BBC BLOGS - The Editors

Archives for December 2010

New BBC Site Search

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Steve Herrmann Steve Herrmann | 15:58 UK time, Wednesday, 22 December 2010

You may have recently noticed some changes to your search results when using the BBC News website. My colleague Matthew McDonnell has written a post describing the BBC's Search+ platform.

Read more and comment at the BBC Internet Blog.

Steve Herrmann is editor of the BBC News website.

Life with the Lancers

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Steve Herrmann Steve Herrmann | 14:01 UK time, Monday, 20 December 2010

After a year of filming and collecting material, today sees the launch on the BBC News website of a multimedia special report about UK troops in Afghanistan, Life with the Lancers.

BBC News followed four Army soldiers from the Queen's Royal Lancers regiment, ranging in rank from trooper to major, through pre-deployment training and a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

They were given cameras to gather video-diary material, took stills as well, and talked to BBC correspondents at different stages during the year about their experiences. The Army's combat camera team also provided material.

The idea originally came from BBC Newsgathering producer Annette Bartholomew during what she describes as "a routine job" covering the Queen giving out medals to troops in Catterick: "I asked Fondouk Squadron if they would let us follow them during training. They said yes after getting support from Brigadier Richard Felton."

Our aim was to understand what the daily experience of UK troops serving in Afghanistan is actually like, in more detail than headline news reports allow. The result is a detailed picture of the day-to-day realities of deployment, from training and life in camp to going out on patrol and home leave.

For the soldiers, it has been a chance to tell us what a tour of duty entails for them and their families: the painstaking preparations, the basic necessities of camp life, the dangers of operations and the impact of losing comrades.

For us, it has required collaboration between our video-on-demand team, online graphic designers and journalists, regional specialists, newsgathering reporters and producers and the BBC News Channel, which tonight will start showing the half-hour documentary At War: The Soldiers and their Families.

We are currently working on a follow-up project which aims to look in detail at the experiences of a group of recruits to the Afghan army, the force on which the strategic success of Nato-led forces in Afghanistan may ultimately depend.

Steve Herrmann is editor of the BBC News website. Life with the Lancers can be seen online here; At War: The Soldiers and their Families is on the BBC News Channel on Monday 20 December at 2030 and 2330 GMT.

Brian Hanrahan

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 10:25 UK time, Monday, 20 December 2010

Brian Hanrahan's career was made by one, short, well-turned phrase - but there was so much more to the man who, for three decades, roamed the world reporting on the biggest stories of the day.

Brian Hanrahan


In 1982, as the Royal Navy Task Force sailed in the south Atlantic, Brian was stationed aboard HMS Hermes, the aircraft carrier that served as the flagship of the fleet. Then - as today - reporters covering wars are not allowed to disclose "operational details".

So the phrase for which he will always be remembered was a clever ruse to get round reporting restrictions so he could say all the British Harrier jets had returned safely. It was a classroom lesson in good reporting under pressure - and won him new-found fame.

In the early 1990s, the satirist Chris Morris wrote a spoof TV news show, first for Radio 4 as On The Hour, and then for BBC2 as The Day Today. It was most famous for its sports reporter, Steve Coogan's Alan Partridge. But the name of the economics correspondent, Peter O'Hanraha-Hanrahan was clearly an "homage" to Brian. What greater accolade could any journalist wish for?

The steady nerve Brian showed in the Falkands served him well in the intervening 28 years - he saw more than his share of history unfold. Covering Asia from Hong Kong in the 1980s, he reported on the reforms of Deng Xiaoping in China, and the assassination of Indira Gandhi in India. He moved to Moscow when Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet leader, returning to Russia last year to interview Gorbachev. In 1989 he was in Beijing when the tanks rolled in to Tiananmen Square, famously reporting on the fall of the Wall as Berlin was reunited. Earlier this year he returned to Poland - where he'd reported on the rise of Solidarity - to cover the plane crash that killed President Lech Kaczynski.

In recent years, Brian had travelled to many countries, and covered ceremonial and state events such as the anniversaries of D-Day and the funerals of Princess Diana, the Queen Mother and the Pope. He was a regular voice on Radio 4 as presenter of both The World at One and The World This Weekend.

Brian fell ill the week before the election, and on polling day I went to visit him in hospital in north London. He was preparing for a long night and was frustrated that he wouldn't be at an election count, as he had been for the previous seven. Instead, he had persuaded the nursing staff to allow him to have a radio and an earpiece, and was making a date with Radio 4.

