BBC BLOGS - The Editors

Dale Farm: News media win legal fight over footage

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Fran Unsworth Fran Unsworth | 17:40 UK time, Thursday, 17 May 2012

The BBC, like other broadcasters, has a well-established process in place for dealing with police requests for untransmitted footage. Put simply - we require requests for such material to be made through the courts.

We have to consider in each case whether an order is justified and occasionally we conclude that it isn't and that it's necessary to challenge it. On Thursday a successful challenge was made which led to a significant ruling from the courts which fundamentally reinforces the independence of news organisations from the police.

A police officer stands guard as bailiffs dismantle barricades at the Dale Farm Traveller site, October 2011

BBC, SKY, ITN, Hardcash Productions and freelance journalist Jason Parkinson went to a Judicial Review to overturn a decision by Chelmsford Crown Court to grant a wide-ranging production order to hand over all footage from the Dale Farm evictions to Essex Police.

In this case the order was so wide ranging it amounted to a fishing expedition. We believe journalists must maintain their independence, must not be seen as evidence gatherers and must not have their safety compromised. There is a real concern that our crews would be prevented from doing their job if the subjects they were filming thought the material was inevitably going to be passed onto the police. All of these things would be undermined by the courts agreeing to unfocused and speculative applications for footage.

The broadcasters won the challenge and the footage as requested won't now be released.

But, more importantly that that, today's guidance makes it clear that applications must be supported by proper evidence, must be focused and proportionate and the court has acknowledged that the over-use of production orders may make it harder for the press to do its job.

This won't change the way we deal with such requests in the future - our processes are tried and tested and designed to protect the independence of our journalism and the safety of our staff, whatever the subject of the footage. This remains an important principle and one which we will continue to take very seriously.

But the BBC, and other broadcasters, have been getting an increasing number of such police requests, which most people hear little about as they pass through the courts, and this ruling will significantly benefit both news organisations and our audiences.

Fran Unsworth is head of Newsgathering at BBC News.

Why BBC journalists risked visits to Homs

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Fran Unsworth Fran Unsworth | 14:00 UK time, Monday, 5 March 2012

BBC correspondent Paul Wood and cameraman Fred Scott have been reporting on the situation in the Syrian city of Homs. There they have found harrowing accounts of people fleeing the fighting with accusations of atrocities by the Syrian security forces. (You can read Paul's latest report here.)

A man carries a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) in the al-Hamidiya neighbourhood of Homs


It's the second trip Paul and Fred have made to the Homs area within a matter of weeks. They were there in early February reporting from the city under siege. Since then, the Syrian security forces have launched an all-out onslaught to take control. It was this fighting that claimed the lives of Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik and injured others who had become trapped in the besieged city.

It has been suggested that such deployments are not worth making, and we should not put the lives of journalists at risk when there is so much material provided by local Syrians. Some say such deployments are driven by the spirit of competition in the news business, and that there is too much focus on the bravery of the journalists rather than the plight of the Syrian people, who cannot get across the border to a comfortable hotel in Beirut.

These are all good arguments which should be considered when planning such a trip as the one Paul and Fred have undertaken. As far as the risk to the team is concerned, it comes down to the question: "What is the editorial value in such a risky venture, and is it worth the potential loss of life or injury that may result?"

Obviously we do as much as we can to ensure they will not get hurt. We look at what the risks might be:
• getting injured or killed in fighting
• being specifically targeted because they are journalists
• being arrested by the Syrian forces.

We try to minimise as many of these risks as we can. But of course it is not possible to eliminate every risk, as the team themselves know only too well.

Marie Colvin

Marie Colvin

So why do individual journalists do it, and why are these ventures supported by their editors?

This weekend, the Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy, injured in the attack which killed Marie Colvin, paid tribute to her by describing her as one of the "greatest observers" of her time.

This seems to me to sum up why it is important that news organisations that are trusted by the public and do not have a political agenda should continue to try to put their reporters on the ground.

The purpose of reporting is to provide evidence and to interpret on behalf of viewers, listeners and readers.

