BBC BLOGS - The Editors

The challenge of reporting Britain's role in Europe

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Helen Boaden | 17:03 UK time, Monday, 12 December 2011

The issues involved in British membership of the European Union represent a faultline that runs not just through UK politics but through British society. It is a topic that frequently enrages viewers, listeners and readers like few others.

You only have to look at the poll in today's Times, suggesting widespread support for the Prime Minister's action at last week's summit, to see the depth and power of Euro-scepticism across the country. Like any highly controversial subject, it is always challenging for an impartial news organisation to report without inflaming strong views on either side of the debate.

Trust must be at the heart of the BBC's relationship with its audiences and that is why we listen carefully to the range of feedback audiences give us. We've had some criticism of our coverage over the weekend claiming it was too "pro-European". I've watched, heard and read a great deal of what we did and without any sense of complacency, I think we reported events fairly and accurately and tried hard to capture a very wide range of views about last week's summit.

It is not our job to hail any summit on any subject as a "triumph" or a "disaster". Our role is simply to report and analyse events and their fall-out.

Nobody disputes that there was a big row in Brussels last week or that the Prime Minister's approach left him standing alone among European leaders - but there is considerable disagreement about whether or not that is a good thing and what it might mean politically and economically. Our job is to explain what happened and interrogate the different perspectives taken on Mr Cameron's stance so that our audiences can judge for themselves.

So on Friday and over the weekend we attempted to discover just what it was that the Prime Minister had vetoed, which safeguards he was seeking for the City of London, and what had changed for the UK and for Europe. We questioned a wide range of politicians and we picked up the unease among Liberal Democrats, which burst into the open with Nick Clegg's appearance on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday.

We've backed this up with analysis of the political and economic implications by our most trusted and respected editors: Nick Robinson, Gavin Hewitt, Robert Peston, Stephanie Flanders and a host of other correspondents.

Almost inevitably, this process leads to politicians having to field some uncomfortable questions from BBC interviewers. We don't do that because we have some hidden agenda but because the public expects us as an independent and impartial broadcaster to hold governments and opposition parties to account.

Over the weekend news programmes have featured in-depth interviews with George Osborne and William Hague for the Conservatives, Nick Clegg for the Liberal Democrats, a range of Euro-sceptic voices and some highly critical Labour politicians. All have different views, all have been allowed to express them - and rightly so.

It is the nature of contentious subjects - Europe, climate change, the Middle East - that they polarise opinion. Among those who feel strongly about them, BBC News is often accused of "taking sides". We must always be open to criticism of course - we don't get everything right. But criticism, however ferocious, should never deter us from focussing on the basics: telling the story accurately and fairly, testing it against a wide range of opinions and challenging all those opinions with rigour.

It's not an approach that makes us popular with everyone of course, but it may explain why audiences have remained so loyal to BBC News output over many decades.

Helen Boaden is the BBC Director of News

Newsnight: The facts

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Helen Boaden | 12:43 UK time, Thursday, 25 August 2011

After an extraordinary year of news, perhaps we have should have predicted that the summer would be busy. Even so, events have outstripped the imagination. There was the horrifying massacre in Norway, the revelations and resignations of the phone hacking scandal, riots erupting in England and then Libya crashing back into the spotlight. And all that was set against a backdrop of mass demonstrations in Syria and the continued European debt and currency crisis.

Throughout this exceptional summer, BBC News has demonstrated its strength. Operating locally, UK-wide and globally, we have brought live coverage and in depth specialist analysis to all our audiences on radio, television and on line.
Many BBC News programmes and services have seen a surge in the numbers of people turning to them for facts and insight. We have had record audiences for our website and our News Channel for example. But it's also been an especially strong summer for Newsnight though by some of the recent comment in the newspapers, you would never know that. A wholly inaccurate and unfair narrative is emerging about Newsnight allegedly "losing its way".

Let's look at the facts about Newsnight. Over the summer, 13 editions have attracted over a million viewers on average as people have sought out an intelligent, lateral take on the news of the day. In the last two months, 11 million people have watched Newsnight - that's one and a half million more than for the same period last year.

