BBC BLOGS - The Editors

Election night

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 17:18 UK time, Tuesday, 6 November 2012

So after more than a year of campaigning, it all comes down to this. On radio, TV and online, the BBC is gearing up for a big night - in English and 27 other languages. And not just one big night, but 51 separate contests.

Unlike most other countries, the US election is not a nationwide "popular poll". Instead, the president is elected by an Electoral College of 538 delegates from each of the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia. How many come from each, depends on their population. So as the votes pile up, it's the way each state votes that will decide the election.

In most states, thanks to exit polls, it may be possible to project a result the moment the polls close. Working with our friends at ABC News, the BBC will "call" the results, state by state, based on those projections. In states that are too close to call, electronic voting will mean we're able to follow the counting in real time, based on the number of voting precincts reporting.

The first real test will come at midnight GMT when polls close in six states. Virginia, with 13 electoral college votes, will be the first of the battle ground states to report. Half an hour later at 00:30 GMT, polls will also close in Ohio with its 18 votes and North Carolina with 15 votes. As the polls close, the BBC will call the result in each based on projections made by ABC News.

Using the results service on the BBC News website, you'll be able to follow the same data driving the BBC's results system on TV and radio. They will include the state results, the resultant change in the Electoral College vote, and will colour the state and national maps accordingly - red for Republican states, blue for Democrats.

The target for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is to hit a figure of 270 - winning the majority of the 538 delegates to the Electoral College. Once one of the candidates passes the magic 270 total, this election will be over. Then - and only then - will the BBC call the election. A big night and, possibly, a long night beckons.

Jon Williams is world news editor.

Malala Yousafzai and the BBC

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 16:27 UK time, Friday, 19 October 2012

In recent days, much has been written about Malala Yousafzai - the 14-year-old Pakistani girl shot in the head by the Taliban. But in 2008, when the Taliban imposed a ban on girls' education in Pakistan's Swat Valley, no-one had heard of the schoolgirl from Mingora.

Candlelight vigil for Malala Yousafzai


Often in conflicts, news coverage focuses on bombing and killings. The stories of those caught up in violence are lost. So our colleagues at BBC Urdu set out to capture the impact the conflict in Swat was having on the pupils involved - their thoughts about their future, and how they were dealing with their day-to-day life.

BBC Urdu reporters made contact with teachers at a number of schools, including Malala's father, Ziauddin Yousufzai. He ran a school in Mingora, and suggested that his own daughter could write a regular diary. But in order to reduce the risk to Malala, we agreed she would write under a pseudonym, Gul Makai.

Her weekly blog started in late 2008. It proved to be such a hit, the blog was translated into English.

Her writings were non-political, but clearly reflected her desire for female education. They mostly talked about her school, studies, life at home and friends. Neither she, nor her father was paid.

In a January 2009, she wrote:

"I was getting ready for school and about to wear my uniform when I remembered that our principal had told us not to wear uniforms and come to school wearing normal clothes instead. So I decided to wear my favourite pink dress. Other girls in school were also wearing colourful dresses. During the morning assembly we were told not to wear colourful clothes as the Taliban would object to it."

Malala's diaries were published for 10 weeks. The diaries stopped when Malala and her family left the Swat valley before the launch of a military operation in May 2009. That was end of her association with the BBC.

After the Pakistani army regained control of Swat, Malala was able to return to Mingora later in 2009. Her father decided to disclose her real name when he nominated her for an international peace prize.

Malala began appearing on Pakistani TV news channels under her real identity, named as the girl behind the BBC Urdu blog. She was awarded a national peace prize by the Pakistani government, nominated for an international award and made several public appearances as a campaigner for girls' rights to education. Her fame spread far beyond Pakistan, as she stared in a documentary filmed by the The New York Times.

The BBC is incredibly proud of its association with Pakistan. BBC Urdu began broadcasting in April 1949, less than two years after the country's independence. Today, the BBC is still one of the most trusted news sources in Pakistan - precisely because we're committed to telling all sides of any story. Malala's is an important voice in the debate about Pakistan's future.

Jon Williams is the BBC world news editor.

Reporting Syria

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 21:00 UK time, Thursday, 23 August 2012

Yesterday, on BBC World News, BBC Arabic and the BBC News at 10, we broadcast footage filmed by the New York Times of a group of Free Syrian Army fighters leading the fight for Syria's second city Aleppo. For five days, a team from the New York Times spent time with the so-called "Lions of Tawhid" - charting their battles with President Assad's forces in the city. You can see their full report here.

The BBC report focused on a sequence where fighters built a 300 kilogram bomb in the back of a truck. A prisoner - said to be a member of the Shabiha, a government militia - is seen blindfolded, being taken into the city, where the fighters were said to be planning to use him as an unwitting suicide bomber.

In the event, the bomb failed to explode but the story has generated much interest across the Arab World and beyond. Amnesty International suggested that the video amounted to the attempted murder of a captive, under international law classified as a "war crime".

Some pro-government news agencies in Syria have suggested the BBC and the New York Times have termed the act as a "war crime". This is not true. The role of news organisations is to report facts and allow others to draw conclusions. The BBC and the New York Times reflect all sides of any story. It is not our role to pass judgement - we leave that to others.

Jon Williams is the BBC world news editor.

Lawrence of Asia

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 10:44 UK time, Monday, 13 August 2012

This year the BBC World Service celebrates its 80th anniversary: cause enough for celebration. But tonight, half a world away, the great and the good will come together to mark an even more extraordinary milestone.

In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Anthony Lawrence was the BBC's man in the Far East. First in Singapore, then Hong Kong, Lawrence was one of the BBC's "greatest generation" of foreign correspondents - a foreign legion that included legendary names such as Charles Wheeler, Erik de Mauny and John Osman. They built the BBC's reputation around the world, on crackly telephone lines and film flown back from distant shores*.

This weekend, "Lawrence of Asia" celebrated his 100th birthday, half a century after reporting on the communist insurgency in then Malaya, and the ousting of the British.

"Parked cars were set on fire. The steel blinds of shops came clattering down. Doors were bolted and barred. An all-day curfew was announced by radio and loudspeakers. Nobody could leave their houses. And all the streets of this big city were emptied like magic of all human beings, except for the odd mobile police patrol or military squads."

As the sun set on the British empire, Lawrence reported on the Vietnam War. One memorable despatch for From Our Own Correspondent in May 1972 suggests nothing much has changed. Reporting from the frontline with US troops in Vietnam, Lawrence could have been describing Afghanistan today:

"It's such a chancy business, this patrolling. You can go for months and meet nothing, and then three times in one week you meet some awful ambush or firefight. The man next to you goes down yelling with a leg blown off; the platoon commander is bleeding to death against a tree. It's over in 15 minutes, but it's a nightmare; and it may come again tomorrow night."

Much has changed in the four decades since Lawrence left the BBC - everything, and yet nothing. Lawrence's young "apprentice" in the heady days of the 60s was a young David Willey, still filing for the BBC from Rome, and this year himself celebrating his 80th birthday. Lawrence taught him to use the ordinary to explain the significant, the stories of real people - storytelling techniques at the core of contemporary BBC journalism today.

Lawrence moved to Hong Kong in 1958, and was forced to observe China from the outside for more than a decade before the mainland authorities let him in. He set about learning Chinese, and stayed in Hong Kong post-retirement. Having witnessed the suffering across south-east Asia, he founded a charity that helps refugees who flee to Hong Kong.

Tonight, at its famed Foreign Correspondents' Club, Hong Kong celebrates one of its finest adopted sons - and the BBC salutes one of its greatest generation. As the BBC marks 80 years of reporting the world, it is those like Lawrence who made it possible. Every day, we who follow seek to match the gold standard set by Lawrence and his contemporaries. One hundred not out! Happy birthday Tony.

Jon Williams is the BBC world news editor

*An earlier version mistakenly stated Lawrence was the last of his generation. But John Osman is still going strong at 80. Apologies.

Burma: What's in a name?

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 08:37 UK time, Thursday, 14 June 2012

Today, “The Lady” begins a 17-day visit to Europe. Aung San Suu Kyi arrives at an important moment in her country – but what should we call it?

Aung San Suu Kyi

Some news organisations refer to it as Myanmar, others, including the BBC choose to call it Burma. Over the next week, there will be lots of reporting about the country. So how do we decide which name to use?

The nation's military leaders changed the English language version of the country's name to Myanmar in 1989. The name change was opposed by pro-democracy campaigners and by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. They argue that the name was changed by a military junta that had no legitimacy - the NLD won elections in the country a year later, but the junta refused to recognise the result.

The decision to change the name of a country or a city is often politically sensitive, frequently the result of a nation shedding its colonial past, for example, Rhodesia's transition to Zimbabwe or India's commercial capital Bombay becoming Mumbai.

When Hillary Clinton visited the new capital Naypyidaw late last year, her advisors said she would not use either Myanmar or Burma, but would use phrases like "your country", "this land" and "what you call Myanmar". Officials said it was a sensitive issue for their hosts, but also for the US government.

That is not an option for the BBC. For us, the issue is about what is most helpful to our audiences. The BBC Burmese Service was founded in 1940. It has covered independence, uprisings and long years of military rule. It plays a vital role in bringing accurate, impartial news to the people of Burma, reaching an audience of many millions inside the country. In English - and in Burmese - our responsibility is to our audience. For now, most know the country as Burma, so, for now, that's what we continue to call it.

Others take a different view. The United Nations and the New York Times began calling the nation Myanmar in 1989, while the Associated Press adopted "Myanmar" in 2006. The BBC continues to keep names under review. Earlier this year we adopted the name "Chennai" for the Indian city of Madras - by contrast, we still refer to Bangalore rather than Bengaluru.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News editor.

Reporting conflict in Syria

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 16:23 UK time, Thursday, 7 June 2012

Some months ago, I reflected on the difficulties of reporting from Syria. The deaths of Marie Colvin and a dozen other journalists in the country so far this year has given us cause to think long and hard about the very real dangers there. But so too does the complexity of the situation on the ground in Syria, and the need to try to separate fact from fiction.

Damascus prides itself on being the oldest, continually inhabited city in the world. It also has the longest history of rumours passing for fact.

I spent three days in Syria earlier this week, talking to all sides involved in the current conflict. Waking up on my first morning, social media was alive with reports that the mobile phone network was down. True enough, I could access the hotel wi-fi but not place a call. On Twitter and Facebook, people claimed the phones had been turned off as the precursor to a major military assault. The truth it seems was more prosaic. It's the high school exam season in Syria - diplomats claimed the real reason was the phone network had been turned off to prevent students cheating. Even in a conflict zone, good grades count for a lot.

In the aftermath of the massacre at Houla last month, initial reports said some of the 49 children and 34 women killed had their throats cut. In Damascus, Western officials told me the subsequent investigation revealed none of those found dead had been killed in such a brutal manner. Moreover, while Syrian forces had shelled the area shortly before the massacre, the details of exactly who carried out the attacks, how and why were still unclear. Whatever the cause, officials fear the attack marks the beginning of the sectarian aspect of the conflict.

In such circumstances, it's more important than ever that we report what we don't know, not merely what we do. In Houla, and now in Qubair, the finger has been pointed at the shabiha, pro-government militia. But tragic death toll aside, the facts are few: it's not clear who ordered the killings - or why.

Given the difficulties of reporting inside Syria, video filed by the opposition on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube may provide some insight into the story on the ground. But stories are never black and white - often shades of grey. Those opposed to President Assad have an agenda. One senior Western official went as far as to describe their YouTube communications strategy as "brilliant". But he also likened it to so-called "psy-ops", brainwashing techniques used by the US and other military to convince people of things that may not necessarily be true.

A healthy scepticism is one of the essential qualities of any journalist - never more so than in reporting conflict. The stakes are high - all may not always be as it seems.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News editor.

When journalism comes under fire

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 11:05 UK time, Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Earlier this month, my colleagues Paul Wood, Fred Scott and Kevin Sweeney were smuggled into Syria.

Abdullah Ghorab

The BBC's Abdullah Ghorab was attacked in Yemen

Their reports made headlines around the world - they were the only international news team in Homs as President Assad's forces began bombarding the city.

Last week, a remarkable documentary on the World Service captured the courage and commitment needed to bring such stories to international attention. But too many in our profession pay a heavy price.

During 2011, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says 46 journalists lost their lives, covering conflicts from Pakistan to Somalia, Mexico to Libya.

Tragically, 2012 is already on course to outstrip that grim toll: a further six journalists have been killed in the first six weeks of this year.

We can never eliminate the risk of operating in places like Libya or Syria - only try to manage it to an acceptable level.

But in their annual report published today, the CPJ warns of a new risk - one that is more difficult to manage. It suggests regimes are finding new ways to censor the media and silence dissent.

During the uprisings across the Arab World, the internet has been a vital newsgathering tool.

Twitter and Facebook have been a source of information and video in places like Bahrain and Yemen, as well as Libya and Syria where the authorities have refused to allow access to the international media. But censorship is still alive and well.

In Homs, it became clear that the Syrian military were trying to jam our satellite equipment to prevent us reporting from the besieged city.

Earlier this month, we revealed how the Iranian government was trying to intimidate colleagues working for the BBC's Persian Service outside Iran by targeting family members who still live inside the country.

Passports of family members have been confiscated, preventing them from leaving Iran. Some of my colleagues have had their Facebook and email accounts hacked.

Ten days ago BBC Arabic reporter Abdullah Ghorab was attacked in Yemen, by a gang thought to be supporters of the outgoing president Ali Abdullah Saleh. His two brothers, who were with him, were badly beaten.

It was the third time Ghorab had been assaulted in Yemen, and he's also been verbally attacked by the country's deputy information minister.

Today, the CPJ warns that regimes may try to crack down further, precisely because they fear their ability to control the flow of information is weakening.

A year ago in Libya - two days after the start of the uprising that would bring down Colonel Gaddafi - an internet TV station started webcasting from Benghazi.

Long before international reporters made it to Libya, Alhurra TV (Free TV) was streaming footage online, allowing the world to see what was going on inside the country.

The authorities tried to shut down the internet to silence the station but, thanks to the ingenuity of its founder Mo Nabbous and his colleagues, government blocks were bypassed and the webcast was able to continue.

A month later, Nabbous was dead - killed by pro-Gaddafi troops in the battle for Benghazi.

A year on, those in Syria are following in Nabbous's footsteps. In Homs, activists have been using the Swedish website Bambuser to live stream pictures from inside the besieged city.

On Friday, the company said the Syrian government had blocked the site, a day after it broadcast images of an oil pipeline that campaigners claimed had been bombed by the Syrian military.

