Archives for 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.
The Times: Tim Montgomerie comments on the BBC's influence in setting the political agenda. (link)
Daily Mail: Article on Panorama's investigation into the drug Seroxat. (link)
Given that they're so rare, you might think there would be all kinds of shenanigans from the No 10 side - you can't ask questions about this or that, you can only have x minutes, it has to be such-and-such a location or whatever. Actually, in my experience such negotiations aren't nearly as common or extensive as people think, and there certainly wasn't anything like that in this case: we were allowed to ask Mr Blair whatever we wanted (although as viewers will have seen, he could still refuse to answer!). We were told he was likely to agree to speak to us over a fortnight in advance, and planning the interview began then.
The difficult thing with these planned interviews is finding the right balance between questions which you have always wanted to ask, and questions which you feel you have to put to him this particular weekend. Our first draft had no questions about the Home Office, and a big section on health. The day before the interview we more or less tore up our plan and started again.
The questions in the end were overwhelmingly topical. We had a list of about 30 we wanted to ask, and we had rejected many more; 25 minutes is very long for an interview, but it's never long enough for the man who oversees every area of government activity. The commonest complaint we receive about interviews is "why didn't you press him/her on such-and-such? Why no follow-up question?". Often a follow-up is absolutely the right thing to do, but viewers have to understand that for every time you batter away a second and third time on a particular subject, a potentially important question is squeezed out of the end of the interview. On this occasion, I hope we got the balance right.
Daily Mail: "Lord Puttnam has revealed he is considering a formal approach from the BBC to be its chairman." (link)
The Independent: Executive producer of BBC Current Affairs, Dominic Crossley-Holland, asks whether a programme's success should be judged by the number of complaints it receives. (link)
The Guardian: Interview with BBC Sports News Editor Mihir Bose. (link)
The Guardian: Letter from BBC Director of Vision Jana Bennett on current affairs programming. (link)
There have been concerns that Egyptian police used torture for years - but it has always been hard to prove. Our reporter in the country obtained graphic mobile phone pictures putting it beyond doubt. The most disturbing were pictures of a man naked from the waist down - his legs lifted in the air while he was sodomised with a pole. The camera zoomed in on his face, contorted in agony. Many found his screams the most disturbing aspect. To add to the seriousness of the issue, the British government is considering sending prisoners back to Egypt.
We thought long and hard about what Ian Pannell could show in his report (which you can watch here). We decided to show a few seconds of the man's face, removing the soundtrack of screams, and then freezing the picture as we explained the rest, which was too disturbing to show. There was a warning in the studio introduction, and Ian's commentary made clear what was coming. I believe we struck a balance between the need to show the horror of what happened, with concerns about exposing the audience to graphic images.
Our coverage of the Jade versus Shilpa bust-up triggered an all-time record for listener interaction on Radio 1 and 1Xtra. The audience joining the debate online and on the texts, reflecting the row that raged across the nation. What interested us most were the shifts in opinion as the story went on. Overall on Radio 1, our listeners seemed to feel that Jade's outburst against the Bollywood actress was a clear case of bullying - not racism. Feelings ran high: "What a load of crap, if she was white and getting the same treatment it would just be girls being bitchy and I'm Indian" was one widely supported view.
On Thursday we ran two votes on Radio 1: one on our online site and one on the texts - the results in this self-selecting poll were startlingly clear. More than six thousand texters thought Jade's actions were NOT racist - there was a slightly lower figure online: 65% out of two thousand agreed that it wasn't about racism. By contrast a similar poll on our sister station 1Xtra - which champions new black music - saw 65% of listeners rating the outburst as racist.
As the story changed, so did our listeners’ widespread condemnation of Jade Goody's actions.
First came Shilpa's statement in the diary room that she didn't think her treatment was triggered by racism. Then as the row blew up around Channel 4 executives, Jade tearfully confessed to the News of the World that she'd been wrong and had made racist remarks - although she denied she was a racist.
With Max Clifford and others wondering if she'd damaged her career as her perfume was withdrawn from sale in at least one chain, something else was happening among our listeners on Radio 1 - a massive outbreak of sympathy.
By Monday we were tracking a huge response that seemed to suggest that however hard it is to say sorry - the public appreciate people who have the courage to do so: “I'm so sick of everyone blaming Jade and Jade shouldn't have to take this rubbish - leave her alone.”
Daily Mail: A report on criticisms made of the BBC's coverage of the execution of Saddam Hussein. (no link available)
The Guardian: A columnist's view of a speech given by the editor of the Daily Mail, where he attacked the BBC. (link)
We've been having a lively debate at The World Tonight over Big Brother – no, not about who should be evicted from the house, but over how much coverage and prominence the programme should have devoted to the row over alleged racist bullying on the show. We had a lot of complaints from listeners after Friday's programme - here's a flavour:
"I am baffled as to why the Big Brother affair was broadcast as the lead item, especially in view of another news story, the arrest by police of Ruth Turner (the adviser to Tony Blair arrested in connection with the loans for peerages investigation) …" The e-mailer went on to say the BB row is just not serious news.
Another listener wrote, “It is sad that your headline item this evening was the Big Brother story. While the racist issue is worth some reportage, the time you have devoted, not just this evening, to the mechanics of the programme is out of proportion to its overall importance. The World Tonight is supposed to be a serious programme.”
We have received more complaints over this than anything we have done since we led the programme with England's win (a distant memory for England fans now) in the Ashes - another decision many listeners called just plain wrong.
Why did we cover Big Brother? Well, it seemed one of those occasions when many people who don't normally watch this kind of programme were commenting on it - including politicians who were very critical of Channel 4 which like the BBC has a public service remit - and that, in the view of many on the team, made it a story worthy of coverage by a programme like ours.
