BBC BLOGS - The Editors

Archives for January 2008

Appropriate phrase

Jamie Angus Jamie Angus | 14:11 UK time, Thursday, 31 January 2008

I was ear-wigging a conversation between the Newhour presenter and duty editor yesterday: our presenter Mike Williams was questioning why, since the US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Jendayi Frazer has used the phrase 'ethnic cleansing' to describe what's happening in some Kenyan provinces, we should be coy about using the phrase ourselves.

World Service logoA wider discussion amongst our programme team revealed mixed views about 'ethnic cleansing', as well as the word 'tribal'. Some felt that 'tribal violence' has a pejorative sense of Heart of Darkness about it - that it implies that this violence is cultural and inevitable.

Others on the team, including some who have spent many years working and reporting in Africa, think this is liberal guilt - ”Kenya is a tribal society. That terminology is perfectly accepted there, and we shouldn't worry about using broadcasting it from London”. The question of direct comparisons with the Rwandan genocide has also been raised. It seems to me most commentators are going out of their way to explain why it's not appropriate.

Richard Dowden's piece in the Independent has been very useful; the author spoke about it both on World Service's Newshour and on Today (which you can listen to here), and the message seems to be “think Balkans rather than Rwanda” which is probably why the 'ethnic cleansing' phrase is tripping off the tongue.

Protests in Kibera, KenyaThere are a couple of reasons why the situation in Kenya is more complex than in other 'tribal' conflicts. This is not a binary dispute - there are at least three major tribes involved plus other smaller tribes, and power in Kenya has not always been held by President Kibaki's Kikuyu as his predecessor Arap Moi was a Kalenjin. Opposition leader Odinga is a Luo, two of whose former presidential candidates have been assassinated since independence. The settlement of land and resources in the post-colonial era is a large factor in the violence, as is the general absence of the rule of law in the wake of an acute political crisis.

In the end many of these phrases work fine in a fuller context; the difficulty comes when we boil them down to shorter forms in headlines and cues. So are we being too coy about the language we're using? Or is this caution justified?

Side-stepping the question

Gavin Allen | 10:15 UK time, Wednesday, 30 January 2008

It's the broadcast equivalent of being beaten over the head with a very heavy economics manual. Repeatedly. After a while it becomes a tad wearing. You duck and weave, to try to avoid the crashing blow, but back comes the manual with an inevitable thud. And there's Gordon Brown wielding it relentlessly. He'd like you to know that inflation and interest rates are at a low level in this country. And the economy's stable. And as luck would have it we're in a very good position to withstand any global economic downturn. Hold on, what was the precise question again? He doesn't care - thud, here's his answer.

Gordon Brown and Jon SopelThe interview that Jon Sopel conducted with the prime minister for the Politics Show this weekend addressed the economy, street crime, welfare reform and Europe among other topics.

The questions were thoughtful and serious and so were the answers. But any resemblance between the two was entirely coincidental.

Instead the interview became a traditional Two Ronnies sketch in a modern setting: prime minister answers his own question, again and again, with no comedic results whatsoever. But maddening though it is for Jon and the production team - hours of finely-honed questions battered into submission by the weighty manual - can you actually blame Gordon Brown for playing the straight man? In short, no.

Our job is to analyse and test and hold to account. But it's not his, so why should he play our game? Why play mouse to our cat when he can sidestep the traps and instead tell the viewers directly what he feels they need to hear?

He made absolutely sure he got his message across. The economy's in safe hands. And so are our streets. And British sovereignty. While the media generally hails gloom and recession round every corner - failure, disaster: great story! - politicians deal in triumphs at every turn. No wonder, as Mr Brown told us, being prime minister "is the best job in the world".

Luckily for us, non-answers and side-stepping can still make for an interesting interview and Jon did a fine job trying to nail the proverbial jelly to the wall (no offence, prime minister).

Let's be clear: we are absolutely committed to the in-depth extensive interview - and Gordon Brown's welcome to come on again. But if the long-form exchange is going to offer more than a short-form interview on an extended loop, then we might need to re-think how we get answers to the actual questions we (repeatedly) put. That's our job and it matters, as our viewers made clear from their responses. The question is how to achieve it. A clunking fist is, I fear, not an option.