The CPJ is calling for the creation of a worldwide coalition against censorship made up of pressure groups, governments and businesses.

It's not just the BBC that faces difficulties - and not just Syria and Iran where we have problems. The internet has enabled millions to communicate more openly.

But that new-found freedom cannot be taken for granted.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News editor.

Our coverage of Libya

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 12:10 UK time, Monday, 22 August 2011

At the Imperial War Museum's northern outpost in Salford, a special exhibition celebrates the ranks of Britain's war correspondents - among them Winston Churchill. Before becoming a celebrated war leader, he found fame as a war reporter for the Morning Post during the Boer War. More than a century on, those same skills of courage and drive displayed on the battlefields of South Africa have been seen in Libya.

A Libyan rebel tank drives through Maya, 21 August

It takes real bravery to head towards the sound of gunfire and explosions when any right thinking person is running away - a courage shared not just by the correspondents but the often, unsung heroes, the producers, crews and engineers who get them on the air.

For much of the past week, the BBC has been the only UK broadcaster reporting from Tripoli - a five-strong team led by correspondent Matthew Price has holed up in the capital's Rixos Hotel, unable to go out unless "escorted" by Gaddafi government minders.

As parts of Tripoli fell, Matthew described his routine in a piece for the BBC News website - dinner in body armour and helmets, fear stalking the corridors as government officials abandoned the international media to their fate.

When Nato bombs started raining down on Libya, our Tripoli Correspondent Rana Jawad went into hiding. Being the BBC's correspondent in Gaddafi country was never easy at the best of times. But Rana refused the chance to leave: her life and her family was in Tripoli - and for five months, she filed a series of reports, billed only as a Tripoli Witness describing life in the capital.

At the BBC, everyone who works in a war zone is a volunteer. Like Rana, they make the decision to stay or go. Last night in a highly volatile situation, the BBC team in Zawiya, along with other major broadcasters judged it was not safe to continue with the rebels on the road into Tripoli.

Alex Crawford of Sky News took a different view and has rightly been praised for some compelling coverage. I congratulate her on her tenacity - it made for extraordinary television. But to illustrate the dangers facing those in Libya, this morning that same BBC team, led by Rupert Wingfield-Hayes came under fire as they entered Tripoli. The team is safe - but the footage which you can see here is terrifying.

Against this background we have succeeded in delivering comprehensive coverage of events in Libya since the uprising started in February. We have reported from Benghazi, Misrata and the advancing front line. Dozens of colleagues from many news organisations have risked their lives over the past five months to tell a hugely important story.

As I write, the fight for Tripoli is not over yet and some are still risking everything to ensure we can give our audiences - including those in Libya - first hand, "eyewitness" reporting. I could not be more proud of them.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News editor.

The difficulty of reporting from inside Syria

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 11:24 UK time, Tuesday, 7 June 2011

There are few more frustrating experiences for a journalist than knowing a huge story is happening, but being unable to cover it.

Protesters in a square in Deraa 21, April 2011

The country's protests started in Deraa

Since 16 March, the Syrian authorities have been facing an uprising - first in the southern city of Deraa, then in Homs, Latakia and then Hama - the scene of a massacre by troops loyal to President Assad's father in 1982.

Last week, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon suggested more than 1,000 people had died in Syria since the start of the violence. Yesterday came perhaps the most serious attack yet. The Syrian authorities claimed 120 security personnel were killed in battles with gunmen in the north-west of the country. The town of Jisr al-Shughour sits on the Turkish border - and was itself the scene of an Islamist uprising in 1980, also brutally crushed with scores of deaths.

All the time the BBC - and other news organisations - been forced to watch and report from outside the country. The Syrian authorities have refused to issue visas for international journalists. So it was good to hear Reem Haddad, the head of Syrian state television and a spokeswoman for the Syrian Information Ministry, tell Radio 4's Today programme she thought the time had come for international reporters to be allowed into the country "to put Syria's point of view".

I couldn't agree more. We're committed to telling all sides of the story. So far, the only pictures we've been able to gather have been those posted by protestors on YouTube.

Reem Haddad also suggested that BBC Arabic's reporter in Syria could report what's going on. Up to a point: his movements are heavily restricted and local journalists are subjected to constant intimidation.

It's not the first time a Syrian official has made promises on air. In March, President Assad's media advisor Buthaina Shabban promised the Today programme that the BBC could travel to Deraa - the seat of the uprising - to report from the city.

Two local journalists working for the BBC were stopped and prevented from reaching Deraa. Two days later they were arrested and questioned for a number of days. Other news organisations have suffered far worse: an al-Jazeera journalist, Dorothy Parvaz, went missing in Syria and turned up in Iran.

Eyewitness reporting is the only way we can really know what is going on - it's vital in providing a balanced picture of the story on the ground. I hope the Syrian government listens to Reem Haddad when she says the time has come to allow international reporters in - we couldn't agree more.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News editor.

Reporting from Libya

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 15:31 UK time, Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Some weeks ago, I wrote on the blog about the difficulties of reporting from Libya. Shortly afterwards, three of my colleagues from BBC Arabic were seized and abused by the Libyan authorities before being released. I said at the time that Libya was a "tricky" place to report from at the best of times - a month on, it's perhaps an understatement to say it remains so.

Allan Little

Every war has the "journalists' hotel" - the Hotel Continental in Saigon, the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo, the Palestine in Baghdad. This time, the Government has corralled around a hundred reporters from around the world into the Rixos Hotel - a smart, Turkish hotel that has just celebrated its first anniversary. It's the garden of the Rixos that you see night after night behind Allan Little and Jeremy Bowen.

But in truth, in recent days, it's become a bit of a gilded cage. International reporters are not free to move around Tripoli - even before the start of the air assault by Britain, France and the United States, the BBC team needed Libyan "minders" to leave the hotel. In recent days, they've not been around - this morning, on Twitter, one of my colleagues in Tripoli likened it to serving a prison sentence, albeit one with a fancy hamam.

During yesterday's Commons debate on Libya, the prime minister paid tribute to the bravery of the British journalists in Libya. But he also suggested that those reporting from Tripoli were reporting under what he called "very, very strong reporting restrictions".

While it's true that we can't see everything we want, we can say whatever we want. Our correspondent in Tripoli, Allan Little, is not subject to censorship, and there is no requirement for him to submit his pieces for approval prior to broadcast. The restriction is on movement - something we have made clear in our reporting.

But reporting restrictions are not just confined to Libya. British military operations are covered by "Defence Advisory" notices - agreed by senior officials from Government and also from the media. Such agreements are not new - the UK Government first sought agreement from the media not to publish information "of value to the enemy" nearly a hundred years ago.

Since 2000, there have been five standing "DA Notices" - the first of which covers current military operations. These are voluntary, and are advisory. On Saturday, the MoD asked British news organisations not to detail timings of planes leaving the UK for operations in Libya during the opening hours of the air campaign, or reveal the detail of weapons being carried - the BBC agreed to the request. You can read what is covered by DA notices here.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News editor.

The difficulty of reporting from inside Libya

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 10:30 UK time, Sunday, 20 February 2011

Reporting from Libya is tricky at the best of times - clearly, the situation there right now is anything but.

For 41 years, Muammar Gaddafi - the self-proclaimed "Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution" - has made life difficult for the Western media. While British nationals can enter many of the world's 192 countries without visas, or collect them on arrival, Libya is one of the exceptions. There, the door is firmly shut to international journalists, local reporters face intimidation and the threat of worse. It explains why, in contrast to recent events in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain, we're unable to report from inside Libya on the protests taking place there, and the authorities violent response.

And that's an uncomfortable place for us to be.

In recent years, from Burma, to Afghanistan and Zimbabwe - even in Iran and North Korea - my colleagues have been on the frontline, eyewitness to events making headlines around the globe. In Libya this weekend, we've been forced to rely on others' eyewitness accounts. The geography of the country - much of it is barren desert - means it's simply not practical for us to enter Libya "under-cover". Add to that, the ruthlessness of the Libyan authorities, and the scale of violence, and you'll understand why - just a week after covering Egypt's own convulsions - Jon Leyne is reporting developments from Cairo.

When violence was last visited on Tripoli and Benghazi, the BBC was there to witness events. Famously, Norman Tebbit condemned Kate Adie's reporting of the US airstrikes on Libya on April 1986. Twenty five years later, the protests - and the authorities' response - are taking place with no international reporters present.

The BBC and other news organisations are relying on those on the ground to tell us what's happening. Their phone accounts - often accompanied by the sound or gunfire and mortars - are vivid. However, inevitably, it means we cannot independently verify the accounts coming out of Libya. That's why we don't present such accounts as "fact" - they are "claims" or "allegations".

Similarly, the flow of video - the so-called "user-generated-content" - has dwindled to a trickle as the authorities have periodically turned off the Internet. That means we have an additional responsibility - to be clear with our audiences not just what little we do know, but perhaps more significantly, what we don't.

Critics of the BBC's coverage of Libya 25 years ago accused our reporting from Tripoli and Benghazi of being "riddled with inaccuracy, innuendo & imbalance". I suspect Colonel Gaddafi's supporters will make the same allegations about the international coverage of events in Libya this weekend. It wasn't true then, it isn't true now. But when we're not on the ground, we have to work twice as hard to make sure that we're telling all sides of the story.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News editor.

Brian Hanrahan

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 10:25 UK time, Monday, 20 December 2010

Brian Hanrahan's career was made by one, short, well-turned phrase - but there was so much more to the man who, for three decades, roamed the world reporting on the biggest stories of the day.

Brian Hanrahan


In 1982, as the Royal Navy Task Force sailed in the south Atlantic, Brian was stationed aboard HMS Hermes, the aircraft carrier that served as the flagship of the fleet. Then - as today - reporters covering wars are not allowed to disclose "operational details".

So the phrase for which he will always be remembered was a clever ruse to get round reporting restrictions so he could say all the British Harrier jets had returned safely. It was a classroom lesson in good reporting under pressure - and won him new-found fame.

In the early 1990s, the satirist Chris Morris wrote a spoof TV news show, first for Radio 4 as On The Hour, and then for BBC2 as The Day Today. It was most famous for its sports reporter, Steve Coogan's Alan Partridge. But the name of the economics correspondent, Peter O'Hanraha-Hanrahan was clearly an "homage" to Brian. What greater accolade could any journalist wish for?

The steady nerve Brian showed in the Falkands served him well in the intervening 28 years - he saw more than his share of history unfold. Covering Asia from Hong Kong in the 1980s, he reported on the reforms of Deng Xiaoping in China, and the assassination of Indira Gandhi in India. He moved to Moscow when Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet leader, returning to Russia last year to interview Gorbachev. In 1989 he was in Beijing when the tanks rolled in to Tiananmen Square, famously reporting on the fall of the Wall as Berlin was reunited. Earlier this year he returned to Poland - where he'd reported on the rise of Solidarity - to cover the plane crash that killed President Lech Kaczynski.

In recent years, Brian had travelled to many countries, and covered ceremonial and state events such as the anniversaries of D-Day and the funerals of Princess Diana, the Queen Mother and the Pope. He was a regular voice on Radio 4 as presenter of both The World at One and The World This Weekend.

Brian fell ill the week before the election, and on polling day I went to visit him in hospital in north London. He was preparing for a long night and was frustrated that he wouldn't be at an election count, as he had been for the previous seven. Instead, he had persuaded the nursing staff to allow him to have a radio and an earpiece, and was making a date with Radio 4.

He returned to work while undergoing treatment - while tired, he was determined to do the job he loved. Last week, he'd planned to report from RAF Cottesmore as the Harriers he'd counted out in the Falklands were counted back for the final time before being withdrawn from service. Instead, he found himself back in hospital. As Harriers landed for the final time, the crews of RAF Cottesmore recorded a get-well message to Brian.

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Brian had a special relationship with the audience - he broke through in a way few others do. They had come to trust him as a voice of calm - whether reporting on momentous events of history, or the grand state events. For more than 30 years, it was that quality above all others that distinguished Brian as one of the BBC's brightest and best. We mourn his loss.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News editor.

The Wars You Don't See

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 15:03 UK time, Friday, 10 December 2010

This weekend a new film is released around the UK. In truth, it's unlikely to trouble the big Hollywood blockbusters - but it's creating waves nevertheless.

US soldier passes by an Afghan farmer

John Pilger made his name in South East Asia covering the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia in the 70s. His is a particular type of journalism. He doesn't pretend to be impartial - he's a campaigner. In The Wars You Don't See he takes aim at the mainstream media - including the BBC. The charge is that in Iraq and Afghanistan - then and now - we beat the drums of war.

There's a lot of ancient history in the film: was the media too unquestioning of the White House and Downing Street; were we willing participants in a rush to judgement about Saddam's supposed "weapons of mass destruction". The arguments have been rehearsed many times - and are valid areas for debate.

But Pilger makes a more serious charge: that too often, the BBC and others only report conflict from the perspective of those who wage war, and not those who are, so often, the victims - the civilians. He claims that "embedding" reporters alongside the Armed Forces at best, distorts the story and worse, makes the media a mouthpiece for the military.

He's right to identify the danger - "embedding" only ever provides one piece of the jigsaw. That's why, in Baghdad and Kabul, the BBC - at some cost and risk - has bureaux that report the other bits of the story. In Iraq, Gabriel Gatehouse and Jim Muir have covered the threats to Baghdad's Christians, while in Kabul, our opinion poll this week focused on the attitudes of the people of Afghanistan - not the military.

But "embedding" does have real value. There are 9,500 British troops in Afghanistan - and more than 100,000 US service personnel. Theirs is an important perspective, and their operations an important part of the story. The security situation means, sometimes, it is only possible to travel to certain parts of the country as part of a military "embed".

Pilger's case is that the media has to toe the establishment line otherwise they don't get access. Tell that to John Simpson or to our Kabul correspondent, Paul Wood - neither of them shrinking violets. Relationships are more sophisticated than John Pilger would have us believe. UK embeds are covered by a set of agreements between the media and the Ministry of Defence: the so-called Green Book [169KB PDF] is available online for anybody to read.

A public protocol is a strange conspiracy.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News editor.

Are Foreign Correspondents Redundant?

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 10:02 UK time, Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Today the distinguished Reuters Institute at Oxford University publishes a provocative paper, Are Foreign Correspondents Redundant? [1,013KB PDF]

Aung San Suu Kyi and John Simpson

John Simpson interviewing Aung San Suu Kyi

I should declare an interest: its author used to be my boss - twice! Richard Sambrook was director of News and most recently director of Global News; as the BBC's head of newsgathering, he helped build the network of overseas bureaux and foreign correspondents it is my privilege to lead.

