BBC BLOGS - The Editors


Matt Morris | 12:34 UK time, Monday, 29 October 2007

One of the biggest changes in the BBC over the next few years - the move to Salford - didn't get much comment when Mark Thompson announced his change plan ten days ago.

Radio Five Live logoNaturally most of the attention was focused on job losses. But for 5live, Salford is looming larger all the time. Our assumption now is that all the programmes will move - that's the way to create a more editorially cohesive and efficient radio station. With that in mind we've looked at how the news summaries and headlines are provided for the network, and we've concluded that the summaries have to be compiled on site by 5live's own team.

The logic for that seems inescapable but it's a decision that has a profound impact on a venerable section of BBC News - the Radio Newsroom. Up to now, the summaries on 5live have been provided by the Radio Newsroom, which makes the news for most other national networks, including Radio Four and Radio Two.

This is not an easy change for us to make, and we've got to tread carefully; the last thing we want is to duplicate the work of the Radio Newsroom. But we have to start preparing for the change now. For some it will mean big changes and there are also some big opportunities.

For the station it's a chance to make a new statement about our commitment to vibrant, comprehensive news coverage. Our aim is that whatever the scale of the internal changes, 5live's listeners will still get the news service they want and trust.

On the McCann story

Matt Morris | 16:46 UK time, Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Some reports have given a slightly false impression of the approach adopted by the Victoria Derbyshire programme to the McCann story yesterday morning.

Radio Five Live logoAs Peter Horrocks points out in an earlier contribution to this blog, there has been enormous interest in the McCann story. The presenter of a different phone-in programme, Vanessa Feltz, acknowledged as much in her column in the Daily Express this morning - a caller to her show was indignant that she wasn't discussing the McCann case because it was "all anyone wants to talk about".

We certainly wanted to talk about the case yesterday morning, but we knew there were huge sensitivities. Just like Vanessa, we don't deal in the exchange of conjecture, idle tittle-tattle or slander.

So we started with two ideas. Did our listeners support the McCanns? I think that's a fair question. Newspaper columnists throughout the prints are expressing sympathy for the McCanns. It seems odd to me that Victoria Derbyshire's listeners should not have the opportunity to express their sympathy - or otherwise.

But secondly we wanted to be sure that the case was "all everyone wants to talk about" - and that's where the inaccuracies have crept in. From the beginning, we planned to offer Victoria's listeners the opportunity to pass judgement on yesterday's phone in topic. As the debate intensified, with some listeners berating us for the way we had framed the discussion, we put it to their vote - should we continue with the discussion or should we stop it? By a margin of about two thirds to one third, they said we should stop it - so we did.

Since we had always planned this vote, as a way of trying to get some sense of public reaction to media coverage of the McCann story, it's slightly over the top to suggest we had to "abandon" the phone in. We were prepared both to continue the discussion, and to move on to something else.

Countdown to Salford

Matt Morris | 12:04 UK time, Friday, 8 June 2007

Let me quote Fran Yeoman, writing in the home news pages of the Times:

    Labour's six deputy leadership candidates went "speed dating" on radio yesterday. Each was given 6 minutes on Radio 5 Live to chat up two listeners: Vicci Goulding, Miss Wigan 2007, and Ged Sweeney, a former Labour Party member who left over tuition fees. Mindful of the forthcoming final of Miss England, Ms Goulding asked Harriet Harman what her special talent would be. "I think my talent would be encouraging people," the nonplussed Justice Minister managed.

Radio Five Live logoThe listeners had been tracked down by our audience editor Lou Birt and the item was brought to air by the team led by Simon Mayo's editor, John Cary. It was engaging, informative, and it challenged the politicians. I rather think they enjoyed it and I am certain that William Hague - who appeared on the Mayo programme just after the speed daters - enjoyed it even more. (Listen here to the programme.)

But in the week or so following the BBC Trust's confirmation that Five Live will be among the services transferring to Salford, a question arose in my mind: is this the sort of item that Five Live simply will not be able to do so well in the future?

