BBC BLOGS - The Editors

Archives for October 2009

Reporting in Kabul

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 10:40 UK time, Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The attacks in Kabul this morning on the Serena Hotel and a guesthouse used by the UN underscores the dangers facing journalists in Afghanistan.

Earlier this month, David Rohde of the New York Times wrote about his experiences during the seven months and 10 days he was kidnapped by the Taliban before he escaped earlier this year.

His colleague, Sultan Munadi was not so fortunate: he was killed during a mission to free the British reporter Stephen Farrell last month.

Guesthouse on fire, KabulThis morning's attacks give people like me pause for thought. The BBC is the only British broadcaster to have a permanent bureau in Kabul.

We were there during the Taliban's rule in Afghanistan, and remained throughout the US led assault on the country in 2001.

It would be so much easier to simply report that troubled country from behind the wire of the British base at Camp Bastion or position ourselves alongside the Canadian media pool at the ISAF base in Kandahar.

But we have a responsibility to tell all sides of the story - not simply report Afghanistan as it looks from inside the perimeter of an army base.

That we're able to do so is a tribute to the bravery of my colleagues in Kabul - not just those you read online or see and hear on air such as Ian Pannell and Martin Patience, but those behind the scenes who help them tell the story. The risks as we have seen this morning are all too real.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News Editor.

Nick Griffin on Question Time

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Gavin Allen | 19:59 UK time, Friday, 23 October 2009

The claims made against Question Time by various publications and commentators are clear: it was a "typical BBC conspiracy". The audience was clearly "rigged" to ensure a "lynch-mob mentality". The "usual Question Time format was changed" to focus entirely on the BNP and to "ignore general topics of the week". David Dimbleby pursued a "personal attack against Nick Griffin". And the "publicity-seeking" programme "did it all for the ratings".

So much for the charges. The reality is a bit more straightforward.


It was Question Time. With a lot more people watching than normal. And a lot more column inches written in advance about it than normal. And significantly more demonstrators outside the venue than normal. But otherwise, in all the core elements, it was Question Time as normal.

As in any Question Time week, members of the public guide producers on what's to be debated. The programme is driven by the questions submitted by the audience itself. And unsurprisingly, they chose to focus on topics that were in the news this week - immigration, Jan Moir's article on the death of Stephen Gately, the BNP's co-option of historical figures and, yes, Question Time itself.

What, no post strike? No Afghanistan? They were on the list of issues to be debated. But, from the weight of questions, other topics galvanised our audience more, and there simply wasn't time to get to them. This isn't a stopwatch tick-box format. A question might take ten minutes to debate. Or twenty. It is the audience and its members' engagement in an issue which leads the content of the debate. They demand their say and ensure that answers are properly scrutinised.

That means editorial fluidity and flexibility. As in Grimsby and Salisbury earlier this year, occasionally one topic dominates, because the public just doesn't want to move away from it. Back then - as you may have spotted - it was MPs' expenses. This week, it was the BNP and its beliefs and policies, albeit encompassing questions on race, Islam, homophobia, immigration and Churchill. So we didn't change the format. Questions, and debate, just are the format. And again it's the audience which guides it.

And so to the "rigged audience". The audience, as always, was made up of a broad cross-section of views and backgrounds reflective of the location. That would be the same whether we were in Liverpool, Llandudno or - as in this case - London. Every week, they're encouraged to participate and to ask probing questions to provoke debate. So: were BNP supporters invited and allowed in? Yes. In fact, they made more than one contribution to the discussion. Was that enough? Did they applaud sufficiently or counter the boos directed at their party leader? Hard to judge. But who needs to? That's the thing about people who come to see Question Time - they have minds of their own.