He suggests that economic pressures and digital technology are undermining the role of the foreign correspondent - although his argument is more nuanced than the paper's title suggests. The paper should probably be called Is The Traditional White Male Ex-pat Correspondent Working From An Office With A Satellite Link To London At Risk? In that case, the answer would unquestionably be "yes" - but the title exaggerates to makes its point.

I can tweet as well as the next man (@WilliamsJon is my personal account, since you ask). But the idea that Twitter or other social media can replace rather than complement traditional, mainstream reporting is fanciful. Actually, I'd go further and suggest it's an opportunity rather than a threat.

In a world of more "noise" from the blogs and social networks, there's a craving from the mainstream audience for a "trusted guide" to make sense of it all - they want someone to help explain what matters and what doesn't. That's why even among the "networked" followers of Twitter, hundreds of thousands of people subscribe to the BBC's breaking news feed (@BBCBreaking) and thousands more follow the likes of Robert Peston, Rory Cellan-Jones and Laura Kuenssberg.

And just because someone random says - or tweets - something, it doesn't mean it's true. Three weeks ago, the blogosphere and the rest of the net were awash with rumours that Aung San Suu Kyi had been released hours before she was set free. Ironically, it was perhaps the most "traditional" foreign correspondent, John Simpson, who was there to tell the world of her actual release - in the same way as he has been doing for more than 40 years.

Richard is right to suggest that the "traditional" model is changing. I'm proud we have a more diverse reporting team than ever - though we also have more to do. The latest generation of foreign correspondents is as happy behind the camera as in front of it, filming as well as reporting. And broadband access means the spare bedroom can become a TV studio when the big story breaks.

But these aren't threats to the foreign correspondent; they're a chance to renew the relationship between the eye-witness reporter and the audience. The paper concludes:

"[T]he independent witnessing of events has been the core purpose of foreign reporting from its earliest days and will remain so for the future."

Phew! The foreign correspondent may no longer be the only voice in a "networked world", but he or she can be the most trusted voice. In an ever more complex world, they are far from being redundant.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News editor.

Why we kept silent on the Chandler case

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 13:17 UK time, Sunday, 14 November 2010

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the dilemmas we sometimes face when we know things we can't tell you.

Then it was about Prince Harry being in Afghanistan. Today - on the day his brother, Prince William, went to Afghanistan - it concerns Paul and Rachel Chandler, the British couple who spent more than a year kidnapped in Somalia.

In the early hours of this morning they were finally freed by their captors and were taken to Adado and then Mogadishu, before flying on to Nairobi to be handed over to UK diplomats. Over the past 12 months, there have been a number of stories about their health and the demands by their kidnappers for a ransom.

As I write, the details of the negotiations that led to their release are unclear.

But some months ago, the family of Paul and Rachel Chandler sought what is known as a "super-injunction", prohibiting the media from reporting any developments in their case.

Lawyers for the family argued that speculation about their health, about any possible ransom and on the negotiations about their release might prolong their captivity. The injunction was designed to protect the safety of the Chandlers - and prevented us from referring even to its existence.

Such were the fears for their safety - and so dangerous is Somalia - that the injunction set out two criteria that needed to be met before we could report the couple's release; first Paul and Rachel Chandler must have left Somalia, and second, they must be in the custody of Foreign Office officials.

The family, their lawyers, and observers in Somalia feared that the couple might be freed by their original captors, and then seized by others seeking further ransom for the Chandlers' release.

The BBC and other news organisations observed the injunction issued by the High Court.

While we're not in the business of censoring the news, no story is worth a life - we accepted the argument of the family, their lawyers and the judge that to do otherwise would jeopardise the safety of Paul and Rachel Chandler.

Some other news organisations did not - which is why, for some hours, during the Chandlers' dangerous journey through Somalia to the safety of Kenya, the BBC stayed silent while pictures of the couple could be seen elsewhere.

While it wasn't a comfortable position for us, or our audience, to be in, it was the law and a restriction put in place to try to ensure the safety of the Chandlers. Had we done otherwise, we would have been in contempt of court.

At its simplest, journalism is about telling people things they don't know - so it's always difficult for us not to report a story. But sometimes there are good reasons. There is no public interest in breaking the law, simply to claim a scoop.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News editor.

BBC News coverage of San Jose mine rescue in Chile

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 14:50 UK time, Thursday, 14 October 2010

Fifty-three days ago, the news broke that 33 miners, feared dead in a mine collapse in northern Chile, were alive - trapped half a mile beneath the remote Atacama desert. Within 24 hours our correspondent Gideon Long was on site; as the rescue operation begun, we began preparing for the moment the San Jose 33 would walk free.

Yesterday, as the "Phoenix" capsule brought the trapped miners to the surface, those preparations paid off.

For 36 hours - from 2100 on Tuesday night to 0900 this morning - the BBC team at Copiapo broadcast non-stop, capturing the drama - the excitement, anticipation and emotion; the culmination of an operation that began more than a month ago.

Copiapo is remote, with little infrastructure; its climate is punishing - hot during the day and bone-chillingly cold at night. This meant we had to be self-sufficient on site with the team sleeping in tents and caravans - albeit, as pointed out in the press, with the "luxury" of a chemical toilet and "soft" toilet paper: an odd definition of "luxury"!

Tim Willcox


For the past month, the English team on the ground has worked alongside a team from BBC Mundo, the BBC's Spanish-speaking Latin-American service. We made a decision to send two Spanish-speaking presenters, Tim Willcox and Matt Frei, who were able to interview the families of the miners and Chilean officials in Spanish, and then translate simultaneously, live "on-air".

It was a huge point of difference with other broadcasters, and one that built a bond with the families in the days and weeks before the rescue.

The truth is, the preparation and the resourcing of one of the biggest stories of the year is expensive. The cost - and some of the difficult choices we now have to make about what future stories we may have to pull back from to recoup the cost - has also drawn some press comment. Making choices and prioritising is about spending the licence fee responsibly. And it seems the audience values the investment we made.

Yesterday, the BBC News channel had its third-best day ever in terms of audience numbers - eclipsed only by the key days following this May's general election: 6.8 million people followed the rescue on the News channel, more than 50% more than those who watched Sky News. The main BBC One news programmes also enjoyed significantly bigger audiences than normal. More than 8 million people read the coverage of the miners' escape on the BBC News website.

Yesterday, more than 3,000 of you e-mailed to praise the coverage - others used Twitter or our Have Your Say page to send us messages. Thank you. We don't always get it right. When we do - and when it strikes a chord - it's great to know.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News editor.

DEC Pakistan flood appeal

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 12:24 UK time, Wednesday, 4 August 2010

On Thursday, the BBC and the other UK media will broadcast an appeal by the UK Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC).

Pakistani flood survivorsThe DEC is an umbrella organisation of the 13 main UK-based charities - and at times of overseas emergencies, it swings into action.

Earlier this year, following the earthquake in Haiti, the BBC broadcast an appeal by DEC which raised more than £100m - second only to the Asian tsunami in terms of the amount of money raised.

We will broadcast another appeal on Thursday - this time for those affected by the floods in Pakistan.

The BBC is not part of DEC but has an understanding, that at times of international crisis, it will broadcast an emergency appeal provided three main tests are met:

• The disaster must be of such scale and urgency that it requires swift international humanitarian assistance
• The DEC agencies must be in a position to provide effective and swift assistance, at such scale, to justify a national appeal
• There must be reasonable grounds for concluding that a public appeal would be successful

The BBC believes that in the case of the Pakistan floods, the threshold has been met. And while the appeal is quite separate from the on-going editorial coverage of the disaster, clearly, the response is - in part - shaped by what our teams have been reporting on radio, TV and online.

Two years ago, we ran a series of promos on air, celebrating the BBC's global presence around the world.

That value has been demonstrated in recent days. The BBC is the only UK broadcaster to be based in Islamabad - a year ago, we doubled the size of the team in Pakistan, to enable us to focus on the deteriorating security situation there and in Afghanistan.

It's part of the tragedy of this story, that many of the places now so badly affected by the flood waters, are the same as those visited by Orla Guerin, Aleem Maqbool and their colleagues from the BBC Urdu Service in recent months, as they have been reporting Pakistan's insurgency.

But it's also meant that while our colleagues from the other news organisations have been scrambling to report the summer's big story, the BBC has had a head start.

Through the BBC Asian Network, we're also able to reflect and report the response among those in the UK with ties to Pakistan.

Estimates suggest around a million people in the UK can trace their heritage to Pakistan - around 1.5% of the UK population, making it the second largest Pakistani population in the World - the same reason that Pakistani President, Asif Ali Zardari, has chosen Birmingham as the place to launch the political career of his son, Bilawal, this weekend.

It's from Birmingham that the charity, Islamic Relief, is co-ordinating its appeal for Pakistan, as well as being part of the Disasters Emergency Committee.

DFID - the Department for International Development - has already pledged £10m to the relief effort. DEC and other international charities hope to raise much more in the coming days and weeks.

When others go home, the BBC team in Pakistan will remain on the ground, reporting on the relief operation, and following how the money raised is being spent.

It's a vital part of ensuring accountability - part of the BBC's core public service, and why those of you in the UK pay the licence fee.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News editor.

Media restrictions in Iraq

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 12:03 UK time, Thursday, 4 February 2010

Next month it will be seven years since British and American forces invaded Iraq. Under Saddam, the international media was subject to censorship, with minders assigned to news organisations to "monitor" their reporting. More than 250 journalists have died covering Iraq's transition to democracy since the invasion in 2003. Now, seven years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi authorities are threatening to reimpose serious restrictions on the media.

The Iraqi Communications and Media Commission was set up by the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority in 2004. Its purpose was to regulate the media in Iraq - in itself, a perfectly legitimate aspiration. But the international media, including the BBC, are concerned that new plans outlined by the Iraqi authorities owe more to a desire to control and censor the news media rather than to enshrine Iraq's constitutional right to free speech and a free press.

The Iraqi authorities want the BBC and other news organisations to disclose full lists of staff, an act we believe might endanger those who work for us. The Iraqi authorities are demanding journalists reveal their sources in response to complaints, in violation of the journalist's age-old responsibility to protect those who come to us with stories. And they want to prevent the international media from reporting stories that might incite violence or sectarianism, but have failed to clarify what constitutes "incitement" or "sectarianism".

Iraq remains a difficult place in which to operate. The political environment is tense, with a general election in Iraq just a month away, where even reporting death-tolls is viewed as controversial, and could lay the international media open to censorship.

In a conference centre in London, the Iraq war inquiry is poring over the detail of the Britain's decision to go to war. Those who prosecuted the case for war talked of freeing Iraq from intimidation. Today, there is a risk of a return to the days of Saddam-style "regulation" and censorship.

Journalists have a responsibility to be accurate and fair - we don't want, and don't ask, for special treatment. However, we do want the ability to operate freely, without fear or favour. Our audiences deserve nothing less.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News editor.

Death of British journalist in Afghanistan

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 10:42 UK time, Monday, 11 January 2010

Saturday was a grim day for all of us involved in reporting the war in Afghanistan. Since 2001, 246 British servicemen and women have died there. The death of the Sunday Mirror's Defence correspondent, Rupert Hamer, was the first of a British journalist.

Ruper HamerFigures published last week by the International News Safety Institute show that 132 journalists were killed in 35 different countries around the world in 2009 - one of the worst yearly tolls on record. Seventeen have died in Afghanistan since the start of the war in 2001.

Of course, the death of a journalist is no more significant than any other; a US marine was also killed alongside Rupert Hamer; five other marines were injured, with the Mirror's photographer, Phil Coburn.

However, the loss of Rupert Hamer serves to remind us of the dangers faced, not just by military personnel in Afghanistan, but also by those committed to telling the story of the conflict there - and the courage they display in doing so.

In Helmand, the journalists "embedded" with British and American troops share every aspect of life with those they are reporting on - the same accommodation, vehicles, food... and risk.

Rupert Hamer and the US marine were killed when a roadside bomb struck their vehicle. Two weeks ago, a Canadian reporter, Michelle Lang, was also killed with four Canadian soldiers in the neighbouring province of Kandahar - their vehicle was blown up by another "improvised explosive device".

The IED, the weapon of choice for those fighting Nato forces in Afghanistan, doesn't discriminate between soldier, civilian and journalist.

For the BBC, there is no more important story than the war there - to our audiences in the UK and around the world, particularly those in Afghanistan itself. If we, and other news organisations, are to report it accurately, then doing so from the front line is vital.

We try to manage the risk to an acceptable level - but tragically, as we have witnessed this weekend, the danger is real. For reporters in Afghanistan, there are no hiding places.

Rightly, the sacrifice of the service personnel who have lost their lives in Afghanistan is well recognised and respected. But the courage and commitment of the journalists who tell their story is every bit as great as the risk they endure. Without them, readers, listeners and viewers would be the poorer.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News Editor.

Reporting in Kabul

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 10:40 UK time, Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The attacks in Kabul this morning on the Serena Hotel and a guesthouse used by the UN underscores the dangers facing journalists in Afghanistan.

Earlier this month, David Rohde of the New York Times wrote about his experiences during the seven months and 10 days he was kidnapped by the Taliban before he escaped earlier this year.

His colleague, Sultan Munadi was not so fortunate: he was killed during a mission to free the British reporter Stephen Farrell last month.

Guesthouse on fire, KabulThis morning's attacks give people like me pause for thought. The BBC is the only British broadcaster to have a permanent bureau in Kabul.

We were there during the Taliban's rule in Afghanistan, and remained throughout the US led assault on the country in 2001.

It would be so much easier to simply report that troubled country from behind the wire of the British base at Camp Bastion or position ourselves alongside the Canadian media pool at the ISAF base in Kandahar.

But we have a responsibility to tell all sides of the story - not simply report Afghanistan as it looks from inside the perimeter of an army base.

That we're able to do so is a tribute to the bravery of my colleagues in Kabul - not just those you read online or see and hear on air such as Ian Pannell and Martin Patience, but those behind the scenes who help them tell the story. The risks as we have seen this morning are all too real.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News Editor.

A tribute to Brian Barron by his daughter

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 10:12 UK time, Thursday, 24 September 2009

I wanted to thank so many of you for your kind comments following Brian Barron's death a week ago - and to share this from Brian's daughter Fleur.
By Fleur Barron

"My dad's stories were excellent bed-time fodder for a five-year-old with an over-active imagination. Growing up, my favourites were his entertaining stories about his time in Kenya, which always had a comic flair and hint of the absurd.