Paul and Fred have filed horrendous reports of people fleeing from terrible atrocities. They do need to be verified, but if true, journalists are playing a vital role in ensuring we know what is going on there.

Fran Unsworth is head of Newsgathering at BBC News.

BBC science review

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Fran Unsworth Fran Unsworth | 13:00 UK time, Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The BBC Trust has published a review of science coverage across the whole of the BBC, carried out by Steve Jones, Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College London, with content analysis provided by a team from Imperial College London.

BBC science web screengrab


I'm delighted to say that his "first and most important conclusion" is that the BBC's output is widely praised for its breadth and depth, its professionalism, and its clear, accurate reporting.

But Professor Jones found that the coverage could be improved in some significant respects, a view endorsed by the Trust.

His report suggests there is too little cooperation between the various parts of the BBC that cover science, and that news coverage relies on too limited a pool of commentators and sources - creating the risk that we give our audiences an incomplete view of developments in the scientific world.

The report also says we should make sure that we achieve the right balance between well-established scientific fact and opinion. Otherwise, Professor Jones argues, there is a danger of the BBC giving undue prominence to critics on the fringes of what is actually a settled scientific debate.

That doesn't mean that in future we will, for example, not interview climate change sceptics.

But we must continue to take care to reflect the balance of the debate in any scientific controversy. There will be occasions when a scientific story should be presented as a debate purely and simply within the scientific community.

There will be others when it is appropriate to broadcast a range of views, including some from non-experts, because science cannot be divorced from the social, political and cultural environment in which it operates.

When we do that, across all our coverage we will have to work harder to explain to our audiences the background of contributors - for example, whether they are scientists, policy-makers, lobbyists or whether they are taking an ethical stand.

The College of Journalism has agreed to help us explore some of these issues in the year ahead.

In addition, I can confirm that we will be looking to appoint our first Science Editor for BBC News whose task will be to bring a new level of analysis to science coverage, strengthen our contacts, and help us to take an overview our coverage relative to the weight of scientific work.

Fran Unsworth is head of Newsgathering at BBC News.

Coverage of world changing events

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Fran Unsworth Fran Unsworth | 15:50 UK time, Wednesday, 23 March 2011

It is an understatement to say it's been an extremely busy time in the newsroom and for our teams in the field over the last couple of months in the light of the series of major international stories we have been working on, including the disaster in Japan and the situation in Libya and the wider Middle East.

In my own career I find it hard to recall a period when there has been so many huge stories happening across the world at the same time. Inevitably, this has led to some discussion in the press about our newsgathering budgets being under pressure and how we cope with this.

I have made it clear that we must be able to continue to cover stories of this magnitude and that is exactly what we will keep doing. Despite the strain on the newsgathering budget the BBC has made provision through its wider budget to ensure that in coming weeks we are able to bring these critical stories back to our audiences comprehensively and rooted in eyewitness reportage.

Diary events that we know are coming up are being looked at hard - and there's no doubt that on some occasions we will need to pull back from certain things to make sure our reporting of the biggest stories doesn't suffer.

As we have always done we make tough editorial decisions and allocate our resources accordingly but the last few months have shown that at an extraordinary time we must continue to be recognised for delivering excellent coverage of these world changing events.

Fran Unsworth is the head of Newsgathering.

Last edition of Working Lunch

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Fran Unsworth Fran Unsworth | 10:57 UK time, Friday, 30 July 2010

Today is the last edition of Working Lunch, a programme which has done invaluable service for viewers over the years in providing information on a range of topics on business and personal finance.

Working LunchBut the world has moved on in the past 16 years and whilst the programme was ground-breaking when it first went on air, there has since been an explosive growth of broadcast media and the launch of the internet.

It means that audiences now have a range of ways of accessing this sort of information.

Many people have written to us saying they have been saddened and in some cases infuriated by this decision. But the BBC, like other organisations, has to make tough decisions about how and where we spend our resources to ensure they provide maximum benefit to licence-fee payers.

The cancellation of Working Lunch will deliver cost-saving for BBC News, much of which will be recycled back into programme making.

