BBC BLOGS - The Editors

Archives for March 2010

BBC News low-graphics version

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Steve Herrmann Steve Herrmann | 15:10 UK time, Tuesday, 23 March 2010

We're changing the way we offer simplified versions of our stories for those with reading difficulties, or who prefer a low-graphics page for other reasons.

My colleague Anthony Sullivan, who is executive product manager for the News website, has explained the changes at the BBC Internet Blog; you can read on and comment there.

Steve Herrmann is editor of the BBC News website.

BBC News linking policy

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Steve Herrmann Steve Herrmann | 13:03 UK time, Friday, 19 March 2010

How often do you click on the external links we add to stories on the BBC News site?

How useful are they, and how could they be better?

We are looking at the way we do links to other sites, and I'm interested to know what you think.

Linking has always been an important part of what the BBC News website does. We've included links on the right-hand side of stories since the site's earliest days.

Much has changed since then, and the value and importance of links has grown with the diversity and richness of the web.

The BBC Strategy Review [1.40MB PDF] recently unveiled by director general Mark Thompson set as one of its goals a major increase in outbound links from the BBC website - a doubling of the number of "click-throughs" to external sites from 10 million to 20 million a month by 2013.

Elsewhere, there has been a detailed debate, specifically about how we link to articles in scientific journals. If you want to catch up with that, it's been taking place at Ben Goldacre's tumblelog and in Paul Bradshaw's post at the Online Journalism Blog.

So for various reasons it feels like high time to take stock.

This is a summary of the current guidance (some of it a reminder of existing best practice), which I sent round to BBC News website journalists a few months ago:

• Related links matter: They are part of the value you add to your story - take them seriously and do them well; always provide the link to the source of your story when you can; if you mention or quote other publications, newspapers, websites - link to them; you can, where appropriate, deep-link; that is, link to the specific, relevant page of a website.

• Remember to add the automated "Newstracker" (the "From Other News Sites" box which appears on the story right-hand side) to stories unless editorially inappropriate or if there simply are no relevant links.

Screengrab of Newstracker• Add relevant links into the text of background and analysis articles, such as this collection of backgrounders on coping with financial difficulties.

• Where we have previously copied PDFs (for full versions of official reports and documents, for example) and put them on our own servers, we should now consider in each case whether to simply link to PDFs in their native location - with the proviso that if it's likely to be a popular story, we may need to let the site know of possible increased demand.

• Make use of the new "See Also" blog which has been providing a daily run-down of debate in the newspapers and elsewhere about the topical issue of the day, and which we use to enhance our own stories with links to off-site comment and analysis.

On linking to science papers in particular, we don't currently have a specific policy, but the simplest principle would seem to be that we should find and provide the most relevant and useful links at time of writing, wherever they are - whether it's an abstract of a scientific paper, the paper itself, or a journal.

There is some devil in the detail as far as this goes, though. First and foremost, we're often reporting a story before the full paper has been published, so there may not yet be a full document to link to; some journals are subscription-only; some have web addresses which might expire.

For these reasons, we have so far generally opted to link to the front page of the journal, assuming this is going to be the most reliable and useful jumping-off point for readers.

But overall, whether it's linking to science papers, or linking in general, we want to find the best approach. So here are a few questions we'd love to know the answers to:

• Which external (that is, non-BBC) links do you value most on our stories? (For example, links to the source material for government reports and science papers; links to other related news coverage; related commentary and analysis.)

• Where do you think the links should live? Separated slightly from the story text (for example, in a box alongside the text) or embedded within the text itself? Would it bother you if we put links - whether to our own content or articles elsewhere - into the body text of all our stories, or do you wish we'd done that ages ago?

• For scientific papers, should we link to a journal's front page, or the scientific paper itself, or both? If the full paper isn't available, should we link to the abstract in cases where it's available?

• Would you mind if what we link to requires registration to access it? Or if it's behind a paywall, and requires subscription or payment? And would you expect us to tell you that before you got there?

It would be great to hear your views on any or all of these points.

One thing seems clear already - summed up by Henry, a contributor to one of the discussions I mentioned earlier: Our role as an archive and resource is becoming as important to many of you as the more traditional role of reporting the latest news headlines. You can help us work out what that means for our day-to-day work as journalists.

Update 1 April: I have written a follow-up post here.

Steve Herrmann is editor of the BBC News website.

BBC News at Six on Wednesday, 17 March

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James Stephenson | 20:50 UK time, Wednesday, 17 March 2010

In tonight's BBC News at Six we mistakenly used an image of the late Pc Ian Terry.

Pc Terry was a firearms officer with Greater Manchester Police. He was killed during a training exercise in June 2008.

His photograph was used in a report looking at the impact of unemployment on different sectors of the economy.