As does David Dimbleby. His job was not to "get" Nick Griffin, or to "expose" him as a racist and crush him in public. It was to chair a debate. Which he did, brilliantly. That meant giving not just the audience members their say, but panellists too. All of them. And probing panellists - all of them - on past policy, utterances and beliefs. So David did indeed forensically grill Mr Griffin on everything from the Ku Klux Klan to the Holocaust. And likewise Jack Straw was questioned over government immigration policy. Sayeeda Warsi on civil partnerships. Not ganging up against one member of the panel. Just robust questioning to achieve clarity. It's what the audience expects - every week.

Chasing ratings? Question Time has been going for 30 years and has very healthy viewing figures, rising to a recent record peak throughout the past series. The decision to invite Nick Griffin onto the programme had nothing to do with ratings. It had to do with our obligation to show due impartiality and the fact that only now has the BNP crossed a particular electoral threshold in securing European parliamentary seats. (See a previous post by my colleague Ric Bailey.)

But the key manner in which this was Question Time as normal is that it was unpredictable. Week in, week out, none of us involved in the programme has any idea how the audience will react, what will anger or amuse them, whether this or that panellist will shine or sink or even whether a cat called Tango will wander behind the set while we're on air (Google it. You'll get the drift).

But amid all the normal unpredictability, one question remains the same every week. Did it work? And, as is the answer to everything with Question Time, you decide.

Update 1515, 24 October: The document that appeared in both the Daily Mail and on its website today is not, contrary to the claim by the Daily Mail, the same document issued to members of the Question Time audience.

The version of the instructions printed in the Daily Mail has Nick Griffin's profile first - the version issued to the audience had Jack Straw's profile first.

There was only one instruction guide given to members of the audience and it is the same format as issued every week. The BBC instructions always begin with the panel member from the government - in this week's case Jack Straw.

On the version printed in the Mail, the Nick Griffin entry has been placed over that of Mr Straw.

As a result, Mr Griffin's entry appears twice in the version on the Mail's website and Mr Straw not at all.

Gavin Allen is executive editor, Question Time.

Closing the News Multiscreen

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Pete Clifton Pete Clifton | 16:10 UK time, Tuesday, 20 October 2009

As you may have read elsewhere, the BBC and other broadcasters are currently working to provide HD channels on Freeview.

Nothing comes for free though, and inevitably, this means that the BBC's existing Freeview service has had to change to help accommodate HD.

It's been a busy time for Freeview users, with them recently being asked to re-tune their TVs or set-top boxes as part of a country-wide rearrangement of broadcast transmissions. Now at the end of October, the BBC will have less room to broadcast interactive TV on Freeview. More details on this are provided here.

For BBC News, this means that we're no longer going to be able to provide one of our services.

The News Multiscreen, which we've been broadcasting on Freeview for a number of years now, will close on Tuesday 27 October 2009.

Screngrab of Freeview News Multiscreen

Obviously News content will still be available for viewers of Freeview.

The BBC News channel continues to broadcast on channel 80, and a comprehensive News, Sport and Weather text service will continue to be offered via the Red Button.

As well as that, the bulletins that we provided via the News Multiscreen can still be found on BBC Online via the following links - News, Sport and Weather.

Our Entertainment bulletin, which was not available on Freeview, is also online.

This change does not affect those of you with Sky or Virgin Media - if you currently watch the News Multiscreen on one of those services, you'll still able to do so.

Removing a service is always a hard decision, but as television broadcast develops, with the arrival of HD transmissions and also with broadband-to-TV technology beginning to take a foothold in the UK, the BBC is exploring how it takes advantage of these changes to ensure that it continues to offer viewers innovative News services.

TVs and set-top boxes are emerging in the market that are connected to the internet and we are looking at what exciting video services we could offer in the future.

Pete Clifton is head of editorial development, multimedia at BBC News.

Injunctions and super-injunctions

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Steve Herrmann Steve Herrmann | 16:42 UK time, Thursday, 15 October 2009

A good round-up here from my colleague Clare Spencer of the comment, analysis and discussion surrounding the abandonment by law firm Carter-Ruck of an attempt to stop the media revealing that a Labour MP had tabled a question relating to oil-trading firm Trafigura and Ivory Coast toxic waste.