Every Wednesday, the Mayo programme decamps to Millbank, to frame Prime Minister's Questions and to talk, face to face, to a panel of MPs. The panel conversation, and the speed-dating type of treatment, tend to work well because Simon can engage his guests with glances, body language and gestures - as well as words.

This is the sort of problem we've now got to grapple with as the countdown to Salford begins in earnest. Five Live will remain the home of continuous news on BBC domestic radio - so we have to ensure that the right systems are in place to guarantee that its news coverage is as authoritative, stylish and engaging as ever.

Bomb plots and bins

Matt Morris | 10:10 UK time, Wednesday, 2 May 2007

The jury in the trial of seven men accused of a bomb plot returned their verdicts towards the end of Monday morning - a big breaking story that Five Live, like the rest of the BBC, had been planning for.

Radio Five Live logoBut we had other plans which were also coming to fruition on Monday morning - a live outside broadcast, presented by Simon Mayo, on the big topic of refuse collection. We were in Grantham in Lincolnshire, where the South Kesteven council is introducing fortnightly collection of household waste.

The broadcast was due to be on air at noon, and to last an hour, and we'd assembled a strong and well-informed panel and an audience who were well up for it.

There is no doubt that bins rouse passions - among young and old, rich and poor, families and singletons. Simon had just done his bins trail, into Richard Bacon's morning programme, when the verdicts started to come in.

Andrew Hosken went live on Five Live to report the news that five men had been found guilty and to set the ball rolling on coverage of a story that was to dominate the news for many hours to come.

bins152.jpgBut what about the bins programme? The timing could in fact have been much worse. Andrew was able to get the main story on air, and we managed to tell the backstory about the links to 7 July, well before noon. We had Patrick Mercer on live, and John Reid's initial statement came in on time too. All the while the clock ticked towards noon. Simon and Five Live's audience editor, Lou Birt, warmed up the Grantham audience. I don't quite know why but an image of Gary Cooper popped into my head and I started humming, tunelessly, "Do not forsake me, oh my darling..."

Simon orchestrated a really lively debate (which you can listen to here). People are really angry about bins - it's not all a figment of the Daily Mail's imagination. At half past noon we broke off the debate to return to London to hear from Peter Clarke, from the CPS, and from Danny Shaw as the Crevice story rolled on.

We'd got away with it. If the verdicts had come in half an hour later, we might have been faced with putting the bins debate back an hour - with an impatient audience getting restless and increasingly in need of their lunch.

On the way back to London I heard Jenny Seagrove interviewed by Phil Williams (who was deputising in Simon's normal afternoon slot). Ms Seagrove told Phil how her partner Bill Kenwright had converted her into an Everton supporter, and congratulated him on his intelligent handling of the continuing updates of the terror trial. A woman of sound judgement, except for the bit about Everton.

Accessible journalism

Matt Morris | 16:23 UK time, Friday, 23 February 2007

To one of its former assistant editors, Five Live sounds too much like neutered populism. Tim Luckhurst – writing in the Independent on Sunday – says his qualm is that Five Live is pursuing a strategy that will render it indistinguishable from commercial chat radio. Tim is billed in the Sindie as one of the Five Live launch team – and maybe that’s the issue. It’s inevitable and right that Five Live should have changed since its launch. Let it go Tim. We’ve moved on - and so should you. Some things remain the same though. Five Live still has at its heart a wish to reach an audience that much of the BBC finds it hard to reach – a non-metropolitan, diverse, working-class audience; not so much middle England as ordinary Britain.

Radio Five Live logoHow do we try to do that? It’s always been about accessible journalism, and about tone and style. In more recent years it’s also been about interactivity. Radio has always been good at interactivity, and Five Live has always been good at phone-ins – seeking expertise and compelling testimony rather than shouted opinions. But in the several years since Tim left us Five Live developed other links with the audience – email and even more importantly text messaging. Peter Allen called texters “our army of reporters” years before someone clever came up with the phrase “user-generated content”.

