BBC BLOGS - The Editors


Peter Barron | 17:07 UK time, Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Ok then, I'm off.

Newsnight logoAfter four years at Newsnight this is my final editor's blog. I'm off to Google, which has provoked some head scratching in the blogosphere.

My reasoning was pretty straightforward - I was looking for something at least as interesting, eventful and as much fun as Newsnight. That leaves a short list of options.

Experimenting with new media has been one of the joys of running Newsnight. There have been new products and possibilities almost every week. We've piled into many of them although so far, unlike Downing Street, we've resisted Twitter.

Some of our wheezes proved controversial but four years on I don't think anyone - and certainly not Jeremy - would argue that Newsnight should be simply a TV programme shown once at 10.30pm.

The digital revolution means I've been the first Newsnight editor to look after a programme which can be accessed at any time of the day or night anywhere in the world. You can engage us in conversation and we can - and should - explain our inner thinking.

So I'd like to take this chance to thank publicly the brilliant, creative and committed team who put together Newsnight five nights a week. To thank the six million or so viewers who stick with Newsnight week in week out despite the proliferation of competing demands for their eyeballs.

And to say thanks and farewell to those diehard Newsnight fans who subscribe to the e-mail, read blogs like this one and visit the website every day to catch up on the programme and have fun picking holes in it.

From Friday I'll be joining your number.

On the line and on the level

Peter Barron | 18:44 UK time, Thursday, 12 June 2008

The phone rings. There's an inquisitive and irrepressible journalist on the line. He appears to have an agenda and seems determined to produce a damaging piece, whatever the facts.

Newsnight logoI'm not talking about Michael Crick's phone call a week ago to Tina Haynes, the former nanny to the Conservative chairman Caroline Spelman. I'm talking about the phone call the London Evening Standard put in to the BBC this week when preparing their story "The Tory MP, her nanny and a BBC witch hunt"

In his article, Keith Dovkants makes a series of allegations against Michael Crick, which boil down to this. Caroline Spelman's unusual expenses arrangements with her nanny wasn't much of a story, so why did Newsnight run it? Crick has a track record of making trouble for Conservative politicians so he, and the BBC, must be biased against the Tories, and - let's use careful language here - "Senior Tories...suspect him of sharp practice" centring on his telephone with Tina Haynes.

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Let's deal with that one first - it's a pretty serious charge. In her statement Tina Haynes said she received a phone call from Michael Crick "stating that he was doing a programme about Mrs Spelman and her family life". The clear implication is that somehow Michael misled Ms Haynes (nee Rawlins) about the nature of the item he was working on.

This - as we made very clear to the Evening Standard - was not accurate. Here is a transcript of the opening exchanges in the telephone conversation.

M Hello, is that Tina Rawlins?

T Yes

M Hello, my name's Michael Crick and I'm from a programme called Newsnight, at the BBC

T Yeah

M I'm sorry to trouble you at work. What it is I'm ringing you about a film we're working on about Caroline Spelman

T Yes

M The Conservative politician. I think you used to work for her didn't you?

T I did yes

M You were working as her nanny I believe

T I was working for her as a nanny for five and a half years

M Right and were you doing political stuff as well

T Erm no I wasn't

M Sort of secretarial work or parliamentary work or...

T No I did obviously sort of like take calls for her obviously in the house if she got phone calls...

And on it went. No sharp practice about the nature of the film, no twisting of her words in reply. Michael asked if she had done political, secretarial or parliamentary work and Ms Haynes volunteered quite openly that she had not, but had taken the odd phone call and posted the occasional letter.

Caroline Spelman outside her homeDid we have a story? On Newsnight we thought so. A day earlier, Giles Chichester, the leader of the Conservatives in the European Parliament had resigned over the fact that he had channelled £400,000 of expenses into his family's company. It was announced that the person at Tory HQ who would be charged with cleaning up matters would be the chairman, Caroline Spelman.

Michael had learned some time earlier that Mrs Spelman had had a problem with her expenses involving her nanny some 10 years ago and that there had been row within the party at the time. Now was the time to find out.

So was it much of a story? A good way of judging is to put the words "Spelman" and "Newsnight" into Google News. At the latest count there are more than 40 stories from newspapers and other media organisations about the affair - Telegraph, Mail, ITN, Reuters - oh, and the Evening Standard.

Which brings us to bias. Yes, Michael Crick has done plenty of high profile journalism scrutinising Conservative politicians. It's hardly surprising given that for the first 18 or so years of his career as a political journalist it was the Conservatives who dominated British politics. But, apart from his love of Manchester United, Michael is rigorously un-partisan in his obsessions.

Wherever there is an untold story or questions to be answered Michael will be onto it, whether the subject is Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem or other. Does he give Labour an easy ride? No. David Blunkett's business arrangements, the Smith Institute's relationship with Gordon Brown, Labour electoral fraud in Birmingham - all have had the Crick treatment in recent times.

But don't take my word for, after all as Michael's editor I'm biased. Try this.

"The BBC had not allowed the liberal bias of some of its broadcasters to run riot. Nor had it libelled Conservatives with malicious and demonstrably false accusations. There was no smear and no McCarthyite witch-hunt...All it had done was report, quite accurately, that Caroline Spelman, the Tory Party chairwoman, got the public to pay for her nanny."

Who said that? Nick Cohen, in the Evening Standard.

Frank exchange

Peter Barron | 15:25 UK time, Monday, 2 June 2008

You may remember a row which developed in December last year between Newsnight and the influential centre-right think tank Policy Exchange following an investigation we did into their report called The Hijacking of British Islam (watch it here.)

Newsnight logoWe alleged that some of the receipts used to support their claim that extremist literature was widely available in British mosques had been fabricated. At that time Policy Exchange's chairman Charles Moore made an extraordinary attack upon us, but accepted the charges were serious and added: "It should be said at once that they need proper investigation."

So, six months on we thought it was time to go back and check if that proper investigation had been carried out. You can read Richard Watson's account of what happened next here.

By-election saddos

Peter Barron | 16:22 UK time, Friday, 23 May 2008

Newsnight logoLast night on Newsnight we set out to establish what was the most significant by-election of the post-war period - a subject close to many of our hearts here. Newsnight staffers have had a long association with by-elections and related special programmes.

The late great Vincent Hanna practically invented a new form of television with his classic by-election films - a form to which Michael Crick and David Grossman pay homage today.

Simon Hughes and Peter TatchellWhen we announced our search yesterday, the current newsroom head Peter Horrocks - a former Newsnight and election special stalwart - grew excitable and posited Bermondsey (1983), where he then lived, for pure eventfulness and drama. Personally, my favourite moment has to be Dudley West (1994), as I was Peter Snow's producer when the huge swing there managed to break our shiny virtual reality swingometer. Happily we are not alone in our sadness. My favourite viewer comment from Guy:

    "I admit I am a very sad man. So, when I got married last December, my new wife and 200 guests had to sit and listen to me explain why I thought Orpington was the most significant by-election of the last 50 years, because the old Establishment was humbled by the first proper grassroots campaign. It was only when we were on our honeymoon that I remembered Ashfield. My wife and I are still together - after all these months!"

Thanks Guy, Ashfield (1977) was up there, but the consensus among our viewers is Orpington (1962) and it was great to see the winner, Lord Avebury, on last night's programme. Unless of course there's now a new contender for the most significant post-war by-election - Crewe and Nantwich (2008)?

UGC on Newsnight

Peter Barron | 11:15 UK time, Friday, 9 May 2008

We've often had debates among the staff (and presenters) of Newsnight about the value of user generated content (watch Jeremy Paxman's views here). In general we think our viewers don't particularly want to hear the views of other viewers on air. And they don't want to decide what goes in the programme. They want to leave it to us to come up with good material. But where does that good material come from?

Newsnight logoOn Wednesday we led the programme with an exclusive story about a loophole which means that foreign criminals can work airside at UK airports without undergoing criminal record checks. That story came from a viewer who was concerned about security at the airport where he works and sent an email to the BBC's UGC hub, who passed it to us.

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After the report aired, several further viewers wrote to us with their concerns and we followed up with a report on Thursday's programme.

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One viewer wasn't happy. He wrote: "I would prefer it if Newsnight reported the news and stopped asking us viewers to grass on people to help your program."

I think that would be a pity. These days there are millions of potential sources for news stories we could never have got to in the past. On Newsnight we won't often put your opinions on air (though you can leave them here on the website) but if you have a good story which you think should be told we'd like to hear it.

Going Carla crazy

Peter Barron | 15:22 UK time, Friday, 28 March 2008

Newsnight logoA couple of weeks ago I was talking to a French diplomat about the forthcoming Presidential visit to Britain about what the key issues might be. I struggled to think where points of controversy might arise and concluded that the big story could actually be Carla Bruni. The diplomat shot me a look of Gallic disdain.

Why has the media gone quite so mad about the new Mrs Sarkozy? The Daily Mail devoted more pages to her than even their beloved plastic bags, and today the high-minded Guardian's G2 did a six page front cover feature. Are they satisfying a genuine public fascination or does this represent a new low in the media's obsession with supermodels, celebrity and gossip?

Carla BruniIn the Newsnight office Carla Bruni has, I admit, been the most talked about subject of the week, although so far our coverage has been limited to Jeremy's more-detailed-than-usual scrutiny of the front pages (which you can watch here).

In this morning's meeting we had a long discussion about an appropriate Newsnight response, and concluded that we should discuss the Carla Bruni phenomenon and the media's handling of it on tonight's Newsnight Review. Let us know what you think.

10 days to war

Peter Barron | 16:07 UK time, Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Next week on Newsnight we're making our foray into drama with a series of films entitled 10 Days to War. This may prove controversial, but we hope it will also open up the debate about the war in Iraq in new and revealing ways. The issue our viewers most often ask us to revisit is - by some distance - the decision to go to war in Iraq.

Newsnight logoOver the next two weeks, to mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion, we will look back and examine again the circumstances of the run-up to war: the WMD claims, the question of legality, the diplomatic wrangles and so on.

The reason we've chosen drama is that now we can recreate the scenes the cameras couldn't capture at the time - inside the Foreign Office on the day the legal officer Elizabeth Wilmshurst resolved to resign, inside the UN as Britain and America cajoled for a second resolution, inside the House of Commons on the day of the vote to go to war, with the troops on the Iraqi border as Colonel Tim Collins delivered his rousing eve-of-battle speech.

Kenneth BranaghThe eight episodes, each of which focuses on the events and issues from the same day exactly five years ago, have been painstakingly researched by our team of journalists and woven into mini-dramas by the dramatist Ronan Bennett. They'll be played by an all-star cast including Kenneth Branagh, Juliet Stevenson and Tom Conti. (Watch the trailer here).

But is it Newsnight? Not quite. The 12-minute films will run each night in the 10.30pm slot just before Newsnight, and then on Newsnight proper we'll pick up the issues raised with some of the real players portrayed in the drama and other key figures involved at the time. I hope you'll enjoy the drama on TV or online, join the debate and let us know what you think.

Making Newsnight unmissable

Peter Barron | 15:15 UK time, Friday, 22 February 2008

I was at a fascinating BBC2 marketing event this morning, complete with bean bag seating, live acapella singing and lots of facts and figures about the Channel's audience. Against the received wisdom that the growth of multi-channel homes means inexorable decline in audiences for the terrestrial channels, BBC2 is hanging onto its share and attracting younger audiences.

Newsnight logoOn Newsnight too our audience has remained remarkably solid during all these years of audience fragmentation. Throughout its history the Newsnight audience figures have oscillated between 800,000 and 1.2m - at the moment we're bang in the middle of that on 1m. And that doesn't take into account all the new ways of consuming the programme - including a million hits a month on our website.

Our big problem is Thursday nights, when the high profile presence of Question Time on BBC1 splits the audience for current affairs and blows a big hole in our figures.

But as of today, the conflicted Newsnight/Question Time fan has a solution to that 10.30pm dilemma. From now on every edition of Newsnight will be available on the BBC's iPlayer to view for the next seven days. It won't help our raw audience figures, but at least you can catch up with the programme.

The iPlayer service is only available in the UK, but the good news for international viewers is that at the end of February we launch an international edition of Newsnight on BBC America and BBC World. The one-hour programme will be a collection of the highlights of each week's programmes with an international focus, broadcast every Friday.

It should mean that Newsnight will reach more viewers than at any time in its history. It would be good to hear what kinds of items viewers around the world would most appreciate.

Are we unfair to MPs?

Peter Barron | 15:18 UK time, Friday, 1 February 2008

One or two of you have written to us this week to complain that we're unfair to politicians, assuming they're up to no good and generally giving them a hard time.

Newsnight logoIt is true we've done an awful lot of items in recent days concerning dubious employment practices, dodgy donations and the general lack of transparency about the goings-on of the honourable members.

Do we do too much? It would be good to hear your thoughts.

I certainly subscribe to the view that the majority of MPs are honourable, hard-working people whose primary aim is to serve the public.

I also sympathise, a bit, with the view - expressed again by Alastair Campbell this week - that the media can tend towards a culture of negativity and loves a crisis, real or imagined.

But, given all the sleaze crises that politicians have suffered in recent years, it is amazing that even a small number still appear to be willing to bend or ignore the rules.

And while - in this age of transparency - our MPs continue to resist the kind of scrutiny and sanction that others in the public eye face, it is surely right that we ask the likes of Crick, Grossman and Paxman to keep asking awkward questions.

News at 10.30

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn't life grand?

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

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

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

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

Newsnight's X Factor

Peter Barron | 12:31 UK time, Wednesday, 19 December 2007

The 'Lib Dem factor' graphicThe magazine publisher David Hepworth - on his generally rather good blog And Another Thing - has a go at last night's Newsnight send-up of the Lib Dem leadership contest as the X Factor. He asks, "have they done some research that indicates that people are more likely to tune into a current affairs programme if all the items are tricked up like student skits?".