Did we get the coverage right? I'm not so sure we did. The listener who said we did too much on the mechanics of the programme may have a point. We had started out with the intention of talking to an academic who had studied reality TV and could deconstruct it for us and explain why it has the popular appeal it has and how much influence what the audience see has on them as individuals - for instance, does it legitimise racist attitudes. Unfortunately, there are only a few people who have done this kind of work in any depth and none of them were available.
So we decided to focus on the more immediate result of the eviction vote and what that said about public attitudes to racism and we interviewed the publicist Max Clifford whose expertise lies more in how people in the public eye - like Jade Goody in this case - and the interview ended up being predominantly about how someone in her position may be able to recover from bad publicity.
On whether we should have led on the story or should have led on the arrest of Ruth Turner, we had a lively debate. The factors we discussed - and this often applies to discussions over which story we choose to lead the programme with - were
• which story was the most significant - a row that appears to lift the lid on racist attitudes or the arrest of a member of the prime minister's inner circle?
• which story was the freshest news - BB had been around all week, but Jade Goody was voted off the programme 20 minutes before air time, whereas Ruth Turner arrest was announced in mid-afternoon?
• how strong is the material we have on the story - a very good report from our reporter in Bermondsey on attitudes to Jade Goody's behaviour from her local area or strong criticism of the police from Lord Puttnam?
• and informing all of this we consider how a story fits with the agenda of The World Tonight, which aims to take a global, in depth, analytical approach, and whether our audience will be interested in it
There was not consensus among the team on this and we will take on board listeners’ complaints and will carry on discussing whether we got this one right for our programme and our audience.
I’m not a tennis fan, nor do I support Scotland when it comes to sport, but I have to stand up for the schedulers on BBC2 who pulled The Daily Politics (and Working Lunch) yesterday to show the up and coming British tennis star Andy Murray try to defeat Raphael Nadal in the fourth round of the Australian Open.
I know many fans of the programmes were upset: First, because The Daily Politics was delayed with a promise to show it after the tennis; second, because it was then dropped when the match went to five sets over four hours. I was sorry too. We had the programme all ready to go, and then pre-recorded it when it became clear our guests couldn’t stay. It included a great interview by Andrew Neil with Phil Woolas, the minister for communities, about the above inflation increases to the council tax (though you can watch it by clicking here) . It also included a film about Edward Heath in our ‘favourite post war prime minister’ series (watch that here), followed by an impression of the great man by the founder of Yo Sushi, Simon Woodruffe who was our guest of the day (watch that here).
But the schedulers were right to pull us for the tennis. We draw an average audience on a Monday of a quarter of a million for the Daily Politics. At noon, the tennis had an average audience of nearly a million. And it turned into a very exciting match, with Murray taking Nadal – the undisputed number two in the world – all the way. By the end over a million and a half viewers were cheering for him. We value sport at the BBC as much as politics, and while we at the Daily Politics can get on every day a match like yesterday’s doesn’t come along very often. Do you agree?
Some of you have suggested that we and the schedulers could have come up with some more creative solution to allow both programmes to be scheduled somewhere on the BBC – one was to break into the tennis for half an hour; another was to offer it on the red button; a third to make use of the digital BBC3 and BBC4 during the day.
Again, what’s your view: the schedulers will be reading this too.
We launched a new-look audio/video player on the News, Sport and Weather sites last week. I wrote about the changes here beforehand and have had lots of feedback from you since – thanks to all who’ve commented.
Three of the main themes in your comments were: why don’t we link to relevant text stories from video clips, why don’t we use Flash for video, and what is our view of open standards. I’ve posted replies to these below...
• Daniel wrote saying, “can I suggest that when you have a link to a video or audio news story you also provide a link to the written story as well…”
Many of the video clips on the News website are associated with text stories – so you launch the video from inside a story page - text and video are therefore tied together. But we also promote individual video clips in their own right when the video itself is particularly noteworthy – so for example today on the front page we’ve had the UK Ministry of Defence footage of a dramatic Royal Marine rescue in Afghanistan. In such cases there’s usually also a text article on the site which tells the story and also contains the video clip.
So those who prefer reading to watching (or who can’t watch because their PC isn’t set up for it) are not being deprived of the story. It’s just that in the video promotion slots on the front page we don’t as a rule put in additional links to the text stories, because we reckon you’ll be able to find them elsewhere on the site. But your feedback on this point has given us something to think about.
(I've asked Kevin Hinde from our technical team to help answer the following questions...)
- • A number of people asked "why don't you use Flash?
- "The BBC is trying to make its video available to the widest possible audience. This means that when we choose the formats in which to stream our audio and video clips and live programmes, we have to take account of: All the operating systems in use, and the number of people who use them (this is not just desktop operating systems - we need to take account of mobiles too); whether a player is available for that format on a particular operating system; and whether it is easy to play that video on an operating system.
- "For popular operating systems we want to make sure that our video can be seen by non-expert users who would be unwilling or unable to install extra software or plug-ins. People in offices are also often unable to install extra software.
- "Video quality and compression rates are obviously very important to us. We must provide good value for the licence payer so cost is a factor - we have to invest in infrastructure and licences for encoding and streaming servers, and in bandwidth.
- "So why don't we make our clips available in Flash? It has been possible to deliver video in Flash since version 6 but it was not until version 8 that it got good enough for us to consider using it - early versions had lip sync problems with longer clips and the codecs gave poor quality and compression rates compared to Real and Windows Media. According to Adobe, 89% of PCs using the Internet in the UK, Canada, USA, Germany, France and Japan have Flash 8 or above so it does well on the criteria above.