He returned to work while undergoing treatment - while tired, he was determined to do the job he loved. Last week, he'd planned to report from RAF Cottesmore as the Harriers he'd counted out in the Falklands were counted back for the final time before being withdrawn from service. Instead, he found himself back in hospital. As Harriers landed for the final time, the crews of RAF Cottesmore recorded a get-well message to Brian.

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Brian had a special relationship with the audience - he broke through in a way few others do. They had come to trust him as a voice of calm - whether reporting on momentous events of history, or the grand state events. For more than 30 years, it was that quality above all others that distinguished Brian as one of the BBC's brightest and best. We mourn his loss.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News editor.

Interview with Jody McIntyre

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Kevin Bakhurst Kevin Bakhurst | 12:47 UK time, Tuesday, 14 December 2010

We have received a considerable number of complaints about an interview Ben Brown did last night on the BBC News Channel with Jody McIntyre. The context of the interview was that Mr McIntyre was on the student demonstrations in London last week and video emerged yesterday of him being pulled out of his wheelchair by police.

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I am aware that there is a web campaign encouraging people to complain to the BBC about the interview, the broad charge being that Ben Brown was too challenging in it. However I am genuinely interested in hearing more from people who have complained about why they object to the interview. I would obviously welcome all other views.

I have reviewed the interview a few times and I would suggest that we interviewed Mr McIntyre in the same way that we would have questioned any other interviewee in the same circumstances: it was quite a long interview and Mr McIntyre was given several minutes of airtime to make a range of points, which he did forcefully; Ben challenged him politely but robustly on his assertions.

Mr McIntyre says during the interview that "personally he sees himself equal to anyone else" and we interviewed Mr McIntyre as we would interview anyone else in his position. Comments more than welcome.

Kevin Bakhurst is the controller of the BBC News Channel and the BBC News at One and the deputy head of the BBC Newsroom. As per normal practice, this post is now closed to new comments.

The Wars You Don't See

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 15:03 UK time, Friday, 10 December 2010

This weekend a new film is released around the UK. In truth, it's unlikely to trouble the big Hollywood blockbusters - but it's creating waves nevertheless.

US soldier passes by an Afghan farmer

John Pilger made his name in South East Asia covering the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia in the 70s. His is a particular type of journalism. He doesn't pretend to be impartial - he's a campaigner. In The Wars You Don't See he takes aim at the mainstream media - including the BBC. The charge is that in Iraq and Afghanistan - then and now - we beat the drums of war.

There's a lot of ancient history in the film: was the media too unquestioning of the White House and Downing Street; were we willing participants in a rush to judgement about Saddam's supposed "weapons of mass destruction". The arguments have been rehearsed many times - and are valid areas for debate.

But Pilger makes a more serious charge: that too often, the BBC and others only report conflict from the perspective of those who wage war, and not those who are, so often, the victims - the civilians. He claims that "embedding" reporters alongside the Armed Forces at best, distorts the story and worse, makes the media a mouthpiece for the military.

He's right to identify the danger - "embedding" only ever provides one piece of the jigsaw. That's why, in Baghdad and Kabul, the BBC - at some cost and risk - has bureaux that report the other bits of the story. In Iraq, Gabriel Gatehouse and Jim Muir have covered the threats to Baghdad's Christians, while in Kabul, our opinion poll this week focused on the attitudes of the people of Afghanistan - not the military.

But "embedding" does have real value. There are 9,500 British troops in Afghanistan - and more than 100,000 US service personnel. Theirs is an important perspective, and their operations an important part of the story. The security situation means, sometimes, it is only possible to travel to certain parts of the country as part of a military "embed".

Pilger's case is that the media has to toe the establishment line otherwise they don't get access. Tell that to John Simpson or to our Kabul correspondent, Paul Wood - neither of them shrinking violets. Relationships are more sophisticated than John Pilger would have us believe. UK embeds are covered by a set of agreements between the media and the Ministry of Defence: the so-called Green Book [169KB PDF] is available online for anybody to read.

A public protocol is a strange conspiracy.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News editor.

Are Foreign Correspondents Redundant?

