'600,000 killed': Is that a story?
Here's a relatively new phenomenon, you might call it "e-mails before broadcast".
When the story broke of the Lancet report into civilian deaths in Iraq it was accompanied by a rash of e-mails from anti-war groups urging us to run the story. Did that influence us?
Well, yes in the sense that I learned of the story from an anti-war campaigner who e-mails me regularly. But also no. When I took the report into our morning meeting where none of the producers had yet seen it, there was instant and unanimous agreement that - while the claim was in some people's view not credible - it was easily the most significant development of the day.
Then there was a second wave of e-mails. Not really suggesting we don't do the story, but urging that, if we do, to note that even the authors claim that it is of "limited precision". Don't be bullied by the anti-war lobby, they said. Thanks, we won't.
Then, as other news outlets started to report the story, there was a third wave of e-mails, this time saying sophisticated things like: please don't interview so and so, he doesn't know what he's talking about, if you're looking for a critic of the report please try to find an epidemiologist and not just a pundit, and even: please don't make the same schoolboy statistical error as your colleagues on xy news.
Are these unsolicited interventions helpful or unhelpful? The former, I think, as long as we read them with eyes wide open. You might argue that it would be purer to ignore the pressure from all quarters, but I think lobbying can actually improve our journalism, as long as it's not corrupt, that access to the editors of programmes is equally available to everyone (via e-mail it is) and that we question everything we're told.
Do I have any proof of this? Here's some unscientific evidence. We got fewer e-mails on this subject after broadcast than we did before.