The intention was to use images of individuals which are cleared for this kind of use. Instead an image of Pc Terry was used. We have taken steps to ensure the error is not repeated.

I would like to apologise unreservedly for the mistake and for any distress caused to Pc Terry's family, friends and colleagues.

James Stephenson is editor of the BBC News at Six and Ten

Brazil: Sustained flight?

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 09:04 UK time, Monday, 15 March 2010

There's a story - which is probably apocryphal - that President de Gaulle, returning from an official visit to Brazil in the early 60s, was asked what he made of it. His reply is reputed to have been "Brazil is the country of the future...and it always will be".

World Tonight logoBrazil is currently being heralded around the world by politicians and commentators as an emerging global power alongside China and India - it's the B in BRIC (with Russia being the R). It's prominent in the G20 and played a leading role trying to salvage something from the ill-fated Copenhagen climate summit.

The Economist summed this view up last November with a very witty cover picture of the famous Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro blasting off.

But Brazil - the fifth largest country in the world with a population of more than 190 million - has promised in the past to achieve sustained economic take-off, most recently in the 1950s and the 1970s, never to maintain it, undermined by an economy prone to indebtedness and hyper-inflation - hence de Gaulle's legendary cynicism.

This week on The World Tonight, we are looking in-depth at Brazil.

Presenter Robin Lustig is there - he'll be blogging on his trip. And we'll be attempting to report the real Brazil, rather than the traditional picture presented in the Western media dominated as it has been by soccer, samba and sun or failure to cope with violent crime or deforestation of the Amazon.

President Lula da SilvaWe'll be asking if the success President Lula's government has had lifting Brazilians out of poverty and reducing the country's huge gap between rich and poor can be sustained and what that means for sustainable growth.

Robin will also report on the Rio de Janeiro police's innovative attempt to end the domination of its slums by drugs gangs ahead of the World Cup in 2014 and Olympic Games two years later.

We'll look at Brazil's emergence on the global political stage as it seeks a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. President Lula has been widely praised for his ability to get on with leaders from Barack Obama to Mahmoud Ahmedinejad via Nicholas Sarkozy and Hu Jintao. Some see Brazil as an exponent of Joseph Nye's soft power but little reported is the country's embarkation on military modernisation to back up its diplomacy.

We'll also be asking why Brazil, a country of immigrants and great racial diversity like its northern counterpart, the US, appears to have achieved much more effective cultural assimilation, with everyone speaking Portuguese and regarding themselves as Brazilians, rather than Italian-Brazilians or African-Brazilians.

Robin will also be reporting for the BBC News website and Newshour on BBC World Service radio.

Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight.

SuperPower: BBC and Global Voices

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Steve Herrmann Steve Herrmann | 08:55 UK time, Monday, 8 March 2010

You may notice an extra feature on some of the news stories on the News website in the coming days.

As part of the BBC's SuperPower season - a special series on the internet - we will be teaming up with Global Voices, a non-profit blogging network of citizen journalists, to present a different range of perspectives and commentary from around the world.

We are no strangers to involving a range of voices in our newsgathering process - and we have long incorporated into our journalism the knowledge, eyewitness reporting and opinion of our audiences in the UK and internationally.

But we think Global Voices, which specialises in giving individuals the tools and support to comment and report on the issues that matter to them, could add an interesting extra dimension to some of our news coverage.

So over the next two weeks we'll be selecting from, and linking to, relevant posts from Global Voices' network of 200 bloggers and citizen journalists and we'll also be asking Global Voices editors to give their views on how the mainstream media handle the news.

I think a good point is made by Ivan Sigal, Global Voice's executive director, when he says:

"The idea that citizen journalism is somehow opposed to or in conflict with traditional journalism is now clearly past; it's evident that both exist in symbiotic relationship to one another, with many opportunities to collaborate on the creation of news, storytelling and distribution of content."

This will be a chance for us to explore that relationship. See what you think.

Steve Herrmann is editor of the BBC News website.

BBC's SuperPower season

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Peter Horrocks Peter Horrocks | 08:08 UK time, Monday, 8 March 2010

Twenty years ago, a quiet British engineer was on the cusp of changing the world. Tim Berners-Lee was ironing out the wrinkles in a project that would become the "world wide web". As he readily admits, no-one could have predicted its significance.

Today, BBC News launches a two-week season on radio, television and the web taking stock of his invention and considering how it is changing our lives.

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It's a chance to stand back from the break-neck pace of change of the last two decades and to consider how far we have come, and how much further there is still to go.

For some of our audience, the web may have become a mundane part of their lives. For others, it will be untested waters. No matter what your experience, we hope the season will use the BBC's reach to uncover untold stories and give you a fresh perspective.