I remember one account that never failed to send me into gales of laughter - the story of the farting elephant. Dad would recount his interview with a famous Italian sculptor, who was making a plaster-cast of an anesthetised elephant. Miming the action with exaggerated gestures, dad demonstrated how the sculptor had lifted the elephant's tail to pat the plaster down over its rear, when it emitted a loud raspberry that propelled the unfortunate man several meters through the air. For me, the best parts of the story were always dad's raucous sound effects and giant leap backwards at the climax.

As I got older, I continued to live vicariously through my dad's accounts of his adventures and exploits on the job - I often asked if I could accompany him, offering my services (free of charge, naturally) as the boom-holder for the mic. Occasionally, if the assignment wasn't too dangerous and my mum was able to accompany us, I was invited to come along. Once it was to North Korea as he investigated reports of famine in a totalitarian state closed to the outside world.

Watching him in action, I think I always saw him as a modern 007 - he had the cool, the composure, the authority, and the taste for dapper suits. Armani, of course. But beyond this, I was also struck by his gritty determination and professionalism - he never reneged on a commitment, and he was incredibly resourceful in finding a way to make his angle work, no matter what.

In high school and university, when I had my own research assignments on some of the grislier events and topics he had covered in his career, like the Vietnam War or the genocide in Rwanda, I used to push him to reveal details of what he had seen and experienced in these places. He rarely indulged me, saying he didn't want to discuss things he had so effectively compartmentalised years ago. For a while, I never understood why he chose to continuously put himself in situations that would strain the emotional and mental limits of most people. But gradually, I realised that his passion for this kind of work lay in his gift of clarity and awareness in crisis situations, and above all, his desire to discover and reveal the underlying truth of a matter to a mass audience.

At the end of the day, what I admire most about my dad was his essential optimism and joie de vivre. People who knew him well would be surprised if a long day's work was finished without a vintage wine and a good meal. At home in New York, there was nothing better he liked to do than to stroll through Central Park - en famille - to the local movie theatre or take a brisk walk down Broadway to catch the latest opera instalment at the Met. Dad certainly knew what it meant to enjoy life and although his own has been cut short, he has lived more fully and wholeheartedly than anyone I know."

Remembering Brian Barron

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 14:08 UK time, Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Brian Barron was the quintessential foreign correspondent - suave, impossibly handsome and brave.

Long before satellite technology made it routine, he took BBC audiences to far away places, and explained the biggest stories of our times - first on radio, then television.

He was comfortable and composed in the most dangerous places - covering wars across five decades, from Aden in 1967 to Iraq in 2003.

Brian BArron

Brian joined the BBC External Service - the World Service - as a producer in 1965. He had made his name in newspapers in the West of England.

Two years later, he became the BBC's Aden correspondent, reporting the end of over 130 years of imperial control.

Of the half-dozen or so end-of-empire sagas that he witnessed, he later described it as the saddest, and most abject.

After Aden came Cairo, and then his appointment as South East Asia correspondent, where he would make his name, reporting nightly on the twists and turns of the Vietnam War.

In 1975, he watched with his friend and long-time cameraman, Eric Thirer as the last helicopter left the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon and was there as the North Vietnamese claimed victory - ignoring the BBC's order to leave.

Brian delighted in telling the story of how he'd known the end was near when plaster began falling off the ceiling of the broadcasting studio at Saigon Radio.

Brian had gone there to talk to London because there were no reliable phone lines. As the building shook, the microphone suspended from the ceiling swung above his head - a renegade squadron of strike planes, which had defected to the communist North, was bombing the presidential palace just up the road.

It was at that moment that the BBC Governors in London decided he should evacuate - the order to board the nearest helicopter crackled through the earphones in the dust-filled studio. He ignored the instruction - as Brian put it "what foreign correspondent would walk away from his biggest story yet?"

Other big stories were to follow. In the seventies, he reported from Africa on the fall of Idi Amin in Uganda - later scooping the world, by tracking down the former dictator to a secret hideout in Saudi Arabia.

He saw the overthrow of Emperor Bokassa in the Central African Republic and covered the end of the war in Rhodesia. For a brief time, he returned to the UK and worked in Belfast as Ireland correspondent at the height of the Troubles. But he was soon back where he felt most at home - on the road, as a foreign correspondent. In the eighties, he covered the Falklands War from Chile, and then helped lead the BBC's coverage of the first Gulf War in 1991.

More than a decade later - even after his official retirement from the BBC - he went back for the Iraq War of 2003, based in the Gulf. It was Brian, who, on the opening night of the war, reported from the deck of the USS Mobile on the first missile fired by US Forces against Saddam Hussein.

Brian Barron served as the BBC's man in some of the world's greatest cities - Cairo, Hong Kong, Washington, New York, and Rome. Along the way, he was the RTS Reporter of the Year and won the International Reporting Prize for his coverage of Latin America.

In 2000, Brian retired to New York, the place that had become his home but he remained as hungry for the story as ever. Two years ago, in what would be his final report for the BBC, Brian returned to Aden, 40 years after Britain's ignominious retreat.

He told the story of how he had watched as the Union Flag was lowered, as a British Military Band played "Things Ain't What They Used to Be". It was vintage Brian - funny, poignant, but with a message.

Brian was part of the greatest generation of BBC reporters and cameramen - a brave bunch who roamed the world and covered the most important stories of the time. Not for them the ease of satellite or digital technology - instead, they'd wait hours, sometimes days, to even place a phone call. But the story still got through.

Brian Barron was among the greatest of that great generation. He died this morning aged 69 - his wife and daughter were at his bedside.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News Editor.

Resuming operations in Zimbabwe

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 17:04 UK time, Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Ten days ago, I made a journey I thought I might never make - to Harare, Zimbabwe.

BBC News logoEight years ago, we had a disagreement with the then Information Minister, Jonathan Moyo; ever since, the BBC has operated undercover in Zimbabwe.

But five months after President Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai formed an inclusive government, this week, for the first time since July 2001, BBC News is back in Zimbabwe - openly and legally.

Reporting undercover takes great courage and commitment. It's produced some memorable journalism in recent years from John Simpson and many other colleagues.

However, it is no substitute for being able to operate transparently. Inevitably, part of the story becomes how our teams are trying to avoid being found and arrested, rather than focusing on the people of Zimbabwe.

Operating illegally and clandestinely has to be a last resort. So I'm pleased that we've been assured by the Zimbabwe government that the BBC is not banned, and that we can resume our operations in Zimbabwe.

This week Andrew Harding became the first BBC correspondent to enter the country on an authorised assignment since 2001.

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He's there to report on Zimbabwe's national "healing process".

There's clearly a lot of "healing "to do - not least between the BBC and the Zimbabwe government, as well as between the different factions in Zimbabwe itself.

In time, I hope we may be able to open a bureau in Harare, and we can report from Zimbabwe as we do from most other places around the world.

For now, we're pleased at being able to operate openly in Zimbabwe once again - our presence there this week, is a welcome, constructive, and important first step.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News Editor.

Reporting restrictions in Iran

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 13:15 UK time, Thursday, 18 June 2009

Sometimes, it's the absurd that tells the real story. A cartoon by Peter Brookes in The Times today pictures Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei standing on a chair, afraid of a mouse - not a rodent, but the computer kind! It brought to mind Peter Ustinov's bon mot, "comedy is simply a funny way of being serious".

Earlier this week, the BBC and other international news organisations were banned from attending what Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance called "unauthorised gatherings".

Iranians taking part in a rally supporting Iranian opposition leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, in Tehran

Essentially, it means that we're supposed to only operate from our bureau and not to report from the streets. It was a disappointing development and one that means that we're now operating under formal "reporting restrictions".

While John Simpson and Jon Leyne are prevented from travelling to opposition rallies, and must seek permission to attend something like Friday prayers, there are no "minders" sitting on their shoulder with a red pen, deciding what they can and cannot say.

Such restrictions only have limited impact. Two thirds of Iranians are under 30, "tweeting" and "blogging" are second nature to them. While we've used Twitter for information on previous stories, such as the Hudson plane crash, it's the protest in Iran that has seen it become mainstream, providing real-time commentary on events in Tehran and elsewhere - events which we're banned from attending, but which we can follow "online".

Farsi is now the second most popular language on the web - members of the new generation in Iran are "wired" in a way their parents, who lived through the Iranian Revolution 30 years ago, could never have imagined. So while the authorities in Tehran are trying to limit just how much we can see and hear, technology opens a window on what's going on.

My colleague Steve Herrmann has written previously of the importance of verifying what we get from social media and of content supplied direct to the BBC by viewers, listeners and readers. At one stage earlier this week, BBC Persian was getting five pieces of video every minute; the challenge of authenticating what we receive is immense, but the value is even greater.

It's why the Ayatollah is probably right to be afraid of that mouse!

Jon Williams is the BBC World News Editor.

Iran to release Roxana Saberi

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 15:06 UK time, Monday, 11 May 2009

In recent weeks I've written about the plight of our former colleague Roxana Saberi. Last month, Roxana - an American born Iranian freelance journalist - was sentenced to an eight-year prison term, convicted of espionage. This morning, as you may have read, the appeals court in Tehran freed Roxana, reducing her sentence to a two-year suspended term.

Roxana, her family and friends have been through much in recent weeks. They protested her innocence. The result of her appeal is a huge relief for them - and for us. Roxana's case highlights the perils journalists face in many parts of the world. I'm delighted she's been set free and will be reunited with her family.

Roxana Saberi's court conviction

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 15:02 UK time, Monday, 20 April 2009

Many of you will have read the coverage of Roxana Saberi's conviction by a court in Tehran. The BBC and the other international news organisations are extremely concerned at the severe sentence. The Iranian judiciary has now ordered what's been termed a "quick and fair" appeal.

Roxana was tried in secret and no evidence of espionage has been made public. President Ahmadinejad has urged the judiciary to ensure Roxana be allowed to offer a full defence during her appeal. We hope that appeal is successful.

Serious situation

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 12:10 UK time, Tuesday, 14 April 2009

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the situation of Roxana Saberi, a former colleague who had been arrested in Iran. Roxana, an American citizen whose father is Iranian, has reported from Tehran for the BBC, as well as US broadcasters.

Roxana SaberiLast week we learned she had been charged with espionage. This morning, we've reported that she has been put on trial in Tehran, accused of spying for the United States.

Roxana's situation is serious - last November Iran executed an Iranian businessman convicted of spying for Israel. Given the circumstances, it is not appropriate for us to comment further - however, Roxana's case is the source of much interest elsewhere, including a thoughtful and timely column in the Wall St Journal today.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News Editor.

Ex-BBC journalist arrested in Iran

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 08:47 UK time, Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Two weeks ago, we learned that a former colleague had been arrested in Iran. Roxana Saberi, an American citizen, whose father is Iranian, has reported from Tehran for the BBC as well as the US public broadcaster NPR and ABC. She was detained at the end of January - but there is much that remains unclear about the circumstances of Roxana's arrest.

Roxana SaberiRoxana, 31, has lived in Iran for the past six years. Before her arrest she was studying for a master's degree in Iranian studies and international relations, and was writing a book about Iran. Last night the BBC joined other international broadcasters in calling for the Iranian authorities to detail the specific charges against Roxana Saberi if no charges are filed, we believe she should be released and given permission to return to the United States.

Roxana has many friends and colleagues around the world - all of us are deeply concerned about her well-being.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News Editor.

Covering Gaza

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 11:45 UK time, Thursday, 15 January 2009

Three weeks after Israel's military operations began, the BBC along with other international broadcasters is still being prevented from sending independent reporters into Gaza.

For 20 days, my colleagues Rushdi Abualouf and Hamada Abuqammar have dodged bullets and missiles to report on the situation in the city. This morning one finds himself pinned down in his home, caught in the cross-fire between Hamas and the Israeli Defence Force - the other is unable to return to his home because of IDF operations en-route. Meanwhile their friends from our Jerusalem bureau can only watch from a hill in Israel as smoke rises above Gaza.

True, the BBC did manage a short trip into Gaza last week; a BBC cameraman was taken in to Northern Gaza by the IDF to witness their operations. Embedding with the military is a useful piece of the jigsaw - whether in Gaza, Afghanistan or Iraq - but it is not substitute for independent, eyewitness reporting.

That is why the BBC has kept bureaux in Baghdad and Kabul to ensure that we can report the story outside the military bubble in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is why the bureau in Baghdad has never been inside the protected international or "green" zone. It is why journalists from the BBC and other organisations need to be given access to Gaza.

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No-one makes the case better than the Israeli Prime Minister's spokesman, Mark Regev. On "Today" this morning, he said he thought allowing international journalists into Gaza would allow a "balanced picture" of what's going on to be reported, and that whenever international journalists went into Gaza it was "good" for Israel. It's certainly good for our audiences.

However, the Israelis say the situation is too dangerous for them to allow international journalists access to Gaza - they claim to do so would put the Israeli staff needed to process them at risk of attack. In the meantime, independent reporting is just one of the many casualties of the conflict in Gaza.

• Your comments on the BBC's reporting are welcome below; for general comments about the Middle East and its politics, please use this Have Your Say discussion.

Jon Williams is the BBC's world news editor.


Jon Williams Jon Williams | 12:35 UK time, Friday, 14 November 2008

There are few places in the world where the BBC is not welcome. While, officially, we're still banned in Zimbabwe, a number of brave colleagues have spent the past year working there undercover to report that country's political and economic turmoil. In the spring, we were prevented from reporting in both Tibet and Burma, with BBC reporters hunted down by the authorities. Today, there is a new place that is off-limits - Gaza.

Erez crossing, GazaAt the best of times, reporting from that narrow strip of land is challenging - and these are not the best of times. Since my colleague Alan Johnston was kidnapped in Gaza in March 2007 (he was released after 114 days) his replacement, Aleem Maqbool, has been based in Ramallah. But for the past 18 months be has made regular trips to Gaza. Not this week. For the past six days, the BBC and other media organisations have been turned back by the Israeli authorities at the Erez crossing. We're in good company. The heads of a number of EU diplomatic missions have also been refused entry. No explanation has been given, despite repeated requests.

The security situation in the area is serious. Since 4 November, the Israeli authorities say more than 60 Kassam rockets and 20 mortar bombs have been fired from Gaza at Israel. Earlier this week, four members of the Palestinian militant group, Hamas, were killed in clashes with Israeli troops - the Israelis say the Palestinians were seen trying to plant explosives. But in order to tell the story for our audiences in the UK and around the world, the BBC needs access to Gaza.

In the past, the Israeli government has accused the media of being manipulated by Hamas - on one occasion, claiming that images of children holding candles were actually taken in broad daylight, in a room darkened by drawn curtains.

The best way we can report the facts - whether in Gaza, or elsewhere - is first hand, using our own BBC reporters. In order to do so, the Israeli government needs to facilitate access to Gaza. I hope they will soon do so.

