BBC BLOGS - The Editors

Leaving Millbank

Gary Smith | 11:48 UK time, Wednesday, 5 December 2007

This week I leave Millbank (the BBC's political news HQ) after nearly 10 years, to take over as UK news editor at Television Centre. There was a time when I thought I might depart before Tony Blair, but in the end he managed to slip out of SW1 a few months ahead of me.

When I arrived at the beginning of 1998, Prime Minister Blair had just declared himself a “pretty straight sort of guy,” after getting caught up in the row over a million pound donation to Labour from the Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone.

I leave as Prime Minister Brown battles to limit the damage from big donations given to Labour through intermediaries by the property developer David Abrahams.

Plus ça change?

Actually a whole lot has changed. Not only has Downing St welcomed a new PM, the Tories - under William Hague in 1998 - are on to their fourth leader (the others being Howard, IDS, and Cameron, of course); and the Lib Dems - firmly in the grip of Paddy Ashdown when I started - are also soon to choose their fourth leader (the others, of course, Kennedy, Campbell, and from just before Christmas, either Clegg or Huhne). So a touch of the Steve McLarens in Tory and Lib Dem circles...

Westminster has seen two general elections (and nearly a third this autumn); the government has sent British forces into action five times; devolved government has taken shape in different forms across the UK; and there have been countless scandals and resignations.

But what haven’t changed much are the editorial issues that cross my desk. So I thought as a parting shot, I’d leave you a Christmas quiz on the kind of knotty problems that people have asked about, complained about, and that I’ve found myself writing blogs about in the past months. Unlike most yuletide quizzes, I'm afraid there are no handy answers upside down at the bottom of the page! Here goes:

    • When is it ok to turn up at 0630 with a camera outside a politician’s home?
    • When is it legitimate to investigate a politician’s private life? For example is it right to broadcast a story about a Labour Cabinet minister sending his or her child to a private school?
    • On short TV reports on policy matters should we always include clips from all three main parties?
    • Why do the best political stories tend to break in the newspapers?
    • Is pre-briefing on government or party announcements a good or bad thing?
    • When the BBC uncovered a story from good sources that a senior politician had a serious drink problem - but the politician’s spokesperson totally denied it - should we have gone ahead and run the story?
    • Should political correspondents get out of London more, or is their job to report on what’s happening at Westminster?
    • How do you tell a political correspondent they need to brush their hair, or wear a better coat?

All these and more, I leave to my successor and to you!

Let's call the whole thing off

Gary Smith | 14:04 UK time, Tuesday, 9 October 2007

We’re off!” That was the message last week. This week it’s changed to “It’s off!” How a few words from the prime minister can transform the political climate.

For many weeks now people have kept asking me, “So will there be an autumn election?”. I’m supposed to know these things, so it’s been tempting to come up with some certainty – “definitely, November the first” - or - “no way, the polls just don’t stack up”. But the sad truth is, I haven’t had the first idea. Nor to be fair, has anyone else, including the prime minister, who told us in his monthly news conference this week that he’d been thinking about it, but hadn’t made up his mind till the party conference season was over.

I remember some weeks ago when one of our political correspondents found out that Ed Miliband, the Cabinet Office minister, was writing Labour’s manifesto. That was interpreted by some as meaning the election was on. But as our very shrewd political editor pointed out, it could just as easily be the Labour equivalent of “BBC News bosses hold crisis talks on election,” which in reality was me phoning up a colleague at TV Centre to say it might be an idea to have a meeting sometime soon about the possibility of an early campaign.

In the hothouse of the political conferences in Brighton, Bournemouth and Blackpool, election fever took hold – not just in the media, but amongst the politicians too, with some serious briefing going on from people very close to the PM – and an election felt like a real possibility.

So the last couple of weeks saw us go into election planning overdrive. Teams were hastily put together to follow the party leaders round the country; discussions were held with the other broadcasters about “pooling” morning press conferences; half-term leave was cancelled; plans were set in place to bring correspondents back from round the world. For a day or two, the hot favourite was Sunday 4th November... until a wise head in the Political Research Unit pointed out that the government would have to pass a new law to make that possible. We even went through a period of consulting long range weather forecasts and checking daylight hours for the possible election dates. Down the road from Labour’s conference centre in Bournemouth the tarot card reader did a roaring trade...