The answer to that is no, but perhaps you can send us some ad hoc feedback below. In general, I'm not a big fan of the pastiche, which in fact was far more prevalent on Newsnight in years gone by than it is these days, but I think the complaint is a bit po-faced. It's rather like saying that quality newspapers shouldn't include cartoons.

A published response

Peter Barron | 10:00 UK time, Monday, 17 December 2007

Newsnight logoThe Daily Telegraph's Charles Moore wrote in the paper on Saturday criticising Newsnight for our coverage of the Policy Exchange story. Today the paper has published our account of what happened - you can read an unedited version here.


Charles Moore's attack on Newsnight's investigation into a report by Policy Exchange is a distortion of the truth and does him no credit. Newsnight has regularly investigated Islamic extremism in Britain. In October we planned to broadcast the findings of the report entitled "The Hijacking of British Islam" which said that hate literature was available for sale in 26 of the 100 British mosques they surveyed. Policy Exchange offered the report to Newsnight and to corroborate their claims provided a bundle of receipts proving where the books had been bought.

On the planned day of broadcast our reporter Richard Watson told me he had approached one of the accused mosques and shown them the receipt. They denied selling the literature and said the receipt was not genuine. I asked to see all the receipts and we quickly identified five or six which looked suspicious - not "one or two" as Mr Moore suggests. They appeared to have been created and printed on a PC, they included mistakes such as incorrect addresses, and two of them - purportedly from different mosques - appeared to have been filled in with the same handwriting.

Mr Moore says the right thing to have done at this point would have been to "broadcast Policy Exchange's findings at once, allowing the mosques to have their say". I disagree. I concluded it would be wholly wrong to give such prominence to the report without resolving these doubts.

That day we tried to clear up the discrepancies. I spoke, in a conference call with Policy Exchange, to one (not two) of the researchers involved in gathering the receipts. I also spoke to the project coordinator. It has not subsequently been possible to speak to any of the researchers. The conversation did not reassure me, nor have Policy Exchange's subsequent explanations for how the discrepancies might have occurred.

Mr Moore is misleadingly selective about the forensic analyst's findings. Her clear conclusion is that there is "strong evidence" that two receipts from separate mosques were written by the same person and that "the possibility of more than one person being responsible is unlikely."

Mr Moore accuses us of chasing a "small story" and says we chose, in effect, to side with extremists. Newsnight does not side with anyone. We simply took care to check the evidence Policy Exchange gave us to support their report's very serious accusations. Our report acknowledged that extreme literature is available in some of the mosques. But Newsnight checked five receipts and in all five there were serious doubts about authenticity. In my book that's a story.

Mr Moore blusters, but barely deals with the question of authenticity. Will he answer this? Given that Policy Exchange's report was based on the testimony of the researchers who provided the receipts, does he, and Policy Exchange, think all of the receipts are genuine?

Peter Barron
Editor, Newsnight

'Disastrous misjudgement?'

Peter Barron | 10:28 UK time, Thursday, 13 December 2007

Last night on Newsnight, Dean Godson of the think tank Policy Exchange accused me personally (watch it here) of making a "disastrous editorial misjudgement" and of "appalling stewardship of Newsnight". I think I should respond to that.

Newsnight logoMr Godson was responding to Richard Watson's investigation (watch it here) into Policy Exchange's recent report - entitled "The Hijacking of British Islam" - which accused several leading mosques of selling extremist literature.

In October Newsnight had been due to run an exclusive report on the findings and Policy Exchange had given us the receipts to corroborate their claim that a quarter of the 100 mosques their researchers had visited were selling hate literature.

On the planned day of broadcast our reporter Richard Watson came to me and said he had a problem. He had put the claim and shown a receipt to one of the mosques mentioned in the report - The Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre in London. They had immediately denied selling the book and said the receipt was not theirs.

We decided to look at the rest of the receipts and quickly identified five of the 25 which looked suspicious. They appeared to have been created on a home computer, rather than printed professionally as you would expect. The printed names and addresses of some of the mosques contained simple errors and two of the receipts purportedly from different mosques appeared to have been written by the same hand.

Two of the receipts

I spoke to Policy Exchange to try to clear up these discrepancies but in the end I decided not to run the report. This is not because I "bottled" it as Mr Godson suggests, but because I did not have the necessary level of confidence in the evidence presented.

In the days that followed we focused further on the five receipts about which we had concerns and eventually asked a forensic scientist to analyse them. This is what we found.

1. In all five cases the mosques involved said the receipts did not belong to them.

2. The expert analysis showed that all five had been printed on an inkjet printer - suggesting they were created on a PC.

3. The analysis found "strong evidence" that two of the receipts were written by the same person.

4. The analysis found that one of the receipts had been written out while resting on another receipt said to be from a mosque 40 miles away.

Mr Godson says he stands by his report 100%. I also stand by our report 100%. I don't think we can both be right.

Market sentiment

Peter Barron | 16:53 UK time, Friday, 23 November 2007

The history of Newsnight's nightly markets update has not always been a happy one. On Thursday we reported that in New York the "Dow Jones was substantially down amidst more credit crunch fears". That's odd, many of you told us, as - being Thanksgiving - Wall Street's finest were on a day-off. Our economics editor Stephanie Flanders was mortified - "unforgivable and embarrassing" was her verdict.

Newsnight logoThis is, I am ashamed to say, not the first time we have made such a mistake. The markets information is almost always the last thing we do on Newsnight and in the scramble of a particularly lively programme last night we neglected to notice that the US markets were shut and blithely reported the day before's figure. I'm sorry and I'm determined this won't happen again.

A couple of years ago we thought one way of avoiding problems with the markets was to abolish the spot altogether, but the outrage then means we won't try that again. Instead, we have inserted a note in the markets page which will read for ever more:


Unlikely bedfellows?

Peter Barron | 09:05 UK time, Friday, 9 November 2007

This week we did something we'd never done before. We brought together Newsnight and Radio Five Live for a live simulcast in the Big Immigration debate, presented by Gavin Esler and Richard Bacon.

Newsnight logoTaking phone-ins and reading out viewers' e-mails is something we have often said we won't do on Newsnight, but in the case of immigration where public opinion is such an integral part of the story it seemed appropriate that viewers and listeners should be able to question the politicians.

The response was huge - Richard received 3,000 texts during the programme and between them nearly 2,000 Five Live listeners and Newsnight viewers sent e-mails.

A few thought we make unlikely bedfellows, but I hope there were many more who didn't previously count themselves as Newsnight viewers or Five Live listeners who were pleasantly surprised. It's not something we plan to do regularly, but let us know if you think there are subjects we should occasionally tackle in this way.

Newsnight a la carte

Post categories:

Peter Barron | 11:32 UK time, Friday, 2 November 2007

This week on Newsnight we've launched a new experiment in which, instead of simply sending our morning prospects list to our producers, we send it to anyone who wants it (you can subscribe here) and post it on the website (you can find today's here).

Newsnight logoThe idea is that you can let us know what you'd like to see us tackle or the questions you'd like asked at 10.30pm. The response has been large and overwhelmingly positive, but there have been one or two quibbles. First, that it's our job, not yours, to come up with programme ideas. "Hey, I'm out all day slaving to make a living while you have nothing to do except watch the wire services to see what's happening," wrote Mark, "You think it's easy getting those sausages in those casings?" We don't want you to do our job, we just want to know what you'd like so we can do our job better. To continue Mark's culinary theme it's a bit like a restaurant. We'll still be slaving in the Newsnight kitchen but instead of simply serving up what we hope you might like now we're showing you a menu and asking how you'd like your eggs.

Another concern is that we're going to start reading out viewer e-mails on the programme. Don't worry - we aren't. Your e-mails are simply instant audience research so we can check that our ideas about what to put in the programme and your expectations aren't completely at odds, although we reserve the right sometimes to serve up dishes you might hate. We also hope that some of our viewers - who after all include the health professionals, the economists and the scientists on whose work we report - will already know the answers we are seeking. Are you ready to order?

Blog problems

Peter Barron | 13:29 UK time, Friday, 26 October 2007

Many of you have been writing in to complain about problems getting through both on the Editors' blog and on the Newsnight blog pages. I sympathise. Often I try to respond to a comment or complaint about the programme and end up gnawing my knuckles in frustration as the response either doesn't appear for many hours or fails to materialise at all. Hardly the best way to have a free flowing dialogue with our viewers.

Newsnight logoComments to the Editors' blog and the Newsnight blog are actually moderated in different ways, but the simple fact is that neither is currently working nearly well enough. In addition to the long-term problems we've had, this week things were made more difficult by pretty catastrophic technical problems here at the BBC which made publishing anything on the blogs - and on several other parts of the BBC website - impossible. Those particular problems are now sorted, but of course that doesn't mean the ongoing ones are over.

I can only say sorry and thanks for the perseverance you've shown so far. I know that the blog team share my frustration and we are determined to get a better system working soon. The good news is that it's in hand.

When we started blogging using our current platform in November 2005, we were using software which was suitable for our ambitions at the time. Over the past two years those ambitions have grown massively, as has the number of you wanting to comment on our blogs (and the amazing amount of spam we get). Next week we are to receive the results of some analysis done for us on how we adapt the software to enable us to meet our current - and future - ambitions. I'll let you know how it goes.

How much blogging?

Peter Barron | 10:30 UK time, Friday, 19 October 2007

On Newsnight we're used to the occasional bad review in the public prints. We had a stinker this week in the New Statesman, but it included a new and stinging criticism.

Newsnight logoRachel Cooke's piece took me to task for not blogging enough. "Like all BBC programmes", she wrote "it is fighting for its budget and has been told to get interactive, which is enough to make anyone tired (it speaks volumes that Peter Barron, its editor, posts his blog only every ten days or so)."

I'm pretty sure my hit rate is higher than that, but went straight to the New Statesman's blog page to see how it should be done. Maybe I missed it, but I couldn't find a single blog entry by Rachel (although to be fair she has blogged twice - once in 2006 and then again in 2007 - in the Observer) or her editor John Kampfner. There are plenty of different views about the value of blogging - and perhaps you'll let us know what you think the optimum level of regularity should be - but I've never met a blogger yet who was doing it because they'd been told to get interactive.

Playlist kudos

Peter Barron | 10:40 UK time, Friday, 12 October 2007

It's said that Roy Plomley, the founder of Desert Island Discs, could always tell when a guest's choices were genuine and when they'd been prepared by a PR to play well with the public.

alanjohnson.jpgI've heard a few deeply suspect selections from very senior politicians down the years, but I'm pretty certain Alan Johnson, Health Secretary and rock star wannabe, was speaking from the heart on the latest show. And good choices too (see below for details). Not just any old Beatles song, but And Your Bird Can Sing, surely their finest moment. Elvis Costello and David Bowie too. But was that dash of Mahler really in his top eight, or with an eye to the classical vote?

Most intriguing though, was discussion of his own recording career - an unreleased disc called Hard Life by a group called The Area. He claims no longer to have a copy, but surely someone out there has it? If so we'd love to hear it and would be pleased to post it on our new Big Fat Newsnight Politics Page .

Read the rest of this entry

Election addicts

Peter Barron | 11:35 UK time, Monday, 8 October 2007

If you'd asked me a week ago how I'd feel if the General Election was off I'd have said "relieved".

Newsnight logoBut now that it really is off the feeling is more like "bereft". Caught on the hop by the prospect of a snap election we threw the kitchen sink at it last week - brainstorming programme ideas, designing election graphics, building a website.

By Thursday we had an election plan, and we liked what we saw. Now it's all off and is unlikely to happen until 2009, our burst of feverish creativity will probably never see the light of day.

It's tempting - though hardly practical - to have an election campaign without the politicians, but having discarded that notion this week we bring you "Why Democracy?". In conjunction with the documentary strand Storyville, we have a series of films showing democracy in action around the world. A little help for election addicts with withdrawal symptoms.

Online analysis

Peter Barron | 12:00 UK time, Thursday, 27 September 2007

I thought I detected a bit of a new media milestone on Newsnight this week.

Newsnight logoIn an interview with Jeremy, the Foreign Secretary David Miliband took exception to a figure we had quoted in a piece about UK companies' investment in Burma. He also admitted - and this is a rarity for a politician - that he didn't know the answer to one of Jeremy's questions, and promised to clear up both points by posting something on our website.

Our webmaster Stuart was thrilled at the on-air endorsement.

The next day the FCO duly sent through a statement confirming that the figure we'd used was out of date. Then the Burma campaign group sent us a statement taking a dim view of the FCO's clarification (you can read those here). Viewers piled in too, demanding and debating the answers, while the programme producer responsible for the piece went online to direct the traffic.

Of course Newsnight items have been provoking debate on the website for years, but what I hadn't seen before was so many key participants in a story - government, pressure group, programme makers and the audience - engage in a spontaneous post-programme analysis online. I hope we can all do it again.

Dress sense

Peter Barron | 21:02 UK time, Friday, 7 September 2007

I find the Daily Mail a fascinating organ, not least because they take every possible opportunity to do down the BBC and, it seems to me at least, Newsnight. First it was outrage at the sight of Emily's legs on air, now they've turned their attention to our correspondent Richard Watson's dress sense.

"Mr Watson appeared on BBC Two's Newsnight on Wednesday filing a report about extremist Islamic literature being available in public libraries," they wrote. "He sported designer stubble, turned up jeans and brown loafers."

Brown loafers? What is the world coming to?