Separating fact from fiction

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 16:54 UK time, Friday, 15 August 2008

Over the past week, two battles have been fought on the borders of Georgia and South Ossetia; a military campaign, and a fight for the airwaves. In both, the BBC has found itself in the middle.

President SaakashviliLast week, a BBC team was filming near the Georgian town of Gori when a Russian fighter jet opened fire on them. My colleagues were lucky - others have been less so. Five news staff - four journalists and a driver - have been killed since the fighting erupted. Others have been threatened and robbed at gunpoint by paramilitaries. War is a dangerous business.

The battle for public opinion has been just as intense. In the early hours of Tuesday morning, viewers to BBC World News - including those up late in the UK - were treated to the extraordinary sight of my colleague Nik Gowing conducting a live interview with Georgian President Saakashvili in his war room during World News America.

The President, "Dad's-Army" style, used a pen to point to a map detailing the latest Russian advance - and this at 3am in the morning in Tbilisi! It's one of around half a dozen interviews President Saakashvili has done with the BBC in the past seven days.

Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei LavrovFor the BBC to have access to someone so influential, as a key moment, is of course vital to our storytelling. But that level of access also carries with it an inherent danger. We need to ensure balanced coverage. Fortunately, during the past week, the BBC has had interviews with the Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, the deputy Prime Minister, Mr Ivanov and yesterday, viewers to BBC One were treated to a live interview with a Russian General speaking fluent English, sitting in our studio in Moscow. Another first.

But war, is not only dangerous, it's also dirty. Separating fact from fiction is hard - but it's vital. On 10 August, Russia's English language news channel Russia Today, reported that the death toll in South Ossetia had reached 2,000. While the BBC has Matthew Collin permanently based in Tbilisi - and we were quickly able to reinforce him with colleagues from Moscow and London - getting access to South Ossetia has proved more difficult.

Yesterday colleagues from Danish and Canadian broadcasters were robbed close to the border. It's not been safe enough to travel from Tbilisi to the town of Tskhinvali in South Ossetia, the scene, say the Russians of destructuction at the hands of the Georgians. Not until Wednesday - six days after the first shots were fired - was a BBC team able to get in to see what had happened for themselves, and then only in the company of Russian officials. It's clear there's been great suffering in both Georgia and South Ossetia, but it's proved impossible for us to verify that figure of 2,000 dead.

And for people, like journalists, who deal in facts, that means war is dangerous, dirty...and frustrating.

Terrible price

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 10:50 UK time, Monday, 9 June 2008

This weekend, colleagues on two continents paid a terrible price for telling stories they wanted the world to know about.

Nasteh Dahir FaraahIn Somalia on Saturday, Nasteh Dahir Faraah was shot dead in the southern port city of Kismayu. Dahir was 28 and a freelance journalist working for the Associated Press and the BBC Somali service.

Yesterday, we got the shocking news that Abdul Samad Rohani had been murdered in Helmand province in Afghanistan. For the past couple of years Rohani had been our fixer in Helmand, working with Kabul correspondent Alastair Leithead and reporting for the BBC Pashto service. His bravery had allowed us to tell a key story for audiences in the UK, in Afghanistan and around the world.

Abdul Samad RohaniRohani was just 25 years old; he was married with two children. He was found with his hands tied behind his back - he'd been shot in the head. Early this morning he was buried at the family cemetery in his home district of Marja, near the provincial capital Lashkar Gar.

Of course, yesterday, there was further grim news from Afghanistan. Three soldiers from the 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment were killed in a suicide attack in Helmand, bringing to 100 the number of British servicemen and women killed since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Each death is a tragedy - today we're experiencing some of the pain 100 families have been through in the last six and a half years in Afghanistan.

Around the world, every day, journalists risk their lives to help us understand the world and what's going on a little better. Last year, the International News Safety Institute reported that two journalists had been killed every week over the past ten years - a thousand media workers lost their lives between 1996 and 2006. But even by that grim standard, two in a weekend is hard to bear.

It's a terrible reminder of the dangers we face. But it's vital that stories like those in Afghanistan and Somalia are told to a wider audience. It's thanks to the courage and sacrifice of people like Rohani and Nasteh that we're able to do so.

The King and I

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 09:22 UK time, Monday, 2 June 2008

Much has been written in recent weeks of the difficulties the BBC has in reporting from places like Zimbabwe and Burma - much less about the situation across the border from Rangoon in Thailand. There, strict laws called "lese majeste", govern what can (and cannot) be said about the Thai royal family.

King Bhumibol appears at Bangkok's Grand Palace on 5 Decemebr 2007The political situation in Thailand is febrile - elections last year returned the country to civilian rule after a military coup in 2006. King Bhumibol - who is revered by the Thai people - is one of the few people able to command the respect of the entire country and is above politics. But it means that campaigners from all sides often "use" the institution of the monarchy to justify their actions.

So - just as the new civilian government finds itself fighting for it survival - our correspondent in Bangkok, Jonathan Head finds himself accused of breaking the country's strict "lese majeste" rules.

The complaint has been made by an opponent of the former Prime Minister Thaksin, prompting comment in the Thai press. The suggestion is that Jonathan's reporting has insulted the monarchy.

While we respect the Thai judicial process, the allegations made against Jonathan Head are completely unfounded. We understand that the police in Thailand are required to investigate all complaints of "lese majeste" and we will co-operate with that investigation. We look forward to it clearing Jonathan in due course.

Reporter deported

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 11:30 UK time, Monday, 12 May 2008

Last week I wrote about the difficulties of reporting from Burma. As you may know, since last Tuesday, my colleague Paul Danahar has been reporting from Rangoon and elsewhere, against the wishes of the Burmese authorities. His reporting on the website, the World Service and on our global TV service, BBC World News as well as for the UK based programmes has shown the true impact of Cyclone Nargis, as well as the limited response of the regime. But it's a story the generals who rule the country would rather you didn't know about.

A family stand outside their damaged house in the Irrawaddy Delta on 11 May 2008On Saturday, we became concerned for Paul's safety. He'd entered Burma on a tourist visa and was reporting illegally. We don't do these sorts of things lightly. However, I believe there were - and are - genuine public interest reasons for us entering Burma without permission. Yesterday, Paul was deported from Burma - less than a week after Andrew Harding was also expelled after he'd also tried to enter the country. Despite the staggering numbers of dead and injured, the Burmese authorities had diverted significant numbers of people to try and find Paul - presumably, people who otherwise could have been deployed to bolster the aid effort. Is silencing those telling the world of the catastrophe unfolding inside Burma, really more important than helping those most in need?

Paul was not alone in defying the wrath of the generals. A number of reporters are also operating inside Burma. But don't believe everything you see on television! While the BBC and most other UK broadcasters are reporting from Rangoon or the Irrawaddy delta, this weekend one news channel set foot across the Thai border, many hundreds of miles away from the areas worst hit by the cyclone, and claimed to be reporting from "inside Burma". It's not a lie - but it is misleading. Burma is a big place - "day-trippers" are allowed to go to some tourist parts of the country. But it doesn't equip those who travel there to comment on what's going on elsewhere. The truth is not always as it appears.

Banned reporters

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 11:10 UK time, Wednesday, 7 May 2008

It's the iron law of newsgathering - stories happen in the least convenient places. After two months of dodging the authorities first in China and then in Zimbabwe, we're at it again - this time in Burma. The country is one of the last "closed" nations on earth. But unlike Zimbabwe, it's not just the BBC that's banned from Burma - all foreign journalists are unwelcome there.

Residents clean up in a damaged Rangoon suburb on 4 May 2008Reporting natural disasters are difficult at any time. Our teams endure the same conditions as the people affected - operating without electricity and clean water, sometimes without shelter. Most of the time, we're able to take our own supplies into the affected area - but in Burma, our team has had to pose as tourists. So reporting the devastating aftermath of Cyclone Nargis is even more difficult than usual. Particularly when the reporter is deported on arrival.

BBC reporters are recognised all the time - most of the time, they enjoy it. Our Asia correspondent Andrew Harding arrived in Rangoon just hours after the cyclone hit on Monday morning. But after passing through immigration, an eagle-eyed policeman spotted our intrepid reporter in the baggage hall. Andrew was put on the next plane to Bangkok. Despite everything else going on in Burma, Andrew's deportation was considered sufficiently news-worthy to make the evening news in Rangoon last night.

So it is, that Paul Danahar - more used to being behind the camera as our Asia-Pacific bureau chief rather in front of the microphone - finds himself as the only British broadcaster inside the country. Paul is normally based in Beijing and has spent the past six weeks leading our coverage of the protests in Tibet, and the aftermath. During the Iraq War, he ran the operation in Baghdad, braving the coalition air strikes and the wrath of Saddam's regime. As South Asia bureau chief, he led the BBC's response to the Bam Earthquake in Iran, the Asian Tsunami and the Pakistan earthquake. So when it comes to natural disasters, he's got form. Leading the Today Programme and the BBC News at Ten - well that's a different matter!

The UN says it's still waiting for visas for its aid workers. We hope the regime may relax its restriction on western journalists. The aid agencies argue they need the coverage to generate donations to fund their relief efforts. At its best it becomes a virtuous circle. Without it, the danger is that hundreds, maybe thousands of those fortunate to survive may not do so.

Dangerous business

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 09:33 UK time, Friday, 2 May 2008

Tomorrow, 3 May, the United Nations marks World Press Freedom Day. Granted, it's not in the same league as World Aids Day, or as widely supported as flag days for Cancer Research or the hospice movement. But I hope you'll forgive me if I take the opportunity to reflect that journalism is a dangerous business - and getting more so.

In Zimbabwe in recent weeks, we've seen the dangers faced by reporters, arrested for simply trying to tell the world what's going on inside that country. And in many places, journalists face far worse. This week, the Committee to Protect Journalists - a US based campaign group - published what it calls an Impunity Index, a name-and-shame list of countries where governments have consistently failed to solve the murders of the journalists.

The war in Iraq makes Baghdad the most dangerous place on the planet for reporters. But most journalists who've died there were killed not in combat, but rather, were targeted for professional reasons and murdered. The vast majority are Iraqis - 79 deaths remain unsolved.

While Iraq tops the Impunity Index, followed by other war-torn countries such as Sierra Leone and Somalia, the most sobering statistic us that the majority of the 13 nations named are established, peacetime democracies.

This week I was in Mexico. There, reporters regularly investigate drug trafficking, organised crime and official corruption. Too many pay a heavy price. The families of seven reporters murdered in Mexico are still seeking justice. Also among those named-and-shamed are India, and its South Asian neighbours, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Protestor holds a picture of Alisher Saipov outside Kyrgyzstan's Interior MinistryI confess a personal as well as professional interest. Last October, a young journalist, Alisher Saipov, was shot dead in the city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan. The politics of Central Asia are murky and dangerous. Osh is on the border with Uzbekistan - a country where dissent about the regime of President Islom Karimov is not tolerated.

Alisher had worked for the BBC and other international news organisations - he was also the editor of an opposition Uzbek newspaper. He had just finished working on a film for Newsnight when he was gunned down as he left his office. His family and friends believe he was killed by an Uzbek gunman, hired to silence him. Alisher was 26 years old. His wife has just given birth to their first child.

Six months on, no-one has been brought to justice in Kyrgyzstan for Alisher Saipov's murder. Indeed, the investigation into his death has twice been suspended, despite assurances to the BBC by the Kyrgyz authorities that they would spare no effort in hunting his killer.

Journalists don't deserve special treatment - but the friends, families and colleagues of those who die doing their job, do deserve answers.

Between times

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 10:08 UK time, Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Two weeks ago, during our coverage of the Olympic Torch relay protests in London, the BBC broadcast a report from Beijing, suggesting there had been no coverage of the protests, in China. Like much of the coverage associated with the recent trouble in Tibet, it has provoked a lot of discussion in China and on video sites like YouTube.

While James Reynolds's report (which you can watch here) was first broadcast on Sunday 6 April at 1900 BST, the items featured on YouTube were transmitted the following day - so the video is disingenuous. However, while it is true that at the time James's report was compiled no Chinese media had reported the protests, between the item being recorded and the report being broadcast, we now understand that some Chinese media did report the protests - although not the main channel, CCTV1, featured in James's report. It was wrong of us to suggest that the Chinese authorities tried to keep news of the protests off the air. When we make a mistake, we need to apologise. I'm happy to do so.

Unblocking access

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 11:00 UK time, Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Last week, I wrote on the blog about the difficulties we were facing reporting from China. There have been two interesting developments since then. This morning, the Chinese made good on the promise by the Premier Wen Jiabao to take a group of international media to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. The bad news is they decided not to invite the BBC on the trip. We will be able to show you what they are allowed to see - cameras from the Associated Press news agency are on the trip. But it's no substitute for first-hand reporting.

Chinese soldiers disembark from a truck in Lhasa on 21 March 2008Fortunately, we now have another source of material. As you may have seen elsewhere, the Chinese authorities appear to have unblocked access to the English language section of the BBC News website. It's not clear whether this is a permanent or temporary move. What it does mean is that we now have thousands of readers inside China. Typically fewer than 100 people read stories from Chinese computers - but yesterday that figure jumped to more than 20,000. And it means that comments have been flooding in to BBC forums from all over China - many providing a different perspective on the violence and our reporting of it.

There's no doubt that many in China are annoyed at the way the western media have reported the story. A video on YouTube takes the BBC to task for captioning what appears to be an ambulance with the phrase "there is a heavy military presence in Lhasa". It was a mistake. We don't always get it right - when we get it wrong, we need to say so. On this occasion, the caption was not appropriate for the photograph. The facts are not in dispute - there is a heavy military presence in Lhasa - but we should not have captioned the photo in the way we did. However, to suggest that this is part of an orchestrated campaign is unfair. The BBC has no agenda - our job is to report all sides of the story. Which is precisely why we want to be allowed into Tibet.

Denied access

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 14:19 UK time, Tuesday, 18 March 2008

There are a handful of countries where the BBC is not welcome - but not many where our services on radio, TV and online are actively blocked.

Tibetans throwing stones at army vehicle in Lhasa, TibetFor the BBC, reporting China is a complicated affair at the best of times - and the current protests in Tibet present particular issues. Along with every other news organisation, China's internal security laws mean we can't get into the region without permission - that has been refused.

But in addition to our problems in the field, China also routinely blocks access to BBC services in most of the country. Until now, our international TV service, BBC World has been available in diplomatic compounds and in the big hotels aimed at foreign tourists.