The prime minister and Andrew Marr

Then on Saturday Gordon Brown inviited Andrew Marr into Downing Street to announce his decision (watch the interview here). If someone one day wanted to make a drama about this period, in the style of Dennis Potter, Andrew Marr would sit down opposite the prime minister, who would then pull his most serious sober face, and quietly start singing:

    “You say eether and I say eyether,
    You say neether and I say nyther;
    Eether, eyether, neether, nyther
    Let’s call the whole thing off!”

Nick Robinson on BBC NewsThe two would then tap-dance all the way down Downing Street, as Nick Robinson (first, I’m pleased to say) and Adam Boulton broke the news to the nation.

So no election for now, and for the foreseeable future. But at least we have some plans in place for when it does happen. And who says politics isn’t fun.

Politics unbriefed

Gary Smith | 16:57 UK time, Tuesday, 10 July 2007

This week we’ve seen what may turn out to be the past and future of Labour politics.

The past came in the form of the publication of Alastair Campbell’s diaries. This was a launch tightly controlled in the way New Labour perfected in opposition over ten years ago. Campbell made himself available for big interviews on BBC One with Andrew Marr on Sunday (watch here), and on Radio Four with John Humphrys on Monday (listen here) - but neither of them was allowed to see a copy of the book before they did the interview.

There was no newspaper serialisation of extracts, as there often is with political books – Campbell said he didn’t want to cash in by using the papers he’d so often attacked. The only extracts available were the ones chosen by Campbell himself and published on his own website.

And as Nick Robinson points out on his Newslog even the entire book itself - once you get hold of a copy - is just “extracts” from Campbell’s diaries, chosen by him for political reasons, rather than a full unexpurgated record of his time as Tony Blair’s press secretary.

So it could be argued this was the old politics of spin – tell people what the story is before they have a chance to work it out for themselves, and then tell them only what you want them to hear rather than the full story.

That’s the past. The future seems to be the style adopted by Gordon Brown’s government for launching its policies. Already we’ve seen this a few times – last week John Denham, the man in charge of Higher Education, surprised some journalists by not sending out his advisers to brief ahead of a Commons statement on changes to student grants; on Tuesday, the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, was making a Commons statement, similarly without pre-briefing; and Gordon Brown is due to tell the Commons on Wednesday about his future legislative plans - we can guess at the content, but so far, no briefing.

This is an interesting change. If the government sticks with it, we’ll no longer be waking up to stories saying “the prime minister will today announce…”, followed by an interview with a minister who - after insisting he mustn’t pre-empt his leader’s statement to parliament - then proceeds to spell out the key details. Instead, we’ll all have to wait till the PM or minister actually makes his announcement in the Commons.

No bad thing you may say. Certainly that’s the reaction from my colleagues at BBC Parliament, who are naturally pleased when government policy is revealed first in the chamber. On the other hand, you may feel you like due warning of what’s coming up, so you can judge whether to tune in to a government statement on News 24 or Five Live. What’s your view?

A fresh spin-cycle?

Gary Smith | 16:47 UK time, Friday, 1 June 2007

Next month, two 38 year old men are taking over communications for the two main political leaders - but their age is about all they have in common.

Gordon Brown has chosen Mike Ellam, a career civil servant, to be his main spokesman; David Cameron has gone for Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor. Ellam has spent years behind the scenes at the Treasury; Coulson spent years winning newspaper awards through sex scandal scoops – in one busy year, his paper exposed David Beckham, Sven Goran Eriksson and David Blunkett – until he resigned over the royal phone-tapping affair.

Political journalists at Westminster will have plenty of contact with Ellam who’ll conduct the daily Downing Street briefings, making him the official voice of Gordon Brown. They’ll probably have less to do with Coulson though, who might well prefer to use his links to Fleet Street editors to get the Tory message across at a higher level.

The fact that Coulson worked for Rupert Murdoch will not have been a hindrance in his getting the job: it’s seen as important for the Tories to win over the likes of The Sun and the Times. The appointment of an ex-Murdoch man may however go down less well in the newsrooms and boardrooms of the Telegraph and the Mail.