We are calling the season SuperPower, a phrase that - we think - resonates with other events two decades ago. Then, the Iron Curtain was falling and the power relationships that had dominated the latter half of the 20th Century had come to an end.

The world's superpowers were changing and new ones - with new power structures - emerged. The web grew up against that backdrop and its effect on the new landscape may have only just begun.

SuperPower is a chance to examine these changes and to ask who benefits: who is wielding this new-found power?

One example is the distribution of knowledge. One view has it that information traditionally imparted power, and that the web is the first medium where everyone can make his or her voice heard. But of course, if you want to take part, you need access.

We live in a world of haves and have-nots. Less than one-third of the world is currently online; for more than 4 billion people, it is still an unknown. During the season, we will examine that imbalance.

Our On/Off project has been following people in the village of Gitata in northern Nigeria as they make their first tentative steps on to the web using mobile phones.

The village, two hours north of Abuja, is not connected to the electricity grid and has minimal links with the outside world. So how will they react when they finally join the "global conversation"?

By way of contrast, we will drop in on South Korea - the most wired nation on Earth - where we have persuaded two families to give up their high-speed connection for a week. Can they still function when severed from a society that is apparently so reliant on the web?

We will also address how this technology has united previously-isolated people and given them a tool to share their experiences. BBC Russian has spent time with disadvantaged and disabled people to see how the web has allowed them to participate in societies from which they had been excluded.

This is a common theme of the web. It is a tool that allows people to contribute to and engage with organisations and people that were previously off-limits. Conversely, it has also forced some organisations to be more transparent and open.

This has been keenly felt in journalism. When I joined the BBC, the relationship with the audience was a one-way street. We made programmes for broadcast and - bar the occasional letter - that was the end of the deal.

Today, our audience is, as we often point out, at the heart of our thinking. And so another part of the season, MyWorld, will consist of your films, about your perspective on the wired world. And of course, we also want to encourage you to participate in the discussions and debates about this emergent power.

We also aim to also reflect what is being said on the web about the season and about world events. Blogworld will highlight the best of blogosphere in multiple languages, while the BBC News website has partnered with the non-profit network of citizen journalists Global Voices to give different perspectives on the news.

Of course, any technology can also be used to more nefarious ends. So the season will examine censorship, online crime, cyber-warfare and other more regrettable consequences.

Twenty years ago, only the sci-fi-minded could have imagined countries attacking each other with computer code. But now virtual walls join bricks and mortar as means by which countries protect themselves from outside threats.

The world has been transformed.

The season is a chance to step back and consider this change and ask: if we are all to share this new SuperPower, what shall we do with it?

Peter Horrocks is the director of BBC Global News.

Bob, Band Aid and how the rebels bought their arms

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Peter Horrocks Peter Horrocks | 14:59 UK time, Saturday, 6 March 2010

Update 4 November 2010: This blog post was the subject of a complaint by the Band Aid Trust. A BBC investigation upheld the complaint - click here for details.

An edition of the BBC World Service programme Assignment, alleging that money intended for famine relief in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s was used to buy weapons, has prompted an angry response from aid campaigners.

Andrew Whitehead, Editor, News and Current Affairs at the BBC World Service, explains how the story came about.


By Andrew Whitehead

A quarter of a century ago, the BBC's Michael Buerk achieved something very rare - he not only reported the world, but changed it a little bit.

His vivid on-the-spot coverage of a famine "of biblical proportions" in Tigray in northern Ethiopia pricked the conscience of the richer part of the world.

The money came pouring in. Bob Geldof's Band Aid and Live Aid led the way in galvanising public attention, raising cash and mobilising a huge relief effort.

As a result, many thousands of lives were saved - and tens of thousands of those facing starvation received food.

In the past week, the BBC World Service has broadcast an Assignment documentary - you can listen to it here - based on the testimony of key figures on the ground in and around Tigray in the mid-1980s.

It presents evidence, compelling evidence, that some of the famine relief donations were diverted by a powerful rebel group to buy weapons.

The documentary has revealed some uncomfortable facts and provoked a strong response. This morning a British newspaper, The Independent, gives over its front page to complaints from Bob Geldof and several leading charities. They accuse the BBC of "disgracefully poor reporting".

The suggestion of aid money being to diverted to buy arms is "palpable nonsense", in the words of Phil Bloomer, director of Oxfam's campaigns and policy division.

Geldof goes further. "This is a Ross/Brand moment in BBC standards for me," he told The Independent. "It is a disgrace."

OK, so let's stand back a moment. This documentary was put together by Martin Plaut, Africa Editor at BBC World Service News.

He has a particular expertise in the Horn of Africa, and indeed reported from there on the famine back in the 1980s. He has spent almost a year gathering material and doing research for this documentary - and the BBC stands by his journalism.

