BBC BLOGS - The Editors

End of an era for The World Tonight

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 16:51 UK time, Wednesday, 19 September 2012

The end of an era - that's what colleagues and the twittersphere are saying about the decision by my long-time colleague, Robin Lustig, to step down from presenting The World Tonight on Radio 4 and Newshour on World Service.

Robin Lustig


I first met Robin when I joined The World Tonight as a youngish producer back in 1994 and we quickly developed a close editorial understanding, we share the same interest in international affairs and the same desire to get to the bottom of why the world is the way it is, and we have worked closely together both at Radio 4 and the World Service since then. He is an outstanding journalist and an example to all of us, both professionally and personally.

His encyclopaedic knowledge and quick-wit allows him to switch from covering international to British stories at the bat of an eye. One example sticks in my mind. On 4 June 2009, we had planned a special edition of the programme to mark two important anniversaries in recent world history. It was 20 years since Solidarity's victory in first free election in Poland since the war and also 20 years on from the crushing of Chinese pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square; the day two parts of the communist world took very divergent paths. It's the kind of big idea Robin loves getting his teeth into.

So off he went to Gdansk with a producer and we had inserts into the programme planned from Beijing. Then a couple of minutes before we went to air, the Labour cabinet minister, James Purnell, resigned from Gordon Brown's government calling on Mr Brown to stand down. We had to drop much of the planned material on Poland and China and lead with the Purnell story. The team in London set up a sequence of live interviews for Robin to do from Poland and he had to do them without much chance to brief himself. Of course he carried it off with his usual calm authority, then, apparently effortlessly, switched back to the now slimmed down special on how and why communist systems diverged on that day 20 years before.

This shows just how difficult an act to follow he will be. He will be missed by audiences here in the UK and around the world, and I will miss him a lot because he is also a really warm and supportive friend and colleague. One way to convey his humanity is that last year, when I had to spend several months in hospital being treated for cancer, he came to see me regularly and not only helped keep me sane but also saved me from the vagaries of hospital food with his own meals on wheels service.

But he is not retiring, he says he wants to go back to reporting and, if we are lucky, he will continue to be heard on our air waves with interesting stories from interesting climes.

Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight.

Reporting foreign intervention

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 14:51 UK time, Thursday, 7 April 2011

Since the foreign military intervention began in Libya in early March, The World Tonight has been airing the debate over why action is being taken in Libya and not other countries, such as Ivory Coast.

Ivorian mothers and children sit at a UNHCR camp for displaced people in Duekoue.

Ivorian mothers and children sit at a UNHCR camp for displaced people in Duekoue.

Over the past decade, we have covered the waxing, in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, of so-called humanitarian or liberal intervention, and its waning in the wake of the Iraq invasion in 2003. It is never a simple case of the international community intervening to protect civilians who are victims of repression from their own governments. If it were, we would have seen foreign forces going into such countries as Sri Lanka or Burma as well as Sierra Leone and former Yugoslavia.

Last Thursday, we asked Elizabeth Dickinson of the respected Foreign Policy magazine why up to that point there had not been the same international action in Ivory Coast as we'd seen in Libya. She told us that conditions were not yet right for intervention there despite the humanitarian situation with large numbers of civilians being killed and displaced by fighting between forces loyal to the internationally recognised President Allasane Ouattara, and his rival, Laurent Gbagbo, who is refusing to leave office despite losing last year's election.

Was it as simple as the fact that Libya is a major oil exporter and Ivory Coast a major cocoa exporter?

No-one goes to war over cocoa, Elizabeth Dickinson argued, but that is not the whole story. As usual in international affairs things are never that simple and there is rarely any single reason to explain why governments decide to take action or sit on their hands.

There have to be a combination of factors in play and - rather like the ingredients of a cocktail - there needs to be the right mix for intervention to take place.

The motives to intervene in Libya were much more than a simple humanitarian impulse. Colonel Gaddafi had publically threatened to take revenge on his enemies in Benghazi, so there was an imminent danger of a humanitarian catastrophe, and a humanitarian disaster there could have lead to large numbers of refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean which the Europeans clearly don't want. Libya is, of course, a major oil producer, so it is also strategically important to Europe and indirectly to the US.

In addition, at the moment when the Libyan revolt picked up steam, both the British and French leaders wanted to demonstrate they were on the side of Arab publics after being caught by surprise by the "Arab Spring". President Sarkozy had taken a lot of criticism for backing the Tunisian leader, Ben Ali, until the last moment (his foreign minister had to resign over her links to the now former Tunisian leader) and David Cameron had been criticised for touring the Gulf states with a business delegation, including arms exporters, at the same time as his government was suspending arms export licences to countries in the region, including Libya, which were using force against peaceful protesters.

Colonel Gaddafi also lacked powerful foreign friends to protect him. So when the French and British brought Resolution 1973 to the UN Security Council, it seems the leaders of China and Russia did not believe they had enough at stake to protect the Colonel by wielding their vetoes, and the Arab League and African Union backed the intervention as they have no time for the Libyan leader who has never been shy of lecturing them on their faults or interfering in their internal affairs.

Finally, there was a known tactic - a no-fly zone - that was readily to hand.

All these factors had to come together at the same time for intervention to take place.

In the past week, enough factors have come together so that France and the UN have now intervened in Ivory Coast proving that old maxim that a week can be a long time in (geo)politics. Last Friday, a new Security Council resolution was followed by French and UN helicopters attacking Mr Gbagbo's troops who were resisting the advance of Mr Ouattara's forces.

So what changed? Firstly, Mr Ouattara's forces suddenly got the upper hand in the fighting on the ground, so the foreign forces did not need to use much air power to give what they hope will be a decisive push. And, as we've been hearing on The World Tonight this week, the humanitarian situation deteriorated rapidly and evidence of massacres emerged creating a sense of urgency.

Add to this President Sarkozy's new found desire to show France is not a friend to authoritarian leaders, and you had the necessary ingredients for military intervention.

Neither Ivory Coast or Libya are straightforward and easy to explain, but we have tried to avoid falling into the pitfalls of seeing them in black and white terms and reflect the debate over why international - including British - military forces have got involved.

But, unfortunately for Bahraini or, for that matter, Burmese pro-democracy activists, the humanitarian impulse to help there has not been reinforced by a confluence of other key factors to trigger strong intervention on their behalf.

Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight.

Kosovo reassessed?

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 15:37 UK time, Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Kosovo has been back on the front pages in recent weeks with lurid allegations against its prime minister and dominant politician, Hashim Thaci, accusing him of involvement in organised crime and even harvesting human organs for sale for profit. Mr Thaci has denied the allegations.

Hashim Thaci

The prime minister has also been in the news as his party was accused of vote rigging in last month's parliamentary elections which were the first organised by the Kosovo government. This week, the vote had to be rerun in some of Mr Thaci's strongholds and a new government should be formed in the next few weeks.

Why is this interesting to people who don't follow affairs in south east Europe closely?

This is a question I have been asked given The World Tonight has followed the Kosovo story more consistently than many other news outlets.

The answer I give is that Kosovo is unfinished business which has implications that range far wider than this small territory in the former Yugoslavia.

The European Union has its largest ever civilian mission in Kosovo. Known as Eulex, it is a police and justice mission designed to help build the rule of law there as Kosovo is blighted by corruption and organised crime and a major source of trafficking in drugs, people and arms into the EU. EU officials will tell you off the record that the mission is needed so the drugs gangs can be tackled on the streets of Kosovo, rather than the streets of Paris, London or Berlin.

In addition to paying for this mission, European taxpayers have also funded a huge aid programme totalling several billion euros over the past decade aimed at reconstructing Kosovo after the conflict between Serbian Security Forces and the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army in the late 90s and Nato's intervention in 1999.

Another reason Kosovo matters is that its declaration of independence from Serbia three years ago - encouraged by the United States, Britain, France and Germany - highlighted the tension between self-determination and territorial integrity in world affairs that is at the root of several conflicts around the world. In addition to the Kosovo conflict, these competing ideas helped cause the short war between Russia and Georgia in 2008 and the long running civil war in Sudan which this week's referendum there is aimed at settling peacefully.

Kosovo is also important precisely because it is unfinished business. The EU is attempting to supervise the development of a functioning state along European lines, but despite the support of the US and leading EU countries, Kosovo as an independent state has struggled to achieve international acceptance. To date 73 countries have recognised Kosovo, but the rest of the world's 192 UN members still regard Kosovo as part of Serbia, including the world's major emerging countries from China to Brazil to South Africa.

The luridness of the allegations against Mr Thaci provoked a renewed focus on Kosovo in the media and a slew of articles have appeared in Britain and the US in recent weeks questioning Nato's intervention in 1999 and the wisdom of the supporting Kosovo independence and Mr Thaci, as one of the leaders of the independence movement, in particular.

The offensive against Serbia in 1999 was presented by western leaders as a humanitarian act to prevent widespread ethnic cleansing of Kosovo's Albanian population by Slobodan Milosevic's forces. This was widely accepted by western commentators at the time and since then reporting of the conflict in western media has been largely been framed as a story of Albanian victims and Serb aggressors. But some of the recent commentary (you can read examples here and here) has challenged this account and questioned whether the intervention and support for independence were misguided.

Like most conflicts, Kosovo has never been black and white. Albanians and Serbs have been involved in a struggle for control of Kosovo on and off for well over a century and there have been times when one side or the other had the upper hand and sought to drive the other out of the territory. So when NATO intervened to stop ethnic cleansing in 1999, it was also siding with the Albanians and this culminated in the declaration of independence in 2008 with American and European encouragement (although five out of 27 EU states did not back the move).

On The World Tonight we talked to the former senior UN official Jerry Gallucci, who now writes an informative blog, about whether this unwelcome publicity will damage Kosovo's prospects of achieving full international recognition. His take is that having the criminal allegations and the electoral fraud in the headlines casts Kosovo in a negative light and will probably keep the process of international recognition bogged down and that means the fate of Kosovo remaining unresolved and, for us, newsworthy.

Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight.

What kind of world does China want?

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 10:12 UK time, Thursday, 25 November 2010

China is more than the talk of the town these days - it's the talk of the world.

Wherever you go, newspapers, TV, radio and the web are abuzz with discussion about the rise of China and what that means for, well, wherever you happen to be.


China is back on the world stage following two centuries when it was consumed by external aggression and internal division and conflict. In 1750, the Middle Kingdom was the world's largest economy and is estimated to have accounted for about 30% of the global trade and it is now on the way back to that position.

In the past few years, China has overtaken Italy, Britain, France and Germany and this year it overtook Japan to become the world's second largest economy after the USA.

With its growing economic heft has come further integration into the global economy. This in turn means China is playing a greater and greater role in global affairs. It also means the rest of the world is looking to China to play a bigger part in sorting out the world's problems, as we have seen this week with the US and other countries looking to China to restrain North Korea in the latest flare-up in its conflict with South Korea.

Western governments and commentators are not short of advice for the Chinese leadership on the kind of role it should play.

The US is calling on China to let its currency rise against the dollar so that Chinese exports will become more expensive and imports to China cheaper. Europe - along with the US - want China to help put pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme. Western campaigners call on China to put pressure on the Burmese military government to end its repression of its opponents; these are just a few examples.

To Chinese ears sometimes this commentary has taken on a patronising tone. The current President of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, when he was in the US State Department under George W Bush, famously said the United States should help China to become a "responsible stakeholder" [144KB PDF]; the underlying assumption seemed to be that being responsible meant China would let the US teach it to play by the rules set by the Western powers at the end of World War II.

But how does the world look from Beijing? How do the Chinese want to exercise their growing power and influence?

Robin Lustig


To try to answer these questions, The World Tonight has come to Beijing for a special edition of the programme.

In conjunction with the leading American think tank, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the influential Tsinghua University, we have brought together a panel of Chinese and Western experts at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy to discuss these questions.

Joining World Tonight presenter Robin Lustig are two leading Chinese international relations experts, Professor Sun Zhe of Tsinghua University and Professor Xie Tao of Beijing Foreign Studies University, as well as John Holden, a veteran of Chinese-American relations, now with the PR firm Hill & Knowlton, and Geoff Dyer, bureau chief for the Financial Times here in Beijing.

Robin Lustig with  panel of guests


What comes through in the discussion is that China has become more self-confident in recent years as its economy continues to grow and it has started modernising its military, but that there's a mismatch between how the world sees China and how China sees itself.

In Beijing they don't see themselves as a superpower - they think that is a few decades away yet. They see a country that still has huge challenges to overcome in terms of uneven development, huge numbers of poor people, and creating a more democratic political system - though by that they don't mean Western-style democracy.

We also discussed whether recent frictions between China and the US over currency and trade, and disputes between China and its neighbours over maritime borders, have revealed a leadership in Beijing that doesn't appreciate enough the negative effect of its actions and statements on perceptions abroad of its long-term intentions.

I think you'll find it a fascinating and at times surprising discussion. Let me know what you think.

The World Tonight on immigration

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 17:10 UK time, Thursday, 4 November 2010

Immigration is one of the most sensitive issues in British politics. Polls indicate that it's a major concern to many people, but it's an issue which politicians in the three main parties - and indeed many of us in the media - have been reluctant to discuss much until quite recently.

Because of the economic crisis from which the UK and the rest of the EU is only slowly emerging and the prospect of unemployment remaining quite high for some time, concern about immigration seems likely to remain a hot topic.

So The World Tonight has got together with the leading think tank Chatham House to host a special debate on the economic, social and cultural costs and benefits of immigration to the UK.

Robin Lustig


In a programme to be broadcast on Friday, presenter Robin Lustig will chair the debate between Trevor Phillips, head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission; David Frost, the director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce; Shreela Flather, Baroness Flather, who was the first Asian woman to receive a peerage; and Douglas Murray, director of the think tank the Centre for Social Cohesion.

Any discussion of immigration is fraught with difficulties around definitions.

The exact number of people coming in and out of the UK and how many stay for any length of time is often disputed, because it is difficult to count the exact number of people entering and leaving the country and for how long they stay in or out. This means the interpretation of official statistics is argued over - for instance, by Migration Watch.

Who exactly constitutes an immigrant? The UN defines it as someone who moves to another country and stays more than a year, but how many of these people stay for more than a few years before going home or moving on to another country, and how many settle in the UK permanently?

There is often confusion between migrants and refugees. The latter are people who literally seek refuge from persecution in their own countries and which the UK is bound by treaty obligation to host if they can prove they have "a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion".

What powers does the government have to control immigration? About a quarter of immigrants come from other EU countries; because of the freedom of movement within the European Union, short of leaving the EU, this cannot be stopped - although their right to work can be restricted for a transitional period for new members, something the UK chose not to do in the case of Poland but did in the case of Romania and Bulgaria. It also has to be remembered of course that many British citizens exercise this right to live in France or Spain, for instance.

So when we talk about controlling immigration, we are talking about migrants coming from countries outside the EU, which last year was just over half the total of immigrants, and it is those numbers the new government wants to reduce with its immigration cap.

Then there is the whole question of illegal immigration; by its nature, this is not counted and is more difficult to assess the level of and to control.

As the world becomes more interconnected and globalised, both economically and culturally, it is difficult to imagine that immigration can be reduced dramatically. But it is also important to note that the absolute numbers of people moving in and out of most countries is relatively small, if you exclude major refugee movements because of war or natural disaster.

So in our debate we hope to establish clear parameters for our discussion and go on to have a debate on the concerns people have and what the best approach to immigration should be - take a listen and let us know what you think.

Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight.

Biodiversity: Lost or missing?

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 17:30 UK time, Friday, 15 October 2010

On Monday another big UN conference is beginning in Nagoya Japan.



You may be forgiven for not knowing much about it, but 2010 has been the International Year of Biodiversity.

The UN's member states are getting together next week to review the progress - or rather the lack of it - in meeting their commitments to stop the loss of plants, animals and fungi species - or biodiversity - and, conservationists hope, commit to new action to meet their commitments.

The Convention on Biodiversity was established at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 with the aim of preventing the creeping extinction of the various forms of life on earth which are under threat from the growing population of human beings and their industrial and agricultural development.

UN members committed themselves to protecting life on Earth from extinction and making this a central part of their economic development - what's called sustainable development - but since then, biodiversity loss has accelerated.

Many environmentalists and conservationists, such as Jonathan Baillie of the Zoological Society of London argue the loss of biodiversity is an immediate threat, and yet there is much less coverage in the mainstream media of the issue than, say, climate change.

This week on The World Tonight we have been previewing the conference with a series of reports and special edition of the programme tonight.

(Before I am accused of being holier-than-thou, I have to acknowledge that we on The World Tonight have not given this issue as much coverage as we have climate change and other environmental issues, so in a sense this week we've been playing catch up.)

The participants in our special told me they felt the issue has been largely ignored by the mainstream media and that they find it difficult to get journalists and editors who are not environment specialists to engage with the issue.

But why should this be, given the experts are saying the situation is very bad and deteriorating fast?

Working on the plans for our special programme, has made me think about the possible reasons for this

Journalism - especially perhaps broadcast journalism - prefers issues where there are clearly divergent views and a more binary debate, such as there is regarding climate change. But with biodiversity there isn't that divergence over the fundamentals - there seems to be little disputing that biodiversity is being lost, so the debate is over what to do about it and, even there, there seems a high degree of consensus between environmentalists, conservationists and business - as our special programme reflects.

Stories about the threat to tigers in a particular country or say polar bears in the Arctic are not uncommon. But wider biodiversity loss and its causes are a more complex issue which is quite difficult to present in short reports and articles, which may be deterring mainstream journalists and editors.

Also, it's been suggested that because natural history programming, be it from the BBC, National Geographic, or others, is very good and very popular with audiences, many journalists have seen that as providing adequate coverage of the issue.

I have to say I wouldn't agree that natural history programmes are enough given the role that governments, business and non-governmental organisations play in biodiversity policy.

Whatever the reasons for the relative lack of coverage, the conference next week, even if there's no conclusive outcome, gives us the opportunity to report on the issues around biodiversity loss.

Just a note to our listeners who've e-mailed us in the past day pointing out that we failed to mention fungi when describing what biodiversity is, my apologies, we could have been more explicit.

Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight.

Bear hugs: Russia on The World Tonight

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 09:37 UK time, Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Two years ago Russia went to war with its tiny neighbour, Georgia. In five days of fighting Georgian forces were heavily defeated.

World Tonight logoWho started it and why was hotly contested at the time, something I blogged on then.

The conflict had several immediate results.

Relations between Moscow and Tbilisi went into the deep freeze. Russia and three other countries recognised the independence of the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. And relations between Russia and the West - the US and the EU - deteriorated to their worst level since the end of the Cold War - there was even a revival of Cold War rhetoric.

Some commentators said at the time that Russian foreign policy had taken a decisive anti-Western turn and things could and/or should never be the same again.

But here we are 24 months later and those predictions couldn't appear more misplaced.

Russian relations with Georgia remain hostile, although the border has reopened in places and some business links remain.

President Medvedev and President ObamaBut over the past year relations with both Washington and the EU have improved dramatically.

One of President Obama's most successful foreign policy initiatives to date has been the "reset" of relations with Russia that has led to a new nuclear arms control agreement, START 2, but Washington appears to have been pushing at an open door.

When it comes to Europe, the Russians have reached out to their arch rivals, the Poles, as a way of demonstrating they want to improve relations with the wider EU, damaged by disputes from the disruption of gas supplies via Ukraine, to murder of the Russian exile, Alexander Litvinenko, in London and the harassment of the British ambassador to Moscow by the nationalist youth organisation, Nashi.

What lies behind this change of policy in Moscow?