It's always sad when a programme reaches the end of its life-cycle, but our business coverage has never been about one programme.

In the slot we will be bringing the news, current affairs and business programme, GMT with George Alagiah to BBC Two. The international edition is already a cornerstone of the BBC's international output. The programme showcases the best of BBC journalism from around the world and has a strong business focus.

In addition, the BBC will also be commissioning a new agenda setting business programme on the News Channel at the weekend and a new money and business programme on Radio 5 live.

We believe our new programme line up will serve BBC Two, Radio 5 live and News Channel audiences well.

Fran Unsworth is the head of Newsgathering.

Ludicrous allegations

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Fran Unsworth Fran Unsworth | 14:28 UK time, Friday, 26 June 2009

Some in Iran have been keen to blame foreign media for fuelling the recent protests. This has led to ludicrous allegations about the BBC which have surfaced in the Iranian media.

One Iranian website reported that the BBC had paid hitmen to kill Neda Agha Soltan, the 27-year-old woman who died from a gunshot in an anti-government protest. A newspaper added the flourish that our Tehran correspondent, Jon Leyne, had personally hired the killer.

While I don't think that anyone takes this allegation seriously, the charge is nonetheless being reported in the Middle East. We state categorically that this extraordinary accusation is of course utterly without foundation.

Since then, another newspaper has reported that our Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen has been calling on Iranian people to "go on strike". This is not true either.

Fran Unsworth is the head of Newsgathering.

Top-secret files

Fran Unsworth Fran Unsworth | 17:43 UK time, Thursday, 12 June 2008

The loss of the top-secret cabinet office files has raised interest in how the BBC came by the documents and how it treats such stories. Security correspondent Frank Gardner called me in the middle of day to alert me to the fact he had in his possession some highly classified documents. I scooted down to his office to discuss with Frank and his producer what we should do with them.

Top-secret documentsThe documents were titled "Joint Intelligence Committee Assessment" and marked "UK Top-Secret". They were numbered and marked "for UK/US/Canadian and Australian eyes only". They had been found on the seat of a commuter train from Waterloo to Surrey by a member of the public.

It was obvious that if the papers were genuine, we were in possession of very sensitive material. If published, there might well be implications for national security.

So what did we have to bear in mind in deciding our next steps? These are the kinds of questions we began asking:

• Are the documents genuine? How can we find out?
• What is the nature of the information they contain? How big a potential story is this?
• If we published any or all of this information, could we be putting lives at risk, or telling Britain's enemies something which would endanger our national security?
• If we published, would we be breaking the law?

Frank and others spent the next few hours attempting to find the answers to these questions.

It seemed clear to him that the documents were the genuine article and were not fakes. This was later confirmed by officials. The senior civil servant had already reported them missing and a search was taking place for them.

One of the documents was an assessment of the state of Iraqi Security forces. It didn't seem to contain much that couldn't already be found in published academic papers. But the second paper - "Al-Qaeda Vulnerabilities", was more complex. We felt that the information it contained could endanger lives if it was made public. We also took the view that it may have helped to alert Al-Qaeda to what the British knew - and didn't know - about them, potentially compromising national security.

But we felt the main issue was the huge security breaches that must have taken place in order for the documents to pass into our hands. After other losses of confidential information by government departments, there is great public concern about information security generally. The fact of their being left so casually on a train was the most significant part of the story.

To illustrate that story on television, we needed to show the audience something of the documents. But we filmed them so as not show any of the contents. Just the title pages with the headings and security classifications.

Before we went with our story, we alerted the government to the fact the documents were in our possession and said we were prepared to return them. A little later the police arrived at Television Centre to reclaim them. We handed them over, assuring them that we had made no copies.

The member of the public who passed the documents to the BBC did us all a great favour. As a result of that action, we now know that Whitehall's procedures on handling this material are clearly at fault. No doubt they are being tightened at this moment. That member of the public presumably chose to give the material to the BBC in the knowledge that we would treat the material responsibly. I believe we did so. Imagine the consequences if the finder had chosen to put them on the internet instead.