In the light of the events this week, Gordon Brown has described legal bids to stop journalists reporting that gagging orders are in place as "an unfortunate area of the law" and has said he hopes to clear it up.

While reflecting on all this, the injunctions and super-injunctions, it's also worth pointing out that BBC Newsnight, who have been following the story since 2007 despite fierce resistance from Trafigura's lawyers, are still subject to ongoing related legal proceedings.

Steve Herrmann is editor of the BBC News website.

Updated editorial guidelines

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Steve Herrmann Steve Herrmann | 16:33 UK time, Friday, 9 October 2009

This week, the BBC Trust published updated editorial guidelines for BBC programme makers, producers and journalists.

For the first time, the public is being asked to comment on them in draft form before they are finalised. BBC staff will also be consulted, by our Editorial Policy department, on their attitudes to the new draft.

One of the issues they cover, picked up by the Guardian's James Robinson, is writing for the web.

The new draft, also for the first time, fully integrates the original editorial guidelines and the (formerly separate) ones for Online.

The new guidelines state that nothing should be written online that would not be said on air:

4.4.13 Presenters, reporters and correspondents are the public face and voice of the BBC - they can have a significant impact on perceptions of our impartiality. Journalists and presenters, including those in news and current affairs, may provide professional judgements, rooted in evidence, but may not express personal views on public policy, on matters of political or industrial controversy, or on 'controversial<br />
subjects' in any other area. Our audiences should not be able to tell from BBC programmes or other BBC output the personal prejudices of our journalists and presenters on such matters. This applies as much to online content as it does to news bulletins: nothing should be written by journalists and presenters that would not be said on air.

It's perhaps worth explaining that it is already the case that all output, whether in text, audio or video, must comply with the BBC's existing editorial guidelines.

The first page of the existing guidelines says:

The BBC Editorial Guidelines are a statement of the values and standards we have set for ourselves over the years. They also codify the good practice we expect from the creators and makers of all BBC content, whether it is made by the BBC itself or by an Independent company working for the BBC and whether it is made for: radio; television; online; mobile devices; interactive services; the printed word. As different technologies evolve, these guidelines apply to our content whoever produces it and however it is received.

So the new guidelines are really spelling out, in the impartiality section, a principle which has long been enshrined in the BBC's editorial code.

As far as blogging goes, as we've launched each new reporter's blog on the BBC News site over the past few years, we've positively encouraged new recruits to the blogs to write informally, to respond to comments and just generally be themselves.

But we've also stressed that there's still a framework of editorial standards they must work within.

Sometimes we point out it's not much different from a "two-way", a broadcast interview with the reporter, where they answer a few questions from the studio to convey the latest on a story, and their analysis. Think Radio 5 Live, or John Simpson being quizzed by Huw Edwards on the Ten O' Clock news.

This informality translates well to blogs - and indeed to Twitter (as Laura Kuenssberg has been proving in the past few weeks of reporting from the party conferences).

Our news blogs, like our online news stories, are checked by a second journalist before publication.

For Laura's Twitter reports, we've applied "live broadcast" principles - for live news broadcasting, the rule is that it is monitored by an editorial figure as it goes out, normal editorial rules apply, and any mistakes should be swiftly and openly corrected.

Going back to the new draft guidelines, it's also worth pointing out that the "not saying online what you wouldn't say on air" principle works equally the other way round.

When Nick Robinson in an inadvertent slip on air this week referred to David Cameron as the prime minister, he was able to flag the mistake and set things straight in his blog.

If you want to read through the guidelines yourself rather than relying on media reports, and if you want to say what you think about any aspect of them - they are here in full, with feedback form. And of course, you can comment below too.

Steve Herrmann is editor of the BBC News website.

An important story

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 16:51 UK time, Thursday, 1 October 2009

Last night we led on the story of the sacking of a UN official.

The World TonightWhy did we judge that to be the most important story of the day on the The World Tonight? A question I've been asked.