Political leaders taking on top journalists is not a new idea. Most famously, on the Labour side, Alastair Campbell became Tony Blair’s press chief after being political editor of the Daily Mirror. Before him, another newspaperman, Joe Haines, did the same job for Harold Wilson, and went on to be political editor of the Mirror after he left Downing Street.

Over the years, the Tories have scoured Fleet Street to recruit their spin doctors too. Margaret Thatcher’s chief press secretary, Bernard Ingham - who was at her side throughout her premiership - had a past as a Labour Relations correspondent on the Guardian. And William Hague was looked after by Amanda Platell, who’d been sacked as editor of the Sunday Express for running a story on Peter Mandelson’s relationship with a Brazilian man.

This time the word around Westminster was that David Cameron was looking for a top TV journalist, because he was particularly keen to try to get his message right on the TV bulletins. So the announcement that Coulson had got the job came as a bit of a surprise. Insiders say he’s very pleasant, charming and dynamic, but to date few have detected in him a profound interest in party politics.

So when the two men take over next month – Coulson the tabloid editor versus Ellam the Treasury boffin– we’ll be entering a new spin-cycle in British politics. Whose style will get the message across best? We should of course remember that both party leaders have hinted that the age of spin is past, so maybe the biggest change will actually be a new era of straight talking.

Too much on Blair?

Gary Smith | 10:23 UK time, Monday, 14 May 2007

Did the BBC do too much on the Blair departure story? Some of you think so. Among your complaints: it’s been reported for months that he’s about to go, so what’s new? He’s not going just yet – in fact he’s not actually going for another seven weeks. One caller even said: “Has Tony Blair died?”

numberten_203ap.jpgValid points. We broadcast a huge amount on this story. Right through the day we covered – exhaustively, some would say - the events, the reaction, and the analysis.

Why?

Because the end of Tony Blair’s prime ministership is an important moment in British politics and British life. It’s a moment to look at his achievements over the past ten years, at what’s gone well and what’s gone badly, and at how his leadership has changed the country.

We received an enormous amount of feedback from our audiences, some negative about aspects of what we said, some positive. But interest was exceptionally high; and the vast majority of the viewers, listeners and readers who communicated with us were enthusiastic about the seriousness with which we treated the story.

You may not have agreed with everything we said, or with the emphasis we put on one aspect of his premiership over another (why so much on Iraq and so little on Northern Ireland?). But broadly you wanted the breadth and depth of what we provided.

And why now? Why not wait till Mr Blair’s last day as prime minister? I suppose the answer is that politics is a brutal business. Once you’ve announced the date of your departure, attention moves on very quickly to the successor, in this case – unless something very surprising happens – Gordon Brown.

So to have waited till the end of June, when Tony Blair finally closes the door of Number 10 behind him, would have seemed like turning up at the party after all the other guests had left. Particularly as every other broadcaster and newspaper also chose this moment for their assessments of the Blair years.

Beyond Westminster

Gary Smith | 10:26 UK time, Friday, 27 April 2007

On Thursday 3 May, much of the UK goes to the polls. In England, there’s a big set of local elections pretty much everywhere except London. In Wales, voters elect their assembly. And – perhaps the biggest contest of all - in Scotland, there are elections for the parliament and councils too (I spent last weekend on the phone to my aged mum in Dunoon trying to explain the three different votes she has, and the intricacies of the Additional Member PR system).

With all this going on, things get a bit quieter around Parliament in London. Most MPs are away campaigning. With the tumbleweed blowing through the corridors of power, political correspondents – accustomed to spending much of their working lives inside the Westminster bubble – seize the chance to emerge blinking into the sunlight, and travel Britain gauging the mood of the nation.

blackpool.jpgSo in recent days Nick Robinson has been to Blackpool calling bingo numbers and talking to men with tattoos (which you can watch here); James Hardy in the Midlands has found disillusioned Labour voters cuddling up to the BNP (which you can watch here); and nurses have demonstrated a robotic body to Guto Harri, as he checked out rumours of a resurgent Tory vote in Wales (which you can watch on Friday's Ten O'Clock news).

