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Archives for July 2011

BBC stringer killed in Afghanistan

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Peter Horrocks Peter Horrocks | 14:51 UK time, Thursday, 28 July 2011

This morning we received the extremely sad news that the BBC's stringer in Oruzgan province in Afghanistan, Ahmed Omed Khpulwak, had been killed. He died in the city of Tarin Kowt during a prolonged assault involving suicide attackers. The sympathies of the BBC and all of his colleagues go to Ahmed Omed's family and friends.

Ahmed Omed Khpulwak


Only this morning he was reporting on BBC Pashto about another Taliban attack that happened last night. For the past three years he has been constantly reporting from a very difficult part of Afghanistan. The BBC and the whole world are grateful to journalists like Ahmed Omed who courageously put their lives on the line to report from dangerous places.

The BBC World Service has a deep and extensive commitment to the country of Afghanistan. To the world at large that is represented by the News correspondents who broadcast in English to the UK and the globe. To the people of Afghanistan that commitment is represented by the reporting and voices of the BBC teams in Afghanistan broadcasting in the languages of Pashto and Dari.

At the last count the BBC was listened to by 40% of the population and is by far the most trusted international news provider in the country. That trust has been earned over many years by the commitment to fair reporting and the bravery of dozens of reporters and stringers across the country. Ahmed Omed Khpulwak was one of those brave reporters who have created that bond of trust with the people of Afghanistan.

The BBC is trying to establish further facts about his death and will do all we can to support his family.

Peter Horrocks is director of BBC Global News

Investigative journalism and breaking the rules

Mark Thompson Mark Thompson | 10:15 UK time, Friday, 22 July 2011

The phone-hacking scandal has put investigative journalism in the dock. Yet without investigative journalism - and in particular the meticulous work of one investigative journalist, Nick Davies, of the Guardian - it's a scandal that would have never seen the light of day.

Right now it's the journalistic and moral failures, and the human consequences of those failures, that loom large. But don't lose sight of the second half of the paradox when you consider how British journalism should respond to the events at the News of the World.

A few days ago John Witherow, the editor of the Sunday Times, launched what was, under the circumstances, a brave defence of investigative journalism. He claimed that, at its best and when directed in the public interest, investigative journalism and its ability to uncover wrongdoing and deceit can be a powerful force for good. He acknowledged that achieving that good can sometimes mean breaking the rules. And he worried that the understandable political and public backlash against phone hacking at the News of the World might make the best kind of investigative journalism more difficult to conduct.

I believe he's right. Had it not been for the Sunday Times and the separate series of investigations by Panorama, we simply wouldn't know about the scale of wrongdoing inside Fifa. He's right also to point to the realities of investigative techniques. One recent Panorama uncovered appalling abuse of patients at the Winterbourne View in Bristol. The programme led to arrests and an immediate stop to the abuse, as well as to an overdue national debate about standards and oversight of all care homes. It was a serious piece of work, manifestly undertaken in the public interest. Yet it necessarily involved secret filming and someone posing as a care worker.

At the BBC, such techniques have to be approved by senior editorial managers and take place within stringent controls. Even with the best of intentions and the most precise of guidelines, investigative journalism is difficult. In Panorama's case, mistakes have been very rare, but when they occur - for example, in a programme about Primark, the inclusion of a sequence of film that could not later be substantiated - they inevitably lead to a close review of our procedures. The ability of the BBC Trust to scrutinise BBC investigations and publish its findings, good or bad, means that our values and tradecraft are held constantly and openly to account.

Whatever the ultimate conclusions of the Leveson inquiry, it is important that the ability of serious investigative journalists to do their work is not blunted or unnecessarily constrained.

Nor I believe should we automatically assume that newspapers should be held to the same level of regulatory supervision and constraint as the broadcasters. Plurality of regulation is itself an important safeguard of media freedom.

The BBC is paid for by the public. Because of that, we would never have paid for the stolen information that helped the Daily Telegraph to uncover the MPs' expenses scandal. The privately owned Telegraph took a different view and was able to publish a series of stories that, taken as a whole, were clearly in the public interest. It is not obvious to me that newspapers that people can choose to buy or ignore - and which, should they break the law, can always be prosecuted after the fact - should be held to the same level of continuous supervision and accountability as broadcasters who reach out into every household in the land.

But there are still searching questions for British journalism to answer. Many newspapers with strong investigative teams and many notable journalists with an outstanding record of holding other institutions and walks of life to account showed a marked reluctance to explore the phone-hacking story until events and the public furore made it inevitable. In some cases, they not only refused to investigate the story themselves but heaped opprobrium on those that did. According to Stephen Glover, writing some months ago in the Independent, for example, "the BBC has conspired with the Guardian to heat up an old story and attack Murdoch".

Even in recent days, there's been an attempt in papers that have nothing to do with News International to suggest that our coverage of the story is far more extensive than other news providers and motivated by spite or glee rather than proper news priorities.

The Daily Mail quoted an Ipsos Mori poll misleadingly this week to suggest that public interest in the story is low. On the contrary, our tracking data suggests it is widespread, with more than 54% of adults claiming to follow the story closely. According to the BBC's critics, we are devoting much more time to the phone-hacking scandal than others. Untrue - the stopwatch reveals that the BBC's Ten O'Clock News has devoted fewer minutes to the story over the past fortnight than News at Ten on ITV1, and our BBC News channel fewer minutes in the key 1700-1800 hour than Sky News. We asked a sample of the public last week how important it was for the media to cover the story: 81% said it was important. And by a wide margin, among the broadcasters they gave the BBC the highest marks for trustworthiness and impartiality in our coverage of it. This is an awesome responsibility that we have to live up to.