Rather than concentrate on his taste in clothes, we'd prefer you to concentrate on Richard's reports. We've just published a collection of his recent investigations into the UK terror threat on our website.

And for the Mail's benefit we've included a nice picture of him in stubble, jeans and those loafers.

Relief relief

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Peter Barron | 10:50 UK time, Thursday, 6 September 2007

You'll have seen there's a lot of debate about what I and the head of TV news thought of the BBC's coverage of climate change (you can read his thoughts on the matter here). The BBC has now decided not to go ahead with the proposed Planet Relief programme. This blog posting, How green should we be?, from February, sets out my position.

Noddy's not dead

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Peter Barron | 12:43 UK time, Friday, 31 August 2007

We've had a huge response to our item looking at the techniques used in putting together TV news pieces, following the decision of the new editor of 5 News to ban "staged" shots (watch the item here).

Newsnight logoThe outcome is by no means clear cut. Many thought that editing shots like "noddies" and "reverse questions" should be banned, some on the grounds that they could lead to deception, others that they are just plain old-fashioned and clunky. But many others think any ban would be a gross over-reaction and that as long as the broadcasters use these techniques responsibly there is little problem.

So what is our conclusion on Newsnight?

A walking set-up, and three 'noddies'The first thing to say is that the issue of editing shots is in a different league from the incidents of deception and dishonesty which have caused turmoil in the TV industry in recent months. But if the industry's response to those problems is a new level of transparency towards our viewers then it is surely right to address what we used to call the "magic of television"

Noddies (the reverse shot of the reporter, illustrated here with Evan Davis, Rosie Millard and Andrew Marr, which is recorded after the interview is over, and used to cover an edit point in an interview)
I'd stop short of a total ban, but we certainly encourage our producers to use them sparingly. On Newsnight we make a lot of longer films and I can imagine if we banned the noddy ending up in a perverse situation where you'd have lots of weird cutaway shots of anxiously clasped hands or white flashes just to avoid a perfectly harmless image of a reporter (apparently) listening to an interview.

Reverse questions (the reporter or presenter's questions, recorded after the interview is over, when only one camera is available)
We're not going to ban these. Unlike most news programmes we often run exchanges between correspondents and interviewees within our films, rather than just soundbites. If we rejected the reverse question we could end up with a lot of shots of interviewees listening blankly to the interviewer's question, or the equally unnatural "two shot" (a wide shot of interviewer and interviewee talking about what they had for breakfast)

Walking set-up shots (the shot of the interviewee, very often a politician, walking stiffly past the camera as a means of introduction)
These are banned. Our rule is: don't shoot them and you won't be tempted to use them. But where do you draw the line? Is it wrong to direct anyone to do anything they wouldn't normally be doing - prune the roses, type at a computer - so we can get some shots of them? We have at least one cameraman who believes that and insists on only shooting things that are occurring naturally.

And isn't that the real point of this debate? Viewers demand and expect that what they see in news and current affairs reports is a true representation of what is happening through what they know is an artificial medium. And after that they expect a natural and undistracting viewing experience. If the outcome of this debate is that viewers end up being distracted because they can see all the joins, then we will surely have shot ourselves in the foot.

The purpose of TV

Peter Barron | 10:25 UK time, Sunday, 26 August 2007

If the theme of the first day of the Edinburgh TV Festival was trust, then the buzzword of the second day was "purpose". Jeremy Paxman made a plea for a renewed sense of purpose in the industry in his lecture and Channel 4's Andy Duncan should be in the Guinness Book of Records for the number of times he used the phrase "public purpose".

Today Vint Cerf, the chief evangelist of Google, will set out his vision of the future of the media in his alternative MacTaggart Lecture. Where do the issues of trust and purpose sit when everyone can publish content and there are millions of sources of information to choose from? Let us know what you think.

Getting the message

Peter Barron | 08:43 UK time, Saturday, 25 August 2007

I promised to post your comments on the walls of our confession box at the Edinburgh TV Festival and can report that they're doing a roaring trade.

Last night Jeremy Paxman gave his assessment of the state of the industry in a passionate speech calling for a new sense of purpose in television. You can read the whole text here, and if you want to leave your comments on that, we'll put some of those on the confessional too.

Confessions of a TV producer

Peter Barron | 19:26 UK time, Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Thanks for the huge number of comments you sent (and are still sending) through on the state of the TV industry.

The confessional boxWe promised to post them at the Edinburgh TV festival this weekend so that those who make TV can absorb them. We've hired an old confessional box (pictured) which will sit in the foyer of the conference centre - we'll adorn the walls with your thoughts, and invite those who work in the industry to leave theirs too.

A message to the TV industry

Peter Barron | 12:54 UK time, Tuesday, 21 August 2007

This weekend around 2000 representatives of the television industry will gather in Edinburgh for the International TV Festival. Traditionally the festival offers the chance for those for make their living in TV to discuss the issues and challenges of the moment and, yes, indulge in plenty of socialising and networking too.

Newsnight logoAs one of the organisers of the event, I've been involved in planning what to discuss. To be honest, it's been a bit of a no-brainer in what has already been coined TV's annus horribilis. The crisis of trust in TV - painfully exposed in a series of revelations about phoney phone-ins and faked footage - will rightly dominate the discussion both on the floor of the festival and in the bars and restaurants, kicking off with the MacTaggart lecture from our own Jeremy Paxman.

But rather than contemplating our own navels all weekend we are also keen to hear what the all-important consumers of TV have made of the year's turbulent events. Several sessions will use opinion polling and vox pops from viewers, but here is your opportunity to send a message direct to the people who make and run TV in Britain.

Post your thoughts about the current state of television (not just TV news or the BBC) here, and we'll make sure they are posted both on the festival website and on the walls of the conference centre. How has your view of TV changed as a result of the events of the last few months? How well has the TV industry responded to the crisis? Has the newspapers' reporting of TV's predicament been proportionate?

Be as rude as you like, but no obscenities please or we won't be able to put your comment up.

Blogs not bullets

Peter Barron | 12:54 UK time, Friday, 3 August 2007

For me the most striking story of the week was the end of Operation Banner, the 38-year-old British army operation in support of the police in Northern Ireland. Having grown up in Belfast, I can only very barely remember a time when there weren't troops on the streets.

Newsnight logoWe lived in a peaceful part of town, but I still remember the chilling feeling if you got stuck in a queue of traffic at night behind an army Land Rover, with a couple of blacked up, anxious squaddies peering out the back. It was a relief all round when the traffic started to move again.

Later, I remember the very different reactions of friends from "over the water" who visited Northern Ireland. Some were horrified at the sight of the heavily tooled-up armoured cars - everyone called them pigs - on the streets of a British city, others were surprised the army weren't on every street as they'd been led by the news bulletins to expect.

The BBC's coverage of the end of Banner has led to something of an outbreak of hostilities on the Northern Irish blogs, particularly from Unionist bloggers (here and here). But the really striking thing is that nearly 40 years of troubles and thousands of killings have now been reduced to little more than an online skirmish.

For Newsnight's coverage (which you can watch here) of the end of the longest military operation in the history of the British army we sent our producer Jonathan Bell back to the streets of Derry where he had once patrolled as an infantryman. In the Creggan estate he told locals what he'd being doing on those streets 20 years ago - then a shooting gallery, now a tourist attraction.

Their extraordinary response: "Oh aye?"

Farewell then, podcast

Peter Barron | 16:20 UK time, Friday, 27 July 2007

Last night I met the editor and presenter of the Serbian equivalent of Newsnight, who was in London on a fact-finding mission and keen to see Newsnight in the flesh. It quickly became apparent that he is very familiar with our output and when I asked how come he said he subscribes to Newsnight's podcast and regularly steals ideas from us.

Newsnight logoHeartwarming, but also a little heartbreaking because this week's Newsnight podcast will be the last, at least for now. It's been part of a trial of video podcasts which the BBC has been running for the past year, the aim being to find out what viewers want from services like this and how they use them.

That video trial has now come to an end (my colleague Mark has blogged more about this here), so this week's edition, including highlights from our special programme on Islam, discussion of the floods, and an intriguing piece about community TV in Belgium, will be the last. The BBC now plans to look at how the trial went and later in the year will decide what happens next.

So thanks to Zoran and everyone else who subscribed, we hope you enjoyed it and will let us know what you thought.

New politics?

Peter Barron | 15:31 UK time, Friday, 22 June 2007

Newsnight logoOn Newsnight my phone rarely rings at 6.14am. But it did this morning. It was our deputy editor Robbie Gibb, who was looking after Gordon Brown: Prime Minister's Questions, a special programme for News24 and Newsnight in which the soon-to-be-PM was to face questions from a panel of the BBC's sharpest minds. Robbie was involved in a last minute flurry with Mr Brown's people over the exact seating arrangements for the programme, which - because of the EU summit - could only be recorded at eight in the morning. It was symptomatic of a process of negotiation to get Mr Brown onto the programme which was at times tortuous and always subject to change.

But when Mr Brown swept into the studio - at roughly twenty past eight - he was a vision of relaxedness. The make-up lady remarked how warm and chatty he was - more so in fact than Blair - his warm-up small talk was easy, his jokes surprisingly good.

gb_interview2.jpgAnd when the intense and wide-ranging grilling from Martha Kearney, Evan Davis, Nick Robinson, and John Simpson began, the old Brown, sticking rigidly to his sound bites, seemed to have disappeared. No prudence, no steering a steady course, not even much listening and learning.
Could it be that Mr Brown - famously uptight and brooding as Chancellor - will, like Nicolas Sarkozy, find the top job strangely relaxing?

Editors' blog - the first year

Peter Barron | 13:09 UK time, Friday, 15 June 2007

The Editors' blog is one year old. We didn't exactly have a birthday party but the other day a few of us got together to toast it with mineral water and try to assess the success or otherwise of the venture. The verdict was that despite the fears of some that a new openness would lead to embarrassing disclosures and uncomfortable headlines, by and large these haven't been realised and the experiment has been judged at least worthwhile.

A few of the memorable moments for us: the discussion over claims that the BBC had banned Fiona Bruce from wearing a cross on air (actually it hadn't); ongoing debates about conspiracy theories, bias, balance, hype, 'dumbing down', covering difficult news for children, and, yes, even when things haven't gone right.

It's also given us a chance to show some of the drama behind the scenes, (such as when we were hit by an injunction); and of course the massive support readers have shown for our colleague Alan Johnston.

Just this week we've had a fascinating debate in the blog between Kevin Marsh and the Guardian's Emily Bell (which you can read here).

But you won't be surprised to hear that not everyone at the BBC is impressed. I noticed - on a blog as it happens - that Kate Adie reportedly objects to BBC managers who blog during working hours. "Their weblogs, she maintains, are proof they have nothing better to do." Nothing better to do than talk to and listen to their audience?

On the other hand, some external observers think that much of the BBC's contribution to blogging is still far too gentle and uptight. This week I met Joe Trippi, the American political guru who's credited with reinventing political campaigning through use of the internet. He thinks we editors should be blogging after every show, discussing with viewers the successes and shortcomings. At least in Newsnight's case this wouldn't be on company time.

It would be good to know if you're with Kate or Joe, what you'd like more or less of, and how the editors' blog might develop in its second year.

That Salmond interview

Peter Barron | 11:12 UK time, Friday, 8 June 2007

We've had a lot of complaints about Kirsty's interview last night with the Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond.

Newsnight logoSome questioned the premise of the interview - that the new SNP government appeared to be picking a fight with London - others thought that Kirsty's line of questioning was too aggressive and therefore discourteous. But all agreed that the way the interview ended was, to say the very least, unfortunate.

The encounter was indeed intense and at times tetchy - Mr Salmond is always a robust and challenging interviewee - but for most of the interview I don't think we strayed outside the boundaries of what viewers expect or find acceptable in a Newsnight interview.

In the last minute, however, that changed. As the programme producer tried to wind up the interview because of time pressure we cut off Mr Salmond in a way that came across as rude and dismissive. We have apologised to Mr Salmond for that.

Were you re-engaged?

Peter Barron | 12:27 UK time, Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Newsnight logoTwo Shags' replacement? Well whoop-de-doo. Deprived of a leadership contest...the TV news people lined up a load of people we've never heard of and couldn't care less about... presumably to see who'd be best placed for a role that has no actual, er, role.” (Read the rest of this blog here).

That was one view on the blogs this morning of Newsnight's Labour deputy leadership debate, but I must say it was very much in the minority. We'd debated among ourselves how much interest there'd be in a deputy leadership debate. Would an unmanageably large line-up of six contenders simply agree to agree on the key issues, the loser being the viewer?

depleaders_203.jpgBut then we invited you to let us know questions you'd like Jeremy to ask, and hundreds of you obliged (which you can read here). Thousands have already taken part in the post-match vote (click here to vote), and a healthy audience of more than a million watched the late-night debate from beginning to end (which you can watch here).

Could it be that the slightly unglamorous Labour deputy leadership debate is re-engaging the public's interest in politics?

Prime minister's questions

Peter Barron | 14:54 UK time, Friday, 25 May 2007

When it comes to party leaders Sir Ming Campbell is the easiest to persuade onto Newsnight. Scotland's new First Minister Alex Salmond is also rarely unavailable, though that may change. But the very biggest beasts have been only rarely sighted on Newsnight in recent years.

blairnewsnight203.jpgLast night we had Tony Blair, which was great. It had been a long time. But much as we'd have liked a no-holds-barred affair with Jeremy Paxman on matters ranging from the Iraq war to Lord Levy, that, so far, hasn't been on offer. Instead our tenacious environment specialist Roger Harrabin got the gig, on the circumscribed area of climate change. And if the PM thought he was going to get some soft bowling the record emphatically shows otherwise. (Watch the full version here).