It’s not rocket science – if you want to find out what people are really thinking, go out and talk to them. We sometimes boldly give it a go even when there aren’t elections going on. But so often we get sucked into the Westminster vortex, where - as Tony Blair said recently - a raised eyebrow from him will get variously reported and analysed as support for/ scepticism about a David Miliband leadership campaign.

Not to say this stuff isn’t important.

But all three correspondents mentioned above have reported back to me feelings of surprise at some of the views they’ve encountered, and a degree of enlightenment through connection with members of the voting public.

So an election campaign – where there aren’t endless Westminster-based news conferences – can be an invigorating business, at least for correspondents who spend most of their lives in one small area of London.

When the results come in next Thursday and Friday, there’ll be loads of coverage – but it’s not been so intense during the campaign. How do you think we’ve judged that – too much? Too little? Have we covered the issues you think are important? Let me know – we’ve still got a few days left to liberate yet more of our correspondents from the shackles of Westminster and send them out round the country.

Twelve days in March

Gary Smith | 10:11 UK time, Tuesday, 20 March 2007

It’s not often at Westminster that you run up against the law. In normal times, covering politics is both important and exciting without the need to dodge bullets or jail. Which is why the Westminster team investigating cash for honours found itself swimming – or at least paddling – in uncharted waters, when the police asked the Attorney General to get an injunction to gag us from broadcasting our story.

MillbankIt started on a Thursday morning – Thursday 1 March - when Reeta Chakrabarti rang me with a good story from an excellent source. It took us six days to get our full story out; and another six to broadcast the story of the gagging. So 12 busy, frustrating and challenging days. Here’s how it felt from the inside:

• Day 1. Reeta gets the story. It’s a significant new development – one of Tony Blair’s top aides (Ruth Turner) has claimed that Lord Levy, the PM’s chief fundraiser, put to her a version of events about his role in the drawing up of the honours list which she felt was untrue. With Nick Robinson on board, we go in search of a second source. Late in the day we get that, and begin discussions with our News bosses and the BBC lawyers about putting it on air. But there isn’t time to approach the various people at the centre of the story. So we put the story on hold and go to the pub, where we studiously avoid saying anything about what we’ve been working on so frantically – the walls of the Marquis of Granby have ears…

• Day 2. Start asking for reaction from the people involved. Lord Levy denies any wrongdoing. More talks with News bosses and lawyers. Police tell us they don’t want us to broadcast. We tell them we intend to broadcast. Police go to the Attorney General to seek injunction. At 2130 the news comes through that we’ve been gagged. So instead of Nick leading the Ten O'Clock News with our cash for honours story, he has to restrict himself to a brief account of the injunction, which must have been tantalising to the viewers – “We’ve got a good story but we can’t tell you what it is….”

• Day 3. Rumours grow this Saturday that the Sunday papers are on to our story. How do they know? Reeta and Carole Walker try to find out what they have. From home, I spend the evening on the phone (while my wife parties at a Fratellis concert in Brixton, and my house is wrecked by seven children - my four plus three sleepover friends.) Get the newspaper first editions in Television Centre about 9pm. Sunday Telegraph and Mail on Sunday have parts of our story. Discuss with lawyers what we can broadcast, which ends up as another tease: ”The BBC can now reveal some details….”

• Day 4. Frustration. Lots of detail in various Sunday papers – we know more but our injunction prevents us from broadcasting that, or the detail of what’s in the papers.

• Day 5. Partial victory. Our lawyers win a “variation” of the injunction allowing us to report who’s involved in the story… Ruth Turner, Lord Levy and Jonathan Powell, the PM’s Chief of Staff…but not what it’s about. Frustration piles on frustration at ten to ten when we get sight of the splash in the Guardian which has more detail than we’re able to broadcast. The Attorney General had attempted to gag them too but a judge ruled there was no point, once it became clear the papers were already printed and in the delivery vans. Many conversations with News bosses and lawyers about what we can report, and whether we can get a judge out of bed to lift our injunction. Eventually agree we can report that the Guardian has a story… but not what’s in it.

• Day 6. Victory! Our lawyers go back to court again – with Nick Robinson in tow. We are allowed to broadcast our original story – Nick goes live on N24 from the back of a taxi on return journey to Westminster.

