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White House interview

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Simon Wilson Simon Wilson | 17:51 UK time, Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Justin Webb's interview with President Obama was months in the planning, confirmed on the morning and almost endangered by a security scare.

We have of course, like all news organisations, been talking to Obama and his press team since election day last November about the possibility of an interview. Our pitch was based on the BBC's global reach and the fact the president's words would be heard not only in English, but also in a host of languages around the world, including Arabic and Farsi.

An interview with an American president at the White House is not one you want to mess up, so we turned up some three hours before the allotted time.

Unfortunately, a minor security scare meant that our usual entrance was closed - and when it reopened, there was a long delay in getting all our camera equipment cleared.

The minutes ticked by and at one point, anxious aides started muttering worrying questions to me like, "when's your red line?" The implication was that if we weren't ready in time, wherever the fault, the president's busy schedule would pass us by.

The interview was to take place in the White House library and, out of respect for the historic nature of the room, great care is taken to prevent visiting TV teams from causing damage. One loyal retainer's job was to move the chairs for us, even if it was just a matter of inches. Another was dedicated to providing and carefully positioning a vase of flowers. It was all done with the minimum of fuss and helped to calm some anxious BBC nerves.

Eventually, the equipment made it through and we had (so we thought) 45 minutes to set up our cameras - just enough time for this kind of interview.

Five minutes later, a new aide appeared to inform us that the president would actually be joining us in 20 minutes' time. Adrenalin is a powerful drug and somehow our technical team was ready in time.

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The interview played out pretty much as planned. We wanted to press the president firmly on human rights in Egypt, where he is making his big speech this week, and on his public disagreement with the Israelis over West Bank settlements. But, as we have with previous presidents, we also wanted to get a sense of life behind the scenes at the White House.

And as we made our way out, we got a glimpse of our own. A secret service agent politely motioned to us to wait in the main corridor. A few moments later, the Obama girls Sasha and Malia skipped past - presumably on their way back from school - and headed upstairs.

Obama presidency's first 100 days

Simon Wilson Simon Wilson | 11:33 UK time, Wednesday, 29 April 2009

With the temperature in the 90s (Fahrenheit) here in Washington this week, it seems much more than 100 days since that bone-chilling morning in January when Barack Obama set off for Capitol Hill to be sworn in as president.

President Barack Obama
Whatever we were anticipating back then, I am not sure any of us tasked with covering Washington could have imagined the sheer scope of the new president's agenda. As well as promoting his hugely expensive economic stimulus package to combat the recession, Mr Obama has announced significant policy changes on stem cell research, on the holding of foreign prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and in relations with a range of countries including Iran and Syria. There have also been numerous other significant policy announcements which have received less coverage.

That's one of the reasons the BBC is providing such a wide range of coverage to mark the occasion. North America editor Justin Webb and our team of correspondents are examining all week what has and has not been achieved and attempting some early stock-taking of the Obama presidency.

There are often voices both inside and outside the BBC who wonder about the value of something as inherently artificial such as a 100 day deadline. But given the breathless pace of events since the Obama team took over, my sense is that this time it is as valid an exercise as it is ever likely to be. It's also worth pointing out, as Kevin Connolly does here that the concept of the first 100 days was originally conceived by a president - Franklin D Roosevelt.

Our aim is that by the end of the week, BBC news audiences will have a better understanding of the Obama administration, of what it says it is trying to achieve and where the potential pitfalls may lie.

Newsnight will be presenting a special programme from Chicago and there will be BBC News teams in Atlanta, Denver and St Louis in addition to our usual coverage from the east and west coasts.

We feel it is critically important to report America in its entirety at moments like this and not just from Washington, New York and Los Angeles.

One of the great things about BBC audiences is that they share our sense of ambition. They expect the BBC to be everywhere that matters and to be asking all the right questions. My favourite letter this week was from a Mr John Harvey, a reader who asked the following:

...I would like to ask why Justin Webb - or any of the other BBC correspondents in the United States - have failed to secure an interview with Mr Obama. His election is the single most important political event in my lifetime (I'm 53) and it is of the utmost public interest to have a substantial interview with Mr Obama on the BBC...

Quite, Mr Harvey, quite. And hopefully within the next 100 days...

Simon Wilson is the BBC's Washington bureau editor.

Inauguration coverage

Simon Wilson Simon Wilson | 13:00 UK time, Thursday, 22 January 2009

Barack Obama's inauguration as US president was an extraordinary event to be part of and is already posing some interesting editorial issues.