The episode illustrates the care with which the party leaders' media appearances are picked these days. These days we're in competition with Blue Peter, GMTV, Richard, Judy and more for interviews with our leaders, and frankly they seem to be winning.

Newsnight logoTake David Cameron. Some observers felt he came very well out of the "slippery nipple" encounter (which you can watch here) with Jeremy just before he became Conservative leader. But despite regular invitations to repeat the experience in an imaginative array of formats, more than a year later our wait goes on.

And our next prime minister, unencumbered by the need to go to the country, has so far not felt the need to spell out his vision on Newsnight, though we remain hopeful that will soon be addressed.

There is of course no constitutional imperative to appear on Newsnight - would that there were - but we'd like to think there is a convention that if you want to be prime minister you should.

Watch this space.

Did you wait for Howard?

Peter Barron | 12:25 UK time, Friday, 11 May 2007

What is it about Michael Howard and Newsnight?

Newsnight logoThe former Conservative leader already holds the accolade for the greatest-ever Newsnight moment with, of course, that interview with Jeremy in 1997 in which he failed to answer the same question 12 times in a row (watch it here).

Last night he made a renewed bid for YouTube immortality in an extraordinary moment of theatre involving his old adversary Alastair Campbell. Howard and Campbell were live in Newsnight's studio discussing Blair's legacy, and as midnight hovered into view something of the night seemed to overtake Mr Howard. He launched a savage and sustained attack on Campbell's modus operandi, effectively blaming him for the ills of the Blair years and accusing him of using lies as a weapon of government.

In case you'd already gone to bed, click here for another chance to enjoy.

What did you do in the war?

Peter Barron | 12:01 UK time, Friday, 4 May 2007

Newsnight is under attack again from Medialens, the online group whose self-appointed task is to "correct the distorted vision of the corporate media".

Newsnight logoThey take issue with an interview Gavin Esler did recently with the US Under Secretary of State Nick Burns on Iran and Iraq. I don't think it was the greatest interview we ever did, and nor does Gavin, but does that make us, as some Medialens adherents have claimed, complicit in war crimes or agents in preparing for war with Iran?

Unlike some in the media who studiously ignore them, I've always thought Medialens make a noteworthy contribution. Along with other lobbyists and pressure groups they invite us to question what we do and when they make a valid point we should reflect it. But how many people do they actually represent?

We had a different complaint this week about our coverage of the Iraq war from Michael Gove, the Conservative front bencher. He said: "It is still the case that around one third of the British population believes, despite all the errors and horrors, that the decision to remove Saddam was right. But where, and how often, is that perspective presented on the BBC?" Should we listen more to that view than Medialens's? Gove at least represents Britain's currently most popular political party.

Where I do agree with Medialens though is that we shouldn't try to please everyone by adopting a safely uncontroversial stance somewhere in the middle. Our job is to ask uncomfortable questions reflecting views from right, left and centre and not just from those who shout the loudest.

Did we make it up?

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Peter Barron | 14:59 UK time, Thursday, 5 April 2007

The Times has run a piece today questioning whether Newsnight's report on Romanian immigrants in Britain was "a set-up". The acting Romanian ambassador complained about pictures which showed one immigrant at a makeshift camp in London's Hyde Park. "It's clear they stage-managed the whole thing... we feel they have resumed the stereotyped coverage of Romanians," she said.

Did we?

camp203.jpgHere is some evidence which we didn't include in the original report. When we first met Daniel, the subject of the film, at a Romanian church in London we simply asked him what it was like to live in London. He volunteered that he, and others, had been camping in Hyde Park. Here's the clip.

Daniel offered to show us where he had been living. These are the rushes of what we found when we got to the park. It's pretty clear there is quite a large encampment where a number of people have been living.

When other media checked out the story after our original report they discovered other campers.

The Daily Mail quoted Emerich Dinu, who said he had been camping in the park for weeks: "It is a great place to sleep. You can come here at night and there are no police or wardens to stop you."

daniel203.jpgDid we pay Daniel to make his claims and pitch his tent? No. We gave him a small facility fee, which is what we offer anyone who contributes to Newsnight. Did we mislead our audience by suggesting that Daniel is still living rough? No. The report made it clear that Daniel had subsequently found accommodation and is looking for a job.

Our report was not a set-up or a fabrication. It showed the truth of how some Romanian immigrants have been living since arriving in Britain.

If you live by gunpowder...

Peter Barron | 10:51 UK time, Friday, 30 March 2007

Newsnight logoThose of us who inhabit the world of old media have learned the hard way to respect the power of the blogger. Over the past couple of years many an error, example of hypocrisy or attempted cover-up has been searingly exposed by the bloggers, and a few careers sunk.

This week, however, we learned that when it comes to making and breaking reputations there's life in the old media dog yet.

We'd asked the fearless political blogger Guido Fawkes to make a film for Newsnight on what he sees as the failings of mainstream political reporting.

It was a thought-provoking piece (watch it here) and as soon as we saw it we decided we'd like to debate the issues with Guido and a Westminster lobby journalist.

guido203.jpgThis was no trick, but at that point Guido was in a corner. His film had been an exhortation to programmes like Newsnight aggressively to empty-chair politicians who refuse to debate. While he himself prefers to operate in the shadows he could therefore hardly refuse, and a poll of his site's readers urged him overwhelmingly to appear.

The result, as many of the comments on his site quickly pointed out, was a bit of car crash. Guido's keyboard-orientated pyrotechnics were no match for Michael White of the Guardian's verbal swordsmanship.

But hats off to Guido for entering our world. He'll be back.

Michael Crick's in reception

Peter Barron | 13:15 UK time, Friday, 23 March 2007

Newsnight logoIt's a matter of dispute as to who produced Michael Crick's first ever piece for Newsnight back in 1992. Newsnight's new political editor's partner Lucy thinks she did, whereas I think it was me. Certainly I remember producing a very early film with Michael - a profile about a little-known US presidential hopeful called Bill Clinton.

clinton203_newsnight.jpgThe film centred on the time Clinton had spent as a Rhodes scholar in Oxford and involved a run-in with the official photographers at the college Clinton had attended. They wouldn't let us film a contemporary year photograph being taken, so we improvised by climbing a wall and shooting over it, giving me an early metaphor of Michael's approach to journalism.

In one of those odd coincidences that Michael so enjoys and seems to attract, his last film for Newsnight before taking up his new post involved a run-in with the same photographic company. They had just withdrawn an embarrassing photo of David Cameron posing as a member of Oxford's notorious Bullingdon club. Again Michael improvised by commissioning an artist to paint a reproduction of the photograph, thus getting round the copyright rules.

And during the course of making that film he remembered a college chaplain had once showed him another photograph of a young Tony Blair making a rude gesture, but wouldn't allow him to film it. Might he have changed his mind more than a decade on? This time the answer was yes.

As Michael told me on that very first assignment, his aim is to find out everything there is to know about a subject, and then find out some more.

Brutality or reasonable force?

Peter Barron | 10:08 UK time, Thursday, 8 March 2007

Wednesday's piece about the case of Toni Comer. a young Sheffield woman shown on CCTV being repeatedly punched by a policeman, polarised viewers.

Newsnight logoSome, like Andrew F, thought it was "a terrible piece of story, no controversy, no evidence" Others, like Pauline Campbell, thought it was "one of the most disturbing reports I have ever watched on Newsnight."

The CCTV footage, which showed how South Yorkshire policemen handled a drunk and aggressive 19-year-old during a nightclub fracas, split opinion in our office too.

To reflect both views we introduced the item by asking if the footage was evidence of police brutality or the reasonable use of force, and while we heard from Toni Comer and her supporters, we also heard from the policeman and force in question and the former Flying Squad commander John O'Connor who believed the policeman's actions could be explained.

The item provoked a lively debate - that's what Newsnight does. The alternative suggestion is that we should have viewed the pictures and concluded that there was no issue to pursue. That would I think have constituted bad journalism.

What do you think? (You can watch the piece here.)

Airbrushing history

Peter Barron | 14:37 UK time, Monday, 5 March 2007

Michael Crick's piece about the strange disappearance from circulation of the photograph of David Cameron as a member of the Bullingdon Club and the discovery of the uncropped picture of Tony Blair's rude student gesticulation provoked a big reaction from viewers.

Newsnight logoMany thought we were wrong to delve into their youthful indiscretions, but that was not really what the item was about. It was about the suppression of photographs which could have proved embarrassing for our political leaders.

The issue is airbrushing from history - a big feature in Orwell and Stalin - and surely one for Newsnight.

Interestingly, it's not at all clear who has done the suppressing in these cases. The photographic company who own the copyright on the Cameron picture are adamant they weren't leant on, but made the decision for commercial reasons. The Conservative party say they didn't ask for it to be withdrawn, though they admit they thought about it when they feared Labour would use it in an election poster.

The unexpurgated picture of Tony Blair has been around for years, but apparently no-one has ever published it. Indeed one version I've seen has the offending gesture blacked out. How odd.

Thanks Martha, and good afternoon

Peter Barron | 10:29 UK time, Friday, 23 February 2007

Newsnight logoWhen Martha Kearney told me she had landed the job of main presenter on Radio 4's World at One, my first thought was that I couldn't think of anyone better suited for that role, or of a better move for Martha. My second was a mixture of emotion and panic.

Emotion because since 1994 Martha has been such an integral part of the Newsnight experience, both on the screen and in the office. As political editor she could often be seen pacing around after 10pm, putting in last calls to ministers and anxiously waiting for her paged messages to bear fruit. Very often she would then pop up on air with an exclusive new line or ministerial quote.

marthak_203.jpgPolitics is her big love, but she is more of a renaissance woman than that. She reads novels like other people breathe, bakes cakes, keeps bees, can decline Latin nouns - frequently does - and has a highly satisfactory knowledge of 70s new wave music.

Panic because Martha goes at a moment you wouldn't call quiet. Blair's departure, Brown's arrival, loans for peerages, elections a-go-go, Ming in trouble, possibly even Cameron's policies. Martha, we're going to miss you, but look forward to hearing about it all on WATO.

Almost completely clueless

Peter Barron | 12:30 UK time, Friday, 9 February 2007

One of the upsides of the information revolution is that new ways of presenting our material pop up with every passing week. We've been experimenting with all sorts of things, the latest being Newsnight recommends. One of the downsides is that as yet there's very little audience research on what works and what you actually want.

Newsnight logoWe've been podcasting a weekly version of the programme for a few months, and recently started offering a daily highlight, but while we know that about 200,000 podcasts a month are downloaded we don't really know if you're lapping up every last moment or if they're clogging, unviewed, your hard drive.

Given that if you've received this as a subscriber to Newsnight's daily email or are reading it on the editor's blog you're probably the sort of person who would download a Newsnight podcast - although I could be completely wrong about that - this is your chance to tell us what you think.

Is the weekly podcast, which aims to offer the best bits of the week on Newsnight, too long at 25 minutes? Do you want to see a small number of big items or a brief digest of everything?

The daily podcast aims to offer a reasonably timeless highlight which you can take with you to savour on the train, possibly once you've digested the newsier Breakfast Takeaway. Does anyone actually do that?

Do you watch the podcasts on your iPod, or just watch them on your computer? And is there still demand for the original audio podcast, radio still being a far bigger draw in this world than TV?

Tell us how you watch it and we'll aim to oblige. Or indeed if your preferred way is still: on the sofa, 10.30pm, possibly with a glass of wine.

How green should we be?

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Peter Barron | 14:30 UK time, Friday, 2 February 2007

One of the consequences of 'Paxman slams the BBC on climate hyprocrisy' has been a prominent posting on Biased BBC, a website devoted to pointing out what it sees as the politically-correct institutional group-think of much of the corporation's output.

Newsnight logoThis time they weren't accusing Jeremy of bias - they've elevated him to their roll of honour for his honesty in saying: "People who know a lot more than I do may be right when they claim that [global warming] is the consequence of our own behaviour. I assume that this is why the BBC's coverage of the issue abandoned the pretence of impartiality long ago" (more here).

So, what constitutes impartiality on this issue? Should we, every time the issue of climate change is raised, include someone like Myron Ebell from the US Competitive Enterprise Institute, who argues that while climate change may be happening there's no evidence that it's caused by human activity and absolutely no need to reduce carbon emissions?

Some members of our team hold more or less that view and indeed we had Mr Ebell on the programme only last week, but we don't put such figures on every time. To do that would be a massive distortion of the scientific opinion which is overwhelmingly of the view that climate change is being influenced by human activity.

But if Newsnight stands for anything it should certainly stand against group-think, so while the broad thrust of our coverage accepts the orthodox view, we are also open to dissenting opinions. Indeed, Justin Rowlatt's latest film looks at how the production of food may be doing more damage to the environment than burning fossil fuels.

Talking of Ethical Man, is it our job to encourage people to be greener? I don't think so. There's currently huge interest among the public in leading more sustainable lifestyles and we should reflect and explore that. Jeremy may well be right that the BBC as an organisation should do more to get its house in order. But I don't think it's the BBC's job to try to save the planet. Do you?

Loans, emails and plots

Peter Barron | 16:37 UK time, Monday, 22 January 2007

Guido Fawkes, an anonymous chronicler of political plots, conspiracies and rumour has been on to me about Friday night's programme, on which we led with a story about an embarrassing email sent from one Tory to another in which he referred to a Labour agent as "the cripple".

Newsnight logoWas it a conspiracy or bias that we didn't lead with the story of the arrest of Ruth Turner, one of Tony Blair's aides, in the loans for peerages case? Neither, but I don't rule out the possibility that it was simply a misjudgement. The loans story is one which Michael Crick has been reporting on avidly over several months and he continues to dig away.