Well the official in question is the American Deputy Head of the UN mission in Afghanistan, Peter Galbraith.

He was considered a close ally of the powerful US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, so the sacking is surprising.

But more important is the reason he fell out with his boss, the head of the UN in Afghanistan, Kai Eide.

They didn't agree on how to handle the widespread allegations of fraud in August's Afghan presidential election, where the Electoral Complaints Commission is investigating thousands of suspect ballots which has held up the official announcement of the result.

Peter GalbraithJust after Mr Galbraith was informed of his dismissal, he gave The World Tonight an interview (you can listen here) and alleged that he had seen evidence of widespread fraud in the voting, especially in the south of the country, and that he had also raised concerns that the elections commission was trying to manipulate the vote in favour of the the incumbent President Karzai, who has received the largest number of votes as things stand.

He alleges that Mr Eide told him not to share these concerns with international diplomats in Kabul and that was why he had been told to leave the country and had now lost his job.

In the interview he was also strongly critical of the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon for removing him. He said: "I think it sends a terrible signal when the UN removes an official because he was concerned about fraud in a UN-sponsored and funded election."

We also spoke to Mr Ban's spokesman, Farhan Huq, who denied the UN had sided with President Karzai or had minimised the fraud in the election. He said Mr Galbraith had been dismissed for the good of the mission, because it was necessary to have unity at the top in Kabul.

The elections in Afghanistan have been presented as a centrepiece in the Nato and UN strategy to demonstrate that Afghanistan can be turned into a viable, democratic state and that the military intervention in which thousands of civilians, more than 200 British troops, and more than 800 American troops have been killed since 2001 is worth it.

This is why we judged the resignation a very important story. I hope you agree.

Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight.

Newsbeat and the BNP

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Rod McKenzie Rod McKenzie | 11:25 UK time, Thursday, 1 October 2009

"The BNP doesn't deserve a second of airtime on a respected BBC station."
"Nick Griffin says what most of us are thinking - he stands up for Britain."

Just two of the contrasting texts among thousands we received after Newsbeat's interview with the leader of the BNP - and two young activists from the party. I'm happy to respond to those who argued, or complained, that we shouldn't have conducted the interview.

Nick GriffinYou can hear the interview here - and also read some of the background editorial thinking on all this in my colleague Ric Bailey's recent post and I'll try not to repeat his arguments.

So first, why was the BNP given airtime?
Well, we're impartial - that means we should examine all political parties and put their representatives on the spot with fair and firm questioning. Impartial journalism and censorship do not sit happily together. We believe in getting the facts and the arguments out there for people to decide - not in judging what is "right" or "wrong" in a political context - that's for you to do.

The BNP are not an illegal party. They enjoy electoral support and have elected representatives. It is the BBC's job to properly examine all legitimate political parties that operate within the law and for which people clearly vote.

Why are you forcing this stuff down your unwilling listeners' throats?
We're not. People have a choice whether to listen or not.

This may surprise you, but a great many texts we received yesterday were broadly supportive of the BNP. Over time, it's evident from following our listeners that the party touches a nerve of support or interest. The large pile of texts on my desk raise issues around immigration, political correctness and an apparent frustration with mainstream politics that means the BNP, or at least some of their policies, appeals to some people.

It's also clear that not much is known about the party's policies beyond immigration and race which is something we were keen to explore - and did. By the way, we also received messages of support from those who believed we had exposed the weakness of the BNP on a range of issues.

Why is the listener's view not heard?
It was. We put to Nick Griffin some of the texts we received including sentiments as tough as "you're a disgrace" and "how do you sleep at night?".

Debbie Randle's handling of the interview was extremely rigorous and the bulk of the tough questions she asked were inspired by, or directly quoted, listeners themselves.

But it's offensive to many others and ethnic minorities?
I accept for many others this is true. But others will understand that one of purposes of journalism in a democratic society is to explore and question - raising at times subjects some may find distasteful or shocking.

Rod McKenzie is editor of Newsbeat and 1Xtra News.

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