Reporting crime

Peter Horrocks Peter Horrocks | 09:16 UK time, Monday, 28 January 2008

Last week, the director general Mark Thompson gave a speech, which was also published on this blog, in which he had some thoughts about the BBC's responsibilities towards reporting crime.

"A child murder under any circumstances is a unique and terrible tragedy," he said. "But we shouldn’t allow our coverage of one or even an unconnected series of individual events to give the public impression that these things are an everyday occurrence or that the trend is up when in fact it is down."

He did say that he thought the BBC was "less guilty of this kind of exaggeration than almost any other part of the British media" but added that being less guilty didn't mean we were always entirely innocent.

handgunsWe've been giving his words some thought this week. On Thursday the quarterly crime statistics showed there had been a 9% drop in overall crime in England and Wales, though there had been a 4% rise in gun crime. What should our response to that have been? The story was reported online, and early in the day on other parts of BBC News, but as the Peter Hain resignation and the SocGen story came along it fell down the running orders. Had the crime figures revealed a 9% rise in crime, would we have allowed it to drop down the agenda so much?

It's clear to me that commercial media has an interest in reporting increasing crime because it knows that it sells. There's no particular obligation on them - or commercial interest - in reporting falling crime. It's not the BBC's job to play down crime, but it is our duty to report it accurately and where appropriate to act as a corrective to the rest of the media. Often that will mean giving context, as well as reporting specific incidents.

I've written on this blog before about why I think the BBC coverage of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann was responsible.

Crime that is unusual and extreme will always have news value for audiences. The BBC is correct to report such crime as part of its broad news service. But we should always make efforts to explain how typical, or otherwise, such crime is. And we should report it in calm terms. We should not be scaring our audiences unnecessarily nor should we ignore and underplay crime that harms many members of our audience.

British values

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 16:28 UK time, Friday, 25 January 2008

On Friday The World Tonight is mounting a special debate on British Values. The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has talked a lot about British values and has called for them to be defined. Robin Lustig will be discussing whether there are any common British values, and if so, what they are with a panel of politicians, writers and historians from across the UK. He explains what we intend to do on his blog.

The World TonightFor those of you who commented on my last post about whether or not we are giving the US primaries too much coverage by calling for more coverage of Europe, rest assured. As regular listeners to The World Tonight will know we do cover the rest of Europe regularly - in fact we plan to send Robin Lustig to present the programme from Madrid for the coming Spanish general election which is set to be a bitter and close contest in an increasingly influential EU member with a large expatriate British community.

And for those of you who called for more substance and less trivia in the primary coverage, I hope our continued coverage of the contest is demonstrating The World Tonight's commitment to reporting what is at stake for the US and rest of the world.

Private or public pictures?

Steve Herrmann Steve Herrmann | 11:14 UK time, Thursday, 24 January 2008

When is it acceptable for us to make use of personal pictures and video available on the internet? In the past, personal pictures of members of the public who become the subject of news stories (particularly tragic events) have usually only been available if supplied by family or friends.

Facebook pageWith the growth of social networking and personal websites, it has become far easier for the media to get hold of such pictures. If we do use them, can this be justified? This is an issue we're giving some thought to at the moment, and I'd be keen to hear your views.

We don't yet have a definitive policy but my feeling is we need to tread carefully, and where people have posted personal pictures or video in a space which they might reasonably expect to be accessed only by friends and family, I think we need to be mindful of that. There might be an overriding public interest in using the picture and publishing it more widely, say, if we were working on a story about someone involved in criminal activity and sought by the police (though we’d still need to verify it). But where there isn't, it seems right to seek permission first. We also have to be aware of copyright around any use we want to make of pictures and video, and this will need checking case by case.

The boundary between what's public and what's private isn't always easy to define online, and I think it’s also true to say it’s not something people always give a huge amount of thought to when posting. For most people, most of the time, the media and wider public won’t be focusing on them. That gives them a certain anonymity – nicely described by Alf Hermida as "privacy through obscurity".