But since the first reports of the protests emerged on Friday, even here, the BBC's reports on the trouble have been interrupted - not always terribly discreetly. Mention the Dalai Lama or trouble in Lhasa, and for a few moments the screen goes black. But getting accurate, first hand reports out of Tibet is a real problem. Without our own people on the ground, we're largely reliant on "eyewitness" accounts - we have no means of independent verification.

Fortunately, the BBC's former Beijing correspondent, James Miles, is in Lhasa and has been able to describe the situation on the ground. Now a writer for the Economist, James was reporting for the BBC when the Chinese tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square 19 years ago. It gives him an unrivalled perspective on the story.

Dalai LamaWe've also managed to obtain some video of events on the streets of Lhasa. They show some of the violence between Tibetans and ethnic Han Chinese. Among the viewers was the Dalai Lama himself. At his news conference this morning, in his exiled home of Dharamsala in India, he spoke of his concerns at seeing on the BBC the pictures of Tibetans attacking Chinese. He said he'd resign as leader of Tibet's exiles if the violence worsened.

The irony of course, is that no-one in China will see the Dalai Lama's plea for calm; in Lhasa, BBC World is still being blocked while in Beijing, the signal is interrupted every time Tibet is mentioned.

Update, 05:00PM: Earlier this afternoon, the press counsellor at the Chinese Embassy in London, Liu Weimin repeated an offer made by the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing this morning. Mr Liu said the Chinese authorities would give serious consideration to organising a foreign press trip to Lhasa so the international media could see for themselves the situation in Tibet. We'd welcome this opportunity - there is no substitute to first hand reporting. The BBC is ready and waiting.

News black-out

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 08:27 UK time, Friday, 29 February 2008

At its simplest, journalism is about telling people things they don't know. So when the Ministry of Defence approached the BBC - along with other parts of the UK media - to ask us not to tell our audiences about a possible deployment of Prince Harry to Afghanistan, it was something we thought long and hard about.

Prince HarryA news black-out is unusual, but not unique. An agreement exists between the police and the media over the reporting of kidnaps - the police have the right to request that media organisations don't report an abduction while negotiations are under way, in case it makes the release of the hostage more difficult; in return, they accept the responsibility to update the media regularly and reveal the full story, on camera, once the situation has been resolved. When lives are at risk, it's not always helpful to have things played out in the glare of publicity.

Last summer - on the day my colleague Alan Johnston was released in Gaza - the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, met editors to make the case for a voluntary agreement. He was very candid; Harry wanted a career in the Army and he needed to be able to be deployed to do what he'd been trained to do, even if it was just for a day.

After five months of discussions, using the kidnap agreement as our model, the MoD and the UK media reached an understanding; we wouldn't speculate or report on the prince's deployments to minimise the danger to him and to others. In return, we'd get access to him before, during and after his time in Afghanistan. It was a voluntary agreement - any of the organisations could have decided to leave at any time. We - and the other UK broadcasters and newspapers - were clear that we would not report his deployment.

So, for the past ten weeks, the BBC, ITV and Sky News have been filming with Prince Harry - the first time we've been up close and personal with him. We interviewed him at Clarence House in mid-December, just before he was sent to Afghanistan, we spent some time with him at the start of January when he was settling in at a remote base in Southern Helmand Province, and most recently, we filmed with him last week at a new location in Helmand Province.

In truth, the surprise is that the agreement lasted so long. We - and the other UK broadcasters - were clear that we would not report his deployment. But nor would we deceive our audiences.

On Christmas Day, when neither Prince William nor Prince Harry attended the regular service with other members of the Royal Family at Sandringham, we agreed with the Ministry of Defence that they would say that both princes were spending Christmas with their regiments - William volunteered for Christmas duty to help out his brother! It prompted some inquiries from one US TV network who had to be briefed on the story.

More recently, on Tuesday, the German newspaper Bild ran a diary story asking "where's Prince Harry?" and speculating that the gossip was that "he'd gone to war". We agreed that while the story was speculative and confined to diary pages, that we would not break the agreement we'd reached with the MoD.

Then yesterday, the Drudge Report - the online US website famous for breaking the story of Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky - put the story on its front page. The game was up. We, and the other broadcasters, agreed with the Ministry of Defence that the story was out and it would be wrong not to tell our audiences what had been going on.

We don't do this stuff lightly - there are no other "voluntary agreements" in place at the moment, there's nothing else we're not telling you. Until yesterday, only a handful of people in the BBC knew about the story - trust me, keeping secrets from other journalists is hard work! Our job normally is to make these things public, not keep them from you. But this was never just about Prince Harry's safety, it was also about the security of the soldiers serving with him. No editor wants to be responsible for increasing the risk they already face from the Taleban. Nor do I think our audiences would have thanked us for doing so.

North America editor

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 10:18 UK time, Wednesday, 7 November 2007

A year from today we’ll know who’ll be the 44th President of the United States - or at least we hope we will (hanging chads and too-close-to-call results permitting). Put the date in your diary - Tuesday November 4th 2008 is polling day. But of course, the race to the White House is already underway. The first electoral test comes just a few days into the New Year, on January 3rd, when the state of Iowa holds its caucus – a complicated and arcane affair, where party members gather in small groups and vote by a lengthy process of elimination.

Election 2008 will be the biggest story of next year (unless you’re a sports fan, in which case the Beijing Olympics might run it close). Certainly the 2008 presidential election is a key moment in the history of the United States – a moment of potentially huge change. So we’re having our reshuffle in Washington ahead of the election. We’ve appointed Justin Webb as our first North America Editor.

Justin WebbJustin’s job mirrors those of Mark Mardell in Europe and Jeremy Bowen in the Middle East. He will lead our coverage of the 2008 election and its aftermath, shaping the style and tone of our editorial agenda in America, reporting for radio, television and the website (on his brand new blog).

He’ll also have a key role reporting America back to itself. Six weeks ago we launched BBC World News America – an hour long programme broadcast on both BBC World and BBC America, reporting the World to America and America to the World.

What happens in Washington really does matter. It can change lives for better or for worse right across the globe. Justin’s appointment as North America Editor – his understanding of what makes America tick, and its place in the world – will be invaluable as we countdown to November 4th 2008.

A global commodity

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 11:32 UK time, Tuesday, 23 October 2007

A new report by the International Broadcasting Trust suggests the quality of British TV coverage of the wider world has dipped significantly over the last past two years. Its conclusion is that TV needs to raise its game. The criticism is less about daily news programmes, but more focused on factual programmes. Indeed, the report says news programmes have demonstrated imagination and an appetite for innovation – it warns “other genres – especially documentary and drama – need to be bolder and more ambitious, and seek out new ways of telling international stories”.

Yesterday – as the report was being published in London – BBC News was on both sides of the Turkish/Iraqi border reporting on the tension between Ankara and the PKK – the only UK broadcaster to have both perspectives.

We were in Beijing reporting on the selection of the Politburo and the anointing of the man likely to be China’s next president. And two years after the IBT’s last report criticised the coverage of the developing world, former Africa correspondent Fergal Keane reported on the $5m “good governance” prize awarded to the former president of Mozambique Joaquim Chissano – providing a different perspective on a continent where much of the reporting is characterised by despair and a lack of hope.

News is now a global commodity – the traditional distinction between “domestic” and “international” news is probably less than at any time in the past. The report correctly identifies the globalisation of information – the connections between the tribal areas of Pakistan and the radical Islam, the rise of China driving up costs in the world economy, the impact of human behaviour on climate change. Only by understanding what’s happening in another part of the planet, can you really make sense of what’s going on round the corner.

The BBC has a specific remit in the new Royal Charter to “bring the world to the UK” - the report recommends a more “joined-up” approach to our international coverage using the resources of the World Service and BBC World to help inform the UK audience, and build on existing links between UK communities and the wider world via its Nations and Regions output. We’re already doing some of this. Audiences with digital TV in the UK can already see BBC World at 7pm on BBC Four, and the World Service has plans to improve its multi-media operations in languages relevant to ethnic communities in the UK.

The IBT report is welcome – but read beyond the headlines. International news has a vital place in understanding what’s going on, not just in the UK but around the world.

Winning Emmys

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 15:00 UK time, Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Last week, the papers were full of the Queen clutching her Emmy - well Helen Mirren anyway. Today we've got one of our own.

Last night in New York, the BBC took first prize in the Oscars of the TV industry, winning the International Emmy in the news category for our coverage of last summer's war in Lebanon.

Smoke billowing from the rubble of a building in BeirutMore than a year after the end of the war, the ramifications of the events last summer rumble on - today, the Lebanese Parliament held its first round of voting to elect a new president (they failed to do so). At the risk of blowing our own trumpet, last night's award makes it a double - earlier in the summer, our coverage of last summer's war won the other prestigious international news award, the Prix Monte Carlo.

In fact it's a double 'double' - "Baghdad, A Doctor's Story" a Guardian Films programme commissioned for BBC Two also won the other International Emmy in the current affairs category.

I confess I'm biased - the prize for Lebanon is a richly deserved tribute to the bravery of the reporters, producers, crews and engineers who spent six weeks on both sides of the Israel/Lebanon border.

Last summer's conflict was challenging and complicated for the BBC. It was vital for our teams to get to the heart of the story, report events as they witnessed them and remain measured and impartial. Their courage allowed us to report all sides of the story. A specially-commissioned audience survey for BBC News reported that a majority believed the BBC had provided the best coverage of the conflict, with 64% trusting it and 11% distrustful.

Why do awards like this matter? In a sense, of course, they don't. The fact that audiences in the UK and around the world continue to turn to the BBC is the bigger prize - every week, 230 million people around the world get their news from the BBC.

What is significant is that last night's award was presented in New York, alongside the awards for the US domestic television market.

On Monday, the BBC is launching a new, nightly TV programme aimed at the US market - World News America will be seen across the United States on BBC America and around the globe on BBC World. Its mission is to report the world to America and America to the world. I believe having people in places like Beirut (and 41 other places), before, during and after conflicts like that of last summer allow us to do just that.

Alan Johnston freed

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 10:16 UK time, Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Calls in the middle of the night are something of an occupational hazard for a journalist. Never have I been more pleased to be woken as I was at 1.36 this morning. It was the newsdesk with a line of copy from a news agency. It read:


It was the end of a nightmare. 114 days after he was abducted, Alan is free. Over the last 16 weeks, more than 200,000 of you have signed our online petition, thousands more have added your comments to our Have Your Say website.

Alan JohnstonAs he crossed from Gaza early this morning, Alan told me how he'd drawn real support from the knowledge that so many people were showing their solidarity - how he felt a duty to get through it to show their support was not misplaced. Typical Alan.

But your support was vital in sustaining not only Alan and his family, but also his colleagues, who, for the past 16 weeks, have rallied in a show of solidarity. And not just on the BBC News website.

For 14 of his 16 weeks in captivity, Alan had access to the BBC World Service. The messages from the listeners to World Have Your Say were an enormous source of strength - particularly those from former hostages like Terry Waite, John McCarthy and Brian Keenan who recorded birthday wishes for a special edition of the programme earlier this year.

In launching the BBC's Annual Report (PDF link) yesterday, the BBC Director General Mark Thompson said that the BBC depends on people like Alan - on their courage and integrity and conviction.

Since his release, Alan has conducted a series of media interviews (listen here) in his usual calm and composed way, displaying all of these qualities in his reporting - the same qualities that will help him through the difficult days he will now face as he re-adjusts to normal life. From all of us at the BBC - to all of you who played your part in helping secure Alan's freedom - thank you.

Alan's 100th day

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 10:21 UK time, Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Exactly 100 days ago, my colleague Alan Johnston was abducted in Gaza. Today, his family, friends and colleagues across the BBC will pause for two minutes at 1415 BST - the moment he was abducted fourteen weeks ago - to think of Alan.

A5-postcardpdf203.jpgAcross Britain and around the world, Alan's friends will hold up a picture of Alan to show solidarity with him and to demand his immediate release. I invite you to join us - you can print off your own picture of Alan by clicking on this pdf link.

In the 100 days since he was kidnapped, more than 150,000 of you have signed our online petition, many thousands more have added your comments to our Have Your Say message board. I wanted to take this opportunity to thank all of you who've done so - many of the messages are incredibly moving, the show of support overwhelming.

The last three months have been a dreadful time for his family and friends – but particularly for Alan. We’ve always known Alan is special. But the last 14 weeks have shown us how special he is to many of you. Your support has buoyed us up through our darkest days - Alan's family particularly have drawn strength from your support.

The last few days have seen a number of reports from Gaza - as you'd expect we continue to follow developments very closely.

Working in Baghdad

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 12:52 UK time, Wednesday, 30 May 2007

A year ago, I wrote about the difficulties of working in Baghdad.

On 29 May 2006, our colleagues Paul Douglas and James Brolan from CBS News died when a car bomb hit the US military unit they were accompanying in the Iraqi capital. Exactly, 12 months later, the kidnap of five British nationals has given us further cause to stop and ask some hard questions about what we do in Baghdad.

baghdad_203ap.jpgThe BBC has had a permanent presence in the Iraqi capital for more than a decade - not always with a reporter (we were thrown out at some points under Saddam). But - just as in many of the world's other trouble spots - it's important that we're there, on the ground, eyewitnesses to what's going on in Baghdad, explaining the context - something we can only reflect by being there. That's why we don't base ourselves in the so-called Green Zone. Instead the BBC bureau is in the "red zone" - among those who continue to try and make a life in Baghdad.

I hope you'll understand why I won't go into too much detail about the precautions that we take, but safe to say our team there work in some of the most difficult conditions imaginable.

We have a group of people based in Baghdad - BBC employees not contractors - whose job is to worry about the security of our operation. And we don't spend all day on the roof of the bureau - most days we get out and about.

As I write, I'm watching Paul Wood on BBC World interviewing Canon Andrew White, the Anglican minister in the Iraqi capital; he's being interviewed by the famous "Saddam Swords" across the river from our bureau. The team will have passed a number of Iraqi and American checkpoints to get there, with all the risk that entails.

Every time we leave the bureau it's a major logistical operation - but it's the only way to get to the story. We keep the situation under constant review - balancing the risk, with our ability to tell the story.

We remain in Baghdad because Iraq remains the defining story of our time. At any one time, we have a team of more than a dozen based in the Iraqi capital, both Iraqi and Western nationals. It is only because of their courage - and their belief in the story - that we can continue to do so.

Free media

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 10:28 UK time, Thursday, 3 May 2007

The United Nations declared 3 May 1993 World Press Freedom Day. It's been marked on this day every year since.

3 May 2007 is Alan Johnston's 52nd day incarcerated who-knows-where. Seven weeks ago, as many of you will know, he was abducted at gunpoint in Gaza City. Neither his family nor the BBC have heard from him since.