• Day 7. All the papers run our story. Attorney General says “je ne regrette rien” (sort of). Denies he has acted for political reasons

• Day 8. BBC lawyers back in court to argue for the right to report the original reasons for our injunction. Decision delayed till next day.

• Day 9. Judge rules against us.

• Days 10, 11. Weekend respite.

• Day 12. BBC lawyers take our case to the Appeal Court and - finally - win the right to broadcast the reasons why the injunction was sought and granted in the first place… that the police believed that broadcasting details of the document we’d learned about could hamper their inquiry. Some interesting detail of what was said in court also revealed.

So those were our 12 days in March, in which we fought for the right to broadcast an important story, and – eventually – won.

At the end of last week, Assistant Commissioner John Yates – the man running the cash for honours inquiry – told MPs it would be unrealistic for him to set a deadline for the end of his investigation. What next, I wonder….

Substantiating stories

Gary Smith | 10:39 UK time, Tuesday, 30 January 2007

There's always a certain nervousness when you hear that the competition has got a story. Just before six o'clock last Thursday evening I happened to be visiting the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh with some other BBC editors when I got word that Tom Bradby had a cash for honours exclusive on the ITV News at 1830.

BBC Scotland's political editor, Brian Taylor - our guide for the day - showed his usual resourcefulness by piloting us into the members' bar, and getting the TV switched over to ITV (apparently MSPs generally prefer the BBC!).

A group of us gathered round the screen. Bradby had to compete with a nearby piper tuning up for a Burns Supper, but we managed to hear the gist of his story - that there was, he claimed, a second computer system in Downing Street, from which important e-mails appeared to have been deleted.

This sounded strong in the headline, but it turned out there wasn't much more in the piece beyond those two lines. And his story included Downing Street's absolute denial that this was true.

Our political correspondents back at Westminster checked it out, but couldn't stand up the story for themselves. So we reported it through the evening on our various programmes as Downing Street denying a report that... etc etc.

This caused the Daily Mail at the weekend to launch an attack on the BBC for "burying" the cash for honours story.

Sorry chaps but that's just nonsense.

This was a story on ITV News and in the Daily Mail. The rest of the newspapers reported it as we did - someone else's journalism that couldn't be verified independently, and that had been denied.

We're as keen on good stories as anyone else. As the BBC's deputy director general, Mark Byford, says in yesterday's Independent: "We want to break stories of significance and inform our audiences of new lines and developments. What matters is whether the stories stand up and can be substantiated." This one didn't and couldn't.

It's perhaps worth reminding people of a couple of other stories on the cash for inquiries inquiry where we were ahead. Allegations of offers of "a k or a p" (knighthood or peerage) which formed part of Bradby's story were originally a BBC scoop and lead story on the Ten O'Clock News before Christmas.

And more recently, the BBC was first to break news of the arrest of Downing Street aide, Ruth Turner, the most significant (and substantiated) development in the cash for honours inquiry since Christmas.

We're as keen to broadcast an important story as any other broadcaster or paper - but only if we're happy it's true.

A politician's private life

Gary Smith | 10:08 UK time, Wednesday, 10 January 2007

Ruth Kelly’s decision to send her son to a private school brought an avalanche of emails to the BBC. More than 3,000 of you sent your thoughts on the story – some accusing Ms Kelly of hypocrisy; others supporting her decision as a parent.

kelly_getty203.jpgBut some of you questioned whether the BBC should be doing the story at all, saying that how she organises the education of her children is her own business, and that broadcasting rides roughshod over the interests of the child.

So why did we do it?

I think the answer comes partly in the volume of emails. This story raises all sorts of issues which strike a chord with many viewers, listeners and readers – provision for special needs in schools; whether this works best in mainstream or special schools; how the government’s record on this stands.

But it’s also about the rights and wrongs of a cabinet minister and former education secretary - from a party which champions state education – going private for her own children. In some people this rouses strong passions. As a group of our emailers have observed, it can be seen as the difference between what the powerful say and what they do.

Some of you say that a politician’s private life should remain private. But in this information-rich age, it can be argued that’s a privilege which people surrender when they enter public life.

The parent’s one thing; the child’s another. The BBC has no interest in invading the privacy of any child. Indeed we – like most of the rest of the news media – actively try to protect the privacy of children.