The reasons for the change of approach from Russia were outlined in a leaked Foreign Ministry paper in May and they appear to be highly pragmatic.

President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin want to modernise the Russian economy, including its ageing oil and gas infrastructure, and diversify away from its huge reliance on energy exports and they think they need good relations with the Western economies to do that.

Last month, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, wrote a significant essay explaining the policy change in more depth.

This kind of incremental shift is quite a challenge to cover on a daily news programme given there are often seemingly more pressing news stories on a daily basis that knock the smaller stories of signs of policy change off running orders.

So occasionally at The World Tonight, we decide to devote special coverage to a significant issue and this Friday it's this.

We'll be reporting from Georgia (Tom Esslemont: Georgia and Russia still bitter foes amid scars of war) and Poland (Paul Moss: Russia unleashes charm offensive on Poland); talking to senior European and Russian leaders; and discussing what lies behind this change with a panel of experts in Russia, the US and Germany.

But already one lesson that comes through from the past two years seems to be wary of ever thinking nothing will be the same again.

Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight.

The World Tonight on foreign policy

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 17:39 UK time, Thursday, 20 May 2010

How should the new government cut its cloth in regard to Britain's role in the world?

GlobeThe coalition has started work on identifying where to reduce public spending to get the rising deficit under control, and it's clear the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence will have to shoulder their share of cuts.

On Wednesday, The World Tonight held a special debate at the leading foreign policy think tank, Chatham House, to debate the foreign policy options a straitened Britain faces.

Why do this now? Well, the new coalition has just taken office and needs to define its foreign policy. Chatham House is in the middle of a project looking at the UK's choices and ambitions in the world. And we thought it was an appropriate way to mark The World Tonight's 40th anniversary.

We brought together an international panel with experts from the US, Germany and India, together with the director of Chatham House and former British Foreign Secretary, Lord Hurd - the man who coined the phrase "punching above our weight" to describe the British approach to the world.

The main conclusions from the debate were:

• Budget cuts and the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan will make it much less likely the British military will be involved in intervention overseas in the future
• Britain should play a more central role in Europe to ensure the EU has a stronger voice on the world stage
• Lord Hurd said the "special relationship" with the US works only when London can be useful to Washington, and the panel seemed to agree that anyway President Obama is more focussed on China than on Europe
• The key foreign policy issue at the moment is the emergence of a multi-polar world where the new powers - first and foremost China, but also India and Brazil - have a different approach to international relations to the traditional Western powers and, for obvious reasons, prioritise relations with Washington over relations with London

The other question debated was whether the Tory-Lib Dem coalition could remain united on foreign policy when their basic instincts differ, especially over an EU which, faced with the euro crisis, could end up deciding on closer integration in order to save the common currency.

During the election campaign, foreign policy was little discussed and there is a large degree of consensus across the parties on many issues, so it will be interesting to see whether the new government does make any big changes to Britain's role in the world.

Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight.

40 years of The World Tonight

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 10:00 UK time, Monday, 5 April 2010

At the beginning of April 1970, Nasa was preparing the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission for launch and the BBC was preparing to launch The World Tonight.

I was a starry-eyed 10-year-old collecting Apollo transfers to stick on the end of my bed and obsessed with space exploration, but at the BBC the bosses were thinking of other things - they wanted a late-evening news programme for Radio 4 listeners, starting to air on 6 April, which would cover international news and take a more analytical approach to the day's events .

Forty years on, The World Tonight is still doing just that. The daily task we set ourselves is to try to make sense of what's happening in Britain and the world for our audience who - our listener numbers suggest - want to know what's going on in the world and why.

Robin Lustig

We set out to go behind the headlines and explore issues in depth.

We also aim to spot emerging trends in global events, so when they do become headlines, our audience are, we hope, better placed to make sense of them.

I remember, after the war between Georgia and Russia broke out in August 2008, a senior BBC manager came by the programme desk and said "at least your listeners will know where South Ossetia is". That's because we had been reporting on the rising tension in the region which followed the decision of major Western powers to recognise the independence of Kosovo early in the year.

The world we report has changed out of recognition following the end of the Cold War 20 years ago.

In April 1970, Richard Nixon was President of the United States. His country was locked in a hot war in Vietnam and a cold war with the Soviet Union.

The Americans were sending men to the moon

China was pretty much closed off to the world and still ruled by Chairman Mao.

But in other ways, things have not changed so much.

We've pulled together some classic clips from the big stories of the last 40 years. Take a look and you'll see that some of the issues the programme covered in the first few years are still with us today - the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians; the division of Cyprus; how to govern Northern Ireland fairly. Interestingly, all can be seen as ethno-religious disputes over territory.

And in the past 20 years since the end of the Cold War, such conflicts have become a major driver of the events we've covered.

Whole countries have disappeared from the map - think USSR and Yugoslavia - while other states still exist on the map but have either failed or are in state of extreme fragility - think Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan - and again ethno-religious conflict is central to their problems.

Why is this of interest in a media landscape where much coverage has become more local in focus and the news agenda has broadened to include coverage of the lives and loves of celebrities?

The number of our listeners suggests it is of interest. The way radio audiences are measured has changed dramatically over the years, so direct comparisons with 40 years ago aren't possible, but in the past decade we have seen the audience rise to hit a record last year of 1.8 million a week, which tells me there is an appetite for serious coverage of global affairs.

We continue to take seriously parts of the world not much covered elsewhere. Over the past year, our presenters have reported on the drugs war from Mexico, the end of one party domination from Japan, what's holding back development from India, and most recently, from the emerging power of Brazil.

Some key moments stand out.

Given the time of transmission, The World Tonight was well placed to cover the Watergate crisis and established its reputation early on covering the historic demise of the Nixon presidency.

Our presenter Robin Lustig was in Moscow when the USSR bit the dust; in Hong Kong when it was returned to China and in Washington when Barack Obama became the first black American to be elected president.

It's not been all plain sailing. As a live news programme, we've had our fair share of bloopers - a special programme from Nigeria on the first democratic election following the fall of the military junta in 1999 lasted just a few seconds before the line to Abuja went down, not to return.

Then there was the time we put a French union leader live on air without checking if he could speak English - one of the shortest interviews in the programme's history.

Though the programme has remained true to its original agenda, in another way things have changed radically.

The first edition of the programme was broadcast live on the radio and if you missed it, you missed it.

Robin Lustig and Ritula ShahToday we are on the radio and the internet. If you miss it at 10pm on Radio 4, you can catch up for a week on the iPlayer.

The programme has a webpage including a blog on current events and stories we cover. Listeners can see pictures of reporting trips on Flickr.

Presenters Robin Lustig and Ritula Shah also communicate directly with the audience through the blog and Facebook, and Robin sends a weekly e-mail newsletter to listeners who subscribe.

Douglas StuartAs for the next 40 years, well I hope I'll still be listening, however the programme is broadcast, just as our launch presenter, Douglas Stuart is still listening today, 40 years after he first said "This is The World Tonight...".

On Monday 5 April, we're doing a special edition of the programme. We'll be looking back at the stories we covered in the first days of The World Tonight and look at how they have moved on - among the stories we'll be looking at are Northern Ireland, the rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and we'll also have an interview with the first presenter of the programme, Douglas Stuart.

Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight.

Brazil: Sustained flight?

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 09:04 UK time, Monday, 15 March 2010

There's a story - which is probably apocryphal - that President de Gaulle, returning from an official visit to Brazil in the early 60s, was asked what he made of it. His reply is reputed to have been "Brazil is the country of the future...and it always will be".

World Tonight logoBrazil is currently being heralded around the world by politicians and commentators as an emerging global power alongside China and India - it's the B in BRIC (with Russia being the R). It's prominent in the G20 and played a leading role trying to salvage something from the ill-fated Copenhagen climate summit.

The Economist summed this view up last November with a very witty cover picture of the famous Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro blasting off.

But Brazil - the fifth largest country in the world with a population of more than 190 million - has promised in the past to achieve sustained economic take-off, most recently in the 1950s and the 1970s, never to maintain it, undermined by an economy prone to indebtedness and hyper-inflation - hence de Gaulle's legendary cynicism.

This week on The World Tonight, we are looking in-depth at Brazil.

Presenter Robin Lustig is there - he'll be blogging on his trip. And we'll be attempting to report the real Brazil, rather than the traditional picture presented in the Western media dominated as it has been by soccer, samba and sun or failure to cope with violent crime or deforestation of the Amazon.

President Lula da SilvaWe'll be asking if the success President Lula's government has had lifting Brazilians out of poverty and reducing the country's huge gap between rich and poor can be sustained and what that means for sustainable growth.

Robin will also report on the Rio de Janeiro police's innovative attempt to end the domination of its slums by drugs gangs ahead of the World Cup in 2014 and Olympic Games two years later.

We'll look at Brazil's emergence on the global political stage as it seeks a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. President Lula has been widely praised for his ability to get on with leaders from Barack Obama to Mahmoud Ahmedinejad via Nicholas Sarkozy and Hu Jintao. Some see Brazil as an exponent of Joseph Nye's soft power but little reported is the country's embarkation on military modernisation to back up its diplomacy.

We'll also be asking why Brazil, a country of immigrants and great racial diversity like its northern counterpart, the US, appears to have achieved much more effective cultural assimilation, with everyone speaking Portuguese and regarding themselves as Brazilians, rather than Italian-Brazilians or African-Brazilians.

Robin will also be reporting for the BBC News website and Newshour on BBC World Service radio.

Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight.

Fragile states and international order

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 11:20 UK time, Friday, 19 February 2010

What do Yemen, Lebanon and Pakistan have in common? Maybe not what immediately comes to mind.

Haitians walk the streets after earthquakeIf I add Haiti, East Timor and Burma to the list, perhaps it's more obvious.

They are all what diplomats and analysts call "fragile states" - poor countries with weak state structures and/or whose legitimacy is challenged, usually by insurgency.

I wrote about Yemen in my last post. Since then, the attempted bombing of a flight to Detroit on Christmas Day - allegedly by a radical Muslim trained in that country - has focussed the attention of Western governments on states which don't exercise complete control over their territory.

The British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, has identified the insecurity arising from what he calls "ungoverned spaces" as a major priority for British foreign policy, and the US has been increasing its aid to Yemen in both counter-insurgency and development.

As Washington says, the Yemeni government has to improve things like education, health and job prospects if it is see off the threat of collapse.

Last month's Haiti earthquake struck one of the countries least able to cope with a major natural disaster, an event exposing the human cost of state fragility.

On Monday 22 February, The World Tonight is co-hosting a conference with the leading think tank, the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House. We'll discuss how much of a threat fragile states are to their own citizens and to international order and what can be done both by these countries themselves and the international community to prevent these states from tipping over the edge into Somalia-like collapse.

There are examples of states which have been brought back from the brink.

The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia - which faced an insurgency among its Albanian minority which spilled over from Kosovo in 2001 - was stabilised by quick Nato and EU intervention involving diplomatic and financial support and a peacekeeping mission.

That intervention was carried out with the permission and cooperation of the Macedonian government. But even in the aftermath of natural disasters, intervention in fragile states is often not free of controversy over issues of sovereignty.

When the earthquake struck Haiti last month, the American armed forces quickly took control of the main airport to fly in troops and supplies. They soon faced criticism from Brazil over who was in charge of the relief effort. Brazil leads the United Nations mission in Haiti, the legal authority to operate in the country. All this was over the heads of the sovereign Haitian government, which had effectively ceased to function.

When Cyclone Nargis hit Burma in 2008 killing more than 130,000, the Burmese military government was accused of doing little to help the victims and there was serious discussion over whether the international community should intervene militarily to deliver humanitarian relief.

In the end, it did not happen - partly because of concerns that military intervention against the will of the sovereign government in such circumstances would set an unwelcome precedent for the future.

So how can fragile states be stabilised and strengthened? And what kind of intervention is effective and - in a world still organised into sovereign states - justified?

Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight.

Reporting from Yemen

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 16:15 UK time, Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Is Yemen - the Arab state bordering Saudi Arabia and across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia - on the verge of collapse?

Displaced Yemenis at a campThat is a question which is beginning to push its way up the international agenda as the country is wracked by two insurgencies, an internal refugee crisis, food shortages and fears that al-Qaeda could return to a country which seemed to have driven them out a few years ago.

Observers have been trying to bring the crisis in the country to the world's attention for some time, but it has received relatively little media attention.


Part of the answer is that it has been overshadowed by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and by the piracy in the Indian Ocean emanating from its neighbour Somalia.

This means foreign correspondents have been diverted to these stories and also editors back at base sometimes take the view that their audiences/readers can only take so much war and conflict on a day to day basis.

It is also partly because it is not an easy place to report from - it can be dangerous for foreigners with some being kidnapped and killed.

Added to this, the government has not been keen to allow too many journalists access to the areas affected by insurgencies and humanitarian agencies have been reluctant to jeopardise their ability to operate in the country by allowing journalists access to their work - which is one of the ways reporters can travel and report from conflict zones.

But this week on The World Tonight and Newshour on the BBC World Service, Owen Bennett-Jones will be reporting from there and assessing how fragile the country is and whether al-Qaeda can re-establish itself.

Yemen is not the only state in the world that is seen to be in a fragile condition and such states are seen as a cause of conflict, instability and a potential source of terrorist violence, so The World Tonight is planning to hold a conference with the Royal Institute of International affairs at Chatham House in February to look at how some states like Macedonia avoided collapse, while others like Somalia didn't which we will broadcast from.

We hope you find the coverage interesting and informative.

Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight.

A balanced approach to climate change

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 17:20 UK time, Thursday, 12 November 2009

Will the Copenhagen climate conference next month get a global deal on measures to control the rise in global temperatures?

That was one of the questions discussed this week when The World Tonight, co-hosted a conference at Chatham House with the journal International Affairs and the Royal Society looking at the challenges governments all over the world face with climate change and the potential scarcity of natural resources.

Drought in AustraliaWe also discussed how measures to deal with climate change could make food, energy and water shortages worse. You can listen to the programme we did from the conference here.

Most of the people at the conference were climate experts, technology specialists, politicians, lobbyists and activists, but there were also journalists ie us.

At one point, the discussion turned to concerns that many climate scientists have that public scepticism about climate change may be growing just as the models these scientists use to project the rise in global temperatures and the impact that will have on ice melt in places like the Himalayas, are suggesting a worse scenario in the next few decades.

They expressed surprise that this should be so.

One explanation offered was that the counter-message from climate change sceptics and lobby groups, especially in the US, that climate change is part of a natural cycle and nothing to worry about is a much simpler message to convey than the arguments for taking action which are based on a precautionary principle and complex climate modelling.

Others asked if the problem was a decline in public trust in scientists generally, because they are often asked to make projections which may not be subsequently borne out by experience.

Still others asked whether the media was responsible for the apparent rise in scepticism, arguing that the media in the interests of balance give airtime too much prominence to climate change sceptics, given the overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree climate change is happening and it is man-made and measures need to be taken to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

From the BBC's perspective, the answer to this question is that our journalistic role is not to campaign for anything. Impartiality means not taking sides in a debate, while accurately representing the balance of argument.

So, in the case of climate change we need proportionately to reflect the sceptical view but also, for example, reflect the debate among climate scientists about the most effective way of dealing with global warming.

On our programme, for instance, one of our panellists argued an all-encompassing global conference like Copenhagen is not the way to make progress as it is trying to deal with too many issues at once.

Another of the panellists argued that capping emissions and developing a market to trade in carbon is too slow and uncertain a way of dealing with the problem and we should invest in technical solutions to reducing the amount of CO2.

On the wider issue of reporting risk which is often what reporting what scientists are saying involves, the BBC has specific guidelines which you may be interested in reading.

Anyway, take a listen to the programme and let us know what you think.

Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight.

An important story

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 16:51 UK time, Thursday, 1 October 2009

Last night we led on the story of the sacking of a UN official.

The World TonightWhy did we judge that to be the most important story of the day on the The World Tonight? A question I've been asked.

Well the official in question is the American Deputy Head of the UN mission in Afghanistan, Peter Galbraith.

He was considered a close ally of the powerful US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, so the sacking is surprising.

But more important is the reason he fell out with his boss, the head of the UN in Afghanistan, Kai Eide.

They didn't agree on how to handle the widespread allegations of fraud in August's Afghan presidential election, where the Electoral Complaints Commission is investigating thousands of suspect ballots which has held up the official announcement of the result.

Peter GalbraithJust after Mr Galbraith was informed of his dismissal, he gave The World Tonight an interview (you can listen here) and alleged that he had seen evidence of widespread fraud in the voting, especially in the south of the country, and that he had also raised concerns that the elections commission was trying to manipulate the vote in favour of the the incumbent President Karzai, who has received the largest number of votes as things stand.

He alleges that Mr Eide told him not to share these concerns with international diplomats in Kabul and that was why he had been told to leave the country and had now lost his job.

In the interview he was also strongly critical of the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon for removing him. He said: "I think it sends a terrible signal when the UN removes an official because he was concerned about fraud in a UN-sponsored and funded election."

We also spoke to Mr Ban's spokesman, Farhan Huq, who denied the UN had sided with President Karzai or had minimised the fraud in the election. He said Mr Galbraith had been dismissed for the good of the mission, because it was necessary to have unity at the top in Kabul.

The elections in Afghanistan have been presented as a centrepiece in the Nato and UN strategy to demonstrate that Afghanistan can be turned into a viable, democratic state and that the military intervention in which thousands of civilians, more than 200 British troops, and more than 800 American troops have been killed since 2001 is worth it.

This is why we judged the resignation a very important story. I hope you agree.

Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight.

Resetting the balance of power

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 10:05 UK time, Wednesday, 23 September 2009

The north-eastern United States is the place to be this week if you're a world leader.

The World TonightHeads of government from around the globe are gathering at their annual UN General Assembly meeting in New York to discuss climate change and efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

Then the leaders of the G20 nations go on to Pittsburgh for another summit on how to restore the global economy to health and prevent a repetition of last year's financial crisis.

The rapid emergence of the G20 - the world's 19 biggest economies plus the European Union - as the organisation making the key decisions on the global economy is really an acceleration of a shift in the global balance of power that has been taking place over the past decade.

The rapid economic growth of China - which is set to overtake Japan as the world's second largest economy - as well as India and Brazil, and the stabilisation of the Russian economy on the back of higher energy prices, means the relative power of these countries has increased at the expense of the established economic power houses of the United States and the European Union.

President LulaThis shift was highlighted by an apparently amused Brazilian President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was quoted following the last G20 summit in London in April, saying "Don't you find it very chic that Brazil is lending to the IMF? I spent part of my youth carrying banners against the IMF in downtown Sao Paulo".

President Lula, a former trade union leader, was referring to the period a few decades ago when Brazil faced a debt crisis and was dependent on IMF loans. Now Brazil is contributing to the IMF to help stabilise the world economy.

In addition to the new central role of the G20, over the past few months we have also seen the US and Russia making up after their serious falling out over missile defence in Europe, the expansion of NATO and Russia's brief war with Georgia just over a year ago. What the Americans have called 'pressing the reset button'.

The question we're considering on the World Tonight this week is to what extent these dramatic changes are a direct result of the financial crisis and the deep recession that has struck the developed world and spread around the globe?

In a special edition of the programme on Wednesday broadcast from the prestigious American think-tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, Ritula Shah will be asking a panel of experts from the council to what extent the convulsions in the world economy have caused the shift in the balance of power and whether the change is permanent.

Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight.

Burma: Are there signs of change?

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 15:10 UK time, Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The guilty verdict for the Burmese pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was perhaps the least surprising news story of the week.