Barack Obama
For many, perhaps most Americans it was plainly a profoundly moving day to see an African-American installed in the White House. As a Brit who's lived abroad for more than a decade I was left reaching for comparisons - the best I could come up with was that it felt something like a landmark British election victory - 1979 or 1997 - and a Royal wedding rolled into one and then held on the coldest day in January.

In our coverage, we obviously need to reflect the genuine sense of excitement here without getting carried away ourselves or suspending the BBC's traditional approach of holding those in authority to account. I think we're broadly getting that right.

But it's interesting that in my e-mail inbox on Wednesday morning there was already a set of comments culled from our online audience beginning to criticise us and other news organisation for giving Obama too easy a ride. "Same wolf, different clothing" was the tenor of some of the messages I saw, although it's only fair to reflect that the messages were overwhelmingly favourable.

My sense is that this will resolve itself as the Obama administration begins putting out policies and we in the media start getting our teeth into reporting them. One seasoned Washington observer said yesterday that, despite his current huge approval ratings, he thought Obama might have the shortest honeymoon period for any recent American president.

On a practical level, we have a whole new set of contacts to build. For some years, the BBC has had a specialist White House producer based in the Bureau in Washington. His day started at 0700 am on Wednesday morning down at the White House, pressing flesh and making sure he picks up every snippet of information.

Politics in Washington is very personal and it's often who you know as much as which news organisation you work for. Traditionally, the main American TV networks and newspapers get the lion's share of access and interviews.

We're hoping that a new, outward-looking administration will look closely at the global audience of tens of millions the BBC can offer - in English but also in dozens of other languages including Arabic and Farsi.

Oh, and one thing I'm still working on - pronunciation. The new president is Bahr-AHK Obama with the emphasis on the second syllable. I'm afraid some BBC colleagues have still not quite caught on...

Simon Wilson is editor of the BBC's Washington bureau.

From Gaza to Harvard

Simon Wilson Simon Wilson | 14:45 UK time, Wednesday, 9 January 2008

It’s a long way from Gaza to Cambridge, Massachusetts. And not just in distance.

The last few months of my posting as the BBC’s Middle East bureau editor were dominated by our efforts to free Alan Johnston, my friend and colleague.

They were long days of anxious meetings with various characters from around the region, punctuated with brief, dusty and often hair-raising journeys into and out of the Gaza Strip.

Harvard University campusThese days, I’m to be found striding purposefully around the pristine campus of one of America’s oldest and finest universities on a one-year fellowship programme at Harvard University. (In truth, in this particularly snowy New England winter, I’m more often to be found tiptoeing inelegantly around enormous piles of slush).

It’s a big privilege, and one for which I am very grateful to my bosses at the BBC and the generous benefactors behind the Nieman Journalism Fellowships.

There are 30 journalists on the programme at Harvard, and one thing that’s immediately striking is the depth of the crisis in the American newspaper industry. A number of my US colleagues here do not know if they will have jobs to go back to. Every week seems to bring further cutbacks as the industry struggles to redefine itself for the internet age.

Part of the fallout from that is that foreign coverage now seems to be left in the hands of the New York Times, the Washington Post and a couple of other big papers. Smaller papers, and even the famous local broadsheet here the Boston Globe, have dispensed with their own reporters overseas and rely heavily on news agency coverage.

The BBC, and its brand of international news coverage, seems to be doing reasonably well in the States. My research has been completely unscientific and based almost entirely in and around Boston. (I suspect that in large tracts between America’s east and west coasts we may be completely unknown).

However, it does seem to me encouraging that a number of the students, professors and other university-affiliated people I come across (including my Lebanese-American barber!) get their news from the BBC; either on the web or through rebroadcasts of the World Service on National Public Radio. I have even uncovered a few hardy pioneers who regularly watch our new nightly TV bulletin from Washington on BBC America.

At least among America’s intelligentsia, there is in this election year a real thirst for proper, reliable international news. The kind that Alan Johnston and all the other fine BBC foreign correspondents in so many different parts of the world are delivering every day.

The joy of Alan

Simon Wilson Simon Wilson | 14:52 UK time, Monday, 9 July 2007

The last few days have without doubt been the very best in my 18 years with the BBC.

Alan Johnston and Simon WilsonIt has been an enormous privilege to spend Alan Johnston’s first few days of freedom at his side. (I was the one with the enormous smile in most of the photos and TV footage last Wednesday!).

The dignity and calm professionalism which Alan has displayed since his release has been astonishing, even to those of us who knew him well and knew what a quiet, determined and selfless man he has always been.

As Alan’s friend and immediate senior colleague, I felt an enormous responsibility when he was abducted on 12 March in Gaza City.