Those strong audiences are not a surprise. Time and again, Newnight's discussions have set the agenda and made compelling television: Steve Coogan on phone hacking; Harman v Gove on the cause of the riots; Sir Hugh Orde on political interference in policing; David Starkey on race and culture.

Newsnight's sharp debates, witty insights and testing interviews may challenge or infuriate. But they rarely bore. Neither does the range of films from the Newsnight stable: Sue Lloyd-Roberts fearlessly going undercover in Syria; Paul Mason following in Steinbeck's footsteps exploring America's underclass; the investigations into the use of undercover police posing as protestors. They show journalistic skill and confidence of a high order.

Does Newsnight face challenges now which it didn't ten years ago? Of course it does. There is simply far more news and analysis available round the clock now than then. It's much harder to make an impact with any single piece of journalism. But even against a massively changed media landscape, the Newsnight brand retains real power. On big days Newsnight is attracting significant television audiences and viewers through the internet, the iPlayer and other digital outlets. It also has a passionate twitter following.

Newsnight remains a vital part of what we offer our audiences. We know they value its distinctiveness and its depth. As the news cycle gets faster and fiercer, there's never been more need for its unique and invaluable take on world events.

Helen Boaden is director of BBC News

Coverage of the TUC rally

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Helen Boaden | 17:09 UK time, Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The news coverage of the BBC, perhaps more than any other media organisation, comes under intense scrutiny for fairness and impartiality. This is as it should be. Licence fee payers represent the views of the whole country and they have a right to expect that the BBC reflects the diversity of their views.

But, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, this past weekend has highlighted just how difficult it is for an impartial broadcaster to please all the people all of the time.

The extensive BBC News coverage of the TUC rally in central London featured interviews with major figures on the march, protestors and critics. Supporters were challenged regularly - and robustly - on their alternative to the Government's programme and the Cabinet Office Minister Frances Maude featured prominently throughout a day of rolling news. We also tried to set in context the relatively small scale of the violent demonstration and to put across the views of the vast number of peaceful marchers.

Despite all this the BBC finds itself criticised by one prominent MP and several newspaper columnists for being biased towards the protestors - at exactly the same time as fielding complaints from people who thought that we were too hard on the demonstrators and their cause. This was a big news story and feelings about the Government's economic programme run high on both sides.

It is perfectly true that it is sometimes difficult to strike the correct balance and I hold my hands up when we don't get it right. On this occasion, though, I think the BBC did serve its audiences appropriately and thoroughly.

Impartiality is in our genes

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Helen Boaden | 11:13 UK time, Saturday, 18 September 2010

I always think that impartiality is in our DNA - it's part of the BBC's genetic make-up.

Anyone who thinks differently doesn't really understand how the organisation works and how seriously we take issues around balance and impartiality.

That's why, for example, we've planned our coverage of the spending cuts so carefully - to make the choices facing the government clear to our audiences and ensuring we cover the "whys and wherefores" of the spending review. It's how we always approach our reporting - whatever the subject.

The licence fee is the public's money so people are clearly fully entitled to their opinion on our coverage. And if they want to criticise it, of course they can and indeed will do so. There was one such example in the Daily Mail yesterday. There'll always be people who express views about our coverage particularly at a sensitive time politically. That's part of the warp and weft of living in a democracy. Our job is to ensure we remain absolutely impartial and present the facts to our audiences - without following any agendas.

For the broad audience BBC News is as respected and as valued as it's ever been. At big significant news moments such as the General Election and for everyday news and analysis audiences turn to us in huge numbers to help them make sense of the world - both at home and abroad.

That's because our audiences trust us and our specialist journalists like Nick Robinson, Stephanie Flanders, Robert Peston, Hugh Pym and Mark Easton. When stories are complex, highly charged and politicised, audiences rely on our specialists to give them context, assess evidence and test opinions without fear or favour.