The World TonightThe military junta running the country were expected to find her guilty of breaching the terms of her house arrest when an American man swam to her compound and stayed two days - he was sentenced to seven years for his part in the incident - and they duly did.

But is there more to it than that?

Western governments - including the UK and the rest of the EU - were quick to condemn the verdict and threatened to impose more sanctions on Burma. A move welcomed by human rights groups.

But did they act too hastily and not consider the verdict carefully enough before issuing their condemnatory statements? That is a question we discussed on The World Tonight.

A former British ambassador to Burma - or Myanmar as it is also known - Derek Tonkin, who is an advocate of constructive engagement with the government in Rangoon, told us that the verdict sent an interesting signal.

Aung San Suu KyiThe sentence of three years in prison was commuted to 18 months house arrest. Mr Tonkin also said he understood that the terms of Ms Suu Kyi's house arrest are a bit softer than they were.

Human rights organisations say Aung San Suu Kyi is a prisoner of conscience and should not be in detention at all, but given the nature of the regime what can be read into the sentence?

According to Derek Tonkin and some other observers, the relative leniency of the sentence is a signal to Burma's neighbours and particularly China, India and the countries of ASEAN - that the military government are listening to their calls for restraint.

According to these analysts, the verdict was carefully calibrated to prevent Ms Suu Kyi taking part in elections planned for next year while not appearing over harsh.

Other observers point out that the junta has a plan to restore constitutional order in Burma - a country wracked by rebellions by its various ethnic minorities since independence from Britain more than 60 years ago and ruled by the military since 1962.

A new constitution has been drawn up by a convention which Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), boycotted.

Under the plan, elections will be held next year and a new generation of leaders will come to the fore. The aim of the junta seems to be to entrench the military's role in politics, but sharing power with civilian politicians - though not the NLD.

The thinking is they can break out of the partial international isolation they are in and then start to rebuild the economy which has seen one of the wealthiest countries in south east Asia become one of the poorest - if not the poorest.

China has been criticised by Western governments and human rights groups for being too soft on Burma - and indeed following the verdict, the Chinese called for respect for Burmese sovereignty and blocked a British attempt to get the UN Security Council to condemn the junta.

But there are signs the Chinese are gently trying to push the junta towards sharing power with civilians. As this commentary by Wen Liao suggests China wants stability on its south eastern border.

But for this to succeed, the generals need civilian partners who have credibility with the outside world, so reports that the leader of the Burmese government in exile, Sein Win, has gone to ASEAN with a plan for constitutional change that would involve the military becomes very interesting.

There may be no immediate prospect of Aung San Suu Kyi being freed and allowed to have a political role, but it looks like there is a possibility that things may change in Burma - if only very slowly. We'll continue to follow the story.

Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight.

Generals, politicians and the media

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 17:07 UK time, Monday, 20 July 2009

Roadside bombs - improvised explosive devices - have caused the deaths of many British soldiers in Afghanistan. Senior British military figures - including the Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, and the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt - have been calling, through the media, for their forces to be better equipped to face this threat.

The World TonightOne question that's arisen is why are they doing this in public? The chief of the defence staff has a direct line to the prime minister and presumably has been making the same calls in private, but failed to get approval for what he wants.

Students of history will know this tension is nothing new. During World War II, the country's most senior soldier, Field Marshall Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, had a stormy relationship with his Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.

At one point, Churchill told his chief military assistant, General Ismay, that Alan Brooke hated him. When this was reported to Alan Brooke he said:

"I don't hate him. I love him. But the first time I tell him that I agree with him when I don't will be the time to get rid of me, for then I can be no more use to him."

In other words, he saw it as his job to argue with the prime minister when he thought he was wrong - and apparently he often did as he thought Churchill tried to interfere unhelpfully in military decision-making.

But little was known of this at the time, what we do know is mainly from memoirs published after the war in question was over. Whereas in today's more transparent times, military leaders talk to the media more often and are prepared to use the media to lobby for what they want.

Some argue that in a democracy where elected civilian politicians are meant to be paramount, the military should not publically question their civilian masters. Others argue that senior officers also have a responsibility to the people under their command and sometimes that responsibility outweighs their duty to the unwritten constitutional convention that they don't contradict ministers in public.

We've had this discussion on The World Tonight with Dr Paul Cornish, head of the international security programme at Chatham House and a former officer in the Royal Tank Regiment, and the former defence minister Peter Kilfoyle.

But with both politicians and senior military officers using the media to put their case, it's clear the media has an equal responsibility to put both their arguments under the same rigorous scrutiny, even though the tone of this needs to be sensitive to the families and comrades of soldiers who have been killed or injured on the battlefield.

Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight.

Mexico in depth

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 10:37 UK time, Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Mexico could be on the verge of being a failed state. That's the view of some observers, including a former US drugs tsar General Barry McCaffrey - who cite the increasingly violent battle between powerful drug cartels and the government which has deployed the army to fight them.

The World TonightLast year alone, 6,000 people were killed in violence linked to the drugs gangs and the killing shows no sign of abating.

The country is beginning to resemble Colombia in the recent past, not a comparison the Mexican government would like but one many analysts and journalists are starting to make.

This week, The World Tonight's Robin Lustig is in Mexico to look in depth at the threat facing the country. You can follow his trip on Robin's World Tonight blog and hear his reports on Thursday and Friday on the programme.

Mexico is one the world's biggest countries with a population of 110 million and the 13th largest economy. It's also strategically located on the southern border of the United States. So what happens there is significant for the rest of the world.

Jungapeo, Mexico

Yet apart from occasional reports when there is a particularly large number of deaths in the "war on drugs" and when the country was the first to be badly hit by swine flu, the country gets relatively little coverage in the British media.

Listeners to The World Tonight and readers of my entries on this blog will know that one of the things we try to do on the programme is to cover significant global issues that are often not given much daily news coverage elsewhere.

It's for this reason we have followed the worsening situation in Somalia relatively closely as well as the unresolved conflicts in the western Balkans.

In Mexico, we'll be looking in depth at the underlying economic crisis which makes it more difficult to deal with the drugs cartels.

The violence was already deterring business; but the recession in the US has caused a big drop in the money sent home to support their families by Mexicans north of the border; and the swine flu outbreak which may have killed up to 60 people has dealt a heavy blow to the country's large tourist industry.

We'll also ask whether the militarisation of the "war on drugs", the use of the army to deal with a law and order problem in a country with an authoritarian past, is an effective policy or risks making the violence worse.

Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight.

Momentous events of 1989

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 10:13 UK time, Monday, 1 June 2009

This week 20 years ago, Communism in Europe and China was at a crossroads.

On 4 June 1989, the Polish Solidarity movement won that country's first free election, on the same day as Chinese combat troops crushed the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.

The World TonightWithin months of Solidarity's victory in Poland, the Berlin Wall had gone, Czechoslovakia had had its peaceful "Velvet" Revolution and the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu had been violently overthrown. This was followed within a couple of years by the break-up of the Soviet Union itself.

In sharp contrast, the suppression of the pro-democracy movement in China was followed within a few years by the launch of radical economic reforms and rapid growth that have led to China's emergence as a world power, under the leadership of the Communist Party.

A key personality in all these events was the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

When Mr Gorbachev decided not to use force to overturn Solidarity's victory and it entered government in Poland, opponents of communism in the rest of eastern Europe took note, and one by one the existing regimes gave way to multi-party democracies.

Mikhail GorbachevOpponents of the Soviet Communist Party inside the Soviet Union also took note. In Ukraine and Lithuania, nationalists and democrats realised they could break away from Moscow and within two and a half years, the USSR itself had disappeared from the map.

In China too, Mr Gorbachev was a catalyst to events.

It was his visit - the visit of a communist leader who espoused reform and openness - to Beijing in April 1989 that helped bring students protesters out into Tiananmen Square. Those students stayed after Mr Gorbachev left, and were only cleared by force on the night of 3/4 June.

Twenty years ago, few Poles would have imagined their country would be a major player in a European Union of 400 million citizens. And few Chinese would have imagined that their country, with the Communist Party still at the helm, would have experienced more dynamic economic growth than the countries that shrugged off communism.

This week, The World Tonight will have special reports from Beijing, talking to veterans of Tiananmen as well as a special programme from the Polish city of Gdansk where Solidarity was born.

We'll be assessing how and why these momentous events happened and what they mean for the world today.

Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight.

Unresolved conflicts

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 08:10 UK time, Monday, 20 April 2009

Moldova has been in the news the past week - that's not something you often hear and to be frank it hasn't featured that widely with all the other things going on from the latest rows over spin doctors to policing of demonstrations to the ongoing global economic problems.

The World TonightBut The World Tonight has covered events there where protests followed parliamentary elections which were won by the governing Communist Party, but the opposition said were rigged, despite international election observers giving the vote a largely clean bill of health.

I am often asked why The World Tonight devotes considerable attention to events in the former Soviet Union and the Balkans - more often by colleagues than members of the audience.

My answer is that the area has several unresolved conflicts left over from history - disputed borders; minorities who claim the right of self determination from larger states; as well as an unsatisfied desire to catch up with the consumer societies of Western Europe - and these can erupt into violence as we saw last year in Georgia and threaten to draw in other countries including the UK, so audiences need to know what is going on to make sense of events when they do become headline news.

In fact, on 20 April The World Tonight is co-hosting a day's conference with the leading think tank, Chatham House, on the tension between territorial integrity and self determination, chaired by our presenter, Robin Lustig.

Moldova is one of the lesser known former Soviet republics that became independent when the USSR broke up in 1991. It was part of Romania before World War II, but with the border changes in Eastern and Central Europe that followed the war, it became part of the Soviet Union.

When it first became independent, we called it Moldavia for a while - making it sound more reminiscent of the Ruritania of the Victorian novels of Anthony Hope - and it has attracted little mainstream interest since it achieved independence. Yet it has all the makings of being another flashpoint between the EU and Russia, along with Ukraine and Georgia.

The majority of Moldovans are Romanian speakers while in the east there is a Russian speaking breakaway region - called Transdnistria - where Russian peacekeepers have been stationed since a brief conflict between the Transdnistrians and the Moldovan authorities in 1992.

Following the protests after the election on 5 April, many demonstrators were arrested and allegedly mistreated by the security forces which led to protests from Romania which has called for the EU to launch an investigation into the conduct of the Moldovan government.

Protesters outside Moldova parliament

The EU is reluctant to get involved as it is keen to establish better relations with Moldova and not to give Moscow more grounds to suspect the EU is trying to encroach on what it sees as its sphere of influence.

But Romania has gone further. Earlier this week, its president promised to reform Romanian citizenship laws to allow greater numbers of Moldovans to get Romanian passports. If you remember, Western critics of Moscow have accused it of interfering in the internal affairs of its neighbours, Georgia and Ukraine, by granting Russian speakers in those countries Russian passports.

On Wednesday's programme (listen here), we interviewed the Romanian Foreign Minister and he denied Moldovan accusations that Romania had fomented the opposition protests, but accepted the international verdict of the conduct of the election itself.

But as our Europe correspondent, Oana Lungescu, made clear on the programme, there is no appetite in the EU for another confrontation with Moscow. And perhaps the complication of Romania as an EU member, with what it sees as a direct interest in the fate of fellow Romanians in Moldova, makes this potentially a serious problem for the EU and its attempt to project what it sees as the values of rule of law and democracy further east, while rebuilding a constructive relationship with its main energy supplier Moscow.

Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight.

Obama's Afghanistan strategy

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 17:04 UK time, Friday, 27 March 2009

President Obama has announced his long-awaited new strategy for trying to stabilise Afghanistan and Pakistan and to defeat the violent Islamists of al-Qaeda and their Afghan and Pakistani Taleban allies.

This review actually began last year under President Bush by the Defence Secretary Bob Gates working with General David Petraeus, who was credited with reducing violence in Baghdad and Sunni areas of Iraq. Both these men have stayed on under Mr Obama.

The World TonightOn The World Tonight, we have tracked this story closely - both when there has been a significant news development, and also in several special programmes.

We returned to look at the review on last Friday's programme, asking what the new policy was likely to look like towards both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It'll be interesting to see how much of our experts' advice and predictions are included in the new strategy, and of course to see whether it will succeed - though we probably won't be able to assess that for some time to come.

However, that will require patience - something we journalists are not renowned for.

On another note, our presenter Robin Lustig is now able to put audio excepts from The World Tonight on his blog, and I'd be interested to know whether readers of this blog and his blog find this a useful innovation.

Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight.

Exploring the economic downturn

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 15:05 UK time, Friday, 13 March 2009

What if the economic system is really broken?

The World TonightThat's a question we'd been asking ourselves on The World Tonight over the past few months and we've now started airing in a series of reports by our economics correspondent, Jonty Bloom.

The idea for the series, which we've been running each Friday since 27 February, (you can listen here) came from discussions Jonty and I had been having over how to provide an original approach to covering the economic downturn story.

The purpose of programmes like The World Tonight, is both to report and analyse the news.

As the economic downturn has gathered pace in the past few months, though - with the succession of stories on rapidly deteriorating economic figures and indicators - it has become increasingly challenging for us to find new and original approaches to analysing what's happening.

As opposed to reporting the facts of the story on the day-to-day basis.

For sale sign in a shop windowOne theme that has struck me was the underlining assumption of the politicians, business people and economists we have been speaking to, that the economy would eventually recover and growth would resume. The common assumption seemed to be that the way banks work will need to change and financial regulation will be reformed, but the basic way the economy functions would not change.

But what if this recovery does not happen? What if the present economic system just doesn't work any more and it's more than a cyclical downturn?

Given the view of many economists that we don't know whether the stimulus measures being employed by the major economies at the moment will work, it seems a reasonable question.

We decided to focus on the British economy first and Jonty's been exploring three areas over the past three weeks...

• Whether the British need to wean themselves of their addiction to easy credit secured on the expectation of ever-increasing property values
• Given the problems in the financial sector, whether Britain needs to increase the share of manufacturing in the economy
• Whether a more balanced economy would result from personal wealth and opportunity being more evenly distributed

Next, we aim to look at what ideas for the future of the global economy are coming from other countries in the G20, such as India and South Africa; and we'll also be looking at what new thinking there is on whether a return to business as usual in the economy is sustainable given the current strain on the world's resources.

We'd be interested to know what you think.

Alistair Burnett is the editor of World Tonight

Dissenting voices

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 09:45 UK time, Thursday, 22 January 2009

On the day of President Obama's inauguration, The World Tonight, (listen here) did a special programme from Alabama where the civil rights movement was born in the 1950s.

The World TonightOur presenter, Robin Lustig, talked to veterans of the civil rights movement about their memories of their campaign for equality, their reactions to the installation of the country's first black president and their views on where civil rights go from here.

Given that Mr Obama did not win Alabama in the presidential election and in fact attracted only around a tenth of white voters, we believed it was important to hear from people in the state who were not supporters of the new president. In fact, across the southern United States, only about half as many whites voted Democrat last November as in the previous presidential election when the candidate was John Kerry.

Barack ObamaMany analysts in the US say the only logical explanation is that many southern whites find it impossible to vote for a black candidate. So Robin Lustig interviewed an activist with a right-wing group called the Council of Conservative Citizens who said he opposed Mr Obama's policies.

Robin went on to ask him if he had a problem with the new President's skin colour because the group he belongs to says it believes that Americans are a European people. The answer was that he regarded a black president as a "deviation" and he also said he would have preferred to live in the old, segregationist Alabama.

Some listeners found this interview offensive and have criticised our decision to broadcast it. One listener wrote: "It is unclear what type of editorial policy could possibly justify the decision to give a racist airtime."

We also received similar complaints before Christmas when we interviewed a BNP councillor in Barking and Dagenham during a report on the local economy.

I appreciate that some of the audience do find it unacceptable that we interview people with views they find offensive. However, if an organisation is legal, its comments conform within the law and reflect a view held by a significant number of people, in the interest of balance and accuracy we interview them when they are relevant to the story we are covering.

In these two cases, I believe both interviews were justified. The BNP is the second largest party on the council in the area we were reporting from; and the white activist in Alabama reflected a negative view of the new president which, judging by the voting patterns in the election, merited an airing.

The alternative is a form of self-censorship which is something, I'm sure, most of our audiences would not approve of.

Alistair Burnett is editor of The World Tonight.

A global focus

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 09:32 UK time, Thursday, 4 December 2008

"I was very surprised we didn't do the Baby P story."

The World TonightThat was the comment of one of our team when we were reviewing the previous night's programme during our editorial meeting the day after the publication of the report into how Haringey Council in London failed to protect Baby P who was on the child protection register. The boy's mother has pleaded guilty and her boyfriend and a lodger have been convicted of charges relating to his death.

The report was published on Monday and that night the news bulletin which opens our programme of course had a report on the story, but we did not cover it further in the programme, which we led with the story of the announcement by President-elect Obama of his national security team that afternoon.

Our colleague's surprise triggered a discussion amongst us - which is an ongoing one on the programme - about how we cover big British stories.

A little background is needed here to explain why this is an issue for The World Tonight.

Baby PThe programme focuses mainly on global news - we think it is the main place on daily national BBC news where international stories are reported and analysed. However, we also have a remit to cover major British news and breaking news, which we do. You can read about what we try to do on the programme here.

The challenge - or if you prefer the difficulty - for us is that we aim not to repeat stories or angles on stories which have already been covered on our sister programmes on Radio 4 - Today, The World At One, PM and the half-hour 6 O'clock news bulletin.

The problem we often face with big stories - like the Baby P story - is that there has been a lot of coverage on these programmes and new angles are not always obvious. Hence the debate on how we do them.

The ideal solution is that we think of an interesting angle or an interesting interviewee with a view on the story that has not occurred to our colleagues. When we are at our best, this is what we do. But it's not always that easy.

So another solution - which we adopted on the day of the Baby P story - is not to do any more than have a short report in our news bulletin. The criticism of this approach is that it sends the message that we don't think the story is important.

When we do this, we argue that by the end of the day, our listeners may have heard enough in-depth coverage of the story in question, and they will be happy to have the brief summary of the story in our bulletin and then hear about the other things going on in the world in the rest of the programme.

I'd be interested to know what you think.

Update [Friday 5 December 1100]: Due to legal risks, this thread is now closed to comments.

A dose of realpolitik

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 10:45 UK time, Thursday, 16 October 2008

"It's a dose of realpolitik."

The World TonightThat was the Tory MEP, Charles Tannock's description on The World Tonight on Monday of the European Union's decision to relax sanctions on Belarus and Uzbekistan.

The EU Foreign Ministers said there had been improvements in human rights in both countries and so the EU should respond to encourage further change. This is despite what critics of both countries say are backward steps.

In Belarus's case, the recent election saw no opposition MPs elected and a largely negative report from international election observers. In Uzbekistan's case, a prominent journalist, Solizhon Abdurakhmanov, was jailed just this week on charges which human rights group say are trumped up.

Steve Crawshaw of the lobby group, Human Rights Watch, told us the EU is trying "to pretend" human rights are improving in Uzbekistan. Mr Tannock, who is the Foreign Affairs and Human Rights Spokesman for the UK Conservatives in the European Parliament, responded by saying sanctions on both countries had not worked:

"It just drove them to cosy up - in the case of Belarus - to Moscow - in the case of Uzbekistan - to China and Russia - so it's felt that provided they move somewhere towards achieving the goals we (the EU) set them in terms of better human rights and more democracy, openness, more engagement and dialogue, then we need to meet them half-way."