But once a story like this is in the public domain – a decision taken by the Daily Mirror - it’s difficult and probably wrong for us to try to put the genie back in the bottle.

Look at it the other way round – what if the BBC had chosen not to broadcast the story? It’s front page news in most newspapers, the lead on other broadcasters, and all over the blogosphere... and the BBC ignores it... Would that have served our audiences well? Or would it have made you angry that we were in some way protecting the people in power?

Is it not rather our job to set the story in its proper context and tell it in a measured, balanced way, allowing you to make your own judgements?

Bursting the bubble

Gary Smith | 15:50 UK time, Tuesday, 3 October 2006

0630 Tuesday: The alarm on my mobile beeps. Where am I? I switch on the bedside lamp and fumble for my little lifesaver – a credit card sized bit of plastic attached to a white lanyard. There’s a picture of me – that’s promising – and the slogan “A New Direction” – accompanied by what looks like a child’s drawing of a rightward leaning oak tree.

Ah yes, I’m at the Tory conference. I’m in Bournemouth.

It’s a very odd time of year. The political broadcast media bundle all their kit on to a fleet of lorries and zig-zag round the country, this year to Brighton, Manchester and Bournemouth.

There we unpack into a series of car parks, portacabins and – I kid you not – toilets, surrounded by such tight security that it quickly seems too much trouble ever to step outside the zone.

Now some might fear there’s a danger that we – and the politicians – become a tad cut off from reality. But worry not: we counter that by sneaking out for a curry in the evening. Occasionally we even go as far as to despatch a producer to voxpop some local people in the nearest high street.

Inside the zone, we speak our own language. Here’s a brief conference glossary to aid your understanding if you’re watching, listening to or reading any of our conference coverage.

First, that word I slipped in at the beginning – LANYARDS. They dangle round our neck to hang our conference passes on. Lose this and you have to go home (tempting….) Sky cheekily bought these up as mobile advertising space at Labour, which meant all BBC journalists were the proud wearers of badges boasting “Sky – first with breaking news.”

BUBBLE: A mini studio overlooking the conference hall. Home for News 24’s James Landale for three weeks.

BUSHES: The live BBC Two conference programme used to dress its set with assorted plants and flowers, possibly even the odd bush or two. They don’t do this any more, but the name has stuck. Hence the bizarre panicked shout across the newsroom of a morning – “Is Jenny in the bubble or the bushes?”

POOL: Sadly, not for swimming. An agreement between the broadcasters for one crew to shoot an event and share the pictures with everyone.

INGEST: We have a baby server this year, shared with the other broadcasters. The process of copying our pictures into it is known as ingesting. Hence: “Paul, ingest that Cameron pool NOW.”

FRINGE: Where senior politicians go to make gaffes. Also where much of the real debate inside a party happens.

RECEPTION: Late night booze-up for party researchers and journalists, occasionally visited briefly by a politician.

That’s enough conference talk. Just one more day in the seaside sunshine before the bubble and bushes are dismantled, our last pool fringe is ingested, and our lanyards are consigned to the dustbin of the 2006 party conference season.

Questioning Mr Blair

Gary Smith | 12:57 UK time, Tuesday, 12 September 2006

Should the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, have asked about UK politics during press conferences over the last three days given by Tony Blair with the Israeli, Palestinian and Lebanese leaders?

Nick’s questions - used in his reports on TV and radio bulletins - have sparked a heated debate on his blog. Some contributors feel they were totally inappropriate - one brands him “an embarrassment to his profession.” Others are supportive - one says that asking about important domestic issues is valid “anywhere at any time.”

Tony Blair during a press conference in BeirutIt’s a tricky issue. On foreign trips like this, a group of newspaper journalists, broadcasters and agency reporters travels with the prime minister, and - often to the bemusement of foreign leaders - takes every opportunity to pester Mr Blair about what’s going on back in the UK.

At the BBC we try to do more than this. We have huge numbers of different programmes and platforms and audiences with different interests, and we try to cater for everyone.

So yes, of course we ask about domestic politics; but we cover the diplomatic story as well, allowing editors back in London to decide which angle is the right one at a particular time for their audience.