Our presenters take professional pride in holding the powerful to account through fair but tough questioning. All our journalists - on and off air - are acutely aware of their responsibility to be impartial. That's why, for example, we report the problems of the BBC as we would any other institution. And that's why our trust ratings remain so high. And in a healthy democracy our audiences would not want it any other way.

Helen Boaden is director of BBC News

The role of citizen journalism in modern democracy

Helen Boaden | 09:30 UK time, Thursday, 13 November 2008

This week I gave the keynote speech at the e-Democracy conference. You can read what I said below. I would be interested to know what you think.


When I started my career in broadcasting - at Radio Tees - a commercial local radio station in Middlesbrough - we'd never heard of digital. Nor of the internet. Channel 4 was about to kick off but there was no Sky News; no ITV 2 and certainly no BBC News Channel - formerly known as News 24.

Today, as you will know, on average every person in the UK spends approaching half their waking hours using communication tools like PCs, laptops, mobiles, TVs, radios, iPods and other digital devices.

David DimblebyLast week, 5.5 million people tuned into our US election programme with David Dimbleby. Interestingly, we don't know the precise figure for 1979's programme but we can be pretty certain it was many, many more.

What we are seeing in television is audience fragmentation - the natural impact of greater audience choice in a multi channel age. When people have a lot to choose from, they go off in all sorts of directions. It means that really huge audiences for television news on all channels are a thing of the past.

You can see this quite clearly in the figures. In 2006 - in homes with digital television, news viewing fell by a third. And the numbers watching current affairs fell by half.

Interestingly, soaps don't suffer the same decline.

And all this in the context that analogue television switch off begins this year and ends in 2012. In just four years, we're fully digital.

Today, and increasingly in the future, audiences want the news at the time they want it; on the platform most convenient to them and tailored to the subjects or agenda they find most appealing.

So the biggest challenge for us is about our relationship to the people who matter most - our audiences.

It's about capturing and keeping their hearts and minds. And for audiences who want to join in, that means including them in the process of making the news.

Our journalism is now fully embracing the experiences of our audiences, sharing their stories, using their knowledge and hosting their opinions; we're acting as a conduit between different parts of our audience; and we're being more open and transparent than we have ever been.

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Rebuilding trust

Helen Boaden | 10:44 UK time, Monday, 31 December 2007

Several years ago when I was controller of Radio 4, I commissioned the Reith Lectures from the philosopher and ethicist, Onora O’Neill. She took as her subject the issue of trust and argued that the so-called “revolution in accountability” of the last decade, with its ever increasing micro-performance measures, had singularly failed. This revolution had not reduced mistrust in institutions. Rather, she argued, it had actually reinforced a culture of suspicion and disappointment.

Onora O’Neill’s lectures struck a nerve with a huge number of listeners as well as The Sun which ran a glowing editorial on them – definitely a first for the Reith Lectures!

We have a lot of performance measures at the BBC and I daresay we can look forward to more. Many of them are valuable – they connect us with the attitudes of our audiences for example and give us insight into our weaknesses. But as the events of the summer demonstrated with horrible clarity, you need a lot more than performance measures to build trust between your organisation and the people who use your services.

The shaming revelation that some of our competitions had been codded and some of our winners didn’t actually exist was a shock to many inside and outside the BBC. A few tried to shrug it off. Others took comfort from the fact that no-one at the BBC made a bean from these incidents - unlike some of our commercial competitors whose faked competitions made millions. But the vast majority of BBC people know that if you take the public for a ride – whatever your motivation - you will not be readily forgiven. It’s fundamentally disrespectful to the audience which pays for you.

So 2008 will be an important year for rebuilding a battered trust with our audiences. Some of it will include performance measures: everyone involved with content must do the Safeguarding Trust course for example and the BBC Trust will be counting to make sure they do. Parts of the press have depicted this training as a kind of Maoist re-education camp where we learn to tell the truth. I’ve done the course and they’re wrong: it’s a rigorous seminar about artifice and truth in production techniques with lots of discussion and debate. And yes, there are some right and wrong answers and yes, people understand and accept them.