- "The plain answer is that the timing did not work well for us. YouTube launched in 2005, the same year as Flash 8, they started with a clean slate and that's what they chose. The BBC has been providing streamed video since 1997 so we have already made a huge investment in Real and Windows infrastructure. We think that our current choice of formats does pretty well: Windows Media Player is widely available, it is installed by default on new Windows machines, and for many users it is the only option; Real Player is available as an alternative, and for platforms which do not support Windows Media; The video quality at the bitrates we use is excellent in both codecs.
- "But of course, things change, and we are always looking at the right way to move forward. We do use Flash video in some places on the BBC site, but we're not able to do it for news clips yet.
- "Also - Real make a special version of their Windows player for us with the commercial extras removed. And we know that Macs with the Flip4Mac plug-in have problems with our Windows Media streams - we are looking into it."
- • Several posters asked why we do not support open standards.
- "It is important to distinguish between different kinds of open. Standards like H.264 are open in the sense that they are not owned by a single company, not in the sense for just anyone to contribute to the standard or in the sense that it is possible to implement the standard without royalty fees or licensing terms. Standards like Ogg and Dirac are patent free.
- "Proprietary media players may choose not to support open standards fully, whether the standard is patent free or not, because of licensing or other business reasons. There are open source players which support an incredible range of open and proprietary standards but we cannot rely on our users being able to install a particular open source video player. We will be very happy to make our streamed clips available in an open standard as soon as the right combination of player support, streaming server support, and codec quality means that it would let us tick more of the boxes. We regularly look at this and there is nothing yet which is compelling enough for us to make the jump.
- ("For info, the Dirac project aims to produce a wavelet-based video coding algorithm suitable for open source implementation but it is not ready for use in production and we're looking for people who can contribute.")
Thanks to Kevin for that. Finally... some posts mention the BBC's iPlayer project, which is a related but different thing - it's a project that would allow you to catch up on BBC programmes you have missed, similar to Channel 4's 4oD. It is currently in the middle of a public value test.
Usually they ask you just to change one thing at once - this time they wanted to go further. News 24 and World were getting a new system to play out their on-screen straps and captions - so why don't we also change how they look, sound and behave? And while we're at it, what about new titles and whole new look for all our other graphics as well?
It's been months in the making, so you can imagine the relief at 0500 this morning and again at 0830, when we finally saw both a new on-screen look and a brand new technical system working happily on both BBC World and News 24.
Every channel wants to regularly refresh the way it looks on screen - TV graphic styles go out of fashion quickly - but this time we wanted a classic look: more room on screen for the pictures, fewer things getting in the way, and a clean, crisp style that ties in with the red and white of the set. We also had the chance to use new technology to introduce moving backgrounds to our breaking news straps, and new 3D icons for reporters who are joining us by videophone or webcam.
A team of graphic designers have been working on the new look for months, while another group of experts paved the way to introduce the playout system. My job's been to feed in requests from the channel teams - and as the deadline approached, to make sure everyone knows what's about to happen.
Of course you can't plan for everything, so it was great to launch News 24's new five-digit text number (61124) on the same day. We got plenty of feedback within minutes - much of it very positive about the way things look. However, we also got plenty of people saying the live 'bug' and the location strap at the top left of screen couldn't be seen fully on their TV. It looks like in our quest to maximise the amount of space on screen we've gone a little too far 'north', and we'll make some adjustments over the next couple of days to bring it back into view.
Moving the clock out to the left though was a conscious decision - most viewers have the option to watch News 24 in widescreen, even on a conventional 4:3 television (by selecting 16:9 on their Freeview or satellite box setup), and we wanted to use all the available space so it's easier to read the ticker. But rest assured, we'll be watching the feedback and reaction very closely - just as our viewers have been watching extremely closely today.
Guido Fawkes, an anonymous chronicler of political plots, conspiracies and rumour has been on to me about Friday night's programme, on which we led with a story about an embarrassing email sent from one Tory to another in which he referred to a Labour agent as "the cripple".
Was it a conspiracy or bias that we didn't lead with the story of the arrest of Ruth Turner, one of Tony Blair's aides, in the loans for peerages case? Neither, but I don't rule out the possibility that it was simply a misjudgement. The loans story is one which Michael Crick has been reporting on avidly over several months and he continues to dig away.
On Friday - although the arrest headline was sensational - we didn't feel we had sufficient new information or pictures to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the news output, so we led on our own original story and did Ruth Turner second.
We've made some changes and we'd like to know what you think. BBC World and BBC News 24 have a new on-screen appearance - the results of months of planning and thousands of hours of hard work by a brilliant team of designers, directors and programmers. BBC World has also made some changes to its bulletins, aiming to offer a clearer structure and more space for analysis and debate. The results are on air from today - and since it's all intended to improve the service to our viewers, we want to get your opinions on what we've done.
The on-screen graphics have been changed for a number of reasons. One is internal - we're introducing a new software system (known as VizRT) and it gives us the opportunity to introduce some new features. But the biggest reason was that we felt our existing appearance was beginning to look a bit tired and it was time for an update. The new look is slightly more subtle - it takes up a little less screen space and moves the channel name further down the screen to sit alongside the rolling "ticker" of news headlines. (By the way, the little box with the channel name on it is known as the DOG ...which I think stands for Digital On screen Graphic but I'm bound to be corrected by someone).
The captions, which we use for identifying interviewees and also for giving information about stories, have new colours and a slightly different font. And we've also moved the "locator" - ie the strap which tells you where a correspondent is - up to the top left of screen.
The overall effect is much crisper and cleaner, and I think gives the channel a more contemporary feel. We operate in a very competitive environment and it's important that we support the substance of our journalism with the style of our presentation and production. For that reason, we've also made a number of other changes. There are new titles sequences, with remixed music....and these will appear on all the BBC Television News programmes, so that means the One, Six and Ten O'Clock News on BBC One in the UK as well as News 24 and BBC World.