This year the BBC celebrates 75 years of international broadcasting. For three quarters of a century, we've relied on an extraordinary group of people who remain in the world's trouble spots, when everyone else is getting out. They don't just work for the BBC of course. And World Press Freedom Day is about more than Alan Johnston. But arguably now - more than ever - Alan's plight represents the dangers facing journalists around the world.

Seventy five years after the birth of the BBC World Service, today we live in an age where there's no shortage of news - there are dozens of 24 hour news channels around the world, on radio, on TV, and online. And yet, serious, dispassionate, impartial journalism is as at a premium. At a time when there's so much noise, making sense of it all really matters.

That's what Alan Johnston was doing in Gaza. Journalists are the eyes and the ears of their audiences. That's why it matters that the BBC is still there in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's why we need to show what's going in places like Darfur. A free media can be a powerful influence. But that's precisely why, in so many places, that free media is under threat.

freealanmarch_203ap.jpgIn December 2006, the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 1738, demanding governments around the world respect the safety of those in the media. Journalists don't want - they don't deserve - special treatment. They do deserve equal treatment. Journalists shouldn't be singled out to be silenced. That's why back in Gaza, Alan's colleagues in the Palestinian Journalists' Syndicate have turned out in such numbers to demand his release. 14 foreign journalists have been kidnapped in the Gaza Strip since 2005 - so far, each of them has been released unharmed. But everyday, local journalists face harassment, intimidation, kidnap and worse.

World Press Freedom Day is an important moment to pause and reflect; a free press needs people like Alan Johnston. Without them, there will be no eyes and ears telling us what's going on - there won't be the insight from those who are able to make sense of it all. More than ever, that is why - 52 days after he was abducted - we hope for Alan's early release.

Support team

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 14:27 UK time, Monday, 30 April 2007

Alan Johnston bannerMore than 60,000 people have now signed the petition in support of Alan Johnston, our correspondent in Gaza who was abducted on 12 March. And we estimate that the Alan Johnston button has been added to at least 500 blogs, websites, intranets, MySpace pages, LiveJournal sites, Flickr profile pages etc etc.

Thank you all for your support - if you want to add your name to the petition, go to this page.

To add the code to your website, just copy and paste the code below into your blog's HTML. You could add it to an individual blog post, or, even better, to your blog's sidebar. Once again, if you do add the button to your page, you are welcome to add a comment here to let everyone know about it.

We are now reaching Alan's 50th day in captivity. Once again his colleagues have gathered to mark the moment he was seized. We released balloons to mark the event, and to signal our continued demands and hopes for his immediate release.

How you can help

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 14:45 UK time, Tuesday, 17 April 2007

protest203152.jpgAs most readers of this website will know, the BBC is very concerned for the safety of our correspondent Alan Johnston who was abducted in Gaza on 12 March.

More than 35,000 people have signed a petition calling on anyone who has any influence on the situation to increase their efforts to secure Alan's immediate release.

Alan Johnston bannerToday we are adding this button to BBC News blogs. We are inviting anyone who runs a blog or website to do the same to show support for Alan. It's a simple but, we hope, effective way of spreading the message.

To add the button to your blog, just copy and paste the code below into your blog's HTML. You could add it to an individual blog post, or, even better, to your blog's sidebar.

Using the code above, the image will link to a page on the BBC News website which has more information about Alan's situation and gives any of your blog's readers the chance to add their names to the petition.

Thank you for your help, it's much appreciated.

If you do publish this link on your blog or website, feel free to post a comment here to let us know.

Support for Alan

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 12:58 UK time, Tuesday, 27 March 2007

On Monday, Mark Thompson, BBC director general, spoke to a rally of colleagues of Alan Johnston, our reporter in Gaza who we believe has been abducted. Palestinian journalists in Gaza also staged a one-day strike in support of Alan.

rally.jpgMark said this to the rally: "Exactly two weeks, at 2:15pm on a Monday afternoon, Alan Johnston left the BBC's bureau in Gaza to go home. He said goodbye to his colleagues, got into his car, and promised to phone them when he reached his flat. He never rang. His car was found abandoned. We believe he was abducted. No one from the BBC has seen or heard from Alan since, though we're told by others that he is safe, and being looked after.

"Alan is one of those rather amazing BBC people, who make extraordinary sacrifices and take considerable risks because they believe a story needs to be told... We continue to talk to the people in the Middle East, and in the UK, to try and secure Alan's release. But two weeks after he was abducted, all of us, in London and in Gaza, want him home."

You can hear Mark Thompson's full speech here.

Missing correspondent

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 13:37 UK time, Thursday, 15 March 2007

As you might be aware, we have had no word about the whereabouts of our correspondent in Gaza, Alan Johnston.

My colleague Simon Wilson and Fayed Abu Shamala are making a statement this lunchtime in English and Arabic, thanking those who are helping us find Alan, and asking for information about his disappearance. This is what they are saying:


    "The BBC continues to be concerned about the welfare of Alan Johnston. We have had no firm information about Alan since he left our bureau in Gaza on Monday afternoon.
    This is a difficult time for Alan’s friends and colleagues within the BBC – and especially for Alan’s family. They are being kept fully updated and have been very moved by the expressions of support for Alan that have come in from Gaza, the Middle East and around the world.
    We would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone in Gaza for the help they have been able to offer us so far in trying to resolve the situation. In particular, I would like to thank the offices of President Abbas and of Prime Minister Haniyeh for their assistance at what has obviously been a busy time for them.
    Alan Johnston has dedicated the past three years to living and working among the people of Gaza so that their experiences can be reported fairly and accurately to the outside world.
    It is clear from the messages we have had that these efforts are valued enormously here in Gaza.
    We would therefore urge everyone with influence here to continue their efforts so that Alan may be reunited with his family and colleagues at the earliest opportunity."

Is the BBC 'racist'?

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 15:29 UK time, Tuesday, 20 February 2007

The ANC - South Africa's ruling party - has accused the BBC of being racist for reporting the country's crime problem (more details here).

The truth, as ever, is a touch more complicated. Its online weekly newsletter has criticised a report by World Affairs Editor John Simpson, which ran on the eve of President Thabo Mbeki's "State of the Union" address. Curiously the article says we didn't mention urban renewal or real estate investment, instead choosing to focus on the country's 50 murders a day.

It's true.

But a few months ago, following the World Cup in Germany, Africa Correspondent Orla Guerin reported on the economic growth taking place ahead of the 2010 tournament, to be held in South Africa. Her colleague Peter Biles recently reported on Johannesburg's inner-city regeneration for "Africa Works" for the BBC World Service - the clue is in the title; it was a landmark series reflecting the successes of the continent.

John Simpson and his team spent five days gathering material in Johannesburg and Soweto. In the opening lines of his report, John Simpson made clear that the modern South Africa is a thriving optimistic society; he used the findings of opinion polls which suggest that despite the high levels of crime and AIDS, there's optimism that the problems can be solved; he filmed at a Soweto school where pupils are ambitious and optimistic, despite the problems they face. The opening lines of his piece say that some of the gleaming skyscrapers in downtown Johannesburg were empty. The green glass Garden Court Hotel which appears on screen when the line is delivered, is empty; so too is the Carlton Hotel, which an official web-site describes as 'mothballed' waiting re-development.

We wanted to put some of the points to the government - we asked for the opportunity to do so. Unfortunately, no-one was made available for interview.

The ANC newsletter says the SABC - South Africa's national broadcaster - "would have absolutely no problem" focusing on the particular areas of London where crime is a big issue. Nor would the BBC. Indeed in the last week, we've broadcast a number of pieces on gun-crime in South London and beyond. But there's no question that crime is a real issue in South Africa. John Simpson's report touched a raw nerve - but to liken the BBC's report to "the most die-hard racists in the country" is absurd.

We're proud to be part of the modern South Africa - our bureau chief in Johannesburg was brought up in Soweto, and is South African himself. In the United States, on the eve of the President's address to Congress, we explored the State of the Union - similarly in the UK at the State Opening of Parliament. It is surely right that we subject South Africa to the same sort of scrutiny as we do Britain and the United States. It's not racism - but the sign of a modern, vibrant, successful democracy.

Judge for yourself by clicking here.

What is a civil war?

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 12:26 UK time, Wednesday, 29 November 2006

When does sectarian violence in Iraq turn into a civil war? It’s an issue we – and others – have been wrestling with for some time. This week, the US TV network NBC became the latest news organisation to describe the fighting there in such terms.

No-one who’s watched, listened to or read the accounts of BBC correspondents Andrew North, Hugh Sykes, David Loyn and others in recent weeks, could be in any doubt about the level of violence seen in Baghdad and beyond.

NBC is hardly alone in characterising what’s going on in Iraq in such terms – as early as April, Iraq’s former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi described it as a civil war; six weeks ago, one of the most respected US commentators, Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria, said he too was in no doubt that Iraq was in a civil war. The murder of more than 200 people when Sunni Muslim insurgents blew up five car bombs and fired mortars into Baghdad's largest Shiite district last Thursday, suggests they might be right.

Harvard professor Monica Toft suggests there are six objective criteria all modern civil wars share:

  • the struggle for power over which group governs the country;
  • at least two organised, armed, groups of combatants;
  • that the “state” is formally involved in the fighting;
  • the intensity of the conflict;
  • that the two groups are each taking significant numbers of casualties;
  • and that the fighting is within the boundaries of a single country.

She believes Iraq meets all six. But I wonder if describing it as such, really aids our understanding of what’s going on?

The fighting in Iraq defies simple categorisation. There are at least two other dimensions to the situation there. In Anbar province, the violence in places like Fallujah and Ramadi is driven by the original insurgency against the US-led occupation. Anbar is a Sunni stronghold – the targets, by and large, are not Shia Muslims, but American servicemen and women.

Further south, a third battle emerges – fighting between rival Shia militias. The two most powerful are the Badr Organization and the Mahdi Army, linked respectively to Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and Moqtada al-Sadr, the leaders of the two largest blocs in Iraq's coalition government. These militia vie with each other for power, in tit-for-tat assassinations and drive-by shootings that have become a regular feature of life in places like Basra. It’s this battle that British troops in the south of Iraq often find themselves caught up in

There is no single picture in Iraq – no single term can do justice to the complexity of what’s going on there. For now, we’ve decided not to use the term civil war – not because the situation isn’t bad, nor life for those involved increasingly difficult. Others will continue to describe it as a “civil war” – we’ll continue to report their comments with attribution. But it’s precisely because things are critical, that we need to explain and provide the context – something, one simple phrase can never do.

Election time

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 10:49 UK time, Tuesday, 7 November 2006

President Brezhnev is once reported to have said "the trouble with free elections is, you never know who is going to win". And that why they're great fun for journalists - our equivalent of a cup final.

The thing about this job is that there's an election somewhere virtually every week - and there's always drama, no matter where the polling is taking place! Last weekend it was the people of Nicaragua who were voting for a new president - today, it's the people of the United States (you see the two countries do have something in common after all).

Traffic travels down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the United States CapitolAnd when it comes to drama, the US does elections in style. Not content with the hanging chads of 2000, and the close result four years later, now various officials are biting their nails at the prospect of new electronic voting machines malfunctioning.

Compared to the UK, they do things differently in the States. The polls close at different times in different states - we may get our first clues around midnight UK time, but the polls don't close in Alaska until 6 hours later. And imagine BBC presenter David Dimbleby going on air in a British general election with the projected result while the polls are still open - but that's exactly what we'll be able to do tonight. Somewhere in New York, representatives from the American TV networks and the Associated Press will be huddled together in a windowless room, dubbed the Quarantine Room.

Determined to avoid a rerun of recent years, when its exit polls leaked out by early afternoon to the Drudge Report, Slate and other web sites, a media consortium is allowing two people from each of the networks and the AP to pore over the exit polls. BlackBerrys and mobile phones will be confiscated - and the dedicated staffers will not be allowed to communicate with their offices until 1700 EST (2200 GMT).

Tonight we'll get our information from our US sister network ABC. It's a military style operation - and true to form, we've embedded some BBC staff with our American friends. They'll be the key points of liaison for information from field producers and the Quarantine Room, as it becomes available throughout the evening. The consortium, called the National Election Pool, is conducting no surveys for House races. The exit polling will take place for Senate and gubernatorial contests in 32 states with competitive races.

It promises to be a big night - and a late one. And perish the thought: If it's tight, it could be at least Thursday before we know what's really happened. Just as well America's home of the all-night coffee store!

Citizen newsgathering

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 12:07 UK time, Friday, 20 October 2006

So just how much should we listen to you - our audience? It's a question all of us involved in the media are pondering right now.

Just a few years ago, audience involvement was restricted to letters of complaint, requests for record on the radio - and of course the staple of radio, the phone-in. Now technology means feedback is instant - via text, email and blog. A few months ago, we started to track the stories you were reading on the BBC News website - our very own polling of "hits" and "misses". And my colleagues in TV have previously written about "The Pulse" - instant audience feedback about the stories we carry on the Six and Ten O'Clock News on BBC One.

So we know what some of you think about what we do - good and bad. But how big a role should that play in the decisions we make?

I was the home news editor on July 7th last year. We recieved 20,000 emails, more than 1,000 mobile phone pictures and dozens of bits of video; it was your phone-calls that alerted us to what was going on when the authorities weren't quite sure what to make of the "power-outage" on the underground. It transformed our coverage - and our view of the role you can play in our output.

Now, whenever there's a story, our readers, viewers and listeners send in pictures from the scene - whether it's the explosion at the Buncefield oil terminal, or the attacks on trains in Mumbai in India. For news - as news editor - it's a magnificent resource to draw on. It's not often we're on the scene when something is happening - our cameras usually get there after the event; we film the aftermath. Very often, you are in the thick of it.

It's been called citizen journalism - I prefer to think of it as citizen newsgathering.

It's an important distinction - and one that goes to the heart of the debate. It's vital our stories engage with the audience - but we need to be careful our running orders don't become a 'Top of the Pops' of news (look what happened to that!).

Yesterday more than 400,000 of you read our story about a shot of a walrus feeding on clams on the sea floor winning a photography prize. It was the second most read story of the day - but it doesn't mean we should run it in on the 10 O'Clock News. What all this information gives us are pieces of the jigsaw - whether it's The Pulse, the live stats from the News website or the stories that engage the listeners to the Radio Five Live phone-in. All should inform our decision making about the stories we do - but we must also do the stories that are significant but which may not be particularly exciting.