But training is only part of what we must do next year. The real challenge in 2008 is the same as it is every year. It’s about good old fashioned integrity. It’s about living up to our values on a daily basis and being confident enough to own up when we fall short. In News, that means accuracy, impartiality, independence, fairness and open mindedness remain at an absolute premium.

Recently I was talking to a group of very bright and thoughtful senior journalists at Radio 5Live. One of them said that in the current climate, people are now fearful about making mistakes. Might we be in danger of killing creativity?

I don’t think so. I want people to be imaginative and take calculated creative risks and there’s absolutely no sign of this waning in the organisation. But I think that we should be alarmed about getting things wrong and making mistakes for a very simple reason: people in overwhelming numbers believe what we tell them. We must never take that lightly. It’s a huge responsibility and privilege. Indeed, it’s what trust in BBC News is all about.

As 2008 begins, we shall endeavour to continue to earn that trust. And I know that you will keep us on our toes as we do it.

Reorganising BBC News

Helen Boaden | 15:40 UK time, Thursday, 18 October 2007

Just possibly, you might have noticed that this is a big day at the BBC – a day when our vision for the future has been laid out and its consequences in terms of job losses. (You can read an edited version of a speech I gave to the staff of BBC News earlier today.)

NewsroomEssentially, a reduced licence fee settlement, together with tough efficiency targets, mean that we need to radically change the way we work to best serve our many different audiences. In the biggest overhaul of BBC News in 15 years, we are going to become truly multi-media. You can get an idea of what we have in mind from my speech to the staff of BBC News.

We may be reducing posts in News but we don’t plan to reduce quality. As you can see from our list of investments, we’re putting money into good old-fashioned journalism as well as new services via our web. We treasure our specialist talent because we know their skills, expertise and range of contacts add immeasurably to our authority and distinctiveness.

Under our plan, they all come together to deliver their work in audio, video and online. And our big programmes – Today, Newsnight, Panorama – will continue to deliver their excellent journalism on radio and television but with the best websites we can offer, allowing audiences a truly interactive experience if they want it.

Most change is difficult and at times, painful. Undoubtedly we will not find the implementation of all this to be plain sailing. But standing still is not an option because our audiences are changing and we must change with them. As the brilliant architect of our plan, deputy director of news, Adrian Van-Klaveren, wryly pointed out to me today: “This is just the end of the beginning.”

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Red tape reporting

Helen Boaden | 16:16 UK time, Tuesday, 14 August 2007

In a blog post entitled How BBC does Labour's dirty work, Iain Dale wrote that our coverage on Sunday of John Redwood's proposals to cut £14bn in red tape gave undue prominence to the Labour party's reaction to them. He writes: "[T]he BBC are starting all their news bulletins about John Redwood's Competitiveness Commission reports with the words...'The Labour Party has today criticised...' This has happened many times before. Instead of concentrating on the substance of a Tory policy announcement the BBC seem to revel in giving Labour Ministers the microphone to explain how whatever the policy happens to be is making the Tories more right wing than Michael Howard."

Voter X, a commenter to the same blog post, said that the use in a TV report of footage of John Redwood "failing abysmally to sing the Welsh Anthem" appeared to be "totally irrelevant and somewhat slanted". It's a line which was picked up in this morning's Sun, which claimed the BBC had made a joke of Mr Redwood's proposals. It also claimed that "the caustic bulletins could have been scripted by Labour ministers".

In retrospect we weren't right to use that footage again, which came from a long time ago. But as for the claims about the wordings of the bulletins, the facts just don't support Iain or the Sun. For the record, here are the opening words from each of our news stories:

BBC One/News 24, 6am: The Conservative leader, David Cameron, is considering radical plans to help businesses cut 14 billion pounds a year by cutting red tape and regulation. The proposals have been put forward by a senior figure on the right of the party, John Redwood. Labour says it's evidence the right had regained control of the Tory agenda.