One of the reasons human rights organisations are critical of the EU's stance is because of the reasons originally given for imposing sanctions on countries - ie that sanctions should be used to promote respect for human rights, democracy, the rule of law and good governance - have not seen substantive change in either Belarus or Uzbekistan.

The EU stands accused of cynicism and in his interview Charles Tannock acknowledged that the relaxation of sanctions on these two countries is partly a response to the conflict between Georgia and Russia and the desire to draw Minsk and Tashkent away from Moscow and towards Brussels, though he denied human rights were less important than improving relations with these countries.

Has the EU sacrificed its commitment to the democratic values it says it stands for to self interest, or is it the victim of the inherent difficulties of an "ethical foreign policy" [pdf link] - that when your stated values come into conflict with your self interest, the latter will win out.

It's a question that divides our listeners.

Interesting times

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 14:30 UK time, Thursday, 25 September 2008

This week on The World Tonight we are looking in depth at Belarus - the country of 10 million people between Russia and Poland, that's been run by its authoritarian President, Alexander Lukashenko, for the past 14 years.

The World TonightGabriel Gatehouse has been reporting on the quality of life; the first moves to privatisation; and assessing the prospects for liberalisation of the political scene.

In many ways Belarus has changed less since the collapse of the USSR than any of its neighbours, including Russia. The Belarus government has been heavily criticised by the West - both the European Union and the United States - who accuse Mr Lukashenko of repression of his political opponents and human rights abuses.

The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, has called Belarus "the last dictatorship in Europe" and an "outpost of tyranny" and both Washington and Brussels have imposed sanctions on the country.

Alexander LukashenkoThis weekend, parliamentary elections will be held which are not expected to be free and fair and unlikely to bring much change to an assembly packed with supporters of the president. So are Western governments calling for free elections? Well, yes of course. Are they talking tough with Mr Lukashenko? Well, no.

We live in interesting times. The US recently sent a senior State Department official to Minsk for talks on improving relations and lifted some sanctions and the EU is now discussing relaxing sanctions on Minsk too.

So what has changed? The answer seems to lie in geopolitics, rather than any significant change inside Belarus.

Mr Lukashenko used to be a close ally of Moscow, until the Russians said they wanted Belarus to start paying market rates for its gas imports, this has led to some rethinking in Minsk. Then in August, the Georgia-Russia conflict flared and Western countries reacted with alarm at Moscow's new assertiveness.

Coincidentally or not, it's since that conflict that the West has been making its overtures to Belarus and Mr Lukashenko has responded by releasing some prominent political detainees, including the man who ran against him in the last presidential election.

Some observers say the EU and US are warming to Belarus because they see the chance to drive a wedge between Minsk and Moscow and weaken Russia's attempt to re-establish its traditional sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.

Interesting times.

Is it a Pashtun Question?

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 14:55 UK time, Friday, 12 September 2008

On the anniversary of the September 11th attacks, The World Tonight, had a special edition from Pakistan. Owen Bennett Jones presented the programme from Islamabad while Lyce Doucet reported from Afghanistan.

The World TonightSeven years on from the attacks in New York and Washington, the key stronghold of groups linked to the Taleban and al-Qaeda is now the wild and remote mountain region straddling the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Many call this the new frontline in the battle between western forces, their Afghan and Pakistani allies, and armed Islamic militants.

But there is another way of looking at this region - it is the heartland of the Pashtuns - the tribal people who make up a large element of the population of both Afghanistan and Pakistan, but are resistant to the central authority of both states. The majority of the Taleban are Pashtuns and they have allied themselves to al-Qaeda.

New York remembers victims of 9/11In Afghanistan, American and Nato forces - with Afghan government troops - are involved in an increasingly fierce battle with the Taleban, while in Pakistan 120,000 Pakistani troops are engaged in large scale operations against Taleban fighters and their al-Qaeda allies.

These are the questions we hoped to address in the programme and ones we put to Afghan president Hamid Karzai and Pakistani Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi as well as the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband.

Do the Pashtuns have specific grievances with the governments in Kabul and Islamabad which have led to their involvement in the violence? In other words is there a nationalist or tribal element to this conflict as well as a religious one and what does that mean for hopes to end the fighting.

We are not the only ones asking this question - Frederic Grare wrote on this for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace back in 2006 and Mr Miliband himself has been blogging on this.

I hope the programme contributed to understanding this complex conflict.

Propaganda war escalates

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 14:50 UK time, Friday, 29 August 2008

Last week I blogged on the war of words over the Russia-Georgia conflict and how it has provoked polarised views of our coverage - a blog that produced a lively debate and reflects that polarisation.

The World TonightThe debate has kept going partly fuelled I guess by the escalation of the war of words between Russia and the West following Russia's decision to follow the West's recognition of Kosovo's breakaway from Serbia, by recognising the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

On last night's programme (listen here) we looked at the latest front in the war of words, with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's accusing the US of deliberately provoking the Georgia conflict.

It seems to be a riposte to allegations by the Georgian President, Mikhail Saakashvili, and echoed by Western critics of Moscow, that Russia had planned to attack Georgia and that Georgia's attack on South Ossetia on 8 August was merely a pretext.

Vladimir PutinMr Putin's claim has been met by expressions of incredulity in Washington - but the Russians claim to have found hard evidence that Americans were with Georgian forces inside South Ossetia.

The rights and wrongs of Georgian and Russian actions have been discussed at length elsewhere on BBC blogs so I don't intend to go into that again. But I have been struck by the refusal of Western leaders to acknowledge that there is any comparison between their decision to insist that Kosovo had to become independent - in other words their refusal to respect the territorial integrity of Serbia - and Russia's decision to recognise the two Georgian breakaway regions - Moscow's refusal to respect the territorial integrity of Georgia.

Western leaders have been arguing this week that territorial integrity and national sovereignty must be respected and accused Russia of trying to redraw the borders of Europe.

Georgians mourn soldiers killed in the conflict 28/08This has led some commentators to accuse Western leaders of hypocrisy (here is just one example by a long-time critic of the Kosovo war and Western media coverage of that conflict and others to offer a stout defence).

I am not sure journalists, including us on The World Tonight, have been as effective as we could have been in challenging those who argue there is no link or comparison between what has happened in Serbia and Georgia.

This week on The World Tonight we have had interviews with Russian politicians and challenged them on why they believe Kosovo did not deserve recognition, but Abkhazia and South Ossetia do.

On Wednesday (listen here) we tried to take a dispassionate look at the concept of territorial integrity in international law and ask if the recognition of UDI by Kosovo, Abkhazia and South Ossetia had undermined the attempt to strengthen the international rule of law all the major protagonists in this story say they are in favour of.

The item didn't work as planned as the interviewee, who was on live, ended up comparing the merits of the three territories' right to independence, coming down in favour of Kosovo and against the other two. Our attempt to analyse for the audience the legal basis for the accusations and counter-accusations flying between Moscow and Western capitals, and whether they have damaged international law did not really work, though we will try to return to this as the story shows no signs of going away any time soon.

Finally, in response to some direct criticisms of my blog from last week and the BBC's coverage:

- Some criticised my decision to try to avoid using the word "invasion" to describe Russia's offensive against Georgia. My reasoning is that there has been a very active attempt by both Georgia and Russia to shape the debate in the media over the rights and wrongs of their conflict. One of Georgia's accusations is that Russia launched a full-scale invasion of their country, while Russia presented it as a limited military operation for humanitarian reasons. In order to avoid the impression of taking sides I think it is better to find alternatives to the word invasion, which still describe what the Russians have done. "Offensive" or "incursion" are two possibles though I accept that all language carries connotations and finding words that are value-free is arguably an impossible task.

- We were accused of failing to report Human Rights Watch's investigation of the death toll in South Ossetia, which put the figure much lower than the initial Russian claim of around 2,000. In fact, several BBC outlets, including The World Tonight, interviewed Anna Neistat, the Human Rights Watch researcher who worked on the investigation cited.

Propaganda war

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 10:54 UK time, Friday, 22 August 2008

Did Russia invade Georgia or was its military operation there a case of humanitarian intervention?

The World TonightThis is the nub of the propaganda war that has been fought out between the Georgians (with increasingly vocal backing from the US and the EU) and the Russians (with the support of the separatist leaderships in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and countries like Serbia).

The World Tonight - along with much of the rest of the BBC and other news organisations - has given the conflict over the past two weeks extensive coverage. Before the fighting escalated many people - including journalists covering the story - had barely heard of the places that have become such familiar names.

Russian tanks on way to South Ossetia borderI think The World Tonight is an exception to this. We have been covering the simmering conflict for several months as tensions rose following the recognition of Kosovo's independence from Serbia by the US and much of the EU in February - a move seen as a breach of international law by Russia, but seen as a precedent by Abkhazia and South Ossetia who compare their situation in Georgia with that of Kosovo in Serbia - another story we have followed closely. So hopefully our listeners have been well-placed to make sense of the conflict when it escalated so dramatically a fortnight ago with the Georgian assault on the Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.

I have been asked why we have done as much as we have on the story. In one sense, the increase in tension between Russia and the West that the conflict has added to is obviously an important development. Our presenter Robin Lustig has blogged on this. Some observers have even pointed out that if Georgia had already become a member of NATO (something its leaders as well as the US and the UK say they want), the alliance could well be at war with Russia today.

Lady outside damaged building in Gori, Sout OssetiaThe other reason we have devoted considerable time to the story is the fact that it is August and at this time of year there are usually fewer big stories around which would have competed with the Georgia story. I was in France on holiday when the fighting started and the story dominated the airwaves there too.

Our coverage has attracted much comment from audiences too. Like most conflicts, this one has polarised many listeners and we have been accused of bias.

One listener wrote: "Why does the BBC insist on talking about a Russian 'invasion' of Georgia? If Russia has invaded Georgia, how come Georgia's government is still in place, a peace agreement signed, troop withdrawals underway? Russian troops are in Georgia, chiefly in areas not controlled by Tbilisi for a decade or more, but this is not the same as invading Georgia."

Another wrote:"I listen to you every night and like the usual unbiased and hard questioning approach to get both sides of an issue. But last night's programme left me wondering why your presenters did not challenge the Russian view of what is happening in Georgia."

First off, I have to acknowledge that we did use the term "invasion" once but this was a slip because I think the term is best avoided as it could be interpreted as taking the Georgian side of the argument.

We have striven to be as impartial as possible in reporting this conflict. But this has not been easy. As my colleague Jon Williams has blogged, it has been difficult for our reporters in the region to get a full picture of what has been going on, though I would say they have been coping with those difficulties very well. The increasing sophistication of both sides in presenting their case via English-speaking politicians and military spokesmen has also made it more difficult for newsdesks - as Peter Wilby argued in the Guardian on Monday - and has increased the onus on journalists to inform themselves about the ins and outs of the dispute.

I hope you agree with me that we have approached our coverage of the conflict from an informed perspective and we have done our audiences a service.

Talking Turkey

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 11:30 UK time, Thursday, 31 July 2008

It's been an eventful week for Turkey. On Sunday, 17 people were killed in bomb attacks in Istanbul and on Wednesday the Constitutional Court narrowly decided not to ban the governing AK party - which has been accused of being an Islamist party in violation of Turkey's secular constitution.

The World TonightThe World Tonight has given prominence to Turkey this week. We sent our reporter, Paul Moss, to cover the court decision - though in the event he landed a couple of hours after Sunday's bomb attacks and was on hand to report on that story for BBC Radio 5 Live and the Today programme as well The World Tonight.

Having our own reporter there enabled us to get access to interviews with Turkish politicians and people which we wouldn't normally get.

I have been asked why I decided to invest in this story by sending a reporter and devoting so much airtime to it.

The answer is simple - and I hope this came out in our coverage. Turkey is central to two major issues facing the world today - the relationship between Islam and democracy and the future development of the European Union, which Turkey wants to join.

Turkey and EU flagsThe country is a majority Muslim country that is also a democracy at a time when other Muslim countries in the region are not democratic in the sense that they have competitive elections that lead to a change of government. (There are Asian countries, like Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iran that have a history of various models of electoral politics punctuated by military and authoritarian rule).

The Turkish republic was founded by an army officer, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, as the Ottoman Empire collapsed after the First World War. He established a secular state where before the Ottoman Empire had been an Islamic state in the sense that it claimed to be the successor of the original Caliphate.

He and his successor ruled the country until the first democratic election in 1950, but periods of democratic rule have been punctuated since by coups by the army which regards itself as the guardian of the secular state founded by Ataturk.

The country has been governed by the AK (Justice and Development) Party for the past six years which was returned to power last year with a big majority. AK describes itself as a moderate conservative pro-Western party, its critics say it is a closet Islamist party trying to introduce an Islamic state by stealth.

So you have a tension between a democratic system that returns a government that many in the secularist establishment of the country regard as unconstitutional. What happens in Turkey will have an impact on the evolution of democracy in Muslim states. Our presenter, Robin Lustig, has also blogged on this.

Turkey also wants to join the EU - something opposed by many politicians in France and Germany but supported by governments such as the UK. A large Muslim country much of which is situated in Asia, rather than Europe, would inevitably change the nature of the EU.

The AK party is a strong supporter of EU membership so its future is important to that ambition - even if this ambition is now in jeopardy by apparent enlargement fatigue in the EU.

I believe Turkey is worth the coverage, but let me know if you agree.

Taking foreign policy seriously

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 16:40 UK time, Friday, 16 May 2008

A couple of months ago, I was at a reception to mark the 10th anniversary of the think tank, the Foreign Policy Centre, and the keynote address was made by the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. I was struck at the time by the serious intent of his remarks and how he was attempting to give intellectual coherence to British foreign policy.

The World TonightOver the past decades, various descriptions have been applied by foreign secretaries to what lay at the root of the UK's foreign policy such as being 'a bridge between the US and Europe' or 'punching above our weight'. But it seemed to me that Mr Miliband was attempting something more ambitious and a quick internet search showed he had been making a series of speeches laying out his themes but these had attracted very little attention. So I decided to ask the foreign office if David Miliband would be interviewed in depth for a special edition of the programme. You can listen to it here.

David Miliband and Robin Lustig
To my (pleasant) surprise, the proposal was taken up with enthusiasm by Mr Miliband and his communications team. It took a couple of months to get together - we had to commission four pieces to illustrate and critique his four themes and they had to find a slot in his diary - the first attempt was postponed at the last minute as Mr Miliband went on an unannounced visit to Iraq on the day we'd earmarked.

The four themes Mr Miliband has identified as the key policies the UK is pursuing are:
- counter terrorism
- preventing and resolving conflict
- promoting a transition to a low carbon, high growth global economy
- reforming and strengthening international institutions like the UN and the EU

Robin Lustig opened the programme by asking him about Burma and the debate over whether humanitarian relief should be delivered in the face of opposition from the Burmese military regime because they have not apparently been doing very much to help the victims of Cyclone Nargis. The interview gave us a news story as well as an opportunity to analyse policy in depth, because Mr Miliband told us the UN's Responsibility to Protect principle could be invoked in the case of Burma even though it was originally designed to enable intervention to prevent genocide or crimes against humanity. This was picked up by various commentators and has led to a lively debate on other websites such as the Guardian.

And speaking of blogs, the foreign secretary himself commented on the programme on his. It was his turn to be surprised as he said we journalists were taking foreign policy seriously.

We ended the interview by asking Mr Miliband about the problems the Labour Party has faced in recent weeks and the particular criticism levelled at the prime minister. Although, this issue is very much of the moment and we are a news programme, it did mean there was less time to question Mr Miliband on his defence of his argument that we can help China to promote low carbon growth despite the criticism of Beijing's human rights record, and on his assertion that recognising the independence of Kosovo did not undermine the authority of the UN.

Take a listen and tell us what you think.

Overemphasis on Zimbabwe?

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 10:35 UK time, Friday, 25 April 2008

The World Tonight - in common with other parts of BBC News - has given extensive coverage to events in Zimbabwe where, a month after the presidential election, results have still not been released and it is unclear whether President Mugabe will stay in power.

The World TonightGiven Mr Mugabe's prominence as an independence leader and the catastrophic nature of his country's economic decline in recent years that has led to an inflation rate of 100,000%, an unemployment rate estimated to be 80%, and millions of people leaving the country in search of work, the story merits coverage.

But we have been discussing at editorial meetings whether it merits quite as much as it's been given. Over the years, some listeners have accused us of doing too much on Zimbabwe at the expense of covering other countries which are in a worse state.

One such country is Somalia. So far this week at least 80 people have been killed in fighting there between Western-backed Ethiopian troops - who intervened in 2006 to support an interim government - and Islamist fighters. The UN says the recent upsurge in violence is making a humanitarian crisis more likely and has accused both sides of breaking international law. And yet Somalia has received relatively little coverage.

The BBC does cover Somalia - recently our correspondents, Mark Doyle and Rob Walker, have reported from there and the BBC African Service has reporters there. And on The World Tonight this week we have covered both stories - but we have given more airtime to Zimbabwe.

Why should that be?

Is it because Zimbabwe is a former British colony and most of Somalia was not? That is what some audience feedback tells us. I think that is one explanation - audiences in Britain are more familiar with Zimbabwe and may have historical links with the country and are more interested in what is happening there.

Is it because Somalia is a very dangerous place to report from? Many journalists, including from the BBC, have been killed covering the country since it collapsed into anarchy in the early 1990s. This is certainly true, but in recent years the BBC has been restricted from reporting from Zimbabwe by the government, so the BBC has found it difficult to get correspondents' reports from that country as well.

Is it because Somalia has been in this state for the best part of 17 years, whereas Zimbabwe was until a few years ago a relatively stable and prosperous country? So the relative novelty of the what is happening in Zimbabwe could also help to explain the difference in the amount of coverage.

Many observers fear Zimbabwe is in danger of becoming a failed state. But Somalia is what those observers would say already is a failed state - maybe the most failed state in the world. It is also now home to pirates who menace shipping off the Horn of Africa; and Western governments, particularly the United States, regard the country as a source of international terrorism, so maybe the country deserves more attention than it has been receiving?

We will continue to report on both countries, but it would be interesting to know whether you think we are getting the balance right.

The return of Silvio?

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 15:45 UK time, Wednesday, 9 April 2008

This weekend Italians go to the polls to elect a new government (nothing new there you may think given the country has had more than 60 governments, albeit not all as a result of elections since the creation of modern republic from the ruins of Mussolini's fascist dictatorship and the abolition of the monarchy at the end of World War II.)

The World TonightGiven this, you may ask why we are sending our presenter Robin Lustig to cover the election in depth for The World Tonight. A good question which in one sense is easy to answer in two words - Silvio Berlusconi.

Controversial is not really doing Mr Berlusconi - who is favourite to return to power this weekend - justice. A former cruise liner crooner who rose to be the country's richest man, a TV mogul, owner of one of Europe's top football teams and two times prime minister, Mr Berlusconi has also been persistently accused of corruption - though never convicted - and some of his closest advisers have been found guilty of bribery as well as collusion with the mafia. Silvio Berlusconi, who's also known as Il Cavaliere, stands out as a leading politician who also controls a large chunk of his country's media. A situation which many other European countries would probably not accept and has led to suggestions that if Italy were not a member of the EU already, it may well have trouble being accepted as a member today.

Understanding the appeal of such a politician in modern Europe is what we will attempt on the programme.

Silvio BerlusconiBut Italy has a wider importance to the rest of Europe too. It's one of the largest countries in the EU and has an economy which is in decline. It adopted the Euro at its inception, but its public finances are in such a state some Italians would like to abandon the currency, which could have a serious impact on the prestige of the new money. Italy also faces a dilemma - in some ways similar to that faced by France - of deciding whether to introduce liberal economic reforms at the risk of jeopardising a quality of life many in the rest of world envy.

