There’s been a lot of criticism about the level of TV coverage that was given to the McCann’s return home. However there’s also been a large number of people who’ve been turning to BBC television, online and radio, because they’re keen to get new information about the story. So we have to balance that audience interest with a part of the audience who express their view very forcefully that we shouldn’t be spending time, or significant amounts of time, on that story. We try to make that very difficult balance through the editorial judgments we make every day.
Often we’re not able to give viewers any new information and that’s one of the things I spend a lot of time talking to my journalists about, to focus on facts rather than speculation. So, for instance, over the past month an enormous amount of material such as hints or leaks from the investigation has appeared in the Portuguese press and has then been reported in British newspapers. A lot of this BBC TV News did not report at all.
Clearly on Friday we had the development where Mr and Mrs McCann were both declared suspects and where their spokesmen and family talked about what happened in the police interviews. That was genuine new information.
On Sunday we had their return to England and the first time that either of the McCanns had said anything on the record about the investigation or what the police had put to them in those interviews. That was fact. That was news. This morning we decided that this it was not the most important story of the day, and very deliberately decided to lead on the prime minister's speech to the TUC.
Questions have been raised over why we used a helicopter to cover the McCanns' journey home from East Midlands airport. When you’re covering an extended event like that, having pictures which mean that you can get a continuous picture from one source, a helicopter is much easier and more cost-effective than having a number of cameras on the ground. And there is an element of covering the media interest as well - and we are of course a part of that, which we explain regularly on air. The McCanns' return was an important emotional moment in this story, and something which we felt we needed to cover for continuous news. We used very little of that material in the bulletin reports that we ran yesterday evening because the bulletin at the end of the day has the responsibility to compress the story of the day and only show those things which are most relevant.
It’s clearly a dramatic story and one in which people are interested: the number of people watching our TV news bulletins is one or two million up in the past three days. The number of people reading the McCann story on the BBC News website is four or five times greater than any other story. There is unprecedented audience interest, and people do turn to continuous news networks - BBC News 24 overwhelmingly ahead of competitor networks - and they expect to have that information brought to them.
Another claim which has been made is that we have been biased in favour of the McCanns. We’ve interviewed them a number of times and clearly when they give their point of view, some people ask why we are providing them with a platform. But we’ve also reported as best we can, given the secrecy around the Portuguese investigation, news from the investigation which hasn't come from the McCanns.
Debates about whether they’ve been treated in particular way because they’re of a certain class, for instance, is just speculation - individuals’ own views. People are entitled to their own views, but I don’t think that should form part of our news coverage.
I don’t think we have been biased in favour of them. In particular we’ve stressed all along, but especially in the past few days, how important it is not to refer to them by their Christian names. There’s a danger in over-familiarity. I know that many other TV and radio networks have been absolutely extraordinary, always talking about it in terms of sympathy and their feelings. Of course one has to be aware of that and there are large parts of the audience who are massively sympathetic to them. It’s a highly charged story, but we have to be as even-handed as we can and stick to the facts.
I do think that people who express a clear view about the level of coverage tend to be people who are saying they don’t want to hear any more about it. But all I would say is that the audience figures, the response that one actually gets to the story, and newspapers who are making their own commercial judgements, show that there’s a very large number of people who are interested. I suspect that those people are voting with their remotes and they’re choosing to watch it. So you have to weigh a very strongly held view that coverage should be reduced against the fact that the consumption of coverage is extraordinarily high.
There’s a position in the middle that says people do want to know, they want to know if the story changes and that’s what’s happened in the past few days. They want that update and that information but they don’t want us to dwell on it all the time. They don’t want us to use highly emotive language. They want us to be responsible and even-handed but to cover it fully and properly when there is new information. That’s the position we’re trying to take.