Radio 4, 8am: "The Conservative leader, David Cameron, is considering radical plans to cut 14 billion pounds in red tape and regulation -- put forward by a senior figure on the right of his party, John Redwood. Labour says it's evidence the right has regained control of the Tory agenda."

Radio 2, 11am: "The Conservative leader, David Cameron, is considering plans to cut fourteen billion pounds in red tape and regulation, put forward by the senior right-winger, John Redwood. Labour says it's evidence those on the right are back in control of the Tory agenda. Mr Redwood wouldn't be drawn on specific details of his proposals."

BBC News website, Ceefax and Digital Text: "Tory leader David Cameron is looking at plans to cut £14bn in red tape and regulation for UK businesses. The plans have been put forward by John Redwood - one of the most senior figures on the Tory right - who called them "a tax cut by any other name". The focus is on easing regulation such as data protection laws, rules on hours, and health and safety regimes. Labour claims the proposals show the party is lurching back to the right in the face of disappointing polls."

Five Live, 11am: "Labour has condemned the latest review of policy carried out by the Conservatives as a lurch back to the right wing of politics. The review -- led by John Redwood -- identifies ways of deregulating business. The secretary of state for business, John Hutton, said the Tories were now more right wing than they had been under William Hague and Michael Howard.

News 24, noon: "The Conservative leader, David Cameron, is considering radical plans which the party claims could save businesses 14 billion pounds a year. The proposals would cut red tape and regulation, including data protection laws, and health and safety legislation.

BBC One, Lunchtime news, noon:
"Good afternoon. The Conservative leader, David Cameron, is considering radical plans which would cut fourteen billion pounds in red tape and regulations for businesses in the UK. They've been put forward by the former Cabinet minister, John Redwood. Labour claim that the right wing is taking control of the Tory party."

BBC One, 6.05pm: "It's being called a 'tax cut by any other name'. The Conservative leader David Cameron is considering a radical programme of cuts in red tape and regulation."

BBC One, 10pm:
"The Conservative leader David Cameron is considering a radical programme of cuts in red tape and regulation, especially for small businesses."

In addition, John Redwood was interviewed at length about his report by Peter Sissons on BBC One and News 24 on Sunday morning, on Five Live on Sunday, and on Radio 4's World Tonight on Monday. Naturally we included in our coverage the reaction from the Labour party, and also from the LibDems, the CBI and the TUC. There can be a temptation sometimes to present stories as merely matters of party politics, but despite what the Sun says, we believe that we gave good consideration to the substance of the proposals.

What's the future for News?

Helen Boaden | 17:15 UK time, Friday, 6 July 2007

I gave a speech at Broadcast's Future of News conference on Wednesday. You can read what I said there below. Let me know what you think...

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Wrong decision

Helen Boaden | 20:17 UK time, Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Sometimes bad mistakes happen on the worst possible day. And that's exactly what happened this afternoon.

I saw it myself: I was watching coverage of the absolutely riveting final PMQs (you can watch it in full here, or download highlights here) with Tony Blair on The Daily Politics when it suddenly cut away in the middle of his valedictory statement to a couple of trails and the tennis.

As a consequence, we only learned later that we had missed Mr Blair talking about his fear of the House of Commons, and a unique moment when both sides of the House gave him a standing ovation. A lot of you were taken aback and upset by the switch - and certainly Andrew Neil and the production team were deeply disappointed not to share this with you after the care and passion they put into the programme on such a special day.

After looking into this, I can at least reassure you that this was cock up rather than conspiracy. A wrong scheduling decision was taken for which the BBC can only apologise. Believe me, no one involved would have wanted you to miss any part of this important event. Thankfully, News 24 was also covering PMQs live so we hope viewers were able to switch there.

One month on

Helen Boaden | 09:38 UK time, Thursday, 12 April 2007

Today marks a very sober moment for all of us in BBC News: exactly a month ago, our friend and colleague, Alan Johnston, disappeared in Gaza. We believe he was kidnapped and we feel growing concern for his well being.