Today, the 25 heads of state and government from the European Union are meeting in Finland - top of the agenda are new ways to make energy supplies more secure, relying less on climate-changing fossil fuels. The story matters - and today we'll report from Siberia and here in the UK, as well as from Finland in an attempt to tell you why. I could be wrong - but I'm not sure it'll be the hot topic of debate among Newsbeat's audience on Radio One, or the most read story on the News website (at the time of writing it was the 9th most popular in Europe and doesn't appear in the worldwide top 10). But it doesn't mean we shouldn't do it. We should - we must.

The challenge is to to do it in a way that means something to you. Let me know if we succeed - that's the best audience involvement.

Beyond reach

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 16:25 UK time, Monday, 9 October 2006

There are 193 countries in the World, not including Taiwan. The BBC is excluded from just a handful. So the news that the big story of the day is happening beyond our reach is problematic.

The North Koreans dropped a hint about their intentions last week, so the overnight news that they had tested their first nuclear device didn't exactly come as a surprise. That said, when my phone buzzed with the text alert at 0410 this morning, it wasn't the best start to the day. How do you report a story with no pictures, from a place you can't get to?

I suppose we're in a better position than many others. We've had a bureau in South Korea for a number of years. Our correspondent in Seoul, Charles Scanlon, is an acknowledged expert on the region. But for Charles - and my colleagues charged with reporting the story from London - trying to find out just what's happening can be a frustrating business.

Reporting reaction is the easy bit. From the Foreign Office, the Kremlin and the White House, there's been no shortage of comment. Most of the time, we deal with primary sources, someone involved in the story. But with a story like this, we're forced to rely on others' intelligence: information gleaned from charities and other NGOs such as the World Food Programme.

And facts are only part of the problem. Add to that, the fact of the lack of pictures, and you begin to see some of the difficulties in reporting the big story of the day.

Thank goodness for the likes of diplomatic correspondent Bridget Kendall and her colleagues around the world - like Jonathan Beale, State Department correspondent in Washington, Rupert Wingfield Hayes in Beijing and Laura Trevelyan, spending her first day back from maternity leave at the United Nations bashing the phones.

The story is like a giant jigsaw; each of them holds a piece - a different perspective on why it matters. By putting it all together, we hope we can begin to see the whole picture, and show how the story is playing out around the world. And a story like this is also a real test of our ability to be inventive. So tonight science correspondent David Shukman will use the studio to show how North Korea managed to make and test the bomb, and explore how far it is from having a working nuclear weapon.

So a confusing story with no pictures, and no access, and yet a story that really matters. Nobody ever said journalism was easy.

Technological nirvana

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 10:35 UK time, Friday, 15 September 2006

BBC News has bureaux in 39 foreign cities - but only in one can we go anywhere, anytime and broadcast live for radio and television using the web.

So where is this technological nirvana - Tokyo, Los Angeles, Brussels?

A news report is broadcast from Afghanistan, using a wireless networkThe answer might surprise you - it's Kabul. The city is one of the first in the world to be a giant wireless zone. Using "wi-max" and a trusty laptop, correspondent Alastair Leithead can broadcast from pretty much anywhere in Kabul - and all at a fraction of the cost of traditional satellite links.

Using a small black box on the roof of the car, the team in Kabul can pick up a 512k broadband signal right across the Afghan capital - and all powered from the cigarette lighter in the car. Gone are the days when we had to fly out staff and equipment from London to make this stuff happen.

Why does it matter?

Because Afghanistan is now rivalling Iraq as one of our biggest stories. Thirty British servicemen and women have been killed there since June. The BBC is the only international broadcaster to have a permanent presence in Kabul - and by harnessing the latest technology, it means that money we used to spend delivering the news from remote places in the world can now be spent on gathering the news. And that has to be good news.

Cuban coverage

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 12:16 UK time, Monday, 7 August 2006

Up on the seventh floor of BBC Television Centre sits a small, but perfectly formed, group of people who spend their lives killing people off. They're expert in what they do.

But don't panic - they don't do anything illegal. All of their subjects are, at the time of writing, alive (if not all them, kicking). They're the obits unit - the people who make sure that when Joe or Jo Bloggs dies, we've got the pictures and the soundbites to reflect their life, be they a film star, a sportsman or a politician.

In death, as in life, some people are more important than others - we've been planning some people's demise for years!

Fidel CastroOne of them is Fidel Castro. This week, the Cuban president should have been celebrating his eightieth birthday in grand style - but the lavish celebrations have had to be postponed as he recovers from surgery to stem internal bleeding. It's exactly this sort of scare that sends newsrooms around the world into meltdown. But with the exception of North Korea, Cuba is probably one of the most difficult places in the world to report from.

So imagine waking up to the news that President Castro has handed over power to his brother - albeit temporarily. Just how do we cover a story in a place closed to most foreign reporters?

Fortunately, the BBC is one of only two international broadcasters to have a correspondent based in Havana. But in these days of satellites and live reports from the farthest flung corners of the world, Steve Gibbs still uses the trusty telephone to file most of his reports.

The idea of "in vision", round-the-clock live reports for News 24 and BBC world is probably a dream - one American TV network is rumoured to have had a speedboat moored in Miami for many years, awaiting the president's demise!

Ahead of the president's eightieth birthday, reports from Havana suggest Fidel Castro is in a "comfortable" condition. The "plan" has been put back on the shelf, the team on the seventh floor of Television Centre has moved on, ready to "kill off" someone else; although, since one Cuban minister claims the Americans have tried to assassinate President Castro on no fewer than 600 different occasions previously, we might need to keep it somewhere close!

Jon Williams is world news editor

The red headscarf

Post categories:

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 14:51 UK time, Wednesday, 26 July 2006

I began life working for the supermarket chain Sainsbury's. Chapter 1, paragraph 1 of "How to do retail" is the idea that the customer is always right!

As maxims go, it's not a bad one - never forget the consumer has a choice. It's something that's stuck with me ever since - it's as applicable to broadcasting as it is to selling groceries. But sometimes, that belief is tested.

One of the things that's distinguished the BBC's coverage of the fighting in Lebanon has been our ability to travel the region - hearing different perspectives from our correspondents across the Middle East, whether it's from Gaza, Damascus or Tehran. Yesterday Margaret Beckett called on Syria and Iran to stop encouraging "extremism" in Lebanon and end support for Hezbollah. The BBC is the only English-language broadcaster to have a bureau in Iran - recently we built a TV studio in Tehran to allow News 24 and BBC World to report live from the city.

Frances Harrison, the BBC's correspondent in TehranSo it seemed rather uncontroversial for our correspondent in the city, Frances Harrison, to appear on BBC News 24 to report how the crisis in Lebanon was being reported in Iran, wearing a rather fetching red headscarf (you can watch the piece by clicking here). Uncontroversial until a viewer rang the BBC duty log rang to complain that wearing the scarf called into question "the objectivity of this reporter".


If you've seen those adverts for HSBC, you'll know that different countries have different customs. A bit like HSBC, the BBC operates in more than 20 different countries - and in each our staff respect those traditions. In Iran, women are required to cover their heads. It's not unusual. In Saudi Arabia women are expected to wear a larger abaya, and can be arrested by the religious police if they don't.

But it's not just about the letter of the law - it is about us respecting local sensitivities. We can only operate in other countries with the consent of the people who live there - we don't inhabit an ivory tower. It's important for the integrity of our journalism that we get out and talk to the people of Tehran - as we do in Moscow, Beijing or Washington. That means we need to respect their customs and traditions.

I'm not sure why that makes Frances or any of her colleagues elsewhere in the world any less objective - on the contrary, I suspect it gives them rather greater insight into the people and countries they report on.

And I thought she rather suited that red headscarf.

Jon Williams is world news editor

Working in a war zone

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 11:44 UK time, Tuesday, 18 July 2006

It's one of the iron laws of journalism: if everyone else is trying to get out of somewhere, you can bet there's a journalist trying to get in.

So while the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence work up a plan to evacuate the 10,000 British passport holders from Beirut, BBC staff are going the other way. With impeccable timing we opened a new bureau in Beirut on May 30th - renewing an association with the Lebanese capital after a 15 year absence. It was designed as a home for Beirut correspondent Kim Ghattas and her BBC Arabic Service colleague Nada Abdel Samad.

It's given us a head start in covering the story. One of our most experienced Middle East hands, Jim Muir, also lives in the city - in the days since the conflict escalated, he's been joined by more than two dozen colleagues who are now providing output for radio and television around the clock.

The closure of the airport in Beirut has made life difficult for those getting in, as well as those getting out. While the British are preparing for what they say will be the biggest evacuation since Dunkirk, our teams are making the hazardous journey to Beirut from the Syrian capital Damascus by road.

Things are no easier on the other side of the border; a team in Northern Israel is recording the impact of Hezbollah's rockets on the port city of Haifa. In both countries, the safety of our teams is our biggest concern. This afternoon the team in Haifa had to move to a more secure location after a sleepless night - tonight they'll have a bomb shelter to repair to if the sirens go off.

Sadly we've had all too recent experience of the dangers facing those reporting this conflict. It was in Southern Lebanon that our colleague Abed Takkoush was killed when he was struck by an artillery shell while driving with a BBC team during the pullout of the Israeli army in May 2000.

In Lebanon, in Israel - as in Iraq and Afghanistan - the teams that report the story all volunteer to do so. They travel to these dangerous places because they believe the story needs telling. I'm grateful they do so.

Jon Williams is world news editor

Gaza stories

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 12:55 UK time, Thursday, 29 June 2006

Two nights ago, Israeli forces bombed the only power station in Gaza, knocking out power to thousands of homes and offices. Anyone who's had a fuse blow knows the inconvenience when the lights go out. But factor in 35 degree temperatures, the need for air conditioning, and the loss of water pumping and communications networks, and you begin to have some idea of the difficulties facing everyone living and working in the Gaza strip.

BBC reporter Alan JohnstoneThe BBC is the only Western broadcaster to maintain a permanent presence in Gaza. It's on days like this that the expertise of people like correspondent Alan Johnston comes into its own. He and his colleagues from the BBC's Arabic Service live close to our bureau in Gaza City, enabling them to draw on the context - and contacts - gleaned from literally living the story.

It's that imperative - of eyewitness reporting - that goes to the heart of what we do. It's why we maintain a network of more than 40 bureaux around the world. So in addition to Alan in Gaza, as the crisis over Cpl Gilad Shalit deepens, we now have reporters with the Israeli military, in Jerusalem, in Ramallah - and in Syria where the Hamas military leadership is based.

But deployments - who goes where - are only part of what we've been wrestling with. As ever in reporting the Middle East, language - and the choice of words - is incredibly important. Was the soldier kidnapped or captured, were the Hamas politicians arrested or detained?

Our credibility is undermined by the careless use of words which carry value judgements. Our job is to remain objective. By doing so, I hope we allow our audiences on radio and television to make their own assessment of the story. So we try to stick to the facts - civilians are "kidnapped", Cpl Shalit was "captured"; since troops don't usually make "arrests", the politicians were "detained". Doubtless some will disagree. But that's, in essence, the heart of the story - two competing narratives.

Championing diversity

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 11:16 UK time, Thursday, 8 June 2006

The bloggers have been having great fun following BBC television's decision to appoint a Diversity Executive.

Why is it that everyone seems to think that "diversity" is just about race? Six months ago I agreed to become the diversity champion for the news division. I did it because I believe BBC News has to reflect the UK all our audiences are part of.

For me diversity is about a whole variety of things; age, views, tone of voice, class and sexuality - as well as race. It's not about box ticking, or political correctness. It is about serving the people who pay our wages - ensuring they see themselves and their life experiences reflected in our output.

The alternative is we simply report the bit we, mainly white, middle class, university educated journalists live in. That's a recipe for certain disaster. Already younger audiences watch and listen to the BBC less than they once did; young black audiences watch and listen even less. More than two thirds of UK homes now have multi-channel television; digital radio has transformed listening for millions across Britain.

At the point at which our audience think the BBC is out of touch and failing to report the stories, the issues and the people that they're interested, they've got plenty of other channels to turn to - not just for News, but for soaps, entertainment and music too. So why should they tune to the BBC? Since they pay their licence fees too, that's potentially a huge problem for us!

Back in March, Mark Thompson unveiled his vision for the BBC's Creative Future - one in which audiences are at the centre of everything we do. So the appointment of a diversity executive to look after television is common sense. This is about so much more than political correctness. The stakes couldn't be higher; it's about a BBC that remains relevant to all our audiences, ensuring its very survival in an increasingly competitive media world.

From Baghdad to Beirut

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 16:31 UK time, Tuesday, 30 May 2006

Tonight - after a gap of 15 years - the BBC is reopening its bureau in Beirut. Two decades ago, the Lebanese capital was the scene of car bombs and kidnappings - all too frequently, journalists were seen as targets. Throughout the civil war, the BBC maintained its presence in Beirut, to bring the story to audiences in the UK and around the world.

Twenty years on, the BBC is now alone among British broadcasters in staying on in Baghdad - despite the kidnappings and car bombs in the Iraqi capital.

Once again, journalists are targets. The tragic deaths of our colleagues from CBS brings to 20 the number of journalists killed in Iraq in the first five months of 2006.

Thirty years ago, Jim Muir was one of those brave hacks venturing into Beirut. Today he's one of our regulars in Baghdad. The reason is the same; a belief that the story is too important for us to turn our back on, and that we have a responsibility to our audiences to explain the context - a context we can only reflect by being there.

I'll admit to a sense of frustation sometimes, that people like Andrew North and the other colleagues who work in Baghdad, don't always get the credit they deserve for working in the most difficult conditions imaginable.

Contrary to what some in the TV industry might have you believe, they don't "cower" inside the Green Zone, chained to the roof of the bureau merely repeating copy churned out by news agencies. Every day our team in Baghdad ventures out of our fortified street on the opposite side of the river from the Green Zone - and we spend as much time talking through the logistics of doing so, as we do the editorial focus of the story.

For someone like me, the safety of our team in Baghdad (and the world's other troublespots) is the biggest single responsbility of the job. At any one time, the BBC has three security staff based in Baghdad. Their job is to enable us to get out and get the story. They do it remarkably successfully - whether it's reporting the daily toll of casualties, or the polticians' attempts to restore order in Baghdad and beyond. We keep the situation under constant review - balancing the risk of the security situation, with our ability to tell the story.

The deaths of the CBS crew, Paul Douglas and James Brolan, are a reminder of the dangers our colleagues face every day. The injury to correspondent Kimberley Dozier comes just a few months after our friend Bob Woodruff from ABC News was also badly wounded alongside his camerman, Doug Vog, both of whom are now recovering. Everyone from the BBC who goes to Baghdad is a volunteer - no-one is forced to work in Iraq. They go because they believe the story is important and needs telling to our audiences in Britain and beyond. And I'm enormously proud of them.

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