Helicopter coverage

Fran Unsworth Fran Unsworth | 10:12 UK time, Wednesday, 8 August 2007

The use of the News helicopter over the fields of Surrey to cover the foot and mouth outbreak has caused some consternation, on the part of the audience, and also the government, who clearly would prefer all our coverage to be at ground level.

One member of the audience wrote: "A helicopter should not under any circumstances be flying over the affected farm given that this is a windborne disease. I sincerely hope the slaughter, then removal, of the beautiful creatures will not be shown."

Let me say at once that we wouldn’t do or show anything which we thought might contribute to the spread of the virus, or cause unnecessary distress to viewers.

We were careful to take advice about the potential effects of using a helicopter, and whether its rotor blades could contribute to airborne transmission. That advice was that air is only disturbed at most by three times the length of the rotors. And at no time did our aircraft go below 1200 feet. The quality of the camera enables us to film from that height in sufficient detail.

I can also assure our correspondent that we did not and would not show the moment of culling on grounds of taste. We didn’t do this in 2001, and we see no reason to do so now.

As it happened, the government imposed an air exclusion zone over the affected area at the point when cattle were being herded into a pen to begin slaughter. It was put to us that we were hampering by frightening the cattle, and potentially spreading the disease. We were happy to comply.

Notice warning of foot and mouth in the areaTelevision does need pictures to tell a story. A comprehensive police cordon was in operation on the ground, for obvious reasons. Any attempt by us to walk or drive around to see what was happening could have helped spread contamination. The use of aircraft is an effective way to cover this type of story and possibly the safest as well.

Our teams are well aware of bio-security issues and are under strict instructions not to cross any cordons. Some of our staff were here into the early hours of the morning after the story broke, making sure our equipment was fully equipped with disinfectant and other safety kit. Of course we don’t want to do anything that might makes things worse. But while respecting the restrictions, it’s also our job to cover the story as comprehensively and informatively as we can.

Weighing the risks

Fran Unsworth Fran Unsworth | 10:16 UK time, Sunday, 27 May 2007

A scurrilous piece of journalism appeared in the Wall Street Journal this week regarding Alan Johnston’s kidnapping. An article by Bret Stephens criticises BBC management for our failures of “prudence and judgment which put our reporter, Alan Johnston’s life in jeopardy.” Fair enough. It is not as though all of us responsible for Alan’s safety have not asked ourselves the same question many times over the course of the past 11 weeks.

But the article goes on to propose that our reasons for this complacency were as a result of our institutional pro-Palestinian views which meant we felt able to operate in the Palestinian authority with “political impunity”. He would appear to be suggesting that Alan was a Palestinian sympathiser and therefore we felt he would be protected by that. The author throws in the few other BBC correspondent names to stack up his case – saying Barbara Plett and Orla Guerin had also made their views known to the public.

He alleges we believed this stance gave us “institutional advantages in terms of access and protection” and that is why “we felt comfortable posting Alan in a place no other news agency dared to go".

Aside from the lack of sympathy shown by the Wall Street Journal, who must have asked themselves a few questions over the appalling tragedy of Daniel Pearl, it also happens to be totally unfounded. I would have thought the writer would have attempted to establish some facts before committing to the page. Had he put a call into the BBC he might have discovered that we had been by no means complacent about Alan’s safety.

Alan was highly alert to the possibility of kidnap. He had come out of Gaza on several occasions in the months before he was taken; we had drawn up plans to avoid it happening and even a plan of what we would do if it should. He had spent the previous three years in Gaza during which time the security situation had progressively deteriorated. He had been due to come out two weeks before he was kidnapped, and the BBC was assessing whether Gaza was safe enough for western journalists in the immediate future.

Obviously none of this prevented the desperate situation in which Alan is now in. We, as his managers, have repeatedly asked ourselves what more we could and should have done to protect him, including the issue of whether he should have been there at all. But we do think very carefully about putting our staff into dangerous parts of the world and take every measure we can to minimise the risks. We continually talk to our correspondents on the ground, as we did with Alan, about how to do this. However, newsgathering is not, and can never be, an entirely risk free business.