In the Middle East over the past few days, we’ve had Nick Robinson and Five Live’s John Pienaar in place to pursue domestic politics; but we’ve also had the Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen, and correspondents based in the region such as James Reynolds, Matthew Price and Alan Johnston on the diplomatic story.

The reporting across three days has reflected different aspects of the developing stories.

So for example the BBC One Ten O’clock News on Sunday night led with Gordon Brown’s interview with Andrew Marr, and included Tony Blair’s reaction to it, which Nick Robinson then talked about from Jerusalem. But the programme also included a report by Jeremy Bowen on the substance of what the prime minister had discussed with Mahmoud Abbas.

Would it have been right for Nick Robinson NOT to have taken the opportunity to ask Mr Blair about what his Chancellor had said? Surely not – domestic politics can’t be put on hold while the prime minister travels abroad.

Political junkies will remember only too well Margaret Thatcher’s performance on the steps of the British Embassy in Paris in November 1990 after she’d failed to beat Michael Heseltine outright in the first vote for the Conservative Party leadership.

The BBC’s fearless chief political correspondent, John Sergeant, pounced with his killer question: “Mrs Thatcher, could I ask you to comment?”

Her spokesman Bernard Ingham then brushed Sergeant to one side to allow Mrs Thatcher to declare her intention to fight on. Two days later, she resigned.

Who remembers now that she was actually attending a meeting about European security? I’m sure John Sergeant was right NOT to ask about that.

When the history books are written about this past weekend, will Mr Blair’s Middle East trip be remembered as a moment when negotiations restarted between the different sides in the Middle East, or as a significant staging post on Mr Blair’s way out of Downing Street. As the old reporting cliché goes, only time will tell.

But at least Nick Robinson’s questions opened up the possibilities for alternative versions of history.

Feeding frenzy

Gary Smith | 14:55 UK time, Wednesday, 6 September 2006

There was a feeding frenzy in the Westminster newsroom yesterday. As word came through of - I think - the fourth letter of the day to Downing Street telling Blair he had to go/stay/speak out/stay quiet (delete as appropriate), Jon Devitt found a mouse in his drawers.

BBC Millbank officeJon's distinguished career has taken him to Bosnia, Iraq, Kosovo and all sorts of other hotspots. For many years now he's been based in the relative calm of Millbank, where he’s deftly explained politics to World TV and World Service audiences around the globe. But he's never experienced anything quite like this.

At approximately half past four, he just couldn’t resist any longer that bar of duty-free chocolate he'd been saving from his holiday in Spain. So he reached down to the back of his drawer, only to discover that - horror of horrors – his prized bar had been nibbled almost to nothing. Feeding frenzy or what….Little Milly had even chewed his earpiece!

Uproar ensued. His producer wanted him on air decoding the work of the Downing Street postman. But Jon wasn't having any of that; he wanted immediate action from Millbank's Chief Mouse-catcher (me).

This was perhaps the wackiest moment of a wacky day. At times I felt like an extra in the Monty Python film, The Life of Brian. ("That latest letter - is that from the Popular Front of Judea, or the Judean Popular Front?")

Disentangling the Blairites-for-Brown from the 2001 Intake from the Usual Suspects is a tough business, particularly when most of them aren’t prepared to pick up the phone.

Just 24 hours earlier I’d sat in a meeting with Nick Robinson, his producers, and the senior newsdesk editors at Westminster. We’d all been scratching our heads about how to take on the Blair story. Some fantastic ideas were bandied about, but we were worried about finding a “peg” for them to justify us doing the story on an important TV bulletin.

Yesterday was the antidote to all those worries. It became clear for all to see that really serious stuff is going on, mostly behind closed doors, but occasionally bursting out like a lanced boil. And it’s not just about the exact date when Tony Blair will pack his bags, it’s about the future direction of the government on issues that matter to everyone like crime, health, and energy.

So memo to self: don’t be shy of finding interesting and engaging ways to cover this running story, even when we fear there’s a danger of boring people.

But back to the important business of the day - Milly the mouse escaped. Jon Devitt and his colleagues up the end of the newsroom want a date NOW for his departure from Millbank. The mouse is silently defiant: reliable sources say he wants to go on and on, at least through to next summer. Who will win in this titanic struggle?