That quickly changes if the spotlight of media interest turns their way, for whatever reason.

Some will say that - by definition - there isn't really anything private if it's there and accessible by others. But that still leaves the question of what use people other than the intended audience can legitimately make of what they find. And people use different sites for different reasons - they might be on Facebook just talking to friends, on Flickr sharing photos with their family and on MySpace to publicise their music. Would the same considerations apply for each?

These are all things we’re still discussing – I’ll keep you posted on how it develops.

Newsbeat gets a new look

Rod McKenzie Rod McKenzie | 09:08 UK time, Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Newsbeat has taken a bold new step into the interactive world with the launch of our new website. I'd love to hear what you think of it.

Radio 1 logoWe're not trying to replicate other BBC news websites: There is more emphasis on music news with our lead story on Klaxons at the Brits, a piece about a possible sunbed ban for Scottish under-18s and some great video content shot by our maestro Andy Brownstone who's shot and produced 30 films for the site.

It's all about visualising our journalism. Video and pictures are the biggest themes to emerge so far. With more and more people listening to the radio over the internet, people will be able to see and interact with our stories in a way they've never done before.

I think we're on the verge of radically changing the way Newsbeat does business. It's not about radio anymore, it's about relevant content being available in lots of different ways (web, mobiles etc) and at last we have the tools for the job. And yes, there is a surprising picture of Lindsay Lohan...

News at 10.30

Peter Barron | 12:21 UK time, Friday, 18 January 2008

You couldn't open a newspaper this week without bumping into coverage of the battle of the Newses at Ten. On the bulletins themselves, ITN and the BBC battled to outdo each other with a series of carefully planned exclusives - it was great fun to watch.

Newsnight logoI think most of us who work in TV news welcome the return of News at Ten, mainly because it brings back the frisson of head to head competition which should keep both products on their toes.

On Newsnight, we're especially delighted to welcome back Sir Trevor and co. as we're now the only news programme at 10.30. In truth there hasn't been a huge overlap between our audiences or competition between our programmes - we tend to look to Channel 4 at 7pm for that. But while others have focused on the ratings at 10 we've noticed a small but significant rise in our audience now we have the slot to ourselves.

And there was one totally unexpected windfall. On Tuesday, ITN sent us the press release of their exclusive interview with the prime minister in which he called the work and pensions secretary Peter Hain incompetent. We asked them for the clip and they provided it - so we were baffled when the quote didn't appear on News at Ten.

For that you had to tune in to Newsnight, at 10.30.

Happy birthday Breakfast

Alison Ford | 08:29 UK time, Thursday, 17 January 2008

Breakfast logo25 years ago breakfast television launched on BBC One. I'd like to say I remember it well, but the truth is, my mother thought (and still does) that turning the television on first thing in the morning was the work of the devil, so I wasn't allowed to watch. She wasn't alone – no-one knew whether there would be a real and sustainable appetite for an early morning television programme of this sort - and it's been reinvented several times over the last quarter of a century in search of the perfect breakfast formula. From its beginnings as Breakfast Time - a bright, light mixture of features, star signs and cookery slots, through Breakfast News - a more traditional news programme - to where we are today - simply Breakfast.

The programme today pays homage to its predecessors - we aim to bring you the big stories of the day alongside a lighter mix of features and celebrity guests. It can be difficult at times to get the balance right, but we must be on the right lines - up to five million of you watch us every day.

Breakfast presenters in 1983So here's to the next 25 years. I hope we'll carry on bringing you all the news, information and entertainment you need to start your day, and in a way that is as warm and friendly as possible.

One of the biggest changes of the last few years has been in our relationship with you, the audience. With so many ways to get in touch, you can let us know what you like, what you hate and what you want more of, in an instant. I'm looking forward to getting to know you even better in the months and years to come.