We’re now trying to deepen and further enrich our relationship with the audience. Tim Luckhurst’s piece was based on an interview with the controller of Five Live, Bob Shennan, who told him we’re doing more news that evolves from our close relationship with our listeners. That’s dead right. But it doesn’t mean, as Tim seems to think, that we won’t cover breaking news or use BBC Newsgathering correspondents. He quotes the inevitable “one BBC producer” as saying “I can list correspondents who have not appeared on Five Live for over a year. It is not on their radar. Many programmes have abandoned serious news.”

Well, I can list correspondents who are on Five Live all the time. People like the home editor, Mark Easton, who joined the panel for our recent live immigration debate in Blackburn; the security correspondent, Frank Gardner, whose two-ways with Peter Allen are a particular joy; the defence correspondent, Paul Wood, who helped us tie down a recent audience-led story about the cost of posting parcels to troops abroad; the business editor, Robert Peston, who was discussing the OFT report on drug pricing on Breakfast only this week; Mihir Bose, the sports editor who kept us in close touch with whether Sheikh Mohammed was going to buy Liverpool Football Club. I could go on and on. What about Jeremy Bowen keeping Simon Mayo’s audience up to speed on the Middle East? Where are these programmes that have abandoned serious news? Not on Five Live.

Tim Luckhurst says an insider told him “Managers define [Five Live] as sport and talk.” I haven’t met those managers. But if they’re out there – or rather, if they’re in here – they’re wrong. Five Live is as committed as ever to robust journalism, to covering breaking news and to a broad agenda. Of course, every broadcast service evolves over time and Tim is right that things aren’t the same now as they were in his day. The media landscape has changed and so have we.

Emotive words

Matt Morris | 16:07 UK time, Monday, 11 December 2006

When someone's been murdered, does it matter what they did for a living?

Radio Five Live logoMany people have contacted BBC News to complain that we have made a point of describing the women who've been killed in the Ipswich area as "prostitutes". The problem must be the description, and not the language. At least once on Five Live we referred to the women as "sex workers". This euphemism hardly rebuts the basic complaint, expressed succinctly in one text message we received - "just call them women".

The complaint took two forms - we wouldn't bother to report that a murder victim was, say, a plumber, and when we report that the victim was a prostitute we are being judgemental and implying that her life was less worthy than another's. In the end I don't think either of these points bears much scrutiny. It all comes down to reporting the relevant facts.

In this case, the fact that the women were prostitutes was crucially relevant. It suggests, if nothing else, that prostitution is a dangerous way to earn a living and that a prostitute is more likely than most people to meet a murderer. That has to be the starting point of the police inquiry. The assistant chief constable of Suffolk has urged prostitutes in the area to stay off the streets.

And implying that a prostitute's life is less worthy than another's? We protect ourselves from that accusation partly by neutral, impartial presentation of the facts. OK, but sometimes people have an emotional response to the news however it is framed. That means there should be careful scrutiny of headlines and scripts to avoid the unnecessary use of emotive words such as "prostitute".

It also means asking the type of questions asked on Five Live this morning - i.e. when a prostitute is murdered, do the police devote as much time to the inquiry as they would to any other murder?

Too many Muslim stories?

Matt Morris | 16:21 UK time, Friday, 6 October 2006

I happened to overhear a BBC editor saying "these Muslim stories are like buses - they all come along at once". I suppose it might have been expressed more sensitively but you get the point - there were a lot of stories about Islam in the news yesterday.

Radio Five Live logoThe editor of the Six O'Clock News on BBC Radio Four said no fewer than ten items in his running order had a Muslim angle. The big one was Jack Straw's comments about women wearing the veil; but there was also Frank Gardner's piece about the radicalisation of Muslims on university campuses and - earlier in the day - much prominence was given to the case of the policeman who asked to be excused duty at the Israeli Embassy. The headlines all said he was a Muslim; but was that really the point? An emailer has suggested that it was far more relevant that his father was Syrian and his wife Lebanese. There was no need to draw attention to his religion.