In this election, both the main candidates, Mr Berlusconi and his centre-left challenger, Walter Veltroni, are promising reform. But there is doubt whether they can deliver on those promises and also whether the electorate is really going to decide on these issues when most observers agree this election will really be about one thing - whether or not to return Mr Berlusconi to office.

Robin Lustig will be examining these questions and bringing you the results of the vote. Ahead of the vote he'll be presenting the programme from Milan on Friday and then move on to Rome Monday night, by which time we should know if Il Cavaliere has returned to the prime minister's palace.

Alternative views

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 15:27 UK time, Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Over the past week, we have devoted quite a bit of coverage on the World Tonight to the escalation in the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians which has seen Palestinian missile and rocket attacks on southern Israel and Israeli air and ground attacks on Gaza which have left more than 120 Palestinians and three Israelis dead.

The World TonightWe have heard from Israelis and Palestinians who have blamed each other for the violence and lack of progress in peace talks. With the US secretary of state in the region and with the violence continuing, we decided yesterday we needed to hear something different on this story.

In our editorial meetings, we often discuss our Middle East coverage and how we can shed new light on what can sound a very repetitive story given that politicians and officials on both sides are so entrenched in their positions and are often unwilling to budge from those positions in public - even if what happens behind closed doors can be different.

So yesterday, we decided to look for alternative views on both sides.

Israeli activistsA recent poll in the Israeli newspaper, Ha'aretz, suggested a majority of Israelis wanted their government to talk to Hamas to try to reach a ceasefire, something the Israeli government has ruled out unless the missile and rocket attacks stop first. Reporters on the ground in Gaza have also been saying that privately quite a few residents of Gaza are angry with Hamas, blaming them for provoking the escalation in Israeli attacks which have led to so many deaths.

We found two bloggers - one a Palestinian in Gaza and the other an Israeli in the south of the country - who met and now have a joint blog to keep in touch. The idea was to get that alternative view from the usual official one. They reflected on the mood and how difficult it is to advocate peace when the violence continues. It was on Wednesday's programme after 22.30 (and presenter Robin Lustig has blogged about it). Take a listen here and see you think we succeeded in airing an interesting alternative.

On the brink of a new era?

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 12:03 UK time, Friday, 15 February 2008

This week - as our presenter Robin Lustig has blogged about - two places that have been the subjects of what's called 'humanitarian intervention' have been in the news for different reasons.

The World TonightEast Timor - or Timor Leste to give it its proper name - became independent almost six years ago following three years of transitional UN government that prepared the country to stand on its own feet following 25 years of pretty brutal Indonesian occupation. It was a country without judges, lawyers, police or teachers, who could speak the new official language proficiently. It's been in the news this week following an attempt by renegade soldiers to kill the president and prime minister, a further indication that this poverty-stricken tiny country is chronically unstable despite the relatively large international aid and reconstruction effort put in.

The other place in the news is Kosovo, the Serbian province that is about to declare independence and officially break away from Belgrade, but it will not be a truly independent country. For one thing, not everyone will recognise it - Serbia and Russia won't and even some EU states have promised not to as well. Secondly - and confusingly - the EU as a body is sending in an unprecedented mission that will run the police and justice system and oversee the government of the new state which some experts on the region, such as Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Initiative who was on the programme on Wednesday (which you can listen to here), have called an 'EU Protectorate'. Critics of what the EU is doing ask if subsidising and running other states is what the EU is for and ask how the EU got itself into this position.

But what is about to happen is unprecedented in another way. When the US, the UK, France and some other EU states recognise Kosovo, it will be a break with the settlement after World War II, and confirmed in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, that borders in Europe would not be changed without the consent of the countries concerned. When the Czechs and Slovaks split up Czechoslovakia and created two new states, it was by mutual agreement, but this time it isn't. The Serbian foreign minister last night called it a "direct and unprovoked attack on our sovereignty". He also warned the UN Security Council that recognition of Kosovo's independence will open a Pandora's Box as there are many other separatist regions in the world waiting to break away, including some in Europe.

So on tonight's programme we will be discussing whether such interventions can work, and if they can, what lessons need to be learnt about the need to plan clearly what you do after you have achieved your initial objective.

On another note, the World Tonight has just won the 2008 Award for Statistical Excellence in Journalism from the Royal Statistical Society for a report by Jonty Bloom on how death tolls in conflicts like Iraq and Darfur are calculated and often politicised (which you can listen to here).

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.

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.

The Kosovo question

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 09:02 UK time, Thursday, 13 December 2007

What to do about Kosovo? The Serbian province that is populated overwhelmingly by Albanians who want nothing to do with Serbia, but which Serbs regard as the heartland of their culture and nationhood.

The World TonightThis is a question that we have been tracking on The World Tonight for the past two years (most recently this Monday which you can listen to here) since international efforts to push for a solution intensified. It is also a question that is now preoccupying the European Union - as it periodically preoccupied the Great Powers in the last two centuries along with Serbians and Albanians as well as the Ottoman Turks, of course, who ruled the place for several hundred years.

UN-sponsored talks between the Serbian government and Albanian leaders ended without agreement earlier this week and Kosovo is now saying it will go ahead and declare independence anyway. This presents a problem for the European Union because the EU is divided over whether to recognise the independence of Kosovo if that is not sanctioned by the UN Security Council - and that is unlikely given Russia is opposed to any solution to the Kosovo problem that is not agreed to by both the Serbs and the Albanians. As the Serbs are offering wide autonomy and the Albanians - backed by the United States - are demanded nothing but independence, a solution sanctioned by the Security Council that satisfies international law doesn't seem possible at this stage.

EU foreign ministers met again earlier this week in another attempt to agree a common approach. Ahead of the meeting, several ministers were making very optimistic noises that they were basically all agreed - except for Cyprus - that a unilateral Kosovo declaration of independence should be recognised despite Serbian and Russian opposition. The briefings to journalists ahead of the meeting were that the last countries which were unhappy with this policy - Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia - had come round because they were putting EU unity in the face of Russian pressure ahead of their objections to independence for Kosovo which are largely based on the precedent it could set for their own minority regions who may want to follow suit.

This seemed a bit odd given that both Slovakian and Romanian ministers, for example, have been quoted over recent days saying they would probably not be able to recognise Kosovo. So we've been asking for interviews with the foreign ministers from these countries, but to no avail, not one would come to the microphone. We also waited for a statement from the EU foreign ministers after their meeting. One arrived in my inbox on the situation in Lebanon and another on the Middle East peace process, but nothing on Kosovo.

Now we are being told EU leaders will discuss the issue at their summit starting today in Brussels. Maybe they will announce an agreement, but we are not holding our breath as it seems they are further away from an agreed position than they are suggesting.

So what should we report to listeners? When ministers and officials won't do interviews it makes for far less interesting radio and so we have the choice of getting one of our correspondents to do an interview in which they tell the audience what they are being told behind the scenes and then assess how reliable this is - in other words to describe the spin - which in my view is a technique subject to the law of diminishing returns - or we don't do the story at all at that moment. It would be interesting to know what you think the best approach is.

In the meantime, our reporter, Ray Furlong will be in Brussels trying to get that interview. Wish him luck.

Nuclear ambitions?

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 16:24 UK time, Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Has Iran given up on ambitions to make nuclear weapons? That is the question dominating international media and American political debate today following the publication yesterday of the National Intelligence Estimate in Washington and led The World Tonight last night (which you can listen to here).

The World TonightThe NIE is the collective view of all the various intelligence agencies operated by the US government and carries considerable weight in the formulation of American foreign and security policy. The report says Iran did have a nuclear weapons programme but suspended it four years ago, though, the intelligence agencies believe, the Iranian government retains the option to restart its programme.

On The World Tonight, we have been criticised by listeners in the past for viewing the world from an American perspective - something I have blogged on before. But whether the US intelligence agencies are right or wrong about Iran - and since the failure to find evidence of a current chemical, biological or nuclear weapons programme in Iraq following the invasion of 2003 we know intelligence agencies are fallible - I believe the report is worth the attention it's getting because it feeds so directly into US policy-making.

To try to get the most balanced perspective we could last night we turned to the Iranian analyst, Abbas Milani, who is now based at Stanford University in California. He pointed out that both Tehran and Washington would probably cherry-pick the report and claim it bolstered their position - this has been borne out today with statements coming from the two capitals - but he said it does neither.

Iran has denied it intends to make nuclear weapons and insists its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes. But Professor Milani said it is probable that Iran did have a weapons programme and may well have suspended it in 2003 when the US invaded Iraq and defeated the Iraqi army which the Iranians were unable to defeat in the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s - something that could have given Tehran pause for thought.

On the American side, as recently as six weeks ago, President Bush said that anyone interested in preventing World War III should be worried about Iran's nuclear programme and senior US officials have given the impression that Iran's nuclear ambitions are an imminent threat, so this report should give policy makers in Washington pause for thought too.

The BBC's North America editor, Justin Webb, has blogged on this too and he wonders whether this impression may have been what motivated the intelligence agencies in framing this report. Our presenter, Robin Lustig, has also taken a close interest in US/Iran relations on his blog.

The report - like all intelligence - will inform, but not determine, policy towards Iran. After all it's politicians who make policy, not intelligence agents.

Our sister programme, The World at One, had a go earlier at trying to find out how this report may affect British policy - Britain being one of the three EU countries (along with Germany and France) who are leading negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme. The foreign secretary, David Miliband, was cautious though. He refused to commit, saying Britain would study the report but make its own intelligence assessments, but he said the report fits into the wider strategy of negotiating, and offering carrots and threatening tougher sanctions on Iran to try to get Tehran to agree not to continue enriching uranium.

As with any story that involves intelligence as well as trying to interpret what is going on behind closed doors in Western capitals as well as Tehran, we will continue to ask questions of all sides and look at this issue from the perspectives of all sides to try to help make sense of what is going on. I hope we can shed some light.

States of emergency

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 16:12 UK time, Wednesday, 14 November 2007

We have been devoting a lot of air time so far this month to the political instability in two countries a long way apart but with quite a bit in common - they are both allies of Washington in strategically important parts of the world - I am talking about Pakistan and Georgia.

The World TonightBoth countries are seen as key places in the view of Western strategists. Pakistan is in the frontline of what the Americans call 'the war on terror' and Georgia is in the frontline of the growing confrontation between the West and Russia, which regards the Caucasian state as part of what we used to call its 'sphere of influence'. Our presenter, Robin Lustig, has written about the issues on his new blog.

Both countries' presidents, who have been seen as key allies by the West, have responded to opposition by declaring states of emergency, restricting broadcasters and deploying the security forces against protesters but promising elections in the New Year. Of course there are differences between the leaders. President Musharraf took power in a military coup eight years ago, while President Saakashvili was elected following popular protests he led against his predecessor, but the diplomatic noises from Western countries have been similar.

The overall audience reaction to these two stories has been interesting.

President MusharrafOn Pakistan, listeners have written in to our debate page on what the West should do about General Musharraf given his refusal so far to end the state of emergency and restore constitutional rule. One listener told us in no uncertain terms to stop giving it so much airtime. But given the size and strategic importance of Pakistan for the future of Afghanistan and the stability of South Asia - bearing in mind the country is a nuclear power and has outstanding territorial disputes with its nuclear-armed neighbour, India - I would argue it has been worth the coverage we've given it.

President SaakashaviliOn Georgia, audience reaction has been different – no-one has accused us of doing too much - after all it's not a country that gets into the news that often. Instead, one listener complained that we had not made it clear enough we were talking about Georgia the country, rather than Georgia the state in the USA, while another criticised us for describing it as 'the former Soviet republic of Georgia' as he said this was patronising. These contradictory criticisms caused us to pause and ask ourselves if 16 years after the collapse of the USSR, we still need to refer to its Soviet past, we decided it was a quick way of locating it in listeners' minds because Caucasus is probably not as easily identifiable to many listeners. Let us know if we're right.

Oh - and by the way, we're returning to both countries in tonight's programme as President Musharraf has rejected Western calls to end the state of emergency while President Saakashvili has announced - following a visit from a middle-ranking American diplomat - that the state of emergency will be lifted on Friday.

Robin's blog

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 09:16 UK time, Friday, 2 November 2007

This week World Tonight presenter, Robin Lustig, has joined the world of blogging.

The World TonightThe blog will focus on global affairs because we felt there was room for a forum to discuss the main trends and events in international affairs which is what The World Tonight does. However, my entries on this blog relate to stories covered in the programme and editorial issues arising from our coverage and your responses to them.

Robin's blog will discuss the issues themselves. Robin says this is where he will share his thoughts on world events and point readers in the direction of interesting comments he's heard or read.

Take a look and let us know what you think.

Phrasing headlines

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 09:49 UK time, Monday, 15 October 2007

So Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have won the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to build up and disseminate knowledge about man-made climate change.

The World TonightThis has refocused attention on Mr Gore's Oscar winning film, An Inconvenient Truth, which has been called by its critics a 'shockumentary'. It was in the news earlier this week when a High Court judge ruled that the film should only be shown in schools with accompanying guidance notes to balance what the judge called Mr Gore's "one-sided views". My colleague Craig Oliver has blogged on this.

We led the programme with the story on Wednesday because it was clearly an interesting development in the arguments over climate change and man's role in causing it. But some of our listeners thought some BBC headlines were misleading. We opened the programme by saying:

"The film made by the former American vice president Al Gore about climate change - which the government wants to be shown in thousands of British schools - has been strongly criticised by a High Court judge for making exaggerated and alarmist claims."

When we introduced the item after our news bulletin we said:

"Al Gore got it wrong on global warming. So said a High Court judge today, who ruled that his Oscar-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth, contains at least nine errors."

Al GoreIt's this that some listeners took issue with - they pointed out that boiling what the judge said to “Al Gore got it wrong” is misleading because the judge didn't say the nine claims he criticised were necessarily wrong - they were controversial and not part of the scientific consensus (my colleague Roger Harrabin goes into more depth on this).

Some of the papers the next day simplified it even further, “Al Gore's climate film's nine untruths” or “Gore's green film is alarmist, says Hight Court judge” being two examples.

Our critics argued that headlines are what stick in most people's minds and so we need to be more careful how we phrase them so that we don't mislead while trying to pique our audiences interest in a story to keep them reading/listening/watching.

Earlier on Wednesday, I had been taking part in a conference at the Royal United Services Institute on relations between the media and the Ministry of Defence where one of my co-panellists argued that headlines can be so inaccurate as to almost contradict what is in the story. A much discussed example there a headline in mid-August that British soldiers in Afghanistan had a one in 36 chance of being killed in combat which the most of the participants at RUSI insisted was not what the reports actually said.

These critics are right in at least one respect - we do need to be careful with our headlines and we don't always get it right - though on Wednesday night I think our headline was an accurate rendering of the story and the introduction to the item in the programme was in that context and was not misleading - you can check it out for yourself and make your own mind by clicking here to listen to the programme.

Making sense of Burma

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 17:33 UK time, Monday, 24 September 2007

Burma - or Myanmar as many other news organisations now call it - could be on the brink of dramatic political change or on the brink of another bout of violent repression.

The World TonightWhy can't I say more than that? Because no-one really knows how the Burmese military - which has run the country since a coup 45 years ago - will respond to the current wave of demonstrations led by young Buddhist monks.

The current protests were sparked off by the military junta's decision to double fuel prices just over a month ago. Although most Burmese can't afford cars - the prices of many basic necessities have increased because of the rising cost of transport.

Young Buddhist monks emerged as the leaders of protests against the hardships that an already poor and hard-pressed population are facing, but over the last week or so the demands have become openly political - calling for an end to military rule and talks with the junta. At the weekend, they defied the military by marching past the home of the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for the most of the past 18 years.

Budhist monks in Rangoon, BurmaVery few observers saw these protests coming, but they are now saying this challenge to the junta is the most serious since 1988 when economic protests also turned into pro-democracy protests throughout the country. Those protests were eventually put down by force and an estimated 3,000 people were killed.

Since then, the Burmese authorities have continued to restrict the access of journalists to the country and Burma's diplomats very rarely accept invitations to do interviews on programmes like The World Tonight.

This means that the people we interview are predominantly exiled opposition figures, foreign diplomats, UN officials, journalists and analysts - and the one thing they can't tell you is which way is the junta going jump.

All this makes it difficult for us to give a fully rounded picture of what is going on. We do our best when deciding who to interview to find people either inside the country or who talk to people inside the country regularly and have good contacts, and who can give an informed perspective on what the junta - as well as the protesters - are doing and why. In this way we hope we are helping to make sense of things for our audience.

An American perspective

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 15:17 UK time, Friday, 7 September 2007

We often do stories based on what the United States' leaders, diplomats or military do or say, and I periodically get complaints accusing us of following an agenda set by Washington and giving too much prominence to American policy.

Here’s a recent example which came in about our coverage of US-Iranian relations:

    Once again, the BBC approaches international affairs as an issue worthy of discussion only in so far as American policy is concerned. The real point at issue - Iranian support for middle-eastern extremism - is ignored.

The exchange I had with this listener raised a couple of issues in my mind and reminded me of some of the editorial discussions we had in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks and the US attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq.

The World TonightOne reason we give such prominence to American actions and statements is obvious. The US is the most powerful country in the world and its actions have a global impact - whether it be in invading Iraq or turmoil on the US stock exchange, for instance.

But do we - as my correspondent above says - ignore too often what the 'other side' do?

This is what took me back to our editorial discussions during the US attack on the Taleban in Afghanistan in 2001. I was working at World Service at that time and in one morning editorial meeting we were debating what the US strategy in Afghanistan was and what impact American action would have, when one of our specialists on the Middle East made the point that the Americans were in Afghanistan because al-Qaeda had attacked the US in an operation that had clearly been in the pipeline for some time - it was al-Qaeda that had set the agenda, if you like. He said we should not forget that al-Qaeda or the Taleban could be planning further attacks which could help set the news agenda again.

Capitol, WashingtonIt was a salutary warning not to become so preoccupied with what the Americans were doing and planning that we ignored other actors in the story and how their actions could affect events.

The other question listeners have raised is whether we frame our coverage too much from an American perspective, which leads us to give a distorted picture of the world.

I have had complaints that our coverage of the US-Iranian dispute over Tehran's nuclear programme has fallen into this trap. Some listeners have accused us of forgetting the run up to the Iraq invasion when the Americans and some of their allies made allegations about nuclear, chemical and biological weapons which turned out to be without foundation. They say we give undue weight to the American allegations against Iran which help reinforce the idea that Iran is a threat to the West.

I think there may be a danger of this and certainly on The World Tonight, we try to make sure we also reflect the Iranian view of its relations with the US and its nuclear programme. In addition, we try to report as wide a range of stories from Iran as we can so that listeners hear more about Iran than the debate about its nuclear programme (last year we were part of the Radio 4 season on Iran which aimed to give a rounded picture of the country).

US soldiers in IraqThis takes me back to an editorial debate we had during the invasion of Iraq. Al-Qaeda had posted a message which had threatened retaliation against the West and one of our correspondents had described the threat as “ominous” in a despatch. One of my colleagues made the point that the Americans were openly talking about “shock and awe” as their tactics in Iraq and this could well seem “ominous” for ordinary people in Baghdad expecting an imminent American assault, but we were not using such language to describe the American statements - a good point which stuck in my mind.

As a global broadcaster, we have to remain aware that people in different parts of the world may view events in different ways and see them from different perspectives. It is also important to reflect these different perspectives on the news agenda to our audience in the UK if we are to help them make sense of what is going on.