On Friday - although the arrest headline was sensational - we didn't feel we had sufficient new information or pictures to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the news output, so we led on our own original story and did Ruth Turner second.

Viewer's report

Peter Barron | 12:27 UK time, Friday, 19 January 2007

This week on Newsnight we showed a remarkable film about cocaine (which you can watch here). It was the first time I'd ever seen in such detail the peasants who make the drug - using nostril-rotting ingredients such as sulphuric acid, recycled petrol and cement - and the gangsters and drug-runners who control and distribute it.

Newsnight logoThe film started life some months ago as a short piece on YouTube made by Matthew Bristow, who lives and works in Colombia. When we announced our Oh My Newsnight film competition, Matthew's mum saw it and urged him to enter. His two minute entry duly came runner up in our viewer's poll and then Matthew contacted us to ask if we would help him make a full length version. Having seen his rushes we readily agreed and, yes, we paid him.

Newsnight's aim is to make the most interesting and challenging films from around the world. Most often that will be done by the BBC's expert correspondents and that will be the case as long as there is Newsnight. But occasionally, when viewers or independent journalists can gather material we never could, or which would take a huge amount of time and expense to achieve, it makes sense.

That's the kind of user-generated content Newsnight is looking for. Let us know if you have it.

Good money after bad?

Peter Barron | 14:58 UK time, Friday, 5 January 2007

The effectiveness, or not, of aid to Africa is an issue which comes up all the time on Newsnight. This week we spoke to Oprah Winfrey (which you can watch here) about the $40m she has spent establishing a leadership school for girls in South Africa. We also reported how, five years after the war in Sierra Leone and many millions spent in aid and debt cancellation, health provision is getting worse not better.

Newsnight logoMany are wondering these days if much of the money we spend trying to help Africa isn't good money after bad. Col Tim Collins has even gone as far as to suggest that the $14bn spent annually on UN peacekeeping in Africa has achieved absolutely nothing. Indeed, two of the countries most in receipt of western attention in recent years, Ethiopia and Somalia, have been at war over Christmas.

So, could there be a better way? As part of a series of films on Newsnight next week about how technology is changing the world our business correspondent Paul Mason will be reporting on how the advent of the mobile phone in Africa is helping to provide better services, economic growth and even democratic rights where governments and agencies have dismally failed.

As one young Kenyan puts it, we know from years of experience that governments have been unable to deliver better conditions, so why do we keep giving them money?

Paul's film goes out on Monday, but you can watch it first and exclusively here and let us know what you think.

Oh my Newsnight - results

Peter Barron | 13:38 UK time, Friday, 22 December 2006

Congratulations to Joe Blanks who - if you've been following this you'll have deduced - has won our Oh My Newsnight competition with his film about Malawi (which you can watch here).

Newsnight logoIn the spirit of the competition I don't know too much about Joe or how his film got to be made, but he appears to be just 16 and the film was the runaway winner among our viewers. I thought it was terrific - a powerful story, snappily produced, and the idea of letting British schoolchildren taste the food that goes to their African counterparts did more to humanise the issue of aid than many a professionally produced news item.

My personal favourite though was Matthew Bristow's extraordinary piece about the making of cocaine in Colombia. Some viewers grumbled that it should have been disqualified on the grounds that it had already appeared on YouTube before we announced our competition, but I think that would have inappropriately nit-picking. Matthew's film had the rare distinction of showing something I suspect most people didn't already know and had certainly never seen on TV - quite an achievement. It was also a bold idea to produce it without any commentary, making the subtitled list of the ingredients that go into making cocaine even more chilling.

Thanks to everyone who entered and took part in the discussion, the voting and indeed the controversy. I'm bewildered that anyone could seriously suggest that allowing our viewers ten
minutes out of the hundreds of hours of airtime Newsnight produces each year to tell us what they think is important is somehow a negative development. At the very least we've had a great debate about the value of user-generated content, which has surely been the media story of 2006.

So would we do it again? I hope so, but that'll depend on whether there's demand for Oh My Newsnight 2, and a fresh supply of films worth showing). Let us know.

Warning: Moron-free zone

Peter Barron | 11:23 UK time, Friday, 8 December 2006

Jasper Gerard in the Observer was scathing. "Leave us some moron-free zones," he wrote of our Oh My Newsnight experiment, which invited viewers to send us their short films. I'm not sure if he thinks his readers are morons too, but it's certainly one way of getting rid of them.

Newsnight logoHe was of course referring to Jeremy Paxman's viral marketing masterstroke of last week (you can watch it here). Until that point business had indeed been a little slow, but following prominent coverage in the Daily Telegraph, among others, contributions have rolled in and we can now present the shortlisted lucky 13.

As far as I can see there's not a funny animal or a moron among them.

There is fascinating stuff about cocaine making in Colombia, refugees returning to Northern Cyprus and how hard it is to find a paperboy in modern Britain.

You can watch them here, vote for your favourite and tell us what you think. The winners will be shown in a special moron-free zone at the end of the programme in January.

Too much conspiracy?

Peter Barron | 11:45 UK time, Friday, 1 December 2006

Wherever you turn these days there are conspiracy theories.

Newsnight logoRecently Newsnight broadcast a piece by the film-maker Shane O'Sullivan pointing to new video evidence that three CIA agents were present on the night of Bobby Kennedy's assassination. That generated loads of earnest debate across the web. Then we've had the assassinations of Pierre Gemayel and Alexander Litvinenko, and theories abound. Lord Stevens' report into the much-theorised death of Princess Diana is due any day, and almost every day new emails and attachments land in our in-boxes pointing to apparent discrepancies in the official version of 9/11, with titles like The South Tower Napalm Bomb Seventh View.

While the conspiracy theory has long been with us, the internet has allowed it to become an exploding and intriguing growth industry. But how much of this stuff should we report?

When Shane came to us saying he thought he had new evidence in the Bobby Kennedy case of course my first reaction was "oh yeah", but when he showed me the video of the three alleged CIA agents, and the testimony of former colleagues who positively identified them, I was convinced the material at least raises new questions - without buying into a grand theory which explains exactly what happened.

Last night an amateur film-maker spoke to me about his belief that there's been a huge cover-up in the official reporting of both 9/11 and 7/7. Why, he asked, doesn't the BBC report the many discrepancies and oddities surrounding the accounts of these hugely significant events?

In fact, on Newsnight we have briefly examined some of these questions, but we've barely scratched the surface of the icebergs of material which float around the web.

The reason we haven't gone deeper is that there's surely no rational explanation for the attacks other than that they were carried out by two groups of Islamist terrorists, however puzzling some of apparent inconsistencies.

But I would say that the fact a conspiracy theory surrounds a story should never be a reason either to run with it or reject it. Take, for example, the stories of white phosphorous at Fallujah and Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. One true, one rubbish. But it would be a big mistake to make up your mind until you've had a look.

Appear on Newsnight, or not

Peter Barron | 10:32 UK time, Friday, 24 November 2006

A few weeks back we launched Oh My Newsnight, an invitation to make a short film for the programme to run early next year. Of course we're not alone in asking viewers to provide User Generated Content - these days everybody seems to be at it.

Newsnight logoAt least, lots of programmes, but I'm not so sure lots of users are.

We asked you to send us a film of around two minutes duration on any subject of your choice. And yes, we've had a few offerings so far, but very much of the YouTube "me and my cat" variety.

What's surprising is that while many viewers are prepared to sit down and create lengthy and thoughtful blogs about what we're doing on Newsnight - or what we should be doing - which will be read by about 50,000 hardened blog watchers, almost noone seems to want to commit those thoughts to video, with a potential audience of a million viewers.

So, this is last orders ladies and gentlemen. If you want to get your message across there is a short time left to get cracking with camera, webcam or mobile phone. If your message is you'd rather leave it to us, that's also fine.

Or maybe your view coincides with that of the Daily Show's Jon Stewart in this fabulous savaging of CNN's efforts in the field of User Generated Content.

Inside al-Qaeda

Peter Barron | 13:23 UK time, Thursday, 16 November 2006

It's rare to speak to someone who's been a member of al-Qaeda, and rare too to interview a spy. On tonight's Newsnight - events permitting - we'll do both in a special programme entitled Inside al-Qaeda: A Spy's Story.

Newsnight logoThe BBC's security correspondent Gordon Corera has - over a period of many months - obtained exclusive access to Omar Nasiri - not his real name - who worked for European security agencies during the 1990s and infiltrated al-Qaeda both in the camps of Afghanistan and in terror cells in London.

His story is extraordinary, revealing the extent of al-Qaeda's preparations - years before 9/11 - to target the west, but also the British authorities' lack of awareness of the growing threat of Islamic terrorism. It'll be an unusual edition of Newsnight - more documentary than daily news - but I think it's one not to miss. You can watch a preview clip by clicking here.

Investigating Hizb ut-Tahrir

Peter Barron | 15:28 UK time, Wednesday, 15 November 2006

Many viewers have written to complain about Newsnight's film on radical Islam (which we broadcast yesterday, and you can watch here), and particularly the accusations made in the course of the film concerning the grouping Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Newsnight logoSome believed that the film was politically motivated and that we had set out with an agenda to discredit Hizb ut-Tahrir. That was not the case.

This joint File on Four/Newsnight project set out to look into the radicalisation of British Muslim youth across a broad range - in mosques, universities and on the internet. In the course of that investigation we came across a range of evidence, including first-hand accounts from four key contributors about the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir and some of its adherents.

These contributors were Sheikh Musa Admani, Imam at the London Metropolitan University, Shuaib Yusaf, a trustee at Croydon mosque, a former Hizb ut-Tahrir supporter called Jawad and an anonymous undercover researcher who we called J, who has attended Hizb ut-Tahrir meetings. I believe their allegations - which directly contradict the organisation's publicly stated position - are serious and worthy of examination.

As well as many emails of complaint, Newsnight has been contacted since the broadcast with further expressions of concern based on first-hand knowledge of Hizb ut-Tahrir's aims and methods.

Some viewers complained that the Hizb ut-Tahrir spokesman Dr Abdul Wahid, who appeared live on the programme to discuss the film, was unfairly interrupted by Jeremy Paxman (you can watch the interview here). I agree that following a lengthy segment detailing several accusations about the organisation Dr Wahid needed time to respond properly. Jeremy Paxman's interview was typically robust, but during the course of the four-minute interview Dr Wahid was given an ample opportunity to put across his position and address the key issues raised by the film.

Go on, make TV history

Peter Barron | 11:46 UK time, Friday, 10 November 2006

It may have an ugly acronym but UGC is the current media darling. It's not hard to see why user generated content is so attractive. With millions of potential newsgatherers wielding mobile phones and cameras, it means they can capture anything newsworthy or entertaining that moves. If, as a media organisation, you can get it to come your way - kerr-ching.

Newsnight logoBut in the related field of current affairs, UGC hasn't roared yet. Al Gore's Current TV has led the way in broadcasting films made by the public, but while 7/7 and the Buncefield fire have been the obvious big UGC hits in news, and whacky "You've been framed" type pictures do the rounds from YouTube, there hasn't yet been a really memorable and arresting bit of current affairs. Indeed, the first wave of TV democratisation - Video Nation - has had much more impact than anything from the new wave.

We're aiming to change that by launching the more smoothly titled Oh My Newsnight (homage to the Korean pioneers in this area. Newsnight already receives loads of high quality UGC in the form of text - check out for example Vikingar's almost nightly essays complete with sources and footnotes - but very little in a form we could put on TV.

So early next year we're offering slots on the programme for short films and pieces of video made by viewers. It doesn't have to be high quality (see Jeremy's effort ) but it does have to say something interesting about the world we live in. Given that large numbers of you tell us on a nightly basis how we should be tackling the war in Iraq, climate change, Madonna etc, it would be disappointing not to see and hear what you would like to say on the programme.

What do you get out of it? A chance to speak to a million viewers. A chance to make TV history. And, I hope, a warm glow.

For details of how to take part click here.

Material facts

Peter Barron | 11:27 UK time, Friday, 3 November 2006

I hesitate to say more because I know many Newsnight fans truly hated the Madonna experience (which you can still watch here), but to put the subject to bed here are a few quick facts and figures.

Newsnight logoIt was certainly popular. Our audience share doubled, nearly three million watching three or more minutes of the interview. Grubby talk I know.

It was controversial, though not as controversial as the previous week's Taleban film. That attracted 300 comments to this blog. So far Madonna stands at half that. Most have been debating the rights and wrongs of the adoption, but a few think the episode signalled the end of a once-great TV institution.

Was it newsworthy? The interview spawned hundreds of articles worldwide, so if it wasn't that's an awful lot of us with rubbish news judgement.

Madonna, on that set..Regrets? Just a few, number one being that set. Yes, we should have tried harder to restrain the flamboyance of Madonna's stylist, which surely didn't do her any favours either. As one viewer put it: "Just promise me no more petals". I promise.

Interviewing Madonna

Peter Barron | 09:36 UK time, Wednesday, 1 November 2006

What's harder to get - an interview with the Taleban or one with Madonna?

Newsnight logoNot much in it I'd say, but assuming all goes to plan Newsnight will have managed both within a week. Tonight Madonna will give her first UK interview since adopting a baby in Malawi, when she talks to Kirsty Wark. (you can watch a clip here)

The question on most people's lips is - how on earth did you manage that? The answer, really, is persistence and luck. Newsnight has been making a series for BBC Four in which Kirsty talks to prominent women in the media - we already have interviews with Tracey Emin, Alison Jackson and Janine di Giovanni lined up. And of course we bid for that ultimate media woman Madonna.

And of course she turned us down.