Alan JohnstonSince that time, there have been tenacious and determined efforts by members of BBC News both in London and in the Middle East to try to achieve his release. Our colleagues in BBC Scotland have offered Alan’s family their practical support. There have been diligent and sustained efforts behind the scenes by representatives of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and we have pressed our own contacts for all they are worth. It is a slow, difficult and frustrating process where rumour and speculation abound but there is almost no hard evidence about what has happened to Alan. However, we remain optimistic that he is safe.

We are extremely grateful for the support offered to Alan and his family and friends by journalists and News organisations around the world. There have been marches and rallies in support of Alan demanding his freedom. Every Monday at Television Centre and at Bush House, Alan’s colleagues come together to hold a short silence to demonstrate our solidarity with him. And in Gaza itself, Palestinian journalists have gone on strike to show their revulsion with what has happened and to demand action from the Palestinian Authority. They are also holding a round the clock vigil.

It is a measure of the man and his work that so many members of the public who have no direct connection with him, have also rallied to his cause. Prayers were said for Alan in many churches over the Easter weekend and over eight thousand people have signed our online petition asking for his immediate release.

Today, he will be in our thoughts as the hard work continues to secure his safe release.

The cross and the veil

Helen Boaden | 15:09 UK time, Sunday, 24 December 2006

If you asked me what words described the most challenging news theme of 2007, I would answer “the cross and the veil”. For me, that little phrase has become a shorthand for the divisions around identity, religion and politics which have galvanised fury and passion in many of our audiences and given us more than a few editorial headaches – many of which have been reflected through this Editors’ blog.

For an organisation committed to impartiality – which means we don’t take sides – we try to reflect all and every opinion in an argument. In practical terms, that meant that early in the year we showed enough of the Danish cartoons to give audiences an idea of what infuriated some Muslims. But we did not show them fully. We felt that would have caused gratuitous offence. Consequently we got it in the neck from both sides. Some called us cowardly for failing to defend free speech; others said we were offensively provocative in showing anything at all. Five Live was targeted by a systematic lobby campaign against the cartoons being shown and there was a small demonstration outside Television Centre. Being impartial, we reflected both sides attacking us on our own airwaves and quietly braced ourselves for the next such row.

It came in the form of an entirely inaccurate newspaper report that I had banned Fiona Bruce from wearing her cross on air. As I am generally not in favour of banning things and issuing edicts, the allegation that I had done so in this case came as something of a surprise to me.

The real story is much more mundane. At a seminar on impartiality run by the BBC’s Governors, I was asked what I might do if a Muslim news reader asked to wear a headscarf on air. I honestly replied that although I wouldn’t be very happy if it distracted audiences from what she was saying, I had recently noticed Fiona wearing a cross on air. Since I had no intention of banning that, I didn’t feel I could ban the headscarf. To do either would have been a sign of partiality.

Many disagree with me on this. Some think the cross is part of British culture and therefore acceptable while the headscarf is definitely not. Others think we should ban the lot – thus fostering a secular view of the world which many would regard as taking sides against religion. You can see how tricky this may become for us.

I don’t see any sign of the passion about identity and Britishness diminishing soon. Indeed, with a certain combination of circumstances, it could all become much more heated and divisive. For BBC News, that means yet more fine judgments and challenging decisions lie ahead as we try to serve all our audiences fairly and impartially.

Roll on 2007!

Too much coverage?

Helen Boaden | 15:11 UK time, Friday, 24 November 2006

Some of our radio listeners yesterday contacted us to say they thought we had given the death of Nick Clarke too much prominence. Of course it’s easy to lose perspective when a close colleague and friend dies but I really don’t think we misjudged our response to Nick’s death yesterday.

Nick was an outstanding journalist and broadcaster who touched the lives of the Radio Four audience through a range of programmes including The World At One. This was already very clear from the evidence of vast audience interest in and sympathy for Nick’s condition when he was diagnosed with cancer.