The trouble with trust

Mark Thompson Mark Thompson | 18:15 UK time, Tuesday, 15 January 2008

In September I blogged here about the importance of trust in the BBC. Today I have given a speech in Westminster which picks up on some of the same themes but also addresses the wider impact on society of trust in institutions. The full text of my speech is below and I'd be interested to know what you think about it.

Read the rest of this entry

Too much too soon?

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 16:14 UK time, Monday, 14 January 2008

We have had our first complaint about our coverage of the US presidential election primaries - the gist is that we are already doing too much.

"Please, enough of the US 'primaries' and Hillary's tears. This pre-election election will go on for 11 months yet. Let the Americans steep themselves in this serial. Why must we?"

The World TonightThere seem to be some listeners who have a very low tolerance of coverage of American politics, but I have to say in this case I would disagree with them.

On last Friday's World Tonight (which you can listen to here )we discussed why the world outside the US is interested in the primaries. During the discussion, the London correspondent of Brazil's Globo News, Silio Boccanera, joked that the rest of the world should have a vote in the US elections too because of the impact the US has on all our lives.

His observation encapsulated the reason why I believe it's important we devote more coverage to the presidential election in the US than say Russia or France. Voters in the US have started the process that will lead to the selection of the next president of the world's only remaining super power. And as we have seen repeatedly over the past few years, who runs the US administration has a big impact on this country and the rest of the world - Iraq and Afghanistan are just the two most dramatic examples of this for Britain.

During the primaries, the candidates for the two main parties’ nomination get the chance to set out their stall and hone their ideas for what they would do if they get to the White House. American voters get to have a say on which of these visions they prefer and it gives the rest of us a chance to assess what the future may hold in terms of the health of the US economy and America's policy on climate change, as well as foreign policy issues like the US dispute with Iran and their growing rift with Russia.

There is also the inherent drama of the primaries as a story in themselves, and this year the elections are more dramatic than for many a year because they are wide open and quite unpredictable - as many media outlets found to their cost last week when Hillary Clinton confounded many predictions to win the New Hampshire Democratic contest.

Head to head

Peter Horrocks Peter Horrocks | 09:50 UK time, Monday, 14 January 2008

Good luck to ITN on the revival of News at Ten. The return of the famous bongs is a stimulating, if scary one, for the BBC. But it's scary in a good way. Since ITN gave up the News at Ten slot the BBC has consistently outperformed the late evening news on ITN. I don't think it's good for us, or the viewer, to be that dominant - strong competition is good for everyone. Putting the two bulletins head to head will keep all of us on our toes, which is good for both the BBC and ITN, and for audiences.

Sir Trevor McDonald and Julie EtchinghamOne of the things that we'll be watching out for is the extent to which this new choice changes viewers' behaviour. We know that some viewers have a preference for one brand over another, and will choose their preferred broadcaster no matter what the schedule. But equally, we know that the schedule determines the choice for a large number of people. Since News at Ten finished, we have seen that quite a significant number of ITV viewers switch over at 2200 to get their news from the BBC. We'll be keen to see if they continue to do that following the return of News at Ten.

It's interesting that ITV have made the decision to bring back News at Ten for commercial reasons - not because they've been ordered to by the regulator Ofcom. It proves that, despite what some have argued in the past, it's not necessarily the case that news will wither and die in a commercial broadcasting environment.

Of course, News at Ten is coming back into a broadcasting climate that's much changed from the one it left behind. I've talked before on this blog about our efforts to make BBC News a truly multi-platform operation, and we see the benefit of that on a daily basis - including on our coverage of recent big stories, such as the death of Benazir Bhutto, the violence in Kenya, and a range of domestic items. It's a balancing act, but we're committed to making sure that the key qualities of BBC News - for example, specialist understanding and analysis - are particularly focused on the Ten O'Clock News. People are now getting news from a range of sources throughout the day, so it's more important than ever that our key news service, at the end of each day, provides them with depth, and a range of understanding, that complements the information that they've picked up elsewhere.