Madonna, being interviewed by Kirsty WarkBut when the story of the adoption of David Banda broke, producer Natalie Schaverien had the presence of mind to fire off a renewed bid. So, presumably, when the queen of pop decided the time was right to give her side of the story we had sufficiently prepared the ground so she instantly thought: Oprah Winfrey and Newsnight's Kirsty Wark. Obvious really.

So, was Madonna right or wrong to adopt a Malawian baby? And is Newsnight right to interview her?

Talking to the enemy?

Peter Barron | 12:08 UK time, Thursday, 26 October 2006

Newsnight logoThe Taleban are fighting to kill British soliders in Afghanistan, they burn schools and support al-Qaeda. So is it right to talk to them?

For Newsnight, David Loyn spent months trying to make contact with the Taleban leadership, and on Wednesday we showed his extraordinary film in which he travelled to Helmand province to interview their official spokesman for the first time (you can see it here).

The Conservative defence spokesman Liam Fox called that "obscene", and the Daily Mail reported the views of the father of one British soldier who thought the BBC has acted irreponsibly, "undermining the war effort".

David Loyn interviews Taleban spokesman Dr Mahammed AnifShould the BBC report from the other side of the lines? We believe we should as long as we act with careful thought and do nothing to put the lives of British soldiers at risk. David Loyn's report showed how the Taleban operate in southern Afghanistan, how they view the British and Americans and how they plan to take their campaign forward through suicide bombings. He challenged their spokesman on the Taleban's campaign of violence against Nato's efforts at reconstruction, their burning of schools and rejection of democracy.

Some believe it is disloyal to our armed forces to film the enemy. But if we agreed not to show them, isn't that just a small step away from censorship and pro-government propaganda?

Have Newsnight your way

Peter Barron | 16:21 UK time, Friday, 20 October 2006

Gavin Esler used to start his viewer e-mail with a quote of the day, but stopped this week as we're trying to make our programme summary shorter and more to the point (tell us what you think). Typically, as soon as you stop doing something, great material comes along.

Newsnight logoI loved this quote from Lord Harris, Margaret Thatcher's free market guru, who has died. "The market can cater for the tiniest minorities - those who like fancy waistcosts, or the collected works of Ted Heath".

I assume Lord Harris revelled in the market possibilities of the internet. Once, for example, the extent of your choice was to watch Newsnight or not watch it. Now you can watch it live, on time shift, on the website, on your iPod, and from this weekend in a variety of new ways.

Our weekly podcast of the best bits of the programme has been doing a brisk business. So next week we'll be offering a daily highlight to download. Let us know what you'd like - films, discussions or shorter clips?

And for those who don't want to download the podcast, you can now watch the collection of the best moments on News 24 over the weekend - it's called The Week on Newsnight.

It's interesting though that however you offer something, some people will always want it served up slightly differently.

One media journalist with a busy social life told me this week that from her point of view the best thing we could do is say at the end of the programme: "And exactly the same edition of Newsnight is starting now on BBC Four".

It's what Lord Harris would have wanted.

'600,000 killed': Is that a story?

Peter Barron | 12:41 UK time, Friday, 13 October 2006

Here's a relatively new phenomenon, you might call it "e-mails before broadcast".

Newsnight logoWhen the story broke of the Lancet report into civilian deaths in Iraq it was accompanied by a rash of e-mails from anti-war groups urging us to run the story. Did that influence us?

Well, yes in the sense that I learned of the story from an anti-war campaigner who e-mails me regularly. But also no. When I took the report into our morning meeting where none of the producers had yet seen it, there was instant and unanimous agreement that - while the claim was in some people's view not credible - it was easily the most significant development of the day.

Then there was a second wave of e-mails. Not really suggesting we don't do the story, but urging that, if we do, to note that even the authors claim that it is of "limited precision". Don't be bullied by the anti-war lobby, they said. Thanks, we won't.

Then, as other news outlets started to report the story, there was a third wave of e-mails, this time saying sophisticated things like: please don't interview so and so, he doesn't know what he's talking about, if you're looking for a critic of the report please try to find an epidemiologist and not just a pundit, and even: please don't make the same schoolboy statistical error as your colleagues on xy news.

Are these unsolicited interventions helpful or unhelpful? The former, I think, as long as we read them with eyes wide open. You might argue that it would be purer to ignore the pressure from all quarters, but I think lobbying can actually improve our journalism, as long as it's not corrupt, that access to the editors of programmes is equally available to everyone (via e-mail it is) and that we question everything we're told.

Do I have any proof of this? Here's some unscientific evidence. We got fewer e-mails on this subject after broadcast than we did before.

What not to wear

Peter Barron | 15:23 UK time, Thursday, 5 October 2006

The hot debate in BBC News at the moment concerns a hypothetical question. What would we do if a newsreader of Muslim origin returned from holiday in Pakistan and said that from now on she wants to read the news wearing a headscarf?

Newsnight logoTricky, certainly. But I think the chances of that particular scenario happening are so unlikely it's not worth worrying about unduly. It's far more likely surely that one day soon a Muslim journalist who happens to wear a headscarf will become a reporter and then a presenter on national television. I reckon it might cause a stir for a day or two and then we'd all carry on. On Newsnight, Hardeep Singh Kohli has been presenting Newsnight Review for more than a year wearing a turban - sometimes a shocking pink one - and as far as I'm aware the world has not ended.

Then Jeremy went to interview a group of schoolchildren on the day Tony Blair went on Blue Peter (watch the piece here), and the fact that he went to a school in Southall where the vast majority of pupils are not white caused shrieks of displeasure from some viewers. How typical, they suggested, that Newsnight should pick such a school.

But the thing is it's not typical. The vast majority of the guests we book on Newsnight are male, white and middle-aged, so are the majority of our viewers. And as Paul Mason's internal poshometer shows, Newsnight staff are hardly representative of the nation as a whole either.

You might say that's fine then. But what will happen in Britain if sizeable minorities feel that the news is not about people like them, not made by people like them, not for people like them. Problems ahead I'd suggest, but at least the headscarf conundrum might remain hypothetical.

Were we having a laugh?

Peter Barron | 16:11 UK time, Friday, 29 September 2006

After a tough day at the office I sat down last night to watch Ricky Gervais's Extras for a bit of light relief. This week's episode was a piercing study of media distortion and irresponsible journalism.

Newsnight logoGreat. The Ministry of Defence had been accusing us all day of being guilty of both.

On Wednesday, we revealed the contents of a leaked research paper written by an officer at the MOD Defence Academy which questioned the success of the "war on terror" and suggested that Pakistan's secret service has been indirectly aiding Al Qaeda.

We didn't claim these were the official views of the MOD or the government - indeed many are quite the opposite - but we think they were both newsworthy and significant.

At first, before transmission, the MOD told us the paper was "a student essay". Then, following the broadcast, journalists were briefed that these were "just the jottings" of a junior officer. Eventually it was confirmed that the document had been written by a naval commander.

That was our understanding all along, indeed this particular commander had recently been working in the US on behalf of the Chief of Staff on Iraq, Afghanistan and the Global War on Terrorism. And the document wasn't some dusty academic study, it was due to form the basis of a forthcoming meeting of experts on the war on terror. So who is doing the distorting here?

We agree of course that these issues are sensitive and deadly serious and we must handle them with great care. But it's also the case that at present there is no greater public interest issue than the highly controversial prosecution of what's known as the war on terror.

Surely responsible journalism is to try to penetrate the fog of that war?

Hoping for the best

Peter Barron | 16:02 UK time, Friday, 22 September 2006

Every time we run an item about climate change - which let's face it is quite often - we get a number of complaints about media hysteria.

Newsnight logo"Oh no! Branson has just pledged 3 billion to fight Global Warming. ANOTHER excuse for Newsnight to champion the cause. It is becoming so tiresome."

"By your own standards tonight's item on global warming was a disgrace... One oversimplified interpretation of global warming is now force-fed to the public."

"Exxon funding groups critical of the increasing hysteria around climate change? Great news!"

Then you get articles like Tom Utley's in the Mail today, railing against the bien pensants of the BBC, using to dismiss concerns about melting ice-caps his own ice-in-gin-and-tonic theory. It goes like this. If the doomsayers are right why doesn't your gin and tonic overflow when the ice melts?

I remember debating that one myself - a little incoherently - over iced drinks in my student days about 20 year ago.

So are we at the BBC peddling some sinister international climate change myth, or are sceptics like Mr Utley in hock to the CO2 nay-sayers of big business?

Neither I think. For years on Newsnight we've reported concerns about the effects of climate change with caution, due scepticism and balance. But at a certain point I think you've got to assemble all the available evidence and decide whether the threat is real or not. I think we're past that point and that the threat is real.

It doesn't necessarily mean, as Mr Utley mocks, that his beloved Norfolk will be under the sea any time soon, it's much more likely surely that Britain will feel the strain from the refugees from the effects of climate change who will make their way to our shores.

So what explains the staying power of the sceptics' argument?

One possibility is that they're right. But I think the real reason is that subconsciously many of us hope they're right. If Mr Blair really believed climate change was a bigger threat than terrorism, for example, wouldn't he devote more of his energies more urgently to it?

And Ethical Man aside, wouldn't you and I change our lifestyles more than the bits around the edges we've done so far?

I think most of us have an inner George Bush, or a part which is in denial and believes it can 't be as bad as all that, that surely something will turn up.

I hope we're right.

X-Factor for Africa?

Peter Barron | 12:49 UK time, Friday, 15 September 2006

I’ve been at a seminar entitled: “Telling stories in an interconnected world: the challenge to broadcasting”.

Newsnight logoThe details of the discussion are off the record but I hope no one minds me quoting the title.

The challenge is pretty huge. We chatted, admittedly in the cloistered comfort of a Cambridge college, with all sorts of TV types, academics, and pressure groups about some of the big issues - climate change, China, the developing world - and the recurring concern is that fewer and fewer people want to watch programmes about that stuff.

As you’re reading this you’re probably one of the few, and I’m sure you worry too that in a digital age many viewers, particularly young viewers, simply tune out of news and current affairs, if the TV was even on in the first place.

The aim of the conference was - what to do about it.

I’ve always been deeply suspicious of the idea that you can sugar the pill of current affairs by coating it in a game show gloss. X-Factor for Africa anyone?

But many are convinced people are actually thirstier than ever for information and ideas about the issues they care about, and that they often think news programmes don’t deliver those.

One problem is that we have tended to report what politicians, countries, and international organisations are doing, when viewers are much more interested in what people are doing and in issues which transcend national borders.

By happy accident we did a bit of transcending this week with our programme on the best public services in the world. The idea was to look at what people - and okay, governments - are doing around the planet to improve their quality of life and see what lessons we could learn from that in Britain.

On Wednesday we featured healthcare in Cuba, transport in Portland, Oregon, education in Qatar and prisons in Denmark, and asked a group of interested parties, practitioners and - perhaps crucially -not Westminster politicians to discuss them.

The overwhelmingly positive response suggests that in this undoubted challenge we may be on to something.

Inappropriate language?

Peter Barron | 14:21 UK time, Friday, 8 September 2006

There's always been a debate about what is and isn't acceptable on TV news programmes, and now that we have blogs, forums and podcasts it's only getting more complicated. And should Newsnight's on-line persona be exactly the same as that on TV? Here are a few of this week's posers.

Newsnight logo• Our Ethical Man Justin Rowlatt caused a degree of outrage when, in a film about cycling proficiency (watch it here), he asked a youngster if he was "pissed off". By today's standards that's hardly obscene and I'm sure the minor in question had heard, and probably said, much worse, but I must admit I spluttered into my cocoa watching at home.

On the other hand, when I used the term "crap prizes" in a response on this blog, I was surprised that some viewers thought that was inappropriate language for the editor of Newsnight, even in an obscure corner of the blogosphere.

• A few of you have been writing on the blog complaining that some of your comments have been censored and asking why. In short, I don't know. On Newsnight, we censor nothing that appears on the site, but we do employ an outside moderating company who check for, among other things, "profane, abusive or threatening language" (full guidelines here).

So, in response to a question about graffiti scrawled on his abandoned car, the foul-mouthed Justin's strictly factual response was barred from publication. I'm not going to repeat it here, but it begins with "w".

• Where does informality end and falling standards begin? Yesterday on the website, we asked you - as a diverting pastime while we waited for Mr Blair - to construct a statement which might get the PM off the hook. About 300 hundred of you obliged, but one bridled: "I find this exercise pretty stupid for the level that BBC and Newsnight traditionally were holding and still claim to hold."

• I enjoyed the fact that when Laura Kuenssberg said that Jack Straw had been talking in the past tense some of you pulled her up, pointing out he was actually talking in the present perfect (the operative phrase was "has been"). Then again - as some of you have also raised - the standard of spelling and grammar among viewers' contributions to the blog is sometimes pretty appalling. Not what we would expect from Newsnight viewers.

Newsnight graphic• Two quick ones which raised eyebrows inside and outside the programme. Tony Blair portrayed as Christ at the Last Supper as an illustration of that memo. Blasphemy or genius? And what about Kirsty's description of Gordon Brown's command and control network as Al-Qaeda-like? One of our own programme editors thought that was appalling.

Lady with the tray on her head

Peter Barron | 12:15 UK time, Friday, 1 September 2006

Which item on Newsnight over the past week has generated the most press enquiries?

Newsnight logoWas it Susan Watts' investigation into stem cell treatments? Many anxious viewers suffering from MS and other incurable conditions contacted us after that one, but there were just a couple of press calls. Was it our series on the best public services in the world, which this week featured the revolution in education in Qatar, where the female teachers wear the full veil? No, although you can read about the series in this week's New Statesman and next Monday in the Daily Mirror.

flint.jpgWhat really got the press going this week was last Friday's encounter between Emily Maitlis and the Health Minister Caroline Flint. The interview was about the parlous state of the NHS's computer systems involving the troubled company iSoft.