As so often is the case, the famine that afflicted northern Ethiopia was compounded by war. Much of Tigray was controlled by a hard left-wing rebel group, the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front. They were fighting the Ethiopian army, then the largest in Africa.

This was also the era of the cold war - and the Americans were seeking to undermine the Soviet-aligned Ethiopian government.

It is not in dispute that millions of dollars of relief aid was channelled through the Relief Society of Tigray (Rest), which was a part of the TPLF rebel movement. It was the only way of reaching those in desperate need in rebel-held areas. What Martin Plaut's documentary uncovers is the systematic diversion of aid received by Rest to buy arms for the TPLF.

Martin tracked down two key former members of the TPLF who explained how they managed to divert the money.

They are now at odds with the then TPLF leader, Meles Zenawi, who is currently Ethiopia's Prime Minister. But they are credible voices.

One of these former TPLF fighters, the rebel army commander at the time, makes an allegation which has attracted particular controversy - that the organisation made a policy decision that only 5% of the money received by Rest would be spent on relief, with the bulk going directly or indirectly to support their military and political campaigns.

Among the other accounts featured in the World Service programme, Robert Houdek, who was the senior US diplomat in Ethiopia in the late 1980s, states that TPLF members told him at the time that some aid money and supplies was used to buy weapons. A CIA document paints the same picture.

Bob Geldof was given every opportunity to express his point of view while the documentary was being made, but declined to be interviewed.

Some relief agencies - including Christian Aid and Cafod - pointed us towards their staff involved in directing food supplies 25 years ago, and those voices were included.

Two key aid workers active in and around Ethiopia in the 1980s confirm in the BBC World Service programme the way in which relief was channelled through Rest - though they dispute that there was a significant diversion of money for arms buying.

"If we were being conned, I think it was on a very small scale," said Stephen King, then overseeing from Sudan the work of Catholic charities in providing food to the starving.

The documentary did not say that most famine relief money was used to buy weapons - it did not suggest that any relief agencies were complicit in the diversion of funds - it explicitly stated that "whatever the levels of deception, much aid did reach the starving".

But there is a clear public interest in determining whether some money given as famine relief ended up buying guns and bullets.

And that's what the evidence suggests.


Peter Horrocks is the director of BBC Global News.

Update 4 November 2010: The BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit upheld a complaint from the Band Aid Trust about this blog post.

The complaint said:
• By using phrases such as "key figures", "compelling evidence", "uncomfortable facts", "uncovers systematic diversion of aid" and "credible voices" the article gave unwarranted support to allegations which were not sufficiently corroborated.
• The article gave support to the allegation that "95% of the money received by Rest was spent on military and political campaigns" when this allegation was not sufficiently corroborated.

The finding:
• The article gave a misleading impression that there was evidence of large-scale diversion of Band Aid money.
• The article was not clear about the extent to which the credibility of the claim of 95% diversion of aid by Rest was open to question.

For full details of the Band Aid Trust complaint and findings, click here.

Prime ministerial debates

Ric Bailey | 17:00 UK time, Tuesday, 2 March 2010

So finally we can say - they are going to happen. After decades of arguing and a whole host of reasons why they should not happen - there will now be debates during the general election campaign between those who aspire to be prime minister.

Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick CleggAfter months of negotiation - constructive and good-humoured but often tough and mind-numbingly detailed - an agreement has been worked out between the three broadcasters - ITV, Sky and BBC - and the three largest UK political parties - Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats - over the three debates which will take place, one on each network during each week of the campaign.

Here are the key principles for the debates. [40KB PDF]
Here is the programme format agreed by all parties. [44KB PDF]

The fact that debates have never happened before is an indication of how difficult it is - especially in the pre-election atmosphere - for the broadcasters and the parties involved to find sufficient common ground.

But all involved were very clear that these were events which should and could add to the understanding of voters as they make up their minds.

Each broadcaster will also be looking carefully at how to ensure the obligations of impartiality are properly fulfilled. The BBC will hold subsequent leaders' debates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, part of a range of measures to ensure that the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Northern Ireland parties have appropriate opportunities to be heard. There will also be special arrangements in the programming around the BBC debate itself - a week before polling day - to ensure that other parties which have demonstrated that they have some electoral support - UKIP, the Green Party and the BNP - will have their say.

The broadcasters' negotiating panel had a number of ambitions: to involve the public in the debates; to establish a format in which the leaders would actually debate with each other; to make the debates interesting and engaging and not, perhaps, as formulaic and structured as the American presidential debates can be.

For some it's making history - for others it's a constitutional anomaly... whichever, the debates will now happen - and election campaigns may never be the same again in this country.

Ric Bailey is the BBC's chief political adviser.

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