On World we've also changed the way in which we do headlines at the start of each hour - there will be more of them and the first thing you'll see will be the image from the story, rather than the presenter appearing in vision. Again, a very small change, but one which we think will give us a little more punch.
And lastly on BBC World, we've made some changes to what we call the "running orders" of our news bulletins. From now on, there'll be a clear structure which starts with a core news bulletin in the first one-third, has space for analysis and discussion in the second third, and finishes with Sport and Features in the final third. Partly this is the result of what you, the audience, have been telling us during extensive research over the past year.
Many viewers said they were confused by our structure and wanted us to label things more clearly. I also wanted to bring a bit more pace to our news bulletins and ensure we cover more stories from more parts of the world - taking full advantage of the BBC's global reach.
So from 0500 GMT this morning that's what we're doing. And we very much hope you like it.
Daily Telegraph: BBC local radio criticised over alleged ageism. (link)
The Independent: Interview with BBC4 controller Janice Hadlow. (link)
The Guardian: "The BBC is in advanced negotiations with Google to make programming available via a branded channel on the search giant's video-sharing site." (link)
The Guardian: Top media industry figures are asked "how can the BBC overcome the reported £2bn deficit it faces after the licence fee settlement?" (link)
This week on Newsnight we showed a remarkable film about cocaine (which you can watch here). It was the first time I'd ever seen in such detail the peasants who make the drug - using nostril-rotting ingredients such as sulphuric acid, recycled petrol and cement - and the gangsters and drug-runners who control and distribute it.
The film started life some months ago as a short piece on YouTube made by Matthew Bristow, who lives and works in Colombia. When we announced our Oh My Newsnight film competition, Matthew's mum saw it and urged him to enter. His two minute entry duly came runner up in our viewer's poll and then Matthew contacted us to ask if we would help him make a full length version. Having seen his rushes we readily agreed and, yes, we paid him.
Newsnight's aim is to make the most interesting and challenging films from around the world. Most often that will be done by the BBC's expert correspondents and that will be the case as long as there is Newsnight. But occasionally, when viewers or independent journalists can gather material we never could, or which would take a huge amount of time and expense to achieve, it makes sense.
That's the kind of user-generated content Newsnight is looking for. Let us know if you have it.
Jermaine Jackson has a sort of Zen-like wisdom. "You can't reason with stupidity" was one his great bits of advice. But you've got to have a go haven't you? Especially if your programme is a phone-in.
So this was day three of us trying to get into the minds of the Big Brother housemates. Of course you wonder if it’s worth trying. But the calls, texts and emails from the listeners confirmed it is the right place to be. Probably because what the Five Live listeners have to say is much more interesting than most of the stuff you hear in the BB house. And you don't have to wait so long for the good bits!
Is Shilpa the victim of racism? Basic bullying? Class envy? Jealousy because she's beautiful? Or is she just getting a crash course in British culture. The listeners who got in touch had lots of different takes on it.
We got up some people's noses: plenty asked us to stop going on about it. "Do us a favour and cease broadcasting...the savings can be passed onto the hard-up licence payer".
But for every one who said "I don’t care, I don't watch, I'm off to Radio 2 until it’s over", there are many more who want a say.
It started off about racism. Was it or wasn't it? The audience was split: "everyone is missing the point - it all boils down to jealousy", "it's about class", "it's about beauty". Looks, culture, money, class...or race. In the end I think the definition of racism depended on race.
Of course I don't know what colour our listeners are when they call, text or email. But lots of the people who are telling us this is racism, are from ethnic minorities. They are telling us what they see and hear on the TV echoes their experience and they spell it out.
Some of the best calls, the ones that really tell us something important, are these ones. They show this issue isn’t just hot air, media waffle, and pedantic definitions. It's about what people have to put up with in their lives. Here's what one listener said "I am glad it raises it on TV because it brings it into the open."
But for lots of people it's just a great opportunity to be really, really rude about people. How often do you get that chance to be truly vitriolic? And the wonderful thing is the range of targets: the "celebs" of course got the worst of it. But there were delicious digs at "band wagon-jumping" politicians, manipulative tossers in the media, halfwits in the house and out of it. No one escaped the lash. Least of all us, "for falling for the most transparent broadcast scam ever".
Today the debate moved on. We asked people if they reckon BB is real Britain. Yes it is. Teachers, police officers, parents, social workers all rang in, texted and emailed to say boorish Britain is the reality. "I am a primary school teacher. Jade is not the exception, she is the norm."
"I don't blame Big Brother - it has just turned a mirror onto the country and the image that has come back is ugly."
But it’s not all hand-wringing. Jermaine Jackson has his disciples in the Five Live audience: "Being stupid is the whole point. You could put Mother Theresa and Ghandi in the BB house, and they'd bitch. If you think this is real Britain you need to get out of the house more."
I’ve had a lot of comments, for and against, about our Perception Panel – a new format we use around Prime Minister’s Questions on The Daily Politics every Wednesday. Jane wrote to us and said, “I no longer shout at my TV as I can now tell the politicians exactly what I think".
- “What I would love for Jamie Donald to do is to come onto this blog and justify why the BBC continue to spend money on the Perception Panel and how much it exactly costs?”
The Perception Panel is the world’s largest focus group. It can tell you straight away how people in Britain may be feeling about an issue or a politician. We run it every Wednesday, and to take part you must tune in just before Prime Minister’s Questions at noon, and ring the freephone number on the screen. You are asked some questions and then by pressing buttons on your phone you can register your positive and negative feelings about what you’re seeing and hearing on your TV. All those touches up and down the country are transformed – by a clever computer - into a continuous wave of approval and disapproval. After PMQs we show some of the highlights, with the moving graphic of the viewers’ reaction on top. You can see the results of last week on our website.