Will there be a difference between the two bulletins? I'm sure we'll compete head to head on the main stories of the day. And there there will be a tussle over exclusive stories. But an inkling of potential differences might be found in a remark by an ITN senior executive, Deborah Turness. She said News at Ten's "And finally…" item should have this effect, "'We want people go to bed with a smile on their face or a tear in their eye". I'd prefer to say that the BBC's News is all made to make you think.

Five years old

Jamie Donald | 10:47 UK time, Thursday, 10 January 2008

The Daily Politics was launched five years ago this Wednesday; next Thursday it will be five years since the launch of This Week; and as we enter the sixth year, both programmes are doing well.

The Daily Politics logoLet’s get the back patting out of the way: audiences for both were up last year, to new highs, so too were the measures for audience appreciation.

This Week can now keep well over a million people up and watching long past midnight in an age of gazillions of channels. Both programmes have won a number of national and international awards, which is rare for political programmes which have no special category in the luvvie and media firmaments. So happy birthday and well done to all who’ve sailed in the good ships Daily Politics and This Week since first they floated.

Diane Abbott, Michael Portillo and Andrew NeilA great deal has been constant for both programmes. Andrew Neil has presented throughout. Diane Abbott and Michael Portillo have remained the mainstays of This Week. The approach for both hasn’t altered, which is to concentrate on people not process, be brave and have fun. People still say they don’t really feel like BBC programmes, and I still take that as a compliment.

But a great deal has changed too. We’ve seen two Labour prime ministers, three Tory and four Lib Dem leaders. Several wars have come and gone; we’ve survived the Hutton Report and general elections both real and imagined. The BBC has thrown at us ‘Make it Happen’, ‘Value for Money’, ‘Creative Futures’ and now five more years of budget cuts.

Andrew Neil and Daily McAndrewWhen we first launched The Daily Politics I was convinced that a set involving green satin seats, pink cushions and a yellow lighting wash would make for an exciting and politically balanced look. The first review remarked on how Andrew Neil looked like the cherry on a particularly nasty knickerbocker glory.

We’ve gone all staid since. Daisy Sampson, Andrew’s first co-anchor became Daisy McAndrew and left for ITN, to be replaced by Jenny Scott. Laura Kuenssberg is now a regular on the Six and Ten O’Clock News. Ed the Bookie has had his day. And the competition for the mug – the great Daily Politics mug – was suspended last year, though I hope it will return next week.

Jenny Scott and Andrew NeilNot everything has gone right. When we first launched This Week, Michael and Diane were an emergency pair because Oona King had pulled out on us with a week to go.

My original plan had been to replace both Michael and Diane with another pair for the summer term, and to try yet another pair for the winter after that. We’d already signed Ann Widdecombe for the summer – but Michael and Diane proved so irresistible after the first run we didn’t use Ann as promised.

To this day this great media stalwart won’t appear on any of my programmes. The This Week election titles with Andrew in a feather boa miming to a satirized version of ‘Show me the Way to Amarillo’ wasn’t universally acclaimed. And the odd guest, like Shane McGowan from the Pogues, has provided endless hours of fun for the TV blooper programmes.

Alesha Dixon and Vince CableBut both programmes have also provided some vintage moments: for The Daily Politics my personal favourite was Andrew’s scoop that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and his questioning of the party leaders during their election press conferences; for This Week it was last month’s Christmas special with Vince Cable and Alesha Dixon dancing the waltz together (which you can watch here). If you have some vintage moments of your own you can go to the programme websites here and post your nominations.

As for the future, it’s steady as she goes; more of the same with a little less money. I know the programmes aren’t to everyone’s taste. Luckily the BBC has a plurality of political programmes, something for everyone – while the competition now seems to have none. But this year, after five years, I’m beginning to worry whether the programmes are as cutting edge for politics as I once thought them to be - still as relevent and challenging – or whether after all this time they could benefit from a fresh eye, a new look, and a different approach. If you have a view, let’s hear it.

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.

Value of citizen journalism

Peter Horrocks Peter Horrocks | 13:31 UK time, Monday, 7 January 2008

Text messages and e-mails from our audiences have brought a valuable additional aspect to our journalism. But how much attention should we pay to people who care strongly enough about an issue to send a message? They might either be typical of a wide part of the audience or perhaps just a tiny vocal minority.

