza a couple of days into the conflict and tried to push the broadcasters' satellite trucks back from their vantage points overlooking the Strip. A game of cat and mouse followed and we have been able to keep going with a view over the border. We've also reported live from Sderot, the Israeli town most threatened by the rocket fire from Gaza.

Update: Your comments on the BBC's reporting are welcome below; for general comments about the Middle East and its politics, please use this Have Your Say discussion.

James Stephenson is chief of the Jerusalem bureau.

Panorama Online: The next phase

Derren Lawford | 13:26 UK time, Monday, 5 January 2009

Today sees the official launch of the new Panorama website and I hope you won't mind me saying a few words about it here and seeing whether you think that this is a good use of the web by a TV programme.

Panorama logoSo much work goes into a 30 minute Panorama or a one hour special and the website struck me as the perfect platform to showcase the best of our journalism online. Britain's Terror Heartland is a prime example; blog posts from Tom Giles and Jane Corbin provided extra context, while an extended interview with Pakistan's Interior Minister Rehman Malik gave those of you interested in the subject an extra perspective. Jane also wrote a feature on the programme and introduced it online in a short video.

I was also very keen for the new Panorama website to be more interactive and responsive to you, the people that use it. You should now find it easier to both get in contact with the programme and e-mail us any story ideas too. Where possible, we'll follow them up and see what can be done.

And even if you are already familiar with the website, there's more to read, watch, comment on and contribute to. If you're coming to the website for the first time, hopefully there's enough interesting material - features, picture galleries, short videos, full length films and blog posts - to make it somewhere you would like to come back to again.

While working on the relaunch, Ofcom published its latest report on the communications industry which made interesting reading, especially as 26% of those aged 15-24 claim to use the internet for "watching TV programmes", up 16% on the year before. 51% used the web for "watching video clips/webcasts", up by the same amount. But the report also noted an increase across all the age ranges for audio-visual content online and that the fastest growing online community is actually the oldest (although they are still in the minority).

Luckily, we were already planning to reflect this changing attitude to media online, which is why the first thing you'll probably have noticed when you look at the front page is a big embedded video player. This will either have key moments from a current Panorama programme or a reporter's take on the film they've made.

Now, just as I took over the Panorama website, there was a story in Broadcast magazine that said that Panorama was going to start doing online "minisodes". Having previously created and produced them for BBC Three's award-winning Current Affairs strand, Born Survivors, this was a reasonable assumption to make. However, I felt that the Panorama website needed a wider variety of video footage.

That's why there's a new section called Panorama Video Extras, a mixture of extra exclusive programme footage, original material made by my multiplatform team, re-versioned snippets from the programme, classic clips - and the odd minisode, too.

And after seeing the impact that the Born Survivors Season can have on other platforms outside the BBC, I was determined that we have a presence in the appropriate places too. So you can now keep up to date with the latest goings on in Panorama via Twitter, check out the archive on Delicious and watch some key moments from our films on YouTube.

We're now fully integrated with the iPlayer and the BBC's online programmes pages too, so hopefully when you come to the website you should now find it a lot simpler to catch up on the latest Panorama programme on iPlayer.

But I also wanted to make it easier to watch Panorama online for longer, a full 12 months after they are broadcast in fact. We've actually been doing this for a while, but judging by the e-mails we receive, not a lot of you are aware of this. That's why we've created a new section on the homepage called "Watch previous programmes in full". It does exactly what it says on the tin.

I mentioned blogs earlier, so who can you expect to hear from on the Panorama team? Well, the likes of our online archivist specialist Eamonn Walsh will be thematically linking programmes from the present to the past, giving classic clips a fresh airing and reflecting on the programmes from our past that you still chat about online.

Then from the main production team, there's Panorama Deputy Editor Tom Giles and reporters Jane Corbin, Raphael Rowe and John Sweeney. And of course I look forward to you all joining in the various debates too (indeed, some of you have already). Whether it's on our own blogs or your own, we'll do our best to make it one big (no doubt heated at times) conversation.

There's more...