It costs about £1,000 each time we play. At the moment we pick up the full cost of the calls, and we’ve set the limit on the number of people who can get through at 600 (and we get literally thousands trying to ring in, so it’s a case of first come first served). It’s not perfect. For example it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between man and ball, sometimes the graphs are a little unclear (we’re working on it) and there’s a hint of the blunt Roman 'thumbs up thumbs down' about it.
But it is robust. That’s because we weight it. If you are a young Lib Dem voter in Liverpool (of whom we have not that many on the Daily Politics), our computer ensures your touch may be worth a little more than an older Tory man from the Home Counties, depending on the numbers of types of people who get through. It’s what the pollsters do all the time with their samples of public opinion, especially those who operate online rather than face to face. So while you may think it’s just a random sample of viewers to the programme (and so what value does it have beyond instant gratification and the pursuit of everything interactive) we see it as a fairly good snapshot of how Britain is reacting.
From it we’ve already picked up the strength of feeling about the NHS, the shift in women’s votes towards David Cameron, and how Labour in the North has turned on Tony Blair. It also spotted David Cameron as the next Tory leader a year ago, but Frank Luntz got there on Newsnight a day before us.
I’d like to know what you think, whether you’ve played the Perception Panel, seen it, or are reading about it for the first time.
The College of Journalism website - CoJo online, in the office at least - was launched at midnight on Tuesday.
An odd launch in some respects because, initially anyway, it won't be visible outside the BBC ... though we hope its effects will be. The aim is to add to every BBC journalist's skills, learning and judgement and through that improve the service of BBC journalism to its paymasters, the licence fee payers.
The college and website came about as a direct result of the Gilligan affair, the Hutton inquiry and the report of a senior BBC News executive, Ron Neil ... who, as it happens, recommended a residential college to reinforce BBC journalists' learning. Sadly, a cloistered, towered, Gothic pile somewhere deep in the countryside was not to be. They don't come cheap and the licence fee is, after all, the licence fee. So, a website in cyberspace and a college located above an Italian deli in W12 is what it is. There is no wisteria.
But there is learning in ethics, values, law, writing, broadcast and production skills - films, tutors, scenarios and hypotheticals, articles, podcasts and links. Five hundred pages at the moment and forty-plus films. And it will grow - partly because one of the other main functions of the college and its website is to generate intelligent critique and discussion about BBC journalism and editorial decisions. Did we get it right over the Ipswich murders? Saddam's execution? Pictures of Kate Middleton?
One of the questions that's inevitably asked is - why is it only for BBC journalists? Why can't viewers and listeners see for themselves? Well, as the UK Press Gazette reported it's very likely that it will be an external site before very long - or more probably, parts of it will be.
And when it is, perhaps it'll scotch some of the dafter ideas about the college - like those in the Times... an excellent case study, incidentally, in journalistic tosh with its predictable and misleading 'back to school' image and the - ho, ho, ho - amusing picture of an inky-fingered J Paxman behind a desk (Is this the Beano?)
Our initial focus is - and has to be - on the skills and learning of BBC journalists. It's what all major employers do - offer their staff the best possible learning in their trade. But the argument that, in time, we should share with our paymasters the thinking and learning behind our decision-making is a powerful one. As is the argument that the BBC has a responsibility to play some role in raising and maintaining journalistic standards in the UK - standards which, for the written press at least, mean five out of six people don't trust what they read in the papers.
Before that can happen, though, there is an array of technical and practical hurdles to be overcome. For example, to be truly useful to BBC journalists, the site has to link extensively to internal BBC web pages - an external site would have to have all these links removed. There are also tricky questions about the BBC's place in the journalists' learning market; would a licence fee-funded learning site be fair competition? And so on.
My hunch is that we'll come up with answers to these questions before the end of the year and some part or parts of the site will be made public. Before then, though, I hope our audiences will already have noticed the value of the college and website.
There is something very ritualistic about interviewing the British National Party on the BBC. We go through the same editorial debate every time, we do the interview, we get complaints. Our experience on Broadcasting House this weekend was no exception (listen to it here).
There is a body of opinion that says we should never interview the BNP. We should never give it the 'oxygen of publicity'. I profoundly disagree. It is a legitimate political party with a degree of political support. The debate we have is about whether the editorial grounds for doing an interview are strong enough, about how much coverage we should do, and about how the sequence should be constructed and the interview conducted.
This weekend the editorial grounds for doing it were strong. There was the establishment of a far-right caucus in European Parliament, demonstrations outside the English National Ballet, and as Labour MP John Cruddas conceded in the piece, a BNP emboldened by a sense that the debate about multi-culturalism in the UK has shifted. The fact that in the collective memory of the programme no one could remember ever having done a BNP interview meant we were not in danger of giving it more attention that it deserves.
The other issue to consider was how to do the interview. There are different schools of thought on this. Personally I think rigorous but polite, evidence-based, dissection is far more effective than putting on a cloak of indignation and just hectoring a lot on the assumption that everyone agrees with you.
For further debate about this kind of issue have a look here.
The Times: Reports the launch of BBC's College of Journalism website. (link)
Daily Telegraph: Radio critic Gillian Reynolds asks whether the BBC should "pay commercial going rates every time it advertises itself on its own networks". (link)
The Guardian: Reviews the first edition of new Panorama series. (link)
You may be surprised to read this, but the Mail on Sunday carried a shock-horror story about the BBC at the weekend based on an interview I gave - and I can refreshingly report that my words weren't twisted, my quotes weren't taken out of context, and, apart from the slightly over-dramatic writing, the story was basically correct.