In a speech I gave earlier today at the University of Leeds' Institute of Communications Studies, I discussed some of the issues about what is termed "user-generated content". The text of my speech is below, and I'd be interested in your thoughts about the issues.

Read the rest of this entry

Editing interviews

Steve Herrmann Steve Herrmann | 17:54 UK time, Friday, 4 January 2008

In the past week or so, the BBC - and more specifically, the News website - has been accused on various websites, blogs and bulletin boards of censorship.

A graphic of the BBC News websiteThe claims relate to an interview with the late Benazir Bhutto, originally conducted by Sir David Frost for the al-Jazeera channel, and later rebroadcast in part on this website (the BBC has an agreement with al-Jazeera which enables both broadcasters to share certain news material).

During the interview, first broadcast at the start of November last year (more info here), Ms Bhutto made what was, on the face of it, an astonishing allegation - that Osama Bin Laden had been murdered by Omar Sheikh. The claim was brief, and went unchallenged by Sir David Frost.

Under time pressure, the item producer responsible for publishing the video on the BBC website edited out the comment, with the intention of avoiding confusion. The claim appeared so unexpected that it seemed she had simply mis-spoken. However, editing out her comment was clearly a mistake, for which we apologise, and it should not have happened. There was no intention on our part to distort the meaning of the interview, and we will endeavour to replace the edited version currently available via our website, with the original interview as broadcast by Al-Jazeera, which, in the meantime, you can find on YouTube here.

UPDATE Wed 09/01/2007: As promised above, we've now updated the original clip with the full version of the interview.

Encounters with Benazir

Rita Payne | 11:03 UK time, Friday, 4 January 2008

One of the last interviews Benazir Bhutto gave to BBC World was on the day President Musharraf said he would be lifting the state of emergency. She'd been stuck in party meetings all day and we managed to get hold of her on the phone about five minutes before the programme ended. She was fluent, articulate and media-savvy as ever, without giving much away - but unfortunately we had to cut her off because we were running out of time.

BBC World logoAbout 10 minutes later one of her close aides, Sherry Rahman, phoned me, saying, "Bibi would like to speak to you". She came on the line, and asked in her usual disarming way, "Rita, what happened, did I say something wrong?" I explained that the presenter had had to end the interview as he was getting a countdown from the director. She responded by thanking me for the explanation and asking if she could be given a similar warning the next time she came on air.

Little did I know that this would be our last conversation.

There has been concern that the coverage of Benazir Bhutto’s death has tended to whitewash her record - her two terms as prime minister ended with dismissal for corruption and abuse of power. Media commentators have also highlighted Benazir’s studious courting of the foreign media. This I had first-hand experience of. In our brief encounters over the years she always came across as unfailingly charming - and sometimes surprisingly frank. Every now and then when I called one of her advisers to request an interview, Benazir would come on the line for a quick word. Once I addressed her as "Ms Bhutto," and she immediately cut in, saying, "call me Bibi, my friends do."

Benazir BhuttoI first met Benazir Bhutto when her then bitter rival Nawaz Sharif was prime minister - she would come in to BBC TV Centre to denounce him and his government. But the old adage, “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” seemed to apply after Mr Sharif was thrown out of power, when they both joined forces against Musharraf.

I remember a book launch by one of Ms Bhutto’s supporters, who had written a biography of her and her family. The venue, in central London, was packed with her PPP (Pakistan People's Party) loyalists, Pakistani and foreign journalists, and some British politicians. About half-way through the evening a group turned up with flowers, which were presented to Ms Bhutto. They were from her once-hated adversary, Nawaz Sharif.

Her ability to switch alliances for political advantage was in evidence after the 1999 coup, when Nawaz Sharif was sacked by Pervez Musharraf. Initially she welcomed the move but was back in the studio three months later to condemn President Musharraf’s performance. Is the honeymoon over, I asked her as we waited for the interview to begin. She responded with a rueful smile, “all marriages are made in Hell." Sadly, there wasn’t another opportunity to follow this up.