It was a good story, but it wasn't that which interested the press pack. Ms Flint was doing her interview down the line from a camera in the BBC Sheffield newsroom. As she spoke a woman wove casually past in the background, as people often do in newsroom shots. She was carrying a full tray of teas. Not unusual. Balanced on her head. (Watch it here.)

The press office phones went mad. Who was the mysterious woman with the deft tea-tray skills? I rang our colleagues at Radio Sheffield who told me she's the lady who tidies up the office in the evenings. She's been getting the teas in like this for years. No-one there bats an eyelid.

"Did I want a word?" You bet. So, for all those inquisitive hacks out there I can reveal that our head-carrying heroine is Nana Amoatin, originally from Ghana. "It's not that difficult", says Nana, "anyone could do it".

The attraction

Peter Barron | 11:20 UK time, Tuesday, 29 August 2006

Following my last post one viewer thought it was outrageous that the editor of Newsnight should be taking part in Stars in their Eyes at the Edinburgh TV Festival. Why?

Peter Barron as Elvis Costello
But in the main, thanks for your support and touching concern for my IBS. In the end, the extraordinary skill of the production team meant none of us was actually all that nervous when it came to our moment of glory, live in front of an audience of around a thousand highly discerning TV types.

I did Elvis Costello's Oliver's Army and thought it went pretty well - but the result was never in doubt as Wall to Wall's Alex Graham was a truly awesome Joe Cocker.

Now there's an odd and slightly empty feeling getting up in the morning without having to worry about the key change.

Stress in the workplace

Peter Barron | 12:05 UK time, Friday, 25 August 2006

Earlier this week the BBC in-house mag e-mailed me to see if we could help with an item they’re doing about stress in the workplace.

Newsnight logoI couldn’t think of much to say. Obviously Newsnight has its moments, but generally it’s not a particularly stressy environment – not like air traffic control or A&E or 24-hour news. And then Wednesday happened.

We had a much sought-after interview with the Monarch Two, the two Asian lads from Manchester thrown off a holiday flight for freaking out the passengers. The Daily Mirror got the scoop and for some reason offered the only TV interviews to ITV News and Newsnight.

So there was quite a lot riding on it. When at 8.30pm – two hours before we go on air – our producer called from Manchester to say that not a single frame of the interview they’d recorded was usable because of a tape fault, our motormouth programme editor Jasmin simply responded “I don’t know what to say”, and my long dormant IBS started to play up.

Incredibly, we managed to persuade the boys to re-do the interview and with superhuman assistance from the BBC’s Northern bureau got a satellite truck to their hotel to do an as-live interview just in time for the programme at 10.30. I bet no viewer spotted our close shave with televisual death, but yes that was stressful.

I’m writing this in Edinburgh, where I’m undergoing a different type of stress. Months ago I agreed – who knows why – to take part in a special TV Festival edition of Stars in their Eyes. Obviously the protocols of the show forbid me from saying who I’m going to be, but the process is not without anxiety.

On holiday earlier in the summer - a particularly stress-free time – I was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, and his theory goes that when people are put in situations of intense stress they become momentarily autistic. That, he reckons, explains why policemen occasionally shoot innocent people.

Not sure about autistic, but clumsy certainly. It’s apparently to do with the blood rushing to your core and thus leaving your fingers. So when, in rehearsal, the host Vernon Kay declared – hypothetically – that I had won the event, my victory salute caught him sharply in the groin.

These are the stresses we have to endure.

Redesign Newsnight's website

Peter Barron | 16:25 UK time, Thursday, 17 August 2006

In recent months the Newsnight website has been growing like Leylandii. Podcasts, vodcasts, blog, forum etc. And as result of this rapid organic growth it's become a bit unruly.

Newsnight logoSome of you aren't impressed. Ian Mc sent us this - "I don't think I've seen such a mess of a home page since... well, I don't know when... Web designers should ALWAYS remember: just because it can be done, doesn't mean it should be done."

Stung by that challenge we've resolved to enter a period of rationalisation.

Let us know what you love and hate, what you visit all the time, what you never visit but are glad is there. Some of you have said - is your forum a forum or is it a blog, and vice versa? Does it matter what it is? Tell us what would make it better.

Is there simply too much stuff? Website design fashion seems these days to be heading towards the minimal, personally I like the excitement of having loads to explore. What do you reckon?

Do you want to read long articles, view video, download podcasts or talk to each other? If there was a Newsnight Club, with all sorts of low cost freebies, would you join? And are there features we should quietly put out of their misery? In our office the cry of "Kill Gordaq" has gone up. Should we?

The pruning shears are in your hands.

Talk about scepticism

Peter Barron | 13:15 UK time, Friday, 11 August 2006

On Newsnight we've long hankered after our own website forum. With an opinionated, argumentative, computer-literate audience it's a marriage made in heaven. So, as we launched Talk about Newsnight this week our correspondents queued up to expose themselves to your views.

Newsnight logoFirst up: Justin Rowlatt - already a successful multi-media figure as Ethical Man and the recipient of around a thousand clunky old emails this year. A bright new age beckoned.

"This 'ethical man' crap has got to be one of the worst ideas Newsnight has ever had. An entire year? That's not serious journalism, that's moronic daytime-magazine-programme s***e. Good luck with the blog though." wrote Kate, rather charmingly by the end.

"Welcome to blogging Justin", added our business correspondent Paul Mason, in what I think was solidarity.

We launched the forum properly on Thursday and the timing - coinciding with the huge news of the foiled alleged terror plot - could hardly have been better. As our deputy editor, Daniel "King of the Blogs" Pearl, spends his evenings discovering, the great attribute of the blogger is scepticism. Sceptics duly flocked to his posting (also here), Peter Simmons summing up the mood.

"It now transpires that bottles of pop are suspect, MI6 must have just seen the Tango ads and thought 'whoo, that looks dangerous'. This is sounding more and more like a farce, dressed up by the government to frighten old ladies into not flying. Meanwhile, in Lebanon...".

Don't the trusting or the gullible ever go blogging?

As I write I've just noticed this, from the improbably named Gully Burns of California. Is Gully gullible, or just sensible?

"I live in Los Angeles. People here respond to the news with immediate relief and support for the security services. There is almost no thought of the secondary implications, or having any sort of suspicion that the timing of the event is in any way related to Lebanon, Iraq or any other theatre of conflict. I personally feel that congratulations are in order to the police for this coup. All the complainants on this post would certainly be shocked and horrified if the events described today had come true, and they would then probably be complaining that the police didn't do their jobs."

In truth, one of Newsnight's aims in life is to be heartily sceptical, so we can hardly be surprised at our viewers' demeanour. But personally my favourite piece of the week displayed no edge, no cynicism, no controversy. It was the rediscovered gem of Harold Baim's travel film showing the beautiful place that Lebanon was in the more innocent age of the 1960s (watch it here) - now a tragic and poignant document.

Perhaps you hated it?

Paxman was right

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Peter Barron | 14:20 UK time, Friday, 4 August 2006

Though it pains me to say it, Jeremy Paxman's new media vision has been proved comprehensively right.

Newsnight logoViewers prefer their TV with pictures. Following the launch just last week of Newsnight's video podcast, our digital digest of the best bits of the week has shot straight to number one in iTunes news podcast chart. Ms Kitcast has been duly dispatched and Ricky Gervais, who has dominated the overall podcast chart for months, sleeps a little less easily as Paxman and co. storm to number 14 in that chart. For those without the technology or a quaint preference for TV without pictures, the traditional podcast is still available at number 30 .

On this week's chart-topping edition there's another chance to see the week's most controversial moment - oddly enough from the comfortable world of designer knitwear. On Monday we asked the fashion designer Bella Freud to take part in a discussion among members of Britain's Jewish diaspora about their reaction to the events in Lebanon. Ms Freud's empassioned denunciation of the Israeli offensive provoked plenty of comment.

"Why on Earth have you got a fashion designer yarbling on about the Lebanon crisis?" wrote Neil Briscoe from Bristol, reflecting the view of many. Good word that, yarbling.

But Penelope Allen of Cornwall disagreed. "What a lovely lady Bella Freud is, if only all people behaved the way she does the world would be a better place." Better dressed too.

Even family members of the production team joined in. Download the podcast to check out the choice language of one - she'd better stay anonymous - who phoned in to berate her relative's booking.

Controversial too, and timely, was John Harris's report (watch here) this week on Cuba's healthcare system to launch our series on the Best Public Services in the World.

Of course, as many of you pointed out, Cuba's communist system has all manner of problems, but the statistics show that Cuba's health record compares very favourably with countries of the first world. Two points leapt out of John's report - Cuba's poverty has taught the country's health professionals that prevention is cheaper than cure, and because of the US embargo most Cubans live on the equivalent of war-time rations. During the Second World War, we Britons weren't obese either.

The aim of the exercise is not to suggest we import Cuban healthcare practices wholesale into Britain, but given the challenging state of our own public services, surely we'd be mad or very arrogant to think there's nothing we can learn from them.

And this is where we'd like your help. Many - probably most - subscribers to this blog and to our podcast are living abroad. Leave a comment and let us know what works where you are in terms of healthcare, education, transport, criminal justice. Or state broadcasting.

Peter Barron is editor of Newsnight

On with the music

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Peter Barron | 15:57 UK time, Friday, 28 July 2006

I feel like one of those DJs who comes back from a break. "...And thanks to Simon who's been keeping my seat warm during the hols," they used to say through gritted teeth with an anxious eye on the ratings to see if they'd gone up. So thanks to Newsnight's Deputy Editor Daniel Pearl, whose entry on the editors' blog last week broke all box office records in terms of comments posted. Yeah, thanks a lot mate.

Newsnight logoActually, I could claim there's been a steadily upward trend of which Daniel has been the beneficiary. The fact is these days we get so many comments, suggestions and complaints that our webmasters Ian and Stuart are struggling to cope. They wade through the heaving inbox each morning - there were 300 odd for example after last night's Animal Testing debate
and thousands on our coverage of the Middle East crisis - but is it really the best use of their creative minds to spend hours everyday cutting and pasting your comments on to the site? It doesn't feel very modern.

So we reckon it's time - overdue you might say - for your comments to take on a life of their own. Taking a leaf from the success of The Editors blog across BBC News, Newsnight will shortly allow you to send your comments direct to the correspondent, editor, possibly even the presenter responsible for the piece in question.

Many of you of course, like Eric, do that already - it doesn't take a genius to work out the BBC e-mail addresses go - but now you'll be able to direct your ire or appreciation to a particular piece or individual, share that with everyone else, and get into further protracted dispute with other viewers who may disagree. All guaranteed not to languish unread in an overflowing inbox.

This has caused a little DJ-like holiday disquiet to Paul Mason, Newsnight's cream cracker among bloggers - the original and still best. Paul's cult offering has been going for months and in his latest posting - not untypically titled Giotto, Giolitti, graft, Gramsci... - he muses about what might happen in Newsnight's blogosphere in his absence in Italy.

I don't think he should be too worried. As business correspondent and technology dilettante he'd be the first to question the utility these days of protectionism - though Gramsci might disagree - and I'd be amazed if there's anyone else on the programme who'll be as prolific.

The point is you'll be able to choose whether you want to read and discuss all the comments made about Newsnight pieces, or just about particular items, or the blogs of Paul or another correspondent, even - who knows - the thoughts of Daniel Pearl.

All that coming soon. In the meantime, this week's new arrival is the long-awaited Newsnight vodcast, a video podcast featuring the best bits of the programme. This week's includes Monday's debate asking if there in an institutionalised bias in our reporting of the Middle East, David Grossman on political memoirs and excerpts from Thursday's Animal Rights debate from Oxford.

Tell us what you think of it, or indeed Martha's pink and white dress code.

PS I need at least 152 comments please.

Peter Barron is editor of Newsnight

What should Newsnight be?

Peter Barron | 15:14 UK time, Friday, 7 July 2006

If you read this column regularly you probably subscribe to Newsnight’s daily email. But as of the last couple of weeks it’s also been available in a different corner of the web, to a much larger audience, on the BBC’s new blog called The Editors. If you’ve arrived here via one route you might want to take a look at the other.

Newsnight logoThe reason I mention this is that normally we’d use this column to tackle the subject which has provoked the most feedback, but since The Editors site has been on fire all week about the rights and wrongs of our Scottish car experiment (and I accept there are many - including some at the BBC - who think we got this wrong), I’m going to suggest moving on to a new, if not unrelated, seam.

One of the things that struck me about the torrents of comments we received about the car item was that many viewers questioned if this was the sort of thing a “serious news programme” should be doing.

    Come on Newsnight. This isn’t the sort of attempted sensationalist dumbed down news we expect from you”
    "It's a totally incongruous notion for a so-called serious news programme."

A new logo for Newsnight?One blog (Beau Bo D’Or) even suggested a rebranding as News of the Night.

They’re not alone in questioning what Newsnight should be. Our resident grumpy old man Eric Dickens sees two factions within the programme – 'Old Newsnight' and the 'Modernisers' - and clearly favours the former. I hesitate to mention Emily Bell again, but in our (good natured) discussions about Newsnight she displays a suspicion of items like Justin Rowlatt’s Ethical Man and Michael Crick’s World Cup tour and cries “more news on Newsnight”.

So was there a Newsnight golden age when all items were pure, serious and relentlessly high-minded? I don’t think so.