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 10:02 UK time, Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Today the distinguished Reuters Institute at Oxford University publishes a provocative paper, Are Foreign Correspondents Redundant? [1,013KB PDF]

Aung San Suu Kyi and John Simpson

John Simpson interviewing Aung San Suu Kyi

I should declare an interest: its author used to be my boss - twice! Richard Sambrook was director of News and most recently director of Global News; as the BBC's head of newsgathering, he helped build the network of overseas bureaux and foreign correspondents it is my privilege to lead.

He suggests that economic pressures and digital technology are undermining the role of the foreign correspondent - although his argument is more nuanced than the paper's title suggests. The paper should probably be called Is The Traditional White Male Ex-pat Correspondent Working From An Office With A Satellite Link To London At Risk? In that case, the answer would unquestionably be "yes" - but the title exaggerates to makes its point.

I can tweet as well as the next man (@WilliamsJon is my personal account, since you ask). But the idea that Twitter or other social media can replace rather than complement traditional, mainstream reporting is fanciful. Actually, I'd go further and suggest it's an opportunity rather than a threat.

In a world of more "noise" from the blogs and social networks, there's a craving from the mainstream audience for a "trusted guide" to make sense of it all - they want someone to help explain what matters and what doesn't. That's why even among the "networked" followers of Twitter, hundreds of thousands of people subscribe to the BBC's breaking news feed (@BBCBreaking) and thousands more follow the likes of Robert Peston, Rory Cellan-Jones and Laura Kuenssberg.

And just because someone random says - or tweets - something, it doesn't mean it's true. Three weeks ago, the blogosphere and the rest of the net were awash with rumours that Aung San Suu Kyi had been released hours before she was set free. Ironically, it was perhaps the most "traditional" foreign correspondent, John Simpson, who was there to tell the world of her actual release - in the same way as he has been doing for more than 40 years.

Richard is right to suggest that the "traditional" model is changing. I'm proud we have a more diverse reporting team than ever - though we also have more to do. The latest generation of foreign correspondents is as happy behind the camera as in front of it, filming as well as reporting. And broadband access means the spare bedroom can become a TV studio when the big story breaks.

But these aren't threats to the foreign correspondent; they're a chance to renew the relationship between the eye-witness reporter and the audience. The paper concludes:

"[T]he independent witnessing of events has been the core purpose of foreign reporting from its earliest days and will remain so for the future."

Phew! The foreign correspondent may no longer be the only voice in a "networked world", but he or she can be the most trusted voice. In an ever more complex world, they are far from being redundant.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News editor.

Extreme World

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Craig Oliver Craig Oliver | 08:53 UK time, Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Inspiration can come from unlikely places. I was recently reviewing a report from one of the BBC’s best journalists, Lyse Doucet in Afghanistan. In a remote and hostile location, she told the story of an expectant mother and the desperate attempts by pitifully resourced medical staff to save her unborn child. “This,” she said without exaggeration, “is the worst place in the world to give birth.” It was an intensely moving piece and it got me thinking: if parts of Afghanistan are the worst place in the world to have a child, where is the best? And where is my family’s experience on that scale?

Extreme World branding


This was the starting point for a new initiative at BBC World Service, BBC World News and the BBC News website: Extreme World. It's not a season of programmes, but a themed approach to some editorial content, using the idea of extremes as a way of seeing the world and understanding our place in it. What is life like in the hottest place on earth and, conversely, the coldest? What about issues such as crime and corruption?

The more we explored issues in this way, the more interesting it became - and sometimes surprising. When researching death and dying, for example, some of our perceptions were given interesting new contexts. Dying in a developed country, for example, might give you access to better medical care, but hospitals, hospices and care homes can leave people remote from their loved ones and sometimes completely alone. Poorer countries may have a lack of medical facilities, but the role of the community and family in a remote village in sub-Saharan Africa make a solitary death far less likely.

A theme allows us to play to the different strengths of radio, television and online and to ensure they complement each other. A listener might hear a piece of on-the-scene reporting on the World Service followed by an invitation to go online and explore the data around the story - particularly how their own country, which may well not be at the extremes, fits into the global picture.

The label is a vital part of the process. We hope that regular users of our services pick up the baggage of the season over time and make links they would otherwise have been invisible. We hope that it will offer a fresh way of looking at subjects which might otherwise get lost in the blizzard of 21st-Century media.

Extreme World promises to be an exciting and intriguing collection of content that will continue to take shape over the coming months, providing our reporters with fresh angles and perspectives and offering audiences a range and depth of compelling reports on TV, on radio and online.

Craig Oliver is the controller of English at BBC Global News.

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