She was conscious of her image and occasionally appeared to be unsure of what position to take on an issue. It wasn’t easy to tell if this was an affectation, or genuine uncertainty. After the 2002 election, Bhutto’s PPP emerged as the party with the largest number of seats, but not enough to form a government on its own. The question was if she would join an alliance with President Musharraf, a breakaway Pakistan Muslim League faction and other smaller parties. We weren’t able to extract a clear answer from her, but while the cameraman was packing up she turned to me and said, "Rita, what should I do?". She told me she was getting conflicting advice - to throw her lot in with Musharraf so she could still exercise some political influence, or to join the opposition to avoid becoming tainted by association with him. Flattering though it was to be asked, I can’t imagine that an astute politician like her would be seriously seeking advice from a journalist.

After that interview, when she had vigorously batted off questions about allegations of corruption, I told her that many people still asked where her money came from. She hit back at me. "Why don’t you ask where Pervez Musharraf or Imran Khan get their money? I come from a wealthy family, my father was wealthy, my husband is wealthy and I have my own money. I can afford to buy a diamond necklace if I want." She told me, as an example of her own substantial earnings, of an offer of several thousand pounds for a two-week lecture tour of the USA.

Back in July 2007, Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan had been in the UK to try to organise a common front against Musharraf, at a time when speculation was rife about a deal being negotiated between Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto. We had arranged to interview her about her plans, and I happened to mention that we had interviewed Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan a couple of days earlier. She was eager to know what they had said. I told her that they seemed disappointed that she hadn’t joined their alliance and had only sent a representative to their talks in London. She said she felt Imran Khan and others were wanting people out on the streets, but that she believed this was too early. She said there was a risk that any mass action would provide the military with another excuse to clamp down. “Who knows,” she observed cryptically, “we could end up dealing with another general.”

On another occasion we were among many journalists clamouring outside a house in central London where she was due to give details of her plans to return to Pakistan after eight years in exile. Once the door opened there was frantic heaving and shoving to enter the room where Benazir was giving the news conference. Our interviewer Nik Gowing and camerawoman Nicola Pugh fought their way in to be closer to her when she started speaking. I was stranded just outside the main room, with my head jammed against the wall in the crush.

At the end, I was told that Ms Bhutto had to dash off to Dubai to see her family, and wouldn’t be able to give us a separate BBC interview. As it happened, I was now first in line as she and her entourage were making their way out of the room. Sherry, her aide, spotted me in the crowd and suggested that this was my chance to have a brief word before Benazir left London. She saw me, and greeted me warmly with a hug. I took the chance to ask for a brief interviews. She agreed but insisted that it had to be quick. We were ushered through the next door into what turned out to be the kitchen. After hurriedly clearing away the saucepans and plates cluttering the kitchen, Nik managed to do the interview - while we hoped viewers would not be baffled by the microwave oven in the background.

After just under a decade in self-imposed exile, there is absolutely no doubt that Benazir Bhutto was convinced that she had to return to Pakistan this time, despite threats from militants, if she was to retain her credibility as a political leader. She was desperate to be in power again and seemed certain that this dream was within her grasp. Whatever her flaws, Benazir Bhutto was dynamic and charismatic and was a unifying force with qualities which inspired her supporters to risk their lives with her, and for her.

I was only one of hosts of other journalists on the periphery who were made to feel, however fleetingly, that she was their special friend.

Isn't life grand?

Peter Barron | 10:54 UK time, Friday, 4 January 2008

I always buy the Daily Mail to read on the Tube on the way to work, and it seems our colleagues at the Mail always watch Newsnight too. This appears to be primarily so the Ephraim Hardcastle column can write unkind things about us.

Newsnight logoYesterday they complained that we'd been off the air over the Christmas break. "How pathetic" was the verdict. Today they're upset that we've sent our correspondent David Grossman to cover probably the most important story of the year - the US Presidential election. And they don't like his jacket.

I'm sure the Mail would be happier if Newsnight - or indeed the BBC - didn't exist. But what would they write about then, and what would we read?

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