"BBC bans Doherty from children's TV" was the newspaper's revelation, after I mentioned on the BBC's Newswatch programme (which you can watch here) that Newsround didn't think Pete Doherty was a suitable role model for children, and that we have an "informal agreement" not to cover stories about him.
It's not a blanket ban forever (we might even report on him and Kate getting married, if it's ever confirmed). But at the moment, yes, you won't catch Pete on Newsround, because he is known mostly for his drug-taking and crime - and, as I also said on Newswatch, his music is not exactly something that many nine-year-olds are listening to or interested in.
Some of you may think this is "censorship". Others may feel that he isn't a suitable role model, and I'd be very interested in your views.
But this also got me thinking about the BBC's slightly unusual relationship with some of the press - and wondering whether I should worry that my contribution has led to this story.
I previously worked on a project called iCan, now Action Network, which is all about helping people to take part in local democracy and take action on issues they care about. Before launch, we were concerned that the site could be interpreted as the BBC encouraging people to attack the government (in other words, undermining our commitment to political impartiality). I spent many hours with our editorial policy teams devising ways of making the BBC's impartiality clear - all in an attempt to avoid a much-feared tabloid expose.
I was then rather surprised when, after one of our pre-launch briefings, a senior BBC News manager told me that actually the best - not worst - thing that could happen to the site would be "revelations in the Daily Mail". It would show that the site was rattling cages (what it was designed to do) - and it would get it publicity.
In the end, iCan was never featured in any tabloid newspaper, probably to its cost. This taught me that headlines in the newspapers aren’t always a bad thing - particularly when they’ve got the story spot-on.
We're about to make a few changes to how we show you audio and video on the BBC News website, and on the BBC Sport and Weather sites.
So in the coming days, within the News audio/video player which launches when you click on any bit of audio or video on this site, we’ll be replacing the current sub-indexes of content with a simpler range of options. These will include links to related and recommended audio/video and, of course, links back to the News website.
Most audio/video is viewed from story and section pages and we’ll continue to make sure the best and most relevant is added to the main stories of the day. We’ll also continue to signpost the best audio/video from our front page and section pages.
In addition there will be a page of links to the best of the day’s audio/video which you’ll be able to get to from the left-hand navigation of the site. If you’re looking for a current audio/video story – a bit of news footage you've heard about or the interview that’s making the headlines - you'll be able to have a look there.
If you can’t see it there or if you’re looking for something that’s a few days, weeks or months old, you'll still be able to use our audio/video search. That lives behind the “Audio and Video” tab at the top of the main BBC site search on every page.
When the new-look player arrives on the site it will have a link in it for your feedback. We’re keen to hear what you think and it’ll help us work out what we need to do next.
For very assiduous readers of this blog with long memories (I realise this must be a small, if select, group): I said here back in August that we would revisit one or two of the changes we made then to audio/video promotion on our front page. Notable among these was the fact that the audio/video area of the page doesn’t stay hidden on return visits if you’ve chosen to close it, which you generally found annoying. We haven’t done that yet because we’ve had to get some other technical projects finished first, but it's on the to-do list and not forgotten.
Later this year the BBC is hoping to make wider changes to audio/video provision right across the www.bbc.co.uk website. Subject to approval by the BBC Trust, the plan is to introduce a new, unified ‘iPlayer’ service which will involve a consistent design for all audio/video players, more content on offer and the ability to download some of it.
Declan's kicked off what's to be a year-long series for us this morning, introducing us to our Breakfast 'low carb' family.
The idea has nothing to do with chips - and everything to do with emissions.
We have challenged the family, the Hawksworths who live in Castle Donington, to see if they can reduce their emissions (they got in touch when we asked for volunteers just before Christmas).
We'll return once a month to see how they get on and also, more importantly to explore some of the issues around climate change and global warming.
But it's fair to say we also had some scepticism around the science of global warming, with a few people getting in touch to dispute whether it is really a serious issue.
On the science, we have pledged to explore those questions, with the Hawksworths helping put the questions.
Others felt that it was unfair to single out a family for our 'low carb' challenge - we should be "going after big business" instead.
My answer to that final point is that we do - and will continue to - question businesses on their environmental credentials.
Last week, we challenged the boss of Marks and Spencer, Stuart Rose, on the issue of food miles.
Declan frequently puts similar questions to the CEOs and chairmen who visit his studio.
Finally, some got in touch wondering why we cover so many stories relating to the environment, CO2 emissions and recycling.
"Frankly I am sick of listening to Breakfast going on and on about green issues", was one such comment.
Maybe we do too much of it? And we must certainly think about the sheer volume of such stories we cover. But we get an enormous response every time we do.
The Independent: Stephen Glover on the media's handling of Kate Middleton's birthday. (link)
The Independent: Columnist Matthew Norman on Kelvin MacKenzie's Question Time appearance. (link)
Mail on Sunday: "Pop star Pete Doherty has been banned by the BBC from appearing on their children's television programmes." (link)
The Guardian: Report on Panorama's new primetime slot on Monday nights. (link)
The Guardian: "Three years ago the BBC issued an unprecedented apology to the government over the Kelly affair. But who authorised the announcement and why is there no record that it was discussed by the governors?" (link)
I watched the FA Cup game last Saturday when Liverpool fans made their protest against Kelvin MacKenzie. It was certainly one of the best organised and dramatic protests I’d ever seen at a football match and there can't be any doubt about the depth of feeling on the issue. In my view, that doesn't mean that Kelvin MacKenzie should be banned from appearing on television. Not least, because that's one way his views can be challenged by those who disagree with them.
It’s worth saying it wasn't the original plan for this week's show. A strong line-up - Lord Falconer, George Osborne, Charles Kennedy and Clare Short - had been booked and announced before the show's Christmas break. The fifth panellist - also announced - was David Starkey. The change of plan only happened yesterday - David Starkey had an accident and had to pull out at the last minute. We wish him a speedy recovery.