Perhaps it's inevitable that newspapers and columnists who are already parti pris on the subject of the BBC find it impossible to judge our coverage except through a distorting mirror of imagined conspiracies and motives. The British public take a more straightforward view and on this, as on every other major story, they simply trust the BBC more than any other news provider to tell them the plain unvarnished truth. I also believe they will give short shrift to those brave souls who are already trying to run the argument that the "real" story revealed by events at Wapping is about the dominance of Britain's public broadcaster and that the right public policy response to phone hacking and criminality at the News of the World is - but of course! - to hobble the BBC.

I believe that what the public want, what this moment demands, is not another round of self-serving hypocrisy or internecine strife from Britain's journalists, but a serious discussion about the difference between good and bad investigative journalism and a complex but necessary debate about where the boundary of acceptable journalistic practice lies and how it should be enforced.

Mark Thompson is director general of the BBC.

This article was first published in the Times.

BBC science review

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Fran Unsworth Fran Unsworth | 13:00 UK time, Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The BBC Trust has published a review of science coverage across the whole of the BBC, carried out by Steve Jones, Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College London, with content analysis provided by a team from Imperial College London.

BBC science web screengrab


I'm delighted to say that his "first and most important conclusion" is that the BBC's output is widely praised for its breadth and depth, its professionalism, and its clear, accurate reporting.

But Professor Jones found that the coverage could be improved in some significant respects, a view endorsed by the Trust.

His report suggests there is too little cooperation between the various parts of the BBC that cover science, and that news coverage relies on too limited a pool of commentators and sources - creating the risk that we give our audiences an incomplete view of developments in the scientific world.

The report also says we should make sure that we achieve the right balance between well-established scientific fact and opinion. Otherwise, Professor Jones argues, there is a danger of the BBC giving undue prominence to critics on the fringes of what is actually a settled scientific debate.

That doesn't mean that in future we will, for example, not interview climate change sceptics.

But we must continue to take care to reflect the balance of the debate in any scientific controversy. There will be occasions when a scientific story should be presented as a debate purely and simply within the scientific community.

There will be others when it is appropriate to broadcast a range of views, including some from non-experts, because science cannot be divorced from the social, political and cultural environment in which it operates.

When we do that, across all our coverage we will have to work harder to explain to our audiences the background of contributors - for example, whether they are scientists, policy-makers, lobbyists or whether they are taking an ethical stand.

The College of Journalism has agreed to help us explore some of these issues in the year ahead.

In addition, I can confirm that we will be looking to appoint our first Science Editor for BBC News whose task will be to bring a new level of analysis to science coverage, strengthen our contacts, and help us to take an overview our coverage relative to the weight of scientific work.

Fran Unsworth is head of Newsgathering at BBC News.

Detained BBC reporter released

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Liliane Landor | 17:00 UK time, Thursday, 14 July 2011

I am delighted to say that our colleague Urunboy Usmonov, who works for the BBC World Service, has been released from detention on bail in Tajikistan.

Urunboy Usmonov

He was arrested in June and has been accused of having links with Hizb ut-Tahrir, an illegal Islamist group widespread in Central Asia.

As we have consistently said since his arrest, we believe Urunboy is innocent and was simply doing his job - journalism.

We are pleased that Tajik authorities have now considered our appeals.

Today his son picked him up from prison in Khojand so that he can be reunited with his family.

We know that his family and friends are delighted to have Urunboy back and we are appreciative of the support from colleagues at the BBC and around the world.

Liliane Landor is languages controller of BBC Global News.

Updated social media guidance for BBC journalists

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Chris Hamilton | 11:05 UK time, Thursday, 14 July 2011

Few news organisations can now doubt the crucial role social media plays in breaking down barriers to engagement, opening up newsgathering networks, and as an outlet for journalism.

Twitter logo

Sometimes there's still a sense of risk, especially around staff use, which has prompted different responses from different organisations. At the BBC, guidance for all its employees has previously been published covering official use of social media and personal use.

Today we're publishing our guidance for staff in news [66.8KB PDF] (in fact a refreshed version of guidance we've had for a while), which goes into a bit more detail to cover issues specific to our news operations.

There are a few rules but it's mainly suggestions, reminders, best practice and housekeeping. The aim is to help people get the best out of social networks and tools, working within the BBC's editorial values that are at the core of our journalism.

We think it's important to be open about what we're doing in this area. To pick out a few key points that might be of interest:

• The guidance is based on common sense, the section on personal activity starting with the phrase: "Don't do anything stupid". It goes on to say - among other things - that you shouldn't say anything that compromises your impartiality or sound off "in an openly partisan way".

• We label the Twitter accounts of some presenters and correspondents as "official" - and are also today publishing some specific guidance for them [64KB PDF]. This activity is regarded as BBC News output and tweets should normally be consistent with this, reflecting and focusing on areas relevant to the role or specialism, and avoiding personal interests or unrelated issues. A senior editor keeps an eye on tweets from these accounts after they're sent out.

• Finally, we remind people that programme or genre content - like @BBCBreaking and BBC News on Facebook - should normally be checked by a second person before it goes out. The guidance also urges people to think carefully about the practicalities and editorial purpose of this activity. It shouldn't be started "because it's what everyone does these days".

The guidance we're publishing is not set in stone. It will change as the digital and social media landscape changes - hopefully as fast.

For now, as it is, it aims to strike the right balance for us and to help our journalists engage, gather news and spread their journalism.

Chris Hamilton is BBC News's social media editor. You can find him on Twitter @chrishams

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