Avoiding oversimplification

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 15:48 UK time, Friday, 3 August 2007

The World TonightOn The World Tonight this week we've been looking at Darfur and Iraq - both subjects that came up during the new prime minister, Gordon Brown's trip to the US and the UN.

On Monday, in his press conference with President Bush, Mr Brown, said:

    “Darfur is the greatest humanitarian disaster the world faces today and I've agreed with the president that we step up our pressure to end the violence that has displaced two million people, made four million hungry and reliant on food aid and murdered 200,000 people.”

On Tuesday, Sir John Homes, the head of the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, writing in the International Herald Tribune, suggested Iraq may qualify for world's worst humanitarian situation with eight million Iraqis now dependent on humanitarian aid:

    “One of the world's largest and fastest-growing humanitarian crises is also among the least known: Iraq. More than four million people, one out of every seven Iraqis, have fled their homes in what is the largest population displacement in the recent history of the Middle East.”

Iraqi coffinThere are also an unknown number of civilian dead with estimates ranging from President Bush's 30,000 to the Lancet's of more than 600,000.

Covering both these conflicts in broadcast journalism can be difficult, because in a radio or TV programme you have a limited amount of time to explain complex situations to audiences who may not be very familiar with the details. Hence the need to simplify, the art of this is simplify without distorting the picture - something we take pains to try to avoid.

On Darfur, earlier this week, we spoke to the Sudan specialist, Julie Flint, who said the new resolution backed by a threat of further sanctions is unlikely to work unless the rebel groups are brought together and there is a cohesive peacekeeping effort.

Tonight (Friday), we are planning to lead on Darfur because the rebel groups are meeting in Tanzania which gives us an opportunity to assess how likely it is the competing factions will sign up to a peace agreement so the newly agreed UN force will have a peace to keep.

We'll also talk to some veterans of the UN force in Bosnia because there are concerns the mandate of the new force for Darfur may suffer from the same weaknesses and ambiguities as the Bosnian force, which struggled for three years to deliver aid and was unable to stop the killing of thousands of civilians, let alone keep the peace.

Sudanese childrenWe will also analyse how complex the Darfur conflict is - a mixture of competition over increasingly scarce water resources between settled agriculturalists and nomadic herdsmen, as well as among other things, an attempt by the Sudanese government to put down a regional revolt and a conflict between ethnic Arabs and Africans. We'll also ask whether the coverage by some Western journalists and the rhetoric of some Western leaders and pressure groups that say the Sudanese government is carrying out genocide in Darfur is an oversimplification that has impeded attempts to reach a political solution to end the fighting.

On Iraq, we heard on Wednesday from our correspondent in Baghdad, Nicholas Witchell, that there are signs the American-led 'surge' is making progress in military terms. But on the same day the main Sunni party in the governing coalition announced it was leaving so we turned to Yahia Said, an Iraqi specialist at the London School of Economics, who told us there has been no progress on achieving political progress there between the Sunni and Shia political groups.

Again - not a simple picture and difficult to report without, on the one hand confusing the audience, and on the other presenting a misleading picture through oversimplification.

It would be interesting know what you make of our efforts.

Crisis? What crisis?

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 08:32 UK time, Thursday, 26 July 2007

Crisis is a word much loved by journalists but has it become so overused that it has lost its meaning?

The World TonightIt's been widely employed in the past couple of weeks in relation to the floods and relations with Russia, for instance. So I looked it up in the dictionary to remind myself what it means in the world outside of journalism. Of the several meanings given, this one is the nearest to sense in which journalists use it...

    'a condition of instability or danger, as in social, economic, political, or international affairs, leading to a decisive change'

It seems to me that many journalists have lost sight of the last part about 'leading to a decisive change'.

And before I'm accused of being holier than thou, I confess that The World Tonight has not been immune from doing this - last week we described the diplomatic dispute between London and Moscow as a 'crisis' and I winced. In my feedback to the output editor (we dissect the programme after each edition to decide what worked, what didn't and why) I said it didn't constitute a crisis in my view because it is too early to say if there will be permanent damage.

Mind you, at least we didn't compare the dispute to the Cold War, which many of our colleagues in the press have done, and which led the Russia expert, Robert Service, to go on the Today programme and write in The Observer that - and I paraphrase - 'I knew the Cold War and this ain't no Cold War'.

When it comes to the floods, the areas affected will return to normal eventually when the waters recede, although it may have a more permanent impact on the lives of some of the people who have had their homes flooded and don't have insurance. So how much should we talk of a crisis?

One of the values BBC journalism puts great emphasis on trying to live up to is accuracy. On top of that, language is the most basic of tools for a journalist. So using it accurately is essential. Though dramatic words help make our stories stand out, we have to guard very carefully against being tempted into hyperbole.

To Russia with no love lost

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 17:18 UK time, Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Six weeks ago I wrote in this blog that Russia is back - newly assertive because of the high prices it now gets for its oil and gas exports. Today, we have heard Russia threaten to retaliate for Britain's expulsion of four of Moscow's diplomats because Russia has not extradited one of its citizens suspected of murdering an opponent of President Putin, Alexander Litvinenko, in London.

The World TonightOn The World Tonight, we have been trying to answer the question - will the Gordon Brown premiership see a new direction in foreign policy? There has been a lot of speculation in the media that the new faces in the Foreign Office - including David Miliband and the former deputy secretary general of the UN, Mark Malloch Brown who fell out with Washington when he was at the world body – indicate that Mr Brown would seek to distance himself from the Bush administration and recalibrate the foreign policy of the Blair years.

So far the signs are that there will not be a dramatic change, which given the fact that the new prime minister was a central part of the Blair government and Mr Miliband and Douglas Alexander, the international development secretary, were also ministers under Mr Blair, this is not surprising.

On last Friday's programme (listen here) we asked where relations with Washington and Moscow are headed.

We spoke to Gene Sperling of the Council on Foreign Relations, the man who hosted Douglas Alexander's speech in Washington that led many journalists to argue Mr Brown was distancing himself from Mr Bush. From an American perspective, Mr Sperling, told us there was nothing in the speech that Mr Blair would not have said - which seemed to answer that one.

And given that Gordon Brown is known to be an admirer of the United States and its economic and intellectual success, it was always unlikely he would make a significant break with his predecessor even if he did believe Britain should withdraw its troops from Iraq soon - and so far he has not given any indication that he is changing the policy of staying as long as is needed by the Iraqi government.

The row with Russia is the first real foreign policy test of the Brown government and it has decided to respond in a traditional manner by expelling diplomats to express disapproval of Moscow's policies. And last Friday, our Moscow correspondent, Rupert Wingfield Hayes predicted yesterday's expulsions and analysed Russian policy towards the UK - the Russians regard the British refusal to accept that their constitution will not allow extradition of Russian citizens (and Russia is not unique in taking this approach to extradition) as political game playing.

We then spoke to the former Labour foreign secretary, Lord Owen and the former European Commissioner for external relations, Lord Patten, to get their assessment of the Brown foreign policy. They agreed that it is too early to say whether there will be a change in policy towards Washington, but they disagreed on what approach London should take to Moscow.

Lord Owen said the new government should talk to the Russians before taking action as there are other interests at stake - such as the need to keep Moscow on side to help Britain and the West over persuading Iran not to develop a nuclear weapons programme and not block the American and British plan to give Kosovo independence from Serbia against Serbian wishes, something Russia opposes. Lord Patten said the West has been pusillanimous in its relations with Russia and Russia needs Western investment in their oil and gas industry so Europe should deal collectively and more assertively with Russia.

On last night's programme (listen here) Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for President Putin accused the Foreign Office of playing politics and said Russia would respond and we're yet to see exactly what Moscow has in mind.

Clearly this story still has a little way to run, but one thing is already apparent - those predictions that the arrival of a new government would see a different foreign policy have yet to be borne out.

Audience off the mark

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 15:24 UK time, Friday, 29 June 2007

The World TonightI have received complaints this week about The World Tonight's coverage of two different stories - the changing of the guard at 10 Downing Street and our report from the Basque country that asked why ETA is still fighting on. In both cases I have to say I am puzzled as the complaints bear little relation to what we broadcast.

The complaint about our political coverage said:

    "Why are there only men discussing politics on this and so many other programmes? Women are under-represented in the arena of political discussions on the BBC."

Now, how do you go about replying to this - as I do reply to all complaints as long as they aren’t abusive - when the programme in question (which you can listen to here) had a panel of three discussing the relative merits of Gordon Brown and David Cameron of which two were... how can I say it... women?

This is not as uncommon as you might think - but why do people take the time to complain about things we have not broadcast, rather than what we did? Do they not pay attention or do they hear what they want to hear?

I think a clue lies in the complaint above - someone who believes the BBC in general doesn't invite enough women on the air to discuss politics decides to complain about a programme to make a general point and - here I admit I am speculating - maybe he or she didn't listen to the programme carefully and heard what he/she wanted to hear. Or actually switched off early in a fit of rage and got on the phone/computer to complain.

Our presenter, Robin Lustig, tells me there may be another explanation. He says he was asked at a party recently why he says every night “You're listening to The World Tonight”, The person who asked this then answered her own question – “I'm not listening”, she said “I've just got the radio on”.

Having said that, we are accountable to the public who have to pay the licence fee, so I will respond to the complaint as I respond to all others - politely but straightforwardly.

Too much Gaza coverage?

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 16:54 UK time, Friday, 15 June 2007

On the World Tonight this week we have devoted considerable airtime to the fighting in Gaza between Hamas and Fatah and it has been our lead story most of the week. Is that overstating the importance of the story?

If you accept the argument of the American commentator, Edward Luttwak, writing in last month's Prospect magazine, the answer to this question is undoubtedly, yes.

The World TonightIn a thought-provoking article - which I suspect involved an element of playing the devil's advocate - Mr Luttwak argued that analysts and journalists pay far too much attention to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and give it too much prominence. He says it isn't that important because “the conflict is contained within rather narrow boundaries, and second because the Levant is just not that important any more.” He says that since the end of the Cold War the conflict is contained and the geo-strategic importance of the region is declining because the world is less reliant on Middle Eastern oil than it used to be.

So are we right to be giving the events in Gaza such prominence?

Trying to restore peace and stability - however you define that - has been a major theme in international affairs for the past sixty years, if not longer if you include the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. And if the putative Palestinian state which is seen as one of the best hopes for peace and stability implodes - which it appears to be dong this week - that is obviously an important event with serious implications which merits coverage.

gazasmoke_203152ap.jpgAlso, if the Palestinian/Israeli conflict drags on, it will continue to add fuel to the resentment many in the Muslim world feel toward the West and the United States. Whether or not you accept the argument that the situation in the Middle East lies at the heart of the conflict between the West and Islamist groups like al-Qaeda, the issue is a cause of resentment among Muslims who believe the West is biased in favour of Israel.

The BBC is committed to covering the Middle East in depth - which is why we had a correspondent in Gaza and why our colleague Alan Johnston was prepared to risk his personal safety by being there.
I accept that it is one thing to have correspondents on the ground to report events, and another for editors back in London to give the prominence we give to the story, and of course decisions on which stories we lead with are made in relation to the merits of other stories on the day (and this week there have not been very many other big stories), but what do you think? Are we getting this one right?

Russia's back

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 11:32 UK time, Tuesday, 29 May 2007

What have the increased prospect of a new generation of nuclear power stations in Britain and the diminishing prospect of Kosovo getting independence next month got in common? Well, the short answer is Russia's reassertiveness on the world stage.

On The World Tonight and Today this week we are taking an in-depth look at Russia to try to make sense of how the country has changed and where it may be going.

The World TonightWhen Russia reduced the flow of gas to Ukraine at the beginning of last year, European consumers were hit as some of that gas was also bound for Europe which gets an increasingly large proportion of its oil and gas from Russia. Moscow insisted the dispute with Ukraine was commercial - essentially Russia wanted to start charging market rates to its neighbour instead of the subsidised prices left over from the Soviet era and they accused the Ukrainians of stalling in negotiations. Some Ukrainians and Western Europeans said it was political because Moscow did not like the new pro-Western government in Ukraine.

Whatever the reason, it sent shock waves through government circles in Europe and provided impetus for plans for EU countries to diversify their energy supplies.

In Britain, part of the reasoning behind the government's decision that new nuclear power stations are needed is the worry that in the near future the country could become too dependent on energy imports from places like Russia which can't be trusted to keep the gas flowing even if the bills are paid.

Russia is also taking a different line from the West on the future of the Serbian province of Kosovo. Kosovo has been run by the United Nations for the past eight years since NATO drove Yugoslav security forces out of the province during their offensive against the separatist guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

The US and many EU countries want the province - largely populated by Albanians but with a Serb minority - to be given independence from Serbia, but the Serbs oppose this and have offered autonomy instead.

Russia says the decision on the future of Kosovo has to be agreed by Serbia as well as the Albanian majority, and given the future of the province should be decided by the United Nations Security Council, Russia could veto a resolution that leads to independence.

There are several other areas where Russia has a different policy to the West - over the Iranian nuclear programme, over the expansion of Nato, over America's plans to base some of its missile defence shield in eastern Europe to name the most prominent ones.

In the 1990s the Americans got used to Moscow either supporting its policies or at least not opposing them, so why has that changed?

Russia has some of the world's largest reserves of oil and gas as well as other commodities, and in the past few years, the rising price of these resources that are fuelling economic growth around the world, but especially in China, has led to a rapid recovery of the Russian economy which had hit rock bottom under Yeltsin in the 1990s. With the return of economic strength has come a return of self-confidence and independence in its foreign policy and a consolidation of central political power by President Putin.

How has this been done and why has it happened?

This week we want to try to answer these questions. The World Tonight's reporter Gabriel Gatehouse who used to work for the BBC’s Russian Service will report for the programme from around the country and the BBC's Diplomatic Editor and former Moscow correspondent Bridget Kendall has been to provincial Russia for Today.

We hope it helps to explain recent events and put them into a wider perspective.

Reporting Iraq

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 20:39 UK time, Thursday, 24 May 2007

In Iraq on Thursday, there was a suicide bombing of a funeral in Falluja killing at least 25 people, several attacks around Baghdad killing at least 15 people; the body of one of the American soldiers captured last week by insurgents was identified; and there were several attacks in the north and west of the country that killed civilians as well as American and Iraqi troops. Only the attack on the funeral and the identification of the captured American were reported in news bulletins and none of the news programmes decided to cover any of these events in depth.

The World TonightWhy? Have journalists become so inured to the violence in Iraq that it is no longer considered news worthy?

Although there is a stereotype of callous hacks I don't think this is the explanation.

Part of the answer is that there were two other big stories in the Middle East - the escalation in the conflict between the Israelis and Hamas, and the UN report that Iran could be three years away from being able to make a nuclear weapon - which editors judged were more significant on the day than the continuation of violence in Iraq along familiar lines.

The second part of the answer is that editors are aware that we need to find new angles and new ways to tell the Iraq story, otherwise the audience can get to the stage where they mentally switch off if everyday there is a list of incidents of death and destruction. One example this week was when our Baghdad correspondent, Andrew North, went to the campus of one the main universities in the city to talk to students about how they continue to study and live their lives in the midst of the conflict - his report was broadcast on Today (listen here) and the World Service on Monday.

The following day there were attacks on two campuses which killed a number of students, so we on The World Tonight (listen here) interviewed a student who we have spoken to before about her reaction to these attacks, and her hopes and fears for her and her country's future. We hope that by talking to ordinary Iraqis we can help interest audiences in the stories though hearing how people like them live.

In addition to this, when we decide to cover Iraq we try to choose developments that are indicative of trends which can help us make sense of what is happening and why, and how things are likely to develop. So in recent weeks, we have looked at the row over the building of a wall around a Sunni area of Baghdad to try to reduce sectarian violence, which allowed us to look at whether the 'surge' in US troop numbers in the city has had any effect.

We also report the deaths of British soldiers, although as the deaths have become more frequent in the past few months, we have done less analysis of why they are getting killed and whether policy will change, and simply reported the deaths in our news bulletins. I was talking to a military press officer recently who said that sometimes soldiers and their families resent the fact that deaths of British servicemen and women seem to be given less emphasis than in the earlier part of the conflict, but on the other hand he said he understood that the more frequently an event - even the deaths of soldiers and civilians - occurs, the less emphasis it will receive.

It would be interesting to know if you think our approach is the right one.

Post Stormont

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 14:49 UK time, Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Will The World Tonight ever report on Northern Ireland again? It's a question I was asked last night, presumably on the grounds that with the return of devolved government and what we used to call power-sharing, the Northern Ireland story will become routine - and dare I say - normal.

The World TonightThe World Tonight is younger than the conflict in Northern Ireland. We began broadcasting in 1970, and over the past 37 years we have covered extensively the violence and the attempts to bring peace, but during that time we have also covered other stories. Recently, we have looked at economic changes that have brought greater cross-border integration on the island of Ireland and reported on the fact that Northern Ireland now has the highest rate of inflation for house prices in the UK.

This will continue, as we will track the success of the new adminstration. However if Stormont succeeds and, hopefully, there is long term stability, the coverage will inevitably change to focus on less momentous events, and the province may end up being less frequently featured as a result.

But everyone pays the licence fee, and we have a commitment to reporting the UK as a whole (although we are sometimes criticised for not reporting enough from outside London and the south-east). So the answer's yes. You will continue to hear about interesting things going on in Northern Ireland.

Time for a recount?

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 21:31 UK time, Monday, 23 April 2007

Does the audience care about the Nigerian election? Have we done too much on the French election - it was a first round after all and we won't know who the new president of France will be for another fortnight?

The World TonightTwo questions I have been asked over the past couple of days.

Last Friday on The World Tonight (listen here) we devoted a whole programme to the two elections. Robin Lustig was in Abuja, Jackie Hardgrave in Paris, and the programme was presented out of the two capitals with no input from London. It was technically ambitious as neither were in studios. Jackie was in a restaurant in Paris and Robin was on a hotel roof in Abuja. But did the stories merit the airtime and resources we devoted to them?

The French election is easier to answer. France is our next door neighbour and there are two quite different visions of the future on offer. It's also a campaign that was quite unpredictable up to the last minute. Added to which, whoever leads France will have a significant impact on the future of the European Union and that has an impact on people's lives at home.

The Nigerian election was more predictable because the candidate of the governing party was expected to win, so the election result itself was less interesting for being more predictable. The reason we sent Robin Lustig there was to report on the state of Africa's most populous and arguably most wealthy and powerful country, so we used the election as an opportunity to do this - it gave us, in journalists' jargon, 'a peg' to do the story.

One of the main things Robin did was to report from the northern city of Kano, which has a mixed Muslim/Christian population and is a good place to illustrate the issues facing the country in terms of potential wealth, everyday poverty and corruption.

If elections equal democracy (which not everyone accepts they do) and Nigeria held an election (however flawed according to observers) and manages to pass power from one elected president to another for the first time in the country's history (punctuated as it is by military rule), this is an important moment for the future of Nigeria and by extension Africa, which the British taxpayer via the government is committed to supporting with substantial debt relief and aid.

I hope our audience are finding it interesting and worth the time we devoted to it. If you would like to hear more, Robin has also been presenting for BBC World Service while he's there, and was also on the Today programme on Saturday (listen here).

Slavery days

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 15:39 UK time, Friday, 30 March 2007

Over the past fortnight there have been many commemorative events around the country and abroad to mark the bi-centenary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire and the BBC has given extensive coverage to them both in news and documentary programmes.

The World TonightThis has not been universally popular with audiences - there have been accusations that the BBC has taken a position on issues such as whether there should be an apology - though it's not clear who would apologise to who - or whether descendents of slaves should be paid reparations in some form.