Clearly this was a major problem. Appearing on Question Time is a daunting prospect at the best of times but with an experienced panel and a few hours notice, the field of candidates willing to take on the challenge is pretty limited, to say the least. In addition, we needed to retain the broad balance of the line-up - with paparazzi coverage of Kate Middleton a likely subject, Kelvin MacKenzie fitted the bill. So that's why he was on.
What about the show itself (watch it here)? He was given a pretty rough ride. Clare Short said she'd been contacted by someone who said they'd lost a relative at Hillsborough. David Dimbleby pressed him on which aspect of the original Sun story he still stood by and which he did not. There were calls for him to apologise for his recent comments. Question Time is probably the country's leading forum for the discussion of controversial issues. Viewers may not like the people they see on the programme or the views they express, but if Question Time only had uncontroversial panellists the programme would quickly become irrelevant.
There is clearly a lot of anger towards Kelvin MacKenzie. His appearance gave the audience the chance to judge for themselves whether they agree with him or his many critics.
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.
But 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?
The Guardian: "The BBC was yesterday ordered to publish secret documents that will reveal why Greg Dyke was forced out as director general after the publication of the Hutton report." (link)
The Guardian: "A government minister last night insisted that deliberations are still under way to set a "tough but fair" licence fee settlement." (link)
The story that got our audiences going yesterday was the decision by cabinet minister, Ruth Kelly, to move one of her four children from state school to a private school that could provide better for his special educational needs.
Interestingly our audiences across radio, TV and online don't seem to see this as a political story - most were sympathetic to Ms Kelly - which is at odds with many of the headline writers in the press and political journos, as well as some MPs who accused her of hypocrisy.
The thing that's really generated interest is the way children with special needs are catered for in our education system with many people offering moving personal stories. It's part of the brief of The World Tonight to offer a different take or angle on the big stories to our Radio Four sister programmes, Today, The World at One and PM. They had already looked at the political side of the story, so we decided to look at the substantive issues relating to special needs provision highlighted by Ruth Kelly's case (you can listen to the programme here). In the event this seemed to chime with our listeners and, in my opinion, shows the strength of BBC Radio news which has part of its editorial mindset that each programme should offer listeners something different and - dare I say it - new.
This editorial remit meant The World Tonight was the only programme on Radio Four yesterday to cover the interruption of energy supplies from Russia to the EU via Belarus, as a result of the row between Russia and Belarus about the price Russian companies charge Belarus for its gas and oil. Although there is no imminent danger of the lights going out around the EU, the story is important as it raises the question again of the reliability of Russia as an energy supplier, on the eve of the European Commission announcing its plans to ensure energy security in the light of our increasing dependence on Russian fossil fuels (which the World Tonight will also cover).
The story also challenges assumptions made by journalists and commentators last year that Russia was using its energy supplies to former Soviet states as a tool to punish those - like Ukraine and Georgia - who are pro-western. Belarus is in no way pro-western - indeed its leadership is subject to sanctions due to their human rights record - but has now fallen foul of the Kremlin as well - though in the event the EU is caught in the crossfire so to speak.
On the Daily Politics we're launching a new series, and an interactive vote to determine Britain's Greatest Post-War Prime Minister.
We’ve decided to exclude Churchill from the list, for two reasons: it would be impossible to disentangle his wartime and post-war leaderships; and, as the vote for Great Britons several years ago showed, he’d probably win by a mile anyway.
So that leaves nine men and one woman: Clement Attlee, Anthony Eden, Alec Douglas-Home, Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair. We have scripts, archive and celebrity champions for all of them bar poor old Eden - so if you’re interested in championing him let me know.
We’re doing it because it’s a good way of marking Blair’s place in modern British history as he prepared to bow out as prime minister. And it will set up some strong debates: Thatcher v Blair; Heath v Wilson; who was the worst as well as the greatest; and are we right to leave out Churchill... what do you think?
We started today with a curtain raiser film and a debate between William Hague, Tony Benn and the historian Andrew Roberts (which you can watch here). The first vote was cast by a viewer from France for Ted Heath.
Surprisingly, Hague, Benn and Roberts all agreed on their top two ‘greatest’ - Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher - though they disagreed on the order. None were keen on Blair. And that’s how it stands in the popular vote as I write.
Anyone can vote anytime between now and Easter by visiting The Daily Politics website, and following the links. And as Today programme editor Ceri Thomas wrote in an earlier blog, even if you campaign for votes it won’t spoil the fun.
The Guardian: "Manchester [city council] has approached the BBC and ITV Granada to join them in creating an academy which would specialise in creative and media industries." (link)
Daily Mail: Columnist Richard Kay on Panorama's return to prime time on Monday nights. (link)
The Guardian: Report that BBC efforts to persuade the government to reconsider its decision on the licence fee are "too little, too late". (link)
Daily Telegraph: Jim White on Five Live's audience response to 14-year-old Michael Perham's voyage across the Atlantic. (link)
The Times: "Magnus Magnusson, one of the country's most cherished quizmasters, died last night at the age of 77." (link)
The effectiveness, or not, of aid to Africa is an issue which comes up all the time on Newsnight. This week we spoke to Oprah Winfrey (which you can watch here) about the $40m she has spent establishing a leadership school for girls in South Africa. We also reported how, five years after the war in Sierra Leone and many millions spent in aid and debt cancellation, health provision is getting worse not better.
Many are wondering these days if much of the money we spend trying to help Africa isn't good money after bad. Col Tim Collins has even gone as far as to suggest that the $14bn spent annually on UN peacekeeping in Africa has achieved absolutely nothing. Indeed, two of the countries most in receipt of western attention in recent years, Ethiopia and Somalia, have been at war over Christmas.