Is there force in this? Do we jump at the word Muslim too readily, in these days of relentless debate about multi-culturalism? Should we think harder about whether we need to draw attention to those Muslim angles? The team making Victoria Derbyshire's programme on Five Live usually think hard about these matters - even before the emails come in. They were very keen to test the policeman's motives and to tease out the views of his bosses and fellow Muslims.

One of the guests on Victoria's programmes was Chief Superintendent Ali Dizaei, who advises the Black Police Association (hear it here). And the Association of Muslim Police Officers also commented. Superintendent Dal Babu suggested (hear that here) it was a welfare issue and the Sun had been wrong when it suggested the policeman had acted on moral grounds. So - overall - the fact that the policeman is a Muslim is a factor in the story and deserves prominence. But we might never know the full details behind his request to be excused duty at the Israeli Embassy - in spite of everything that's been said since the news emerged.

St George's Cross

Matt Morris | 09:49 UK time, Thursday, 6 July 2006

Couldn't you tell it was going to happen...?

Radio Five Live logoThe lack of penetration in spite of Wayne Rooney's bustling. The way the ball bounced off Peter Crouch, no matter how gently it was played up to him. Frank Lampard's unconvincing air of assurance as he walked up to take the first penalty. A nation was deeply upset by the success of the Portuguese; though in the Farmers' Arms in Llangennech on Saturday night, there was little sympathy for England fans among the assembled Welshmen (and they were all men, except for the woman behind the bar).

So now St George's cross is disappearing from cars, white vans and people carriers. But we on Five Live are having to give some thought to what the cross represents - or, more accurately, to whether it can be taken to represent any political party. It came about because of the contribution of a guest on Victoria Derbyshire's programme on 5 May...

Read the rest of this entry

Big Brother - news or not?

Matt Morris | 11:11 UK time, Wednesday, 24 May 2006

As every redtop reader now knows very well, a seventh group of tenants has settled into the Big Brother house and so the usual question is being asked - is it news or not?

Radio Five Live logoEven internally on Five Live we don't have a settled view on this. My own opinion might be summed up as: It's worth doing BB if it raises an interesting issue, or if something actually happens. So yes, it is news... sort of.

We marked the beginning of BB7 last week; we've done a feature on tourette's syndrome; we're considering doing something on what it's like to come out when you're a Muslim (was it easier for Kamal than for Shabhaz?) And even though we like some of the issues raised, we know there's hype and manipulation.

But as Drive editor Jon Zilkha put it: "We cover things which are just plain interesting. Some of what we do is speculation, some is conversation, some is reflecting what people are talking about. BB fits in there somewhere as part of the cultural mix."

When television newsreaders were accused of "prancing" last week, the head of BBC TV news Peter Horrocks came on Five Live Breakfast to talk that over (listen to the interview here). Towards the end of the piece, Nicky Campbell asked Peter: "Is Big Brother a story?" Peter tactfully suggested that Five Live would be more likely to cover it than the Ten O'Clock News.

Peter is right. We've got a bit more space, in the Five Live schedule, than they have on the Ten. And if we can't find room occasionally for sharing a bit of gossip with the audience - an audience that understands fully that spurious celebrity is a curious part of the modern world - then we're probably being a bit too snobbish.

When BB7 started, the editor of Breakfast, Richard Jackson, had a thought. "Why don't we ask the audience if they want Big Brother coverage?" On reflection, we were pretty sure what the texting constituency, or a majority of them, would say: "No Big Brother, thank you."

One guy - a devoted Breakfast listener - had already emailed to say that as soon as we mentioned Big Brother he would switch over to the Today programme. And he would do that every morning if the words "Big Brother" so much as passed the lips of Nicky or Shelagh. Or even Helen Blaby.

So if we thought the audience (or at least the texting constituency) would vote against, why on earth would we cover it? Well... because it's news. Sort of.

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