But I am surprised that one of the US’s leading newspapers with a great tradition appears to think that a desire to provide first hand reporting for our audiences, on a key news story of major significance, was an enterprise to be regarded as foolish and complacent, rather than what journalism is supposed to be for.

Middle East restrictions?

Fran Unsworth Fran Unsworth | 09:01 UK time, Friday, 18 August 2006

Some blogs, as well as emails we've received, have said that BBC correspondents are failing to report that when covering the war, they are operating under reporting restrictions imposed by Hezbollah. Others complain that we did not refer to Israeli censorship rules on air. I'd like to answer those points.

One of the forms that all journalists sign, to be accredited members of the press on arrival in Israel, is a promise that you will obey the rules of the military censor. In the context of the latest war in South Lebanon, those rules mean - we are not allowed to report any Hezbollah hits on military bases, not allowed to broadcast news of ministerial visits to the frontline until ministers are safely back out of Hezbollah’s range.

And if rockets land whilst we are live on air, we have to be vague as to where they fall (the theory being that Hezbollah may be watching BBC World or equivalent, and using our information to help them calibrate their rockets launchers). Also we are not allowed to report on military casualties until the Israeli censor says so.

In practice, Israel finds these rules very hard to enforce. It is a small, talkative country and the media usually finds out about casualties quickly. The rolling news networks based outside the country are not bound by the censorship rules, so if they find out from other sources they will broadcast.

James Reynolds, one of our correspondents reporting from Northern Israel, writes...

    “Throughout the conflict we have pretty good access to soldiers, generals and ministers - all extremely keen to put Israel’s case to the international media. By and large we’ve been allowed to go wherever we want on the Israeli side of the border. We’ve often driven straight into Israeli bases right next to the frontline - in the middle of battle preparations - and nobody has kicked us out.”

So what about Hezbollah? Were they any better able to control what reporters can and cannot see? Jim Muir - our correspondent who has just spent the last month based in Southern Lebanon - says...

    “There have basically been no restrictions on reporting as such - there’s been no pressure in any direction with regard to anything we actually say, indeed very little interaction of any sort. There was however an issue at the beginning of the conflict over the live broadcast of pictures of rockets going out from locations visible from our live camera position. We were visited by Hezbollah representatives and told that by showing the exact location of firing we were endangering civilian lives, and that our equipment would be confiscated.”

Editors in London discussed both how we should handle both this request, and the Israel rules, in terms of what we said on air.

We agreed that rather than begin each broadcast with a 'health warning' to audiences, we would only refer to it if it was relevant. If rockets started to go off while were live on air, we would not show the exact location but would tell the audience that we had been asked by Hezbollah not to; on the grounds they claimed it endangered civilian lives.

In the event the situation never arose. Apart from that one incident we have been free to report whatever we wanted.

On the Israeli side, we agreed to refer to the censorship rules when it prevented us from reporting anything. In practice, it never did, so we did not see the need to mention it.

Environmental changes

Fran Unsworth Fran Unsworth | 10:30 UK time, Tuesday, 1 August 2006

You would have had to have been in hibernation for the past few years to have missed the ascent of the environment up the news agenda. We have been suffering a heat wave this week that many people have found unpleasant, the south east is crippled with drought and the UK apparently now produces award-winning wine because we can grow vines successfully in this country.

Many are questioning whether climate change is responsible for all this; others argue these events are cyclical.

There is a huge responsibility on us to be a trusted and reliable source of information. But to report the subject properly we have to look not only at the science, but also the impact of environmental issues on economics, business and politics. Like all journalistic organisations we tend to have difficulty doing joined-up reporting.

Roger Harrabin, on the Ten O'Clock News setThat's why we have decided to appoint an environment analyst to try to pull together some of these threads. Roger Harrabin has covered the environment for two decades, largely for radio where he has reported the story as it appears through energy, transport, housing and politics.

In his new post he will spread this approach across a wider range of BBC outlets offering original stories and new perspectives, and tackling such subjects as...