A lot of the audience were telling us slavery is in the past and should stay there, that there is no need for apologies or reparations and some told us to stop flagellating ourselves. Here are a couple of examples.

    So the self-loathers at the BBC are having a great time this week. It seems the dg's idea of heaven is to be horse whipped by a black man… The Europeans simply cashed in on a trade which was well established in Africa.
    There's been very little coverage about Africa's involvement with the slave trade… Total PC nonsense.

The BBC has had a lot of programming around this anniversary both in news programmes such as The World Tonight and there have been seasons of programmes on networks like Radio 4.

Few would argue that it was not an important moment in the history of Britain, and also that it marked the beginning of the end of the enslavement of Africans by Europeans and Americans; it was also an important moment in the development of what are known today as human rights.

In this sense, the BBC did make an editorial judgement that it was an important anniversary to mark, but it is important to remember that the commemorative events by governments, local authorities, museums, etc, were not been run by the BBC and we were - along with other broadcasters and newspapers - covering them as news events.

On The World Tonight, our coverage has focussed not on the history of slavery, but on the survival of practices today which are basically forms of enslavement, such as bonded child labour in India.

Indeed a report by our Delhi Correspondent, Damian Grammaticas, this Wednesday (listen here) provoked an interesting debate in our editorial meetings. His report, which focussed on a boy who was working as a bonded labourer ended with the boy being freed from that bonded labour, but faced with an uncertain future, because it was unclear how his family would make ends meet without the low wages he was paid.

Some of us believe we had become too involved in the story and our reporting had led to significant changes in this boy's life and we should have stuck to traditional neutral reporting.

The dilemma faced by our correspondent was that once the boy's case was brought to the attention of the authorities in the course of his investigation into what under Indian law is illegal, the boy could not continue working in the workshop he was bonded to, and the alternative to continuing with the investigation would have been to drop it.

So what would have been more honourable? To not report on an illegal practice that enslaves many children, or to report on it and cause a change in a child's life that leaves him with an uncertain future.

Our correspondent will also follow up on the story, partly out of human interest, but also to see if the local authorities fulfil their responsibility to help his rehabilitation.

It seems there is no consensus on this among journalists on the ethics of this and I'm not sure what the audience think, although we had some e-mails offering to help the boy featured in the report.

Climate change coverage

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 16:12 UK time, Thursday, 8 March 2007

We're doing a lot on climate change this week on The World Tonight with the EU summit over the next couple of days expected to come up with ambitious targets to cut emissions from industry, transport and households.

The World TonightEarlier in the week, the British environment secretary, David Miliband was on the programme arguing for an end to dependence on oil (listen here). That interview sparked a lively debate in our editorial meeting about whether we - BBC journalists - are too ready to pose the question to government ministers that they regulate in order to solve problems like climate change.

On Monday, Mr Miliband had made a speech arguing we end our dependence on oil, but was reluctant to commit to - for example - making energy-saving light bulbs compulsory - he argued that such action has to be EU-wide because of the single market.

We also pressed him on whether the new building regulations to ensure new homes are carbon neutral are being enforced.

The question we discussed the next morning was whether there should be a default expectation that governments regulate to solve problems.

miliband_d_203pa.jpgThere is a body of opinion that argues the market and consumer pressure will drive the economic and environmental policy changes that most scientists agree are needed to arrest climate change and global warming. Others argue that the urgency of the situation is such that governments must regulate - as they did when CFCs were phased out to stop the erosion of the ozone layer.

The question we discussed was whether we - BBC journalists - give too much prominence to the regulatory argument and not enough to the market argument.

And before people say we don't give enough coverage to the argument that climate change is a myth and is not man-made, I can say we do give airtime to people who argue this, despite the fact that the overwhelming consensus of scientific opinion is that climate change is happening and human activity is a major cause - even if it is not the only one.

This raises another issue we are grappling with at the BBC. Namely, that our commitment to air all sides of a debate can sometimes challenge our commitment to accuracy and impartiality. Put crudely, if the overwhelming majority of climatologists believe that climate change is happening and is largely driven by human activity, do we distort the picture of the scientific debate by airing the views of the small number of dissenting scientists too often?

This is not to suggest we stop interviewing people who deny climate change is happening or that it is happening but is a natural phenomenon, but it is to ask whether we interview them too often and our audience can be given a distorted impression of the balance of opinion in the scientific community.

And if that is so are we doing our audience disservice?

Unresolved arguments

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 16:16 UK time, Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Can a nation be guilty of genocide? A question we looked at last night following the verdict of the International Court of Justice (the ICJ) that Serbia was not directly responsible for the massacre at Srebrenica during the Bosnian War. The Bosnian government had taken neighbouring Serbia to court to try to prove Belgrade was guilty of war crimes in the war of 1992-95.

The World Tonight
The finding of the court was finely balanced in that it did find that what happened at Bosnian Muslim-held town Srebrenica when it fell to Bosnia Serb forces in 1995 was genocide (up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys are thought to have been killed) and while ruling that Belgrade was not guilty of committing that genocide it also ruled that Serbia was guilty of not preventing genocide - so there was something for everyone in the decision.

This was reflected in the discussion on last night's World Tonight (listen here) between Anthony Dworkin (director of the Crimes of War project) and John Laughland (who wrote "Travesty: the trial of Slobodan Milosevic and the corruption of international justice," which is highly critical of the International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, (ICTY) which tries individuals, rather than states as the ICJ does). They both found something to praise in the decision of the ICJ - but not the same thing.

One of the key questions that came up was whether a whole state representing a nation - such as the Serbs - can be held responsible for what happened in the past when their country was led by a undemocratic leaders? Not a new question when we think back to the Treaty of Versailles and the imposition of reparations on Germany after World War One, but it is very pertinent today as the international community struggles with what to do about Kosovo and Iraq.

In Kosovo for example, the United States and Britain argue that the Serbs have to let Kosovo go because the Serbs have lost the moral right to govern the majoriity Albanian population following the violence and repression by the government of Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s. Meanwhile in Iraq, the British and Americans argue that the international community should forgive most of the debts the country incurred under Saddam Hussein because the people of Iraq should not have to pay the price of the policies of the former dictator.

Tonight we are looking at the decision of the newly established International Criminal Court to name individuals indicted for war cirmes in Darfur - which is the other route to seeking justice for war crimes: go for the individual rather than the state.

But - as you may have anticipated - this approach is also criticised, often because in the case of ICTY some of the big fish have yet to face trial (Ratko Mladic) or have died while on trial (Slobodan Milosevic) and only the smaller fish ever get convicted. (Before you ask what about Saddam Hussein, I have omitted him here as his trial was not an international trial, but as you will remember his trial was crticised by the UN among others for not being fair).

Anyway, these are arguments that have been aired on The World Tonight among other BBC programmes and will continue to be as Darfur, Kosovo and Iraq remain unresolved.

Reporting religion

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 08:24 UK time, Friday, 16 February 2007

Catholics set to pass Anglicans as leading UK church - that was the lead story in the Times on Thursday - the story was based on a report from Cambridge University into the lives of Catholic immigrants, which also predicted that the number of regular Catholic churchgoers will soon overtake Anglicans on present trends. It was not a story - or rather a prediction - that got much coverage on the BBC. Why?

The World TonightIn our editorial meeting, one of the team had pitched it as a story, but in between the government's defeat over its consultation on nuclear power or Peter Hain's speech on inequality, the consensus was it didn't quite make it as a story for that day's programme.

Earlier in the day, I was doing a Q&A for a training workshop for journalists where we were discussing The World Tonight's editorial agenda and the question of whether the BBC's coverage of religion and religious issues is fair came up, following recent criticism of the BBC's journalism from some of the churches and other religious groups.

This got me thinking. Are we fair in the way we cover religions and religious issues? Now, I don't accept the idea put forward by prominent Christians that there is a secular ideology that prevents religions and religious viewpoints from getting a fair hearing. To me, the use of the term ideology presumes some kind of organised system of thought, while it seems to me that the real concern of organised religions is that in pluralistic societies their beliefs are afforded equivalence with any or all other beliefs while the nature of faith is such that it precludes a relativist approach.

But coming back to the editorial meeting, I wonder whether we decided the story about attendances at Catholic Church being set to overtake those of their Anglican equivalents didn't make it, not because we are followers of a secular ideology, but because many of us lack empathy with the religious worldview, and so we underestimate the importance of religious stories, unless they relate to other more political issues like equal rights for homosexuals or women - hence we cover the debate over the Catholic Church's request for their adoption agencies to opt out of anti-discrimination legislation or the potential schism in the Anglican church over attitudes to homosexuality.

If this is the case, then it is surprising given the increasingly important role of religion in world affairs over the past two decades or so.

Minefield for journalists

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 15:51 UK time, Friday, 2 February 2007

Is Iran supplying advanced weapons to Iraqi insurgents and Shia militia who use them to attack American and British troops? Is Iran getting North Korean help to prepare a nuclear test? Have Iranian weapons experts been helping Hamas in their fight with Fatah in Gaza? These are just some of the allegations that have been made against Iran and reported in various media over the past few weeks.

The World TonightOn the other hand, is the US administration making allegations against Iran and feeding disinformation to journalists in order to prepare public opinion for an attack on Iran?

Forgive the metaphor but reporting the - so far rhetorical - escalation of tension between Washington and Tehran is a minefield for conscientious journalists, especially as we need to remember what happened in the run up to the invasion of Iraq.

Then a lot of claims were made by the US and British governments about Iraq's weapons’ capabilities and intentions which were reported widely and could well have helped swing public opinion behind confrontation with Iraq. As we know, no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq and critics of the war have accused many journalists of being too credulous and not rigorous enough in reporting such claims.

In our editorial meetings we have discussed several times how we should cover the growing tension between the US and Iran - and there are some hard facts such as the US naval build up in the Persian Gulf - but we are aware of the need to be very careful which claims and counter-claims we report, and the need to tell listeners when we don't know things as well as when we do know.

This Wednesday (listen here), we decided to report that the Americans are stepping up pressure on Iran, and ask whether what we have been hearing from officials, former officials, analysts and journalists means the US is preparing the ground for an attack on Iran.

The former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, known for his hawkish views, had given an interview to BBC World Service saying the US may need to take - unspecified - action against Iran over its nuclear programme, while the former US National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, now more dovish than when he was in office, told the Today programme there are members of the Bush administration who want to take military action against Iran and maybe trying to provoke the Iranians over their role in Iraq to justify that action.

We used extracts from these two interviews to show there is a debate in Washington over its policy towards Iran, and then we asked the respected analyst, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, whether the US is preparing an attack. He said on balance he didn't think so because the groups advocating such action do not have enough influence on the White House. He also said Iran has a limited presence inside Iraq and that the US knows Tehran is still years away from developing nuclear weapons.

What we try our best to avoid when doing this kind of story is reporting claims we can not substantiate, whether made by journalists, officials or politicians, about what the US and Iran are up to without first assessing their credibility and then making clear that they are just that - claims - and explaining the political context within which the claims are being made so that listeners can make up their own minds.

Was BB row newsworthy?

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 10:31 UK time, Wednesday, 24 January 2007

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:

The World Tonight"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.

Differing agendas

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 17:57 UK time, Tuesday, 9 January 2007

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.

The World TonightInterestingly 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.

Arms consensus

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 14:17 UK time, Friday, 8 December 2006

If the people who contribute to The World Tonight's Listener Debate are anything to go by, most of our listeners are very doubtful of the wisdom of the government's decision this week to renew Britain's nuclear weapons system, Trident.

The World TonightPolls on the issue have suggested the general public are more sanguine about the government's plans, and over the next few months there will be consultation and then a vote in Parliament. Although, with the main parties all generally in favour of retaining a nuclear capability, it seems unlikely our listeners will be happy with the outcome of this process.

My colleague Nick Robinson blogged earlier this week on the way the government has said it wants to take this decision in an open and transparent manner, so I won't add any more to that.

But listening to the former head of the British Army, General Sir Michael Jackson, on the Today programme on Thursday, I was struck by the lack of consensus in the armed forces on the need for Britain to have nuclear weapons.

Gen Jackson argued that the uncertain nature of future threats means we should keep our nukes. Last Friday on The World Tonight, we spoke to the former head of ordnance for the army, General Sir Hugh Beach, who told us that the money should be spent on making the armed forces fit to face the threats we know about and face now.

In the post-Cold War world, our government has used our armed forces more and more to intervene abroad to stabilise countries, as in Sierra Leone; or to stop a state from attacking its own citizens, as in Serbia; or to disarm and remake a state our government see as hostile to our interests, as in Afghanistan and Iraq. General Beach argued that the armed forces do not have enough of the right equipment to do these things and the money that is spent on strategic nuclear weapons would be better spent on such things as helicopters and ground attack aircraft.

So the military men seem as divided as the public and politicians on this one which makes reflecting the various views in this debate a particular challenge.

As for our listener who asked why Britain has a 'strategic nuclear deterrent' while other countries have 'weapons of mass destruction' that's another area where consensus is difficult to find...

Viewing the religious

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 19:49 UK time, Monday, 20 November 2006

Religious freedom in this country is under threat - that's the view of a coalition of organisations - including Muslims and Christians as well as trade unions and other groups all backed by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. They are planning a rally in central London tonight calling for "an end to Islamaphobia" and "to defend freedoms of religion, thought and conscience".

worldtonight_logo.jpgThis comes on the same day that a BA check-in worker lost her appeal against the company's ban on her wearing a cross outside her uniform - BA says wearing the cross contravened its uniform policy; she argued the cross was a symbol of her faith and it was discriminatory to stop her wearing it.

On The World Tonight, we have covered the debate over religion and social integration - especially as it relates to Britain's Muslim population - in depth over the past few years and one of the themes that has come through in many discussions is that many people who have religious faith feel they don't get a fair hearing with government and the media, including the BBC. Indeed when we were deciding whether and how to do this story in our editorial meeting, some of the team who are religious said they sometimes feel they are considered a bit odd because of their faith.

The UK - and Europe in general arguably - are different from other parts of the world in this respect. In the US, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and South Asia for example, religion and the outward expression of religious faith are normal and not as controversial as they seem to be closer to home.

If today's rally on religious freedom; the recent high profile debate over the veil; and now the row over the wearing of the cross at work are anything to go by, Britain's religious population are beginning to reassert themselves. So far on The World Tonight this has been generally been reflected obliquely in discussions we have had on such things as integration and multiculturalism; or the teaching of evolution in school. So we decided we should consider the issue head on. I'm not sure we'll be able to reach a consensus though, as both sides of the debate - the religious and secular - tend to take absolutist positions when they go head-to-head on air.

Crash course

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 13:11 UK time, Wednesday, 8 November 2006

Our reporter Gabriel Gatehouse is joining the effort to clean up our green act.

The World TonightOur colleagues at Newsnight have got their ethical man, Justin Rowlatt, who has been trying to change his lifestyle for some time now, but as the UN meets in Nairobi (did the delegates offset their flights I wonder?) to review progress on climate change, we decided to put our own Gabriel on a crash course to see how he could become greener in his lifestyle. He was given an assessment by the Earth Day organisation in the US (you can see how green you are at their site) and will be attempting to see how much he can change his lifestyle, how quickly.

One thing we are trying to do with this is to provide an insight into how much lifestyles can be changed in order to reduce how much of the Earth's resources we each consume and how much carbon we produce, but we are also trying to do it in a lively way given our coverage of climate change and environmental issues has often been criticised for being dull and austere.

Not sure if this will work, but let us know. We got one immediate reaction after Monday night's programme - Justin Rowlatt from Newsnight came round to tell us he was there first ….

Perception and reality

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 11:39 UK time, Thursday, 2 November 2006

What a difference we often come across with many stories we cover - especially in areas such as crime, the justice system and the NHS. The World Tonight asked why it is that given all the extra investment the government has put into the health service - with new GP surgeries and new hospitals being built, and new technology being introduced into those surgeries and hospitals - why the latest opinion polls suggest a majority of the population think the NHS has got worse over the last ten years.

The World TonightAre people just badly informed or is there a more nuanced explanation? The pollster, Joe Twyman from YouGov, discussed his findings with Robin Lustig on Wednesday's programme (listen here) and it seems a large part of the explanation is that people don't trust politicians, so the more our politicians say the NHS has improved, the less people believe it.

There are also the protests of staff and unions which get publicity, and people tend to believe the professionals more than the politicians. There's also a lot of negative coverage of health issues in the press which add to this. Finally there are the anecdotes that get passed from person to person and end up inevitably getting distorted. Only today a colleague told me a particular hospital had killed his father - if I passed this on to you, maybe you'd tell a friend and another anecdote could take off.

Set against this on the other hand, Anna Walker of the independent watchdog the Healthcare Commission, told Robin Lustig their surveys of patients shows most think they get good care from the NHS.

This is a potent mix with pretty disturbing implications - it appears people are more prepared to believe things they hear about a crucial public service than to believe politicians or their own direct experience. We also need to look to the role of media in this - is our coverage of the health service giving an accurate picture overall? After all, news is what is unusual and so the 'bad stories' about the NHS such as job cuts, hospital closures, or outbreaks of MRSA tend to get more coverage than the building of a new hospital on time and to budget.

I think as journalists we tend to assume our listeners, viewers and readers make allowances for the fact that what makes news is not the norm but the exception. Are we right to do so?

Using technology

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 11:33 UK time, Monday, 23 October 2006

We had an 'awayday' the other day - that means we all went off for a day outside our office to consider the bigger issues facing us. One of the biggest challenges - we like that word - is how do we get our output to people (maybe like you) who don't listen to radio much, but who are interested in global affairs, read and write blogs, download video and audio and use systems like RSS.

The World TonightAlthough our programme is avaliable online so you can listen either online or up to five days after broadcast, we have yet to make World Tonight journalism available on other platforms like handheld devices, mobile phones and PDAs, or make it easy to download. At the moment, the only way you can get downloads of any of our output is on the daily Newspod which carries some items from our programme.

Anyway, back to the awayday... I invited a technology consultant to demonstrate to my team how many people are now consuming media. He illustrated how RSS and programmes like BitTorrent work. He also showed a selection of video blogs that provide news and comment. All of which got our team talking about the need for us to make the journalism we do easily available to people who wouldn't normally tune in to Radio 4.

One idea is for us to start a system by which you could subscribe to an email that informed you everytime we did something on an issue that interests you, be it the environment, China, space exploration, or whatever, and provided a link to the audio.

There will certainly be ideas we haven't thought of, but one thing we do know is that we need to make our journalism easier to find and easy to hear. In other words, make an effort to go where people who are interested in the kind of global stories we cover are rather than expect them to come to us.

A 'so-called' War on Terror?

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 18:11 UK time, Monday, 2 October 2006

Is the BBC trying to make a political point when it uses the expression 'so-called War on Terror' or 'The Bush Administration's War on Terror' or 'the American-led War on Terror'?

Some bloggers certainly think so, but is it true? Well you wouldn't expect me to say it is, so I won't, because it isn't.

The BBC usually qualifies or attributes the expression 'war on terror' for several reasons. The main reason is that the concept in itself is disputed. It is not like 'World War Two' - a description which is widely accepted in the English-speaking world (the Russians and Chinese among others have different names for it).

It is not a neutral phrase because there is no consensus among politicians, commentators or even the general public - including those who blog - over:

• whether it is really 'a war' in the traditional sense - the Americans declared it in the wake of the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, but the definition of who the Bush Administration see as the enemy has evolved and critics say it is too broad and amorphous to usefully convey a clear meaning

• whether the Bush Administration is justified in using the expression to describe - as they do - what their forces are doing in Iraq as opposed to their counter-terrorism operations against groups like al-Qaeda

• whether it is possible to have a war 'on terror' as opposed to 'terrorists' - though this is more one for the linguistic purists.