We knew therefore that there would be very, very many people who would want to know the news of his death and who would be saddened by it. In this context it was appropriate to lead the programme which he had presented since the late 1980s with the first news of his death and to carry a special, extended edition so that we could carry other news in full within the hour as well as a proper tribute. Later programmes on the network did not lead with the news about Nick.

We understand that for a minority of the audience the coverage was excessive - but not for the majority, as is clear from the massive feedback we have received via e-mails and phone calls. For example, more than 2,500 comments were posted on the Have Your Say site. Moreover, the story was one of the most read pages on the BBC News website yesterday in the UK - in the top four.

This wasn't a case of grieving colleagues having their news judgements distorted by a sense of their own loss; we took a considered view about the most appropriate way to handle the news of his death.

Bonus controversy

Helen Boaden | 14:10 UK time, Wednesday, 22 November 2006

Not for the first time in human history, an internal e-mail has come to light which seems to put BBC News in a bad light. It’s grabbed headlines and stirred up modest controversy in the blogosphere.

bbc.jpgThe facts are simple: the e-mail was sent by a manager to the newsgatherers in our Westminster office exhorting them to focus hard on a major issue of public interest – the so-called Cash for Peerages Inquiry. After encouraging them to work their contacts and dig deeply into the story to ensure BBC News – and our audiences – got wind of any new development first, the e-mail went on to offer £100 to anyone who could get us a genuine scoop.

It was a wry one liner and a complete “one off” at the end of the e-mail, mischievously playing on the idea of cash incentives – the issue at the heart of the current controversy on party political funding.

Was it a good idea to encourage our reporters to go the extra mile to be first with a story? Absolutely yes. Was it a good idea to offer a cash bonus? No. As soon as senior managers like myself became aware of the e-mail yesterday we made it clear that it was wholly inappropriate. No bonus has been paid in relation to this story and no bonus will be paid in future.

We are fully committed to providing impartial, fair and balanced reporting at all times. We know the public trusts us to deliver impartial and accurate coverage and we take that trust very seriously.

The context of the one liner offer was the normal journalistic desire to obtain and broadcast news first. That’s what our audiences expect of us, particularly on News 24, Radio 5 Live and the BBC News website, and that is what we will always strive to provide.

Bias at the BBC?

Helen Boaden | 10:51 UK time, Tuesday, 24 October 2006

I am not surprised that some readers of the Mail on Sunday, the Daily Mail and the Express are furious with the BBC. If I had paid my licence fee in good faith for an organisation which claims it is passionately committed to impartiality, only to discover – according to the Mail on Sunday – that the organisation itself has admitted it is biased, I would be pretty livid.

According to the Mail on Sunday, and other recent press reports, we have admitted that we are an organisation of trendy, left-leaning liberals who are anti-American, biased against Christianity, in favour of multiculturalism, and staffed by people who wouldn’t know an unbiased fact if it hit them on the head.

The Mail on Sunday based its story on a leak from what it called a “secret” meeting of BBC executives and governors, and claims that it was our former political editor, Andrew Marr himself, who confessed to the liberal bias of the organisation. His take was reinforced by Jeff Randall, who until recently was our business editor. “If they say it, then it must be true” was the thrust of the story.

Well I was one of the people who was at the "secret" meeting. and I have to say the reality was somewhat different to the way the press are reporting it.

For a start, this wasn’t a secret meeting... it was streamed live on the web. The meeting was made up of executives, governors and lots of non-BBC people like John Lloyd from the FT and Janet Daley from the Daily Telegraph. It was planned as a serious seminar to investigate and understand better the BBC’s commitment to impartiality in an age in which spin and opinion riddle much of the world’s journalism. The seminar was part of a bigger project kicked off by Michael Grade earlier this year to re-examine the underlying principles of impartiality in the digital age when boundaries between conventional broadcasting and the new platforms will increasingly disappear.

To keep us all on our toes, a rich variety of formats was used during the day. I was on a "Hypothetical" – where a panel of people in charge is given a series of mounting “real life” crises and asked how they would handle each of them. It was fun, occasionally illuminating, and often very challenging.