For the first three weeks or so, I moved to Gaza myself with a couple of close colleagues to lead our operation. We met the Palestinian president, prime minister and a host of other savoury and less savoury characters who we believed might be able to help.

Later, we stood shoulder to shoulder with the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate as their incredibly moving campaign to free Alan took to the streets.

But in the end, we felt forced to leave Gaza because of the threats to us. One grim day, a group of masked and armed men apparently looking for a hostage turned up 20 minutes after one of my colleagues had just left a building in Gaza City. Shortly afterwards, a contact in a western intelligence service gave us chilling and compelling evidence that our every move was being followed by a car full of armed gang members.

So while Alan whiled away the interminable hours in his cell somewhere in Gaza, our efforts had to be focused in from outside. From a base in Jerusalem, we worked closely with British diplomats and other experts sent out from London and stayed in close contact with key colleagues from the BBC Arabic Service still inside Gaza.

As is common in such situations, there were several approaches to us. Some were outright cranks, others clearly had some contacts with the group holding Alan. Expert advice was to check out every possible approach, however unlikely, as it might just prove the key.

In the end, the Hamas takeover in Gaza – which no-one could have predicted – provided a big opening. Now, for the first time, the kidnappers could no longer play off rival powerbases against each other. Hamas immediately placed freeing Alan at the top of its priority list.

We had no advance knowledge of Hamas’s precise plans to free Alan. But in the final few days, I was able to hold private meetings with senior leaders of the organisation in both Damascus and Gaza and impress upon them forcefully, and in private, our desire for a peaceful resolution.

The fact that they achieved this has sparked a debate about whether Hamas should be rewarded politically. Neither I nor the BBC will be entering that debate. But to the individuals from all quarters who worked many long days – and nights – to achieve this result, Alan, myself and all BBC colleagues owe a huge and heartfelt vote of thanks.

Alan Johnston: A week on

Simon Wilson Simon Wilson | 13:12 UK time, Monday, 19 March 2007

It has now been a week since our colleague Alan Johnston left this building and headed for his apartment in Gaza City. Although we have not been able to establish exactly what has happened to Alan, it seems certain that he has been abducted and is being held somewhere in the Gaza Strip.

As time passes, we are growing increasingly concerned about Alan's safety.

Over the past week, we have worked intensively with the authorities in Gaza and elsewhere to try to locate Alan and we continue to receive assurances that everything possible is being done.

However, it is disappointing that after seven days there has still been no firm word either about his whereabouts or his condition.

We call on everyone with influence on this situation to redouble their efforts now that Alan has been missing for more than one week.

New style guide

Simon Wilson Simon Wilson | 15:51 UK time, Friday, 13 October 2006

It may not immediately look like it, but the style guide on Israeli/Palestinian coverage which we're publishing on the website for the first time today is the fruit of hours and hours of hard work by some of the BBC's most experienced Middle East specialists.

styleguide1.jpgThe aim is not to be prescriptive, but to give colleagues who can't reasonably be expected to follow every twist and turn of the conflict some suggestions to deal with the more contentious topics.

In many cases, it’s about being careful not to adopt, even inadvertently, the language of one side or the other, which may give an impression of bias.

So, for example, we recommend using the term "West Bank Barrier" for the system of fences, walls, ditches and barbed wire which Israel is currently building. The official Israeli term is "Security Fence", the Palestinians call it an "Apartheid Wall". Each has their point - but we believe this is the clearest generic term for our audiences. Individual reporters standing in front of a particular section can, of course, still refer to a "fence" or "wall" behind them.

Sometimes good journalism requires that we take a position on an issue - even when the facts themselves are under dispute. The civilian settlements which Israel has built on land it occupied in the 1967 Arab/Israeli war are illegal under international law. That is the position of the UN Security Council, the British government and the Geneva Convention. So it is right that we make that clear in this guide. Israel disputes this and has argued the case legally - and vociferously - on numerous occasions. That's also important and we recommend that where space allows our language should reflect the Israeli objection as well.

Palestinians and their supporters sometimes take us to task for using the term "suicide bombing" to describe what they view as a "martyrdom attack". Again, we feel it's right to take a position and that clear, simple, accurate language is best. In America, some news organisations describe them as "homicide attacks", a phrase we have discussed and rejected.

Although initially a little sceptical, the more I think about it, the happier I am that we are publishing this guide to the public. BBC journalists, whether they are in Israel, the Palestinian Territories or London, put an enormous amount of thought and effort into trying to get these things right. And if this shows just a glimpse of that to the people we are reporting to, it may prove a very useful exercise.

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