• What is a safe level of climate change?
• Can technology provide the solution?
• How much would we need to spend to stabilise the world's climate?
• Can we adapt to climate change?

Hopefully through his work (such as this report on last night's Ten O'Clock News), audiences will be armed with more information to help better understand controversial and complex issues surrounding the subject.

Fran Unsworth is head of Newsgathering

The movie business

Fran Unsworth Fran Unsworth | 15:12 UK time, Tuesday, 6 June 2006

The issue of how broadcasters deal with the huge increase in "user generated content" or "citizen newsgathering" has been highligted again by the Forest Gate incident. It has been sniffily reported that some TV producers (apparently working for rival broadcasters) were offering members of the public cash and contracts for their mobile phone clips. People are obviously getting wise to the notion that their material could earn them a bob or two.

This is not a new occurance however. Newsgatherers have always been prepared to pay money for what we formerly termed "amateur video". It has netted us crucial pictures which we have used in the coverage of stories such as ferry disasters, the aftermath of explosions etc. As we wish to be able to hold the copyright for such pictures in order to be able to cut them into packages which are then passed on to our partners, we tie the deal down with a contract.

Along came the BBC News website which made a point of asking the public to send in their pictures, for which they were quite clear they would not be paying. Apart from anything else, they didn't have the budget, but in addition it didn't really fit the spirit of the new medium with its greater emphasis on interaction with the audience. So in effect we had two different systems for handling material provided by the public.

What has significantly changed the way we deal with these issues is the enormous growth in UGC content. With so many digital cameras and mobile phones out there it provides us with a huge increase in picture gathering capability and has proved enormously valuable: the 7/7 London bombs, the Buncefield fire and the recent Cleveland Explosion are the most notable recent examples.

We cannot be in the business of buying all the content provided by the public. There is simply now too much of it and most of it is not worth the expenditure. But there is nonetheless still a competitive market for really special material and the BBC should be part of that market in order for our journalism to remain of the highest quality.

Whether we pay the public for the material, and how much, is up to the judgement of producers on the ground who can see the pictures and the Newsgathering editor at base. Their decision would be based on the value of the shots as far as telling the story is concerned, the price, and how much we think it appropriate for a publicly funded broadcaster to pay.

A major consideration when dealing with this material though are the safety issues around it, and our responsibilities to the public. Our professional crews are fully safety-trained and have an understanding of the risks and precautions that need to be taken when covering stories such as oil depot explosions. The public might not. When appealing for this material from our audience, we need to ensure we are not encouraging them to put themselves in any danger.

The Rivals

Fran Unsworth Fran Unsworth | 13:16 UK time, Wednesday, 31 May 2006

It seems eyebrows were raised about BBC world affairs editor John Simpson’s appearance on rival broadcaster, Sky News, from Baghdad yesterday. In the wake of the tragic deaths of the CBS news team, he was asked to take part in a discussion of the safety issues for journalists covering Iraq.

John Simpson, pictured in a video report on the Sky News websiteSky asked us if they could interview him in the morning and we agreed. (There was a bit of a communication breakdown in that those of us involved in the decision failed to tell others, so it came as more of a surprise to some in the BBC than it should have.)

But more interesting is the question of whether or not John should have appeared on a rival broadcaster. And I am intrigued over how this was reported on the Media Guardian website:

“One in the eye for Sky," it reported. "In a curious move, Simpson appeared on the roof of a Baghdad building to talk about the dangers of working in Iraq while his opposite number, Sky's foreign editor Tim Marshall was sat cosily in the studio. ...maybe the BBC was trying to get one over its news rivals.”

I can assure the diarist that the BBC was not trying to put “one over" a news rival. He or she seems unaware that safety is a strictly non-competitive issue between media organisations. The London-based broadcast media - the BBC, Sky News, ITN and CNN - all meet up regularly to share information and advice about reporting from dangerous places.

Yesterday Sky News illuminated for its audience how news organisations go about operating under such dangerous security conditions. All credit to them for interviewing someone with huge credibility and first hand experience - even if he does work for the opposition.

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