There was for example a heated debate about the whether or not a Muslim newsreader should be allowed to wear a headscarf. Jon Snow was all in favour. BBC Washington correspondent Justin Webb was vehemently against. I had deep reservations because I felt a scarf would be a distraction from the news but pointed out - in the interests of debate - that if we banned the headscarf, how would we justify that cross which I was sure I had once seen Fiona Bruce wearing. From this discussion emerged the wholly untrue newspaper story that the BBC had banned Fiona’s cross.

The point of the Hypothetical is to generate discussion, debate and ideas. The situations aren’t real; the discussions aren’t binding and they certainly don’t define BBC policy.

There was discussion of the BBC’s culture and some provocative points were made.

Jeff Randall made a few good jokes about the occasional examples of political correctness he found among some BBC colleagues. I remembered an incident about 15 years ago when a freelance reporter working for me on a programme about bullying in Feltham Young Offenders’ Institution asked me if it was acceptable to broadcast what they had discovered: that most of the bullies in Feltham at that time were black and most of the victims were white. Not only was it acceptable, I told the reporter, if he had evidence of this he had a duty to report it. And so we did.

Andrew Marr made some comments about BBC culture being more liberal than the rest of the country – points he makes in his book on journalism.

The main thing is, however, they were both giving their personal opinions. That is entirely their right and what they had been asked to do in the interests of discussion. I disagree with them. I found their claim of liberal bias unconvincing – based on anecdote and attitude rather than evidence.

The BBC employs more than 20,000 people across the UK. It is not a chattering class club of the kind depicted by the papers. It is a hugely varied organisation with many different cultures and a huge variety of opinions on every single issue among its staff. What does unite BBC staff however, is a deep commitment to BBC values and at the heart of those values is a commitment to impartiality.

When I first joined the BBC I asked a very experienced and subtle journalist what was meant by BBC impartiality. “It means we don’t take sides,” he said. “We don’t take sides either explicitly or implicitly. We test all opinion toughly but fairly and we let the audience make up their own minds.”

It’s a simple but absolutely correct definition which audiences see, hear and read in our output everyday. In the end, the personal views of our staff are not the point. The issue is that their views and opinions never stray on air.

And that’s where the broad audience comes in. What really counts is not what a group of BBC executives and VIPs think, or indeed what a few columnists believe. The important thing is whether or not our audiences think we are biased. And on that the evidence is robust.

Asked recently which of the four main broadcasters they would term "trustworthy", nearly two thirds - 60% - cited the BBC. In contrast, 26% said ITV, 16% mentioned Channel 4, and 14% Sky. (Mori, 2006)

That research is very cheering but it never allows us to rest on our laurels. Impartiality is not so much a fixed point as a process of open mindedness which should be the basis for everything we do in journalism.

Part of that open mindedness is being tested in exercises like the Hypothetical which ran at the impartiality seminar. No one has all the answers on any subject and debate and discussion are vital if we are to ensure that impartiality remains a living reality rather than an empty claim.

It’s a shame that the newspapers have made mischief with the seminar, but we won’t let this small storm put us off trying to get impartiality right.


Helen Boaden | 08:00 UK time, Monday, 26 June 2006

Welcome to The Editors, a new blog written by editors from across the range of BBC News outlets - TV, radio and interactive - about their issues, dilemmas, and highs (and lows) they face in doing their jobs. From Newsround to Newsnight, via everything from Radio One Newsbeat to the BBC News website, we hope all areas of BBC News will be represented here.

We are committed to being impartial, fair and accurate - these are the qualities which BBC News is rightly expected to uphold. But we also want to be open and accountable, and while this is nothing new (my colleagues and I are quite used to appearing on Newswatch on News 24 and Feedback on Radio 4), we are hoping this blog will be a fresh way of having a direct conversation with you, our audiences.

But of course the real strength of blogs is that they can be a conversation - which is where you come in. Tell us your views, either by adding your comments at the bottom of individual entries, or by e-mailing us directly. We want to know what you think.

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