So, could there be a better way? As part of a series of films on Newsnight next week about how technology is changing the world our business correspondent Paul Mason will be reporting on how the advent of the mobile phone in Africa is helping to provide better services, economic growth and even democratic rights where governments and agencies have dismally failed.
As one young Kenyan puts it, we know from years of experience that governments have been unable to deliver better conditions, so why do we keep giving them money?
Paul's film goes out on Monday, but you can watch it first and exclusively here and let us know what you think.
A quick postscript to an earlier posting by my TV News colleague Kevin Bakhurst.
Several comments in response to what he said about use of video from Saddam’s execution objected to the fact that on this website we showed a still image of Saddam Hussein on the gallows awaiting execution.
On the day it happened the image, which included the noose, was on the front page for several hours and it remained in the main story thereafter. (We also used the video that ran on our TV news channels – which we do as a matter of course on all stories).
The decision to use the still image was not taken lightly and we realised some would disagree with it. We’ve been careful not to repeat the image needlessly in all the stories we’ve done since then about the event. But it was important to give our audience an understanding of how the event will have been seen by many in Iraq, the region and the rest of the world.
We are a news website and this was a key part of depicting what was by anyone’s standards a major news event.
The Times: Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell writes about the new BBC Trust. (link)
The Guardian: "Government officials will this weekend launch their hunt for a new BBC chairman." (link)
Daily Mail: "TV watchdogs are to investigate the controversial broadcasting of Saddam Hussein being taunted on the gallows."
The last week has seen two very different examples of how technology is helping to change not just the delivery of news but its content too.
How different would history's view of Saddam's execution have been if we had only seen the official version? The first pictures shocked many - but there was a sense of dignity to the proceedings. The emergence of the mobile phone pictures showed an entirely different story - the proceedings had no dignity at all - a guard was abusing the former dictator, so much so that the whole thing was nearly called off.
Obviously, not that long ago phones were not capable of capturing moving pictures and sound - cheap and available to almost everyone now, this reveals how they help change our view of an historic event.
On a very different point, new media technology is helping us to break stories. When Sir Michael Jackson said that army accommodation was "shaming", the Ten O'Clock News wanted to find out if that was true. A combination of appeals for pictures on our website and army message boards provided us with the evidence to put to the man in charge of accommodation, who admitted it wasn't good enough.
After the story went out we pointed out that people could join the debate on the BBC's Have Your Say website. That provoked hundreds of responses and new information which is in turn driving the story on today.
It all started with an email to email@example.com at 15:19 on Tuesday.
As a British Airways passenger, I arrived in Terminal One at Heathrow Airport yesterday afternoon, and was appalled by the sight which met me in the baggage reclaim area. There were literally hundreds of items of ‘lost’ luggage piled up all around the reclaim area. I have attached some photos, but also have some comments.”
Colin Barber then went on to list his concerns and ended saying: “Every item of luggage represents a spoilt Christmas/New Year for someone.”
Clearly, there was a story here, and like many other tip-offs from our audience, we wrote it up as a news story for the website.
It certainly did strike a chord. Within minutes, we had tens of emails of lost luggage woes. Declan Curry, the business presenter on Breakfast mentioned the story and showed some of Mr Barber’s pictures.
More pictures began arriving of luggage piled up. People began emailing us to say they recognised their bags!
As has become common practice now with our UGC (user generated content) area, all this information was passed around news programmes. Each one of the emails could have made a story in their own right.
British Airways then came out with a statement and apologised to customers for the problems, but it became clear this wasn’t something that was going to go away quickly.
News 24 and the One O’Clock News got on the case, and Mr Barber appeared on television and on Five Live. Correspondents were dispatched to Heathrow.
The way this story has snowballed is a lesson to us all; from a single email a general widespread problem was revealed and those who were ultimately responsible had to explain to the public what they were going to do about it.
If you’ve lost luggage, you can send us your stories via this debate.
Some sense of perspective always helps: Today was not, thankfully, electing the new president of Ukraine or even a parish councillor. The vote which finds itself in the dock this morning, accused of being unsound, is our rather-less-serious piece of Christmas knockabout, the listeners' poll.
The question this year (in a country sometimes accused of being over-regulated) was what piece of legislation our audience would most like to repeal. The charge sheet alleges that the poll was fixed - rigged by the ruthless lobbying machine that is the Countryside Alliance to call for the repeal of the ban on hunting with dogs.
Was undue influence brought to bear?
The truth is that it's very hard to be sure. When we set up something like this we put some basic safeguards in place - you can't, for example, send multiple entries from the same computer - but it's impossible to be certain that every single vote was cast by an independent-minded individual who heard the arguments on the programme and decided, free from any outside influence, to take part.
We do know, of course, that the Alliance had a link on its website urging supporters to vote - but it's a big leap from there to the assumption that the link was wholly responsible for the clear-cut result of the poll. The Hunting Act is a controversial piece of legislation. Is anyone really surprised to find it on our listeners' blacklist?
"It should," says today's Independent rather portentously, "have been a bit of festive fun with a slightly serious political edge". Actually, I have news - our vote was a bit of festive fun with a slightly serious political edge. The problem comes when people try to treat it differently.
Years ago, in the pre-internet days when we asked people to write in to nominate their Personality of the Year, I remember dozens of identical postcards arriving in the office all written in the same hand, all stamped with a House of Commons postmark, and all nominating the same member of Parliament. My message to the slightly desperate MP all those years ago, to the commentators today, and to whoever complains next year that the vote has been rigged (as I'm sure they will) would be the same: "Calm down. You'll spoil it if you take it too seriously".