We believe we need to use the expression because it has become such a familiar part of the political and dilplomatic debate which we report on regularly, however, because the expression in itself is so hotly contested, we believe it is better to qualify it, so as not to give the impression to our global audience that we are endorsing it or opposing it.

Giving the mic

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 17:58 UK time, Tuesday, 19 September 2006

One criticism that's often made of BBC News is that we are "politically correct". This is not meant as a compliment and although it's sometimes difficult to know what people mean exactly when they call us that, I understand it to mean we self-censor and don't open the mics to people with views not in line with what some regard as official orthodoxy.

The World TonightOn The World Tonight, we try to make sense of what is going on in the world by asking the questions our listeners want answers to, and reflect debates that are going on in society.

One way we do this is to set up debate between protagonists of a particular controversial viewpoint - we call them authored reports - where they make their own pieces and then come together afterwards to debate. We've done this successfully on several occasions, for instance, on whether immigration is necessary for economic reasons, and whether the EU needs a constitutional treaty. In the past few days, we have had Michael Binyon of The Times arguing that the disability rights movement has gone too far and is damaging small businesses, and a disabled rights activist, Jim Kelly, countering Michael's arguments.

It was a controversial thing to do. I did wonder if it was in good taste, but decided that there is a body of opinion that has not been given a wide airing elsewhere and it was worthwhile giving a platform for the two sides to make their case and then come together to thrash it out. We also asked listeners for their views.

In the event, we got very little flak for airing the reports - this is the closest it came to condemnation

While I agree that it is important to be able to debate how far any rights can go in terms of the whole community, it would help to start from a basis of respect, which was missing from the beginning in your discussion. Please do not talk about people as "the disabled".

Indeed our listeners really engaged with the issue which suggests we tuned in with a real debate - and a slight majority came down against Michael Binyon's argument.

Failure to engage

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 20:03 UK time, Friday, 8 September 2006

As you'll know, this week's news has been dominated by one story - when will Tony Blair step down - so given the fact that the outcome of this row will have a bearing on when the country will get a new prime minister following almost ten years under Mr Blair, we thought our listeners would like the opportunity to share their views with others on The World Tonight's Listener Debate.

The World TonightMuch to my surprise - given the response to phone-ins and appeals for texts on other BBC networks - the response was negligible. Our listeners don't seem remotely engaged by the goings on at the top of the government. Our presenter, Robin Lustig expressed his surprise in his weekly newsletter today. The responses so far have offered a variety of explanations - it’s a manufactured story; we know Blair is going but don't know when so what's new; we know Brown wants to be PM so what's new; or people are just cynical about politicians.

All or none of these may be the reasons listeners who have responded in huge numbers to debates - on the crisis in the Middle East, civil liberties issues, and climate change among other subjects - are left unmoved by what most journalists think is the most important and interesting political story to come along in some time.

Why is this? Is it because politics is less interesting and important to people than it used to be, or is it the way we report what's going on that fails to engage people?

Since the end of the Cold War, politics in liberal democracies has appeared to have become more of a competition over who can manage the system best, rather than a struggle between competing ideologies with different visions of how societies should be organised.

It seems that many voters think it matters less which party governs and this could account for the fall in the number of people who exercise their right to vote and are actively interested in politics. The evidence in favour of this is that single issue politics can still galvanise people to join organisations and demonstrations, over such things as fair trade and globalisation, or the war in Iraq.

And when there is a real ideological choice, such as in the last French presidential election when voters had to choose between Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front and Jacques Chirac, the electorate turned out in high numbers to vote against Le Pen.

But it could also be the way we report political stories.

Journalists are essentially telling a story and like a good narrative, and drama and tension make for that. So there is a tendency to present politics as a conflict between personalities - which as we have seen this past week are undoubtedly important - as much as an argument over policies. The downside of this is that there's a danger we gloss over the complexities and nuances.

Some listeners tell us all politics is a soap opera - which it isn't always. So are we reporting politics as a soap opera, and does that account for the lack of engagement?

Experimental listening

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 18:15 UK time, Monday, 4 September 2006

As you may have read elsewhere on this blog, my colleague Adrian Brown wrote about the World Tonight's staging of a war crimes trial over the recent conflict in Lebanon last Friday. Both the Israelis and Hezbollah had been accused of breaking humanitarian law by senior UN officials and the respected pressure group, Human Rights Watch.

The World TonightWe asked our listeners to be the jury and send us their verdict, and we announced the verdict last Friday; a little more than half say the Israeli Defence Force committed war crimes and just under half say Hezbollah are also guilty. But the debate goes on and the e-mails are still coming in - though the proportions have not altered substantially.

Unlike some other online debates we did not ask for a simple guilty/not guilty vote as we wanted to get a sense of the thinking that led our listeners to reach their verdicts, which make really interesting reading.

It was an experiment, and although we, the BBC, were not making the cases - we left that to the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth - we did get some criticism for it. But the level and quality of the defence mounted on the programme and the e-mails we have received since, I think, made it - on balance - a successful experiment.

Westminster debate

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 16:48 UK time, Wednesday, 16 August 2006

As you may have heard, about 150 MPs have called for Parliament to be recalled from its summer break to debate the crisis in the Middle East and last week's security alert at British airports.

The World TonightIn a letter to the leader of the House of Commons, Jack Straw, they said: "There is huge concern in the country about the current Middle East crisis, and fear that the early failure to insist that Israel and Hizbullah observe an immediate ceasefire has cost many innocent lives."

Number 10 has rejected this call and said earlier this week that with the ceasefire in Lebanon, the situation has changed significantly since that letter was sent - and so there are no plans to recall Parliament at present.

So we decided The World Tonight should step in instead to give MPs an opportunity to have their say. We've tried to organize it so it resembles as closely as possible a Parliamentary debate - and so far about a dozen MPs from all sides have agreed to come back to London to take part (with Robin Lustig in the role of 'Mr Speaker').

The debate will begin on our sister programme, PM (which will carry the start), and then there'll be an hour long special on Radio 4 at 9pm before we get reaction to the debate on The World Tonight.

The idea is to hear what our elected representatives think about what has been going on in the Middle East and for them to debate what British policy should be.

Organising something like this takes a lot of time and patience - it requires an awful lot of what our journalists refer to unfondly as 'phone-bashing' - ringing lots of people trying to see if they will take part, and to their credit some MPs are making a serious effort to join us - cancelling constituency business or coming to London from Scotland for the day.

Some MPs turned us down because they are unable to break constituency engagements, many are on holiday but some have told us they feel we in the BBC are too cynical and critical of the government. Even the reassurance that they will not be interviewed in the traditonal format but will be debating with each other was not enough to assuage them - which is a pity and doesn't reflect well on the state of relations between some politicians and the media, but that's a debate for another day.

If you get a chance to listen - it will be carried live on the R4 website.

Other hot spots

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 17:10 UK time, Wednesday, 9 August 2006

More aid workers were killed in July in the troubled Sudanese region of Darfur than in the entire preceding three years - that was the stark statement from the UN and aid agencies this week.

The World TonightThere has also been the killing of 17 aid workers in Sri Lanka - both of these have received a lot less attention from the world's media than would have been the case if attention wasn't focussed on the Middle East crisis.

My colleague, Craig Oliver of the ten o'clock TV news, blogged recently to explain why the Middle East got more attention than Congo and Iraq in his programme. I could have written the same for The World Tonight.

But there is a danger in this - which came up in a conversation I was having with an MP the other day - which is that while the world's attention is focussed on the Middle East, others may take advantage to get up to no good in the hope no-one will notice much.

Apart from Darfur and Sri Lanka - both of which have seen more violence in the past few weeks, other former hot spots are getting warmer again. In East Timor, the Australian-led peacekeepers have still to restore complete order and 150,000 people (more then 10% of the entire population) remain in camps living in very poor conditions.

And closer to home in Kosovo, there are growing fears that there could be a return to violence because it looks like the international community is going to make the province independent and oblige the Serbs in the north of the province - where they remain a majority - to leave the country they were born in and want to continue living in.

On the World Tonight, we made space for the latter last Thursday (listen to it here) but not yet made space for the former. Why? Because we've been giving so much space to the Middle East.

Alistair Burnett is editor of the World Tonight

Begging questions

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 10:55 UK time, Monday, 31 July 2006

Since the Israeli assault on Lebanon began there have been accusations and counter-accusations about breaking international humanitarian law. On The World Tonight last week the UN's Humanitarian Coordinator, Jan Egeland, accused the Israelis of breaking international law in its assault on Gaza and Lebanon and accused Hezbollah and Palestinian militants of breaking the same laws for firing missiles at civilian targets in Israel.

The World TonightIn response, the Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Mark Regev, who has become a familiar voice on BBC radio over the past few weeks, quoted the Geneva Conventions and the International Red Cross in Israel's defence. For good measure, he argued that Israel is doing no worse than Nato did in Serbia during the Kosovo conflct seven years ago.

So who's right? If you look at lawyers arguments about international law at sites such as you'll see there are differing views on what actually does breach these laws. Some might say that this is not unusual where law and lawyers are concerned, but it certainly begs a lot of questions.

What exactly does international humanitarian law say about the legality of military action in areas populated by civilians which - let's face it - is pretty much anywhere people think is worth fighting over? How can international law be enforced? When we asked Jan Egeland what the UN could do about these alleged crimes, he said they could draw the world's attention to it and hope the parties themselves come to their senses, which highlights that unless there is consensus in the international community about enforcing these laws, nothing much happens.

Serbia is a recent example where the international community decided to enforce these laws and there is an interesting debate going in that country about why the parties to the present Middle East violence are not being held to account in the way the Serbs have - and that's before they go on to ask why Nato has never been called to account for its bombardment of their country.

All of which keeps our airwaves busy trying to explain why there is so much confusion over international humanitarian law.

Alistair Burnett is editor of the World Tonight

Covering the Middle East

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 10:11 UK time, Monday, 17 July 2006

The World TonightThe World Tonight has been covering the crisis in the Middle East, along with the rest of the media, in recent days. And as usual when we cover this story, we get a lot of audience comment on our coverage - a lot of it critical. Here are two examples from the past week:

    • "Does the fact that the missiles fired by Palestinians into Israel are "primitive" (as you allege) make those acts more or less grave? Does the fact that Sderot is the home town of the Israeli defence minister make it more or less appropriate that Israel defend herself. Or are these bits of spin just part of the BBC's stance against Israel?"
    • "I felt your report in the World Tonight this evening on events in Israel, Palestine and Lebanon was completely unbalanced. Yes you had an Oxford based academic criticise Israeli policy but your interviewer did not challenge any representatives of the Israeli government in their interviews about violation of Geneva conventions and international law. Why do you not hold them to any account? If you can’t do a serious interview don’t give them airtime."

The curious thing is that they were both written to us in response to the same item (hear it here). There is an old adage in journalism that if you're getting complaints from both sides in a polarised debate such as that over the Middle East conflict, you must be doing something right. But in case you think we take a flippant attitude, we take complaints more seriously than this adage may suggest.

The BBC Governors recently commissioned an independent report into the BBC's coverage of the Middle East which concluded there was no intentional bias, although we could give more context to events - which is why we are now telling listeners and viewers about the BBC News website in-depth background site, as well as taking other measures to improve our coverage, such as appointing a West Bank correspondent.

But even before this report we have always spent a lot of time carefully considering how we cover this story and the language we use. Central to our journalistic ethos is our duty to report and analyse all sides to a story, so our audience can make sense of what is going on the world.

Alistair Burnett is editor of the World Tonight

Asking questions

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 15:11 UK time, Wednesday, 12 July 2006

At least seven years - that's how long British and other foreign troops will need to stay in Afghanistan according to Afghan MP Shukria Barakzai, who we spoke to last night.

The World TonightIn contrast over the past few days, the BBC along with other news organisations has also been quoting John Reid, when he was Defence Secretary, saying he would be happy if the troops left the country in three years without firing a shot.

Since the time the deployment was announced back in January, The World Tonight, like other BBC News programmes, has been tracking the British military involvement in southern Afghanistan. One of the first interviews we did on this was with the inestimable military analyst Michael Clarke of Kings College, London, who predicted then that the British army would inevitably get involved in combat with a resurgent Taleban, drug lords and other assorted armed groups, if they went into the region.

As a result of analysis from defence experts like Professor Clarke, there have been constant questions to the Ministry of Defence about various aspects of this intervention. Were enough troops being sent? Did they have the right equipment? Should they have been better prepared for the resistance they've encountered? All valid questions and not necessarily as straightforward as they appear, because when it comes to military decisions there is inevitably a role for politicians to make judgements on the basis of professional military advice and what they think is politically do-able.

But another question has arisen which the government and supportive politicians bristle at, but is being asked by our listeners. Should the government have been more open about the risks being faced by British troops, and should the government have engaged in more of a public debate about the wisdom of this deployment before the final decision was made, partly to gauge public support, but also to prepare public opinion and the media for potentially bad news?

Journalists are often accused of oversimplifying issues like this, but if the troops do end up staying for 7 years, and casualties sadly rise, we will continue to report what's going on - the BBC is one of the few media organisations which permanently bases correspondents in Afghanistan - and these questions will continue to be asked.

Alistair Burnett is editor of the World Tonight

Reporting China

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 15:11 UK time, Wednesday, 28 June 2006

Last night, The World Tonight won the Amnesty International Media Award for radio for a series of reports we ran last year on forced evictions and forced abortions in the Chinese countryside by the BBC's Beijing Correspondent, Rupert Wingfield-Hayes.

The World TonightWinning awards is great for morale. It's recognition that we do more than slap each other on the back and that others - out there, outside the BBC - recognise the quality of what we do.

However, I have to admit to mixed feelings at entering for an award from a campaigning organisation because that was not what motivated me to commission the reports. This came home to me when I was giving an interview after the award presentation to Amnesty's PR people, and I felt I had to point out that we didn't run the reports in order to support any campaign, but because I felt we need to give rounded coverage of the China story.

The emergence (or in the grand sweep of history the re-emergence) of China as an economic powerhouse is more than a story of extraordinary growth statistics, gleaming skyscrapers, and Chinese investment in Africa. And while many Chinese are becoming better off, there are losers in this story and it is important to hear their voices so our listeners can make sense of the story for themselves.

Choosing the lead

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 11:25 UK time, Friday, 16 June 2006

Why Somalia and not Sri Lanka - that was the question I was asked by one of our researchers about last night's programme (listen to it here, for the next 6 days). We led on the former, while the latter was only covered in the bulletin.

The World TonightIt's a good question which had two parts.

Firstly, why cover Somalia and not Sri Lanka given there was a horrendous bus bombing there and the government had sent planes to bomb Tamil Tiger positions as the ceasefire threatens to fall completely apart?

Secondly, why lead on Somalia when the row over sentencing was the main story on Radio Four news throughout the day?

The second question is easier to answer than the first. The lifeblood of radio news programmes is their distinctiveness and as The World Tonight comes at the end of the day, covering stories that have been running all day is - in managers jargon - a challenge. If we can't think of anything new to say about them, we sometimes opt not to do them which is what we did yesterday - after all, the listeners who have not heard the news during the day and tune in at 10 will get the main points of the story in the bulletin.

The first question is more difficult and debateable. Given that the 20-year civil war that ended four years ago claimed over 60,000 lives, if full-scale war returns to Sri Lanka it will be a human tragedy in a country familiar to many Brits who have been there on holiday. And it will affect Sri Lankans and people of Sri Lankan descent living in this country.

However Somalia has the potential to have greater international impact. It is strategically located at the entrance to the Red Sea, the Americans are very worried it could be a haven for al-Qaeda types, and the advance of the Islamic Courts Union - which now controls much of the south of the country - is reminiscent of the rise of the Taleban in Afghanistan ten years ago - and we know where that led.

What happened yesterday was also significant because the US appears to have changed its approach to Somalia - it could almost be called a u-turn similar to the recent one they performed in relation to talks with Iran. It had been backing local warlords and clans who had been fighting the Islamists, but they have apparently been routed, so the US has hastily assembled a contact group which met for the first time in New York and asked the Norwegians to take the lead in coordinating with the Somali factions - the weak interim government, the Islamists and the clans.

Added to this both Today and PM had covered Sri Lanka, and hadn't covered Somalia.

That was the reasoning, but I know other editors would have raised an eyebrow at our lead last night.

Too much global warming?

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 11:17 UK time, Friday, 9 June 2006

The audience log makes interesting reading on some days - but this morning it recorded that one of our listeners thought we covered global warming too often on the programme.

The World TonightTo those who missed Wednesday's show, the report that provoked this comment was Paul Moss's walkabout (listen here) at the new Natural History Museum exhibition, "The Art of Climate Change", which is intended to help raise awareness. I asked Paul to go find out if it works.

I have to hold my hand up though - we do cover climate change reasonably frequently on the programme - for two reasons. Firstly, it is a big story - scientists tell us this, politicians tell us this and - here's the clincher - our listeners tell us this. Whenever we cover environmental stories we are guaranteed to get a large and lively response to our online listeners debate - which bears out the old adage - you can please some of the people some of the time, but...

Tales from the new country

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 13:03 UK time, Friday, 26 May 2006

In the last couple of days the unrest in the world's youngest country, East Timor, has forced its way up the news agenda with the government there calling for international military intervention from Australia, New Zealand, Portugal and Malaysia to help put down a rebellion by discharged soldiers.
World TonightSix years ago, East Timor was in the headlines for weeks when the Indonesians and their local allies went on the rampage as the country voted for independence from Indonesia in a UN run poll. The UN ran the country for a few years then helped the Timorese set up their own insitutions - the idea was to help them stand on their own feet. This now seems to be unravelling.

We decided we should do this story on The World Tonight for a couple of reasons:

a) the country is descending into chaos and there is the human drama of some of the poorest people in the world having to flee their capital city to avoid getting caught in the crossfire

b) with difficulties of large scale nation-building in places like Iraq and Afghanistan in the news, the apparent failure of nation building efforts in tiny East Timor (pop.n 700,000) despite a large effort from the international community, highlights the difficulties of imposing western standards of governence in places torn apart by conflict.

As a news programme, we usually want to get interviews with decision makers (or what we broadcast journos like to call 'real people') in order to try to get a news line out of them. Given the time difference to Timor and Australia from London we couldn't get an interview with either government there so we arranged to do an interview with the Portuguese Foreign Minister (Lisbon is on the same time as us) and arranged for John Taylor, a former UN adviser from South Bank Universtity to come in and explain what's going on there.

That's all fine and dandy but as this is live radio it's never that simple. In the run up to going on air, Robin Lustig was composing his introduction - what we call the cue - he was trying to bring listeners up to date with the background to East Timor since it disappeared from the headlines a few years ago while telling listeners why we were doing the story - ie the appeal for troops from abroad.

Robin and I discussed and revised the cue a couple of times. After I had said we couldn't say Timor became independent from Indonesia (because it was never legally part of the country) but we needed to say the Indonesians had occupied it for 25 years, Robin said he couldn't give a two miunte history lesson. After two attempts we think we got there and we had a 45 second intro that established the background and told us why the story was important on this day ... the art is to make it sound effortless, give the essential context for people to understand the story and do it in less than a minute.

And then the Portuguese FM stood us up - when we called him during the programme, his daughter answered the phone and told us he hadn't got home from the restaurant. It happens more than you think, which is why we have a stand-by item for each programme, and why our listeners heard from the Enron whistleblower after all.

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