One of the main things I felt was lacking from the old website was a permanent and prominent space for the reporters. For all their investigative and award-winning endeavours, there didn't seem to be enough information about them online. So we've created a new section called "The Team" and completely revamped all their pages with new pictures, text and the first in a series of bespoke videos that should give you a better idea of what makes the likes of Paul Kenyon, Vivian White and Raphael Rowe want to be a Panorama reporter today.

But I was acutely aware that despite the achievements of Panorama in 2008 and the technological advancements that allow a website to offer so much more, the programme itself has been around for 55 years.

To better reflect Panorama's enduring legacy, you can now find, among other things, a 50th anniversary film and microsite; a video timeline that charts Panorama through the decades; a picture gallery of famous faces from Panorama's past and a fun quiz to test your knowledge of the programme.

So all in all, lots of changes and hopefully lots more for you to get your teeth into. As ever, if there's anything you rate or hate, e-mail me at with "website" as the subject - or leave a comment below.

Derren Lawford is Panorama's Multiplatform Editor.

In the gutter with the stars

Peter Hanington | 13:24 UK time, Monday, 5 January 2009

In recent years, our annual post explaining and apologising for the Today Programme guest editors has been little more than an excuse to namedrop and to tell a few bad jokes.

This year's will be no different. But we'd like to make one or two observations as well.

The Today programme logoObservation 1: One of the most interesting things about being involved with guest editors is watching two different worlds meet - or, in some cases, collide.

This year's editors were Zadie Smith, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, Jarvis Cocker, Sir Win Bishoff and Zaha Hadid. So we're talking about journalism (that's us) rubbing up against literature, the Catholic church, pop music, big banking and high end architecture (that's them).

And in most cases, we rubbed along fine. But of course there were occasional misunderstandings.

Zaha Hadid is a brilliant architect - the artist's architect some call her - and she's a delight to work with. But some of her ideas can be a little hard to get your head around if you haven't had the proper training. Talking architecture with her involved climbing a learning curve as steep as the Seagram building.

At one of our early meetings we sat at a tableful of prototypes for various Hadid projects currently in production.

TODAY PROGRAMME: Ah, that's beautiful. Is that the Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Centre?

ZAHA: No, that's a coffee pot.

TODAY: Oh. How about that - more kitchenware?

ZAHA No. That's the Vitra Fire Station in Germany.

TODAY: Right. What about this? The Glasgow Transport museum?

ZAHA: No, that's a shoe. Are there any other producers who might want to work on my programme?

And finally.

Zadie Smith is a writer. A clever writer. Writers sit in small silent rooms, alone, and write. We at the Today Programme are journalists. We sit in a big noisy room full of mice and interrupt each other every minute and a half. So when we asked Zadie for question ideas to help Evan (probably the only man we know who wouldn't actually need them) to interview the world's cleverest neuroscientist about rectilinear shapes, grouping, and gull chicks who like abstract art more than their mothers, instead of a few lazy, ill-informed jottings we get several hundred words of sculpted prose which could be published as an expert academic analysis of said clever neuroscientist.

If that weren't intimidating enough, Zadie wasn't just first in line when the brains were handed out. She also pushed to the front of the height, kindness and general comeliness queue. It was too much for some of our producers.

This is a transcript of an early meeting between Zadie and the Today production team:

ZADIE: The interesting thing about Obama's oratory is that he uses all the classic Greek ingredients: pathos, logos and, er...

TODAY PROGRAMME: (excitedly) Porthos... no, Aramis.

ZADIE: I think those are two of the three musketeers. Ethos. That's it. Ethos.

TODAY PROGRAMME: Ethos, yes. Ethos. Can I marry you?

So that's our first observation and I can't really remember what Observation 2 was, apart from possibly that an incredible amount of work goes into these programmes from quite a few people (special mentions for Helen Margolis and Tom Colls - all the others, you know who you are, thank you).

Next year, you ask? We're already planning it: JD Salinger and Robert Mugabe are interested.

by Peter Hanington and Dan Clarke. Peter Hanington is assistant editor, Today programme.

Peter Hanington is assistant editor of the Today programme.

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