No news is...

Gary Smith | 10:31 UK time, Wednesday, 23 August 2006

“Summertime…and the livin’ is easy. Fish are jumpin’…”

I swing my feet up on the desk in my office at 4 Millbank, open Don DeLillo's excellent Underworld, and buzz my assistant to mix me another Martini. Another 47 days until Parliament's back, so no need to worry about work…

WHOA! Stop right there.

The MPs may be away from Westminster, the papers may report Tony Blair swilling beer and flashing his manboobs in Barbados, but our newsroom is a hive of activity. Hmmm… not quite a hive, perhaps. To be truthful, there’s an air of summer calm about the place.

In parliamentary termtime, producers charge around screaming at each other; correspondents huddle to calibrate the latest Blair/Brown rift; and – a bit like that old film Broadcast News - picture editors burst out of edit suites, tape in hand, to sprint along the corridor and get their lead story into TX before George and Natasha have finished reading the headlines. (Yes we do still work on old tape technology, sadly.)

In the summer, it’s more relaxed. Politics doesn’t stop, but it generally goes a little slower. We still of course need a core team to cover whatever happens, so I can’t let everyone go off on holiday.

This year for example there’s been an important political dimension to the two big August stories, the Middle East crisis, and the alleged terror bombing plot. David Cameron has launched a new party logo, and revamped his candidate A-list to try to get more women into Parliament. There’s even a leadership contest going on. (No I don’t mean between Gordon Brown and John Reid – that one’s not officially started yet; I mean for the top job in the UK Independence Party.)

But while the daily news ticks over, what we’re all really doing here is planning the autumn. And in this, there’s a certain symmetry between the political parties and political newsrooms. Many people in the Westminster world may be “recharging their batteries,” but most of us are also working ahead on the next phase of the political story.

So our focus is on the party conferences which get underway early in September. Like buses, you wait all year, then they all come along together. The TUC, this year in Brighton, often sets the tone for Labour; hot on its heels – and handily in the same place - come the Lib Dems; then Labour swing into Manchester, breaking the seaside tradition; and finally the Conservatives, opting this year for Bournemouth.

We will do an enormous amount of broadcasting from these conferences. So now, in these quieter August days, we’re putting the building blocks in place for that – planning our coverage, negotiating space for a few desks in some God-forsaken conference centre car park, and booking hotel rooms.

Away from that, there’s all the admin that needs to be done to keep a news team ticking over – and which never seems to get done when Parliament is sitting. Completing appraisals, filling gaps in staffing, designing a new rota for the producers, that sort of thing.

So Don DeLillo will have to wait until I get home. And sadly even if I did have the time and inclination for Martinis, I don’t have an assistant to mix them.

But at least the pace IS a little less frenetic, which gives us all the time and space to think.

“So hush little baby, don’t you cry…”

Off the list

Gary Smith | 13:26 UK time, Tuesday, 4 July 2006

Hands up if you think we sit around at the BBC having meetings about what stories we are NOT going to cover? Well here’s a surprise: if you’ve got your hand up, yes you’re right!

Not because there’s a conspiracy to protect the government – but because there are loads of stories every day across the UK and the world, and we can’t get them all on air, even if we want to. We have to make difficult choices.

Today the Independent’s Pandora column accuses the BBC of burying a new story about John Prescott – that he stayed at the home of an American billionaire keen to turn the Millennium Dome into a super-casino.

This was first reported in a newspaper on Saturday. We covered it on various programmes on Monday - on the Daily Politics, and on News 24 (rather earlier than Pandora suggests). There are now various further allegations on political blogs.

So have we got our judgement right in not doing it prominently so far – for example, as one of the 10 or so stories on BBC One’s Six O’Clock News?

I’d say yes, it’s not quite crossed that threshold yet – at the time I’m writing this - to become a major story. But we have a couple of correspondents looking at it, so if it takes off, we’ll have it on air.

And unless I’m missing something, the Independent’s own editors don’t rate it big enough to mention as a news story anywhere in today’s paper...

[Footnote: Our news website and Radio 4's World at One have covered a call by the Conservatives for the standards watchdog to investigate the allegations.]

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.