The first episode of NewsnightIf you look at the very first edition 26 years ago (watch it here) it is pretty heavy duty stuff: industrial relations, tension in the Gulf and the Soviet war in Afghanistan. But in those days there was also a sports section, and I’m prepared to bet that at the time many were critical of Peter Snow’s analysis of the Afghan conflict using a sandpit and model tanks. What are toys doing on a serious news programme?

I first started on Newsnight in 1990 as a junior producer and worked under two editors – Tim Gardam and Peter Horrocks (now head of BBC TV News). Both were of course committed to serious journalism, analysis and intelligent debate, but in my experience equally committed to wit, mischief and humour. I suspect if you asked a focus group to think of words to sum up Jeremy Paxman, who joined the programme in that era, they might come up with all those words and a few more besides.

Newsnight's car is attacked in GlasgowProgrammes must, of course, evolve as times change – if they didn’t they would, like Grandstand and Top of the Pops, eventually go out of business. And there is no tablet of stone on which it’s written what Newsnight or any other programme should be. Take Top Gear. Who’d have thought that what was once all William Woollard and driving gloves would one day have a studio audience and be trashing reasonably-priced saloons?

Anyway, let us know what you think Newsnight should and shouldn’t be by leaving a comment below. Or if you want to talk trashing cars, click here, or maybe try Top Gear.

Scottish experiments

Peter Barron | 13:14 UK time, Thursday, 6 July 2006

Newsnight logoIt's been drawn to my attention that our archest critic in the debate over our St George's flag bedecked car experiment, the Sunday Mail, isn't averse to a bit of experimentation itself.

Here's their piece from 4 June.

    "St George Makes Us Cross (by David Taylor)
    Five days to go until the greatest show on Earth kicks off. So should we rally round the flag and support England in the World Cup?
    "Don't talk rubbish" was the literal message as we put Scots to a light-hearted test with a giant England flag yesterday. Talk about showing a red (and white) flag to a bull - we took our St George's cross attached to the bonnet of a parked car round four cities - and in two it was stolen and binned within an hour.
    In Edinburgh, our flag was trashed after just 17 minutes -while Glasgow punters put up with it for half an hour longer. And in Dundee, lads even gave it a two-finger salute - silly really, as the flag can't answer back. Our completely unscientific survey involved parking the beflagged car in George Square, Glasgow, Leith Walk, Edinburgh, Perth Road, Dundee and Union Street, Aberdeen.
    Our photographer hid to watch what happened. In Leith, locals were tolerant - for 16 minutes. Then two bare-chested lads ripped it off the bonnet and jogged off to stuff it in one of the city's industrial bins. The flag lasted 50 minutes in Glasgow, although we overheard shouts of "put a brick through the window". Then a young, casually-dressed man detatched the flag, crunched it into a ball and binned it.
    In Dundee's Perth Road, the flag remained intact for more than two hours. But bizarrely, a group of lads heckled it - and even threw it a V-sign. The flag drew little more than suspicious glances from well- behaved Aberdonians. But it did confuse a parking warden - he was so busy looking at the flag, he forgot to check the car's parking ticket. Maybe he was English...

"The BBC was last night accused of staging a stunt to portray Scotland as a nation of English-hating thugs" screamed the Sunday Mail on 2 July.

Just fancy that.

Car watch

Peter Barron | 13:13 UK time, Wednesday, 5 July 2006

Newsnight logoScottish Nationalist MP Pete Wishart left a comment on my previous entry, saying he had tabled an Early Day Motion in protest at our experiment which sent a car covered in St George's flags to Scotland. We invited the SNP on the programme last night, which you can watch here.

Stunt attack

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Peter Barron | 13:39 UK time, Monday, 3 July 2006

We've had a bit of heat from the Scottish papers for Friday night's piece by Tim Samuels in which he drove a car around Scotland bedecked in St George's flags ahead of England's big game with Portugal (watch it here).

Newsnight logoTim's experiment met with a gamut of reaction, ranging from good-natured banter, well-meaning foul language, even expressions of support for England, but when he left it unattended in the Gallowgate area of Glasgow it was attacked by a group of youths with bricks.

"The BBC was last night accused of staging a stunt to portray Scotland as a nation of English-hating thugs" raged Billy Paterson in the Sunday Mail. "There were concerns the youths involved in the attack may have even been encouraged by the Newsnight team."

Newsnight's car is attacked in GlasgowLet me allay those concerns. Newsnight categorically did not encourage anyone to attack the car. This was a legitimate experiment to test anti-English sentiment in Scotland during the World Cup, following reports of a number of violent incidents. Of course we thought the car might come under attack, that's why we bought - at very little expense - an elderly banger, but there was no pre-meditated intention to portray Scots as one thing or another.

Tony Parsons in the Mirror saw a very different picture: "[M]ostly the Newsnight experiment revealed a Scotland that was proud, confident and enlightened enough to be well above crass Sassenach-bashing."

Pictures on the radio

Peter Barron | 16:10 UK time, Friday, 30 June 2006

Last week I was taking issue with the Guardian's Emily Bell on the subject of podcasting in an article entitled "Top of the Pods". This week I find myself taking part in a podcast, in discussion with said Emily and a chap called Rob who's the editor of an independent podcast called "Top of the Pods", of which I was previously unaware.

Newsnight logoIt sounds like some sort of anxiety dream, but the proof that it really did happen can be downloaded at the Guardian's Media Talk podcast. The striking thing about the Guardian's podcast is that it's a tiny operation - a Mac in a room with a little sound desk and a couple of microphones. But the result is that what was first a newspaper and then a website is now effectively in the radio business. As Rob pointed out, the great thing about podcasting is you don't need funding or a licence or anyone's permission - you just do it. Emily's point is - given all that - should the mighty BBC really be doing so much?

(And talking of spooky coincidences, how about this one?)

Not that the citadels of the old media are exactly crumbling. I bumped into Today's Jim Naughtie at the chancellor's summer drinks this week. He was telling how within an hour of their item about dogs' names more than 400 listeners had emailed the programme with pictures of their dogs (more here).

So if dogs are your thing - and it seems for a great many people they are - Terry Wogan's corny old maxim that the pictures are better on the radio appears these days to be becoming literally true. Incidentally, when the Chancellor finally arrived he headed straight for the boys from The Sun. New media may be powering ahead, but with Rupert Murdoch publicly wondering whether to support David Cameron at the next election, Gordon Brown has no illusions where the old media power still resides.

Elsewhere... we've had plenty of our own user-generated content this week - much of it following FIFA's decision to clear Arsenal in relation to Newsnight's report about secret loans to a Belgian club - and not all of it polite. Frequently asked questions have included: why did Newsnight decide to investigate Arsenal when much more serious things are going on elsewhere in soccer, did we time our item to coincide with David Dein's re-election bid to the FA board, and now that Arsenal have been cleared will Newsnight be apologising?

Here are some answers.

I've no doubt there are all sorts of murky things going on at football clubs up and down the country and across the continent, but the reason we looked at Arsenal was that we were shown a document proving that Arsenal had provided secret loans to prop up Beveren. No, we didn't plan our item to coincide with Mr Dein's election - we learned about that on the day of broadcast.

And no, no plans to apologise. Arsene Wenger himself is on the record as saying "there is no question of financial support" to Beveren because "this is not allowed". Arsenal continued to deny a financial relationship until the day of our broadcast and then admitted they'd lent a million pounds. That isn't, as some viewers have suggested, a non-story. It's a fact, but what the FA and FIFA choose to do about it is a question for them.

Top of the Pods

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Peter Barron | 13:43 UK time, Friday, 23 June 2006

It's fashionable these days in media columns to lobby for things that would assist your own media organisation and restrain the excesses of others.

The estimable Emily Bell of the Guardian is always at it, complaining recently about the BBC's digital plans and asking "is it really necessary, useful or at all enhancing to have a Newsnight podcast?". The viewers of course have answered resoundingly by propelling our weekly offering to number three in the news podcast chart.

Newsnight logoAnd this is where my own bit of lobbying comes in. We would, pace Emily, love to be number one. But while the current way of classifying news podcasts persists, that would appear to be beyond us. I've no complaints about number two. That's Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent and it is classic stuff - I subscribe myself. But what is number one? Sky's excellent offering, including - and Jeremy would approve of this - pictures? Or one of the Guardian's own range of podcasts? No, it's something called Kitcast.

Kitcast is, according to the blurb, "a ten-minute weekly videoblog covering the world of sex. " Each episode, it goes on, is "hosted by a lingerie clad (non-nude) hostess Ms Kitka" - a little red box warns of explicit content.

Does that matter? Well, consider two developments in the digital revolution this week. First, that traditional showcase of musical popularity Top of the Pops was summarily swept away. Then, the BBC's website launched an ingenious new device which tells you at any moment of the day or night what the most popular and most emailed stories are. With every passing day, what viewers watch is being decided less by editors and more by algorithms which place one thing or another at the top of the pile. And in that world, how content is categorised is everything.

Imagine Jeremy Paxman sitting beside a lingerie clad (non-nude) Ms Kitka at a future TV news awards dinner. If that thought disturbs you, you know what you must do - click here to download Newsnight, or another reputable news podcast.

A more altruistic lobbyist altogether is our latest recruit on Newsnight, Eric Dickens. Eric - who makes an improbable and possibly not pressingly busy living as a translator from Estonian - has been writing to the programme for years, pointing out its inadequacies and praising its strong points, always with wit and sometimes with savagery. Of late, he's been complaining about what he sees as the modernising tendency on Newsnight, so in a stroke of modernism we decided to give him his own column on the website. A little oddly though, since he's gone on public display he's become a whole lot more polite.

Also complaining in print this week was the Telegraph's Arts correspondent Rupert Christiansen. In an article railing against the BBC's arts coverage, he didn't savage Newsnight Review, but he did wonder - rather loftily - "Couldn't Newsnight's Friday arts review be expanded into something more like Bernard Pivot's famous French television programme Apostrophes?"

Sadly, Apostrophes has long since gone the way of Top of the Pops, but I hope Rupert - and you - will appreciate tonight's Review special with Harold Pinter. Part performance, part masterclass, part intellectual discourse. Kitcast it ain't.

Paxman beaten?

Peter Barron | 11:05 UK time, Wednesday, 21 June 2006

When the BBC starts running programmes called "How to beat Jeremy Paxman", you know there's trouble lurking.

Newsnight logoLast night we booked Ann Coulter, the extraordinary new phenomenon of the American right who has been topping the US bestseller list with, among other books, her own guide - "How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must)".

Now, Jeremy wouldn't categorise himself as a liberal, and Newsnight certainly welcomes conservative and alternative thinkers, but in the course of the day he wondered with some anxiety how best to talk to her.

Ann Coulter, being interviewed on NewsnightHer many utterances are so outrageous - for example, "I think the government should be spying on all Arabs, engaging in torture as a televised spectator sport, dropping daisy cutters wantonly throughout the Middle East and sending liberals to Guantanamo" - that he had to challenge them, and ask if she really believed it or was just saying so for effect.

Once the interview was underway (watch it here) it quickly became resoundingly clear that she believes everything she says, otherwise why would she have said it?

Some bloggers felt Coulter beat Paxman. I prefer to think that in this electric encounter TV was the winner.

Football fanatics

Peter Barron | 15:15 UK time, Thursday, 8 June 2006

Since our investigation into Arsenal's secret loans last week the press and blogosphere have gone into overdrive, and it's been suggested in one or two places that our motivation was linked to the fact that I'm a "devoted Spurs fan".

Newsnight logoCertainly Spurs are my team of choice, but I think devoted is putting it a bit strongly - I hold no season tickets or bonds or club memberships and in fact have been to Highbury far more often than to White Hart Lane on account of the fact that some of my best friends are Gooners.

I know some Spurs fans hate Arsenal and vice versa, but isn't it time to get over that? We have a few devoted football fanatics on the programme - Michael Crick's devotion to Man United is well known, Peter Marshall lives for Liverpool, deputy editor Daniel Pearl is an Arsenal (yes Arsenal) season ticket holder - but I can't claim to be one of them.

Would it matter if I was? While only a small number of Newsnight employees follow football with a passion, all of them follow politics and presumably hold views and in some cases membership cards (though for the record I've never belonged to a political party either). As BBC employees they are required to leave their personal views at the door when they come to work.

When our producer Meirion Jones brought me the story I didn't think for a second: here's a good way to get back for that lasagne incident, not least because he first raised it about two years ago. I simply thought: this is potentially a very good story about the state of modern soccer, whose salaries, payments and bungs have been an issue of huge concern.

And to those of you who say this is not the most serious thing that's ever happened in football, you may well be right. We'd be delighted to hear more stories about football's murky deals, no matter which clubs, countries or associations are involved.

Diary of an anxious editor

Peter Barron | 12:57 UK time, Friday, 2 June 2006

A tense day on Thursday.

Newsnight logoAfter an investigation going back over several months on and off, we're on the point of broadcasting our investigation into Arsenal's relationship with the Belgian club Beveren.

Normally on days like that you'd hope to have the film done, dusted and legalled, but it rarely works out like that...

Click here to read the rest of this column.

And the point of blogging is...

Peter Barron | 17:55 UK time, Friday, 26 May 2006

There's plenty of debate these days about the value of blogs. The BBC's head of interactive cheerfully accepts that 99% of all blogs, including some of the corporation's, are "complete crap".

Newsnight logoNewsnight's own blogger, Paul Mason (Idle Scrawl), thinks that any TV or radio journalist who doesn't want some form of blog or web presence is mad.

Our own presenter Jeremy Paxman is at the sceptical end of the spectrum. Show me the evidence that numbers comparable to those who watch TV are reading blogs, runs his argument, and I'll start blogging. (Though it's not the case, as reported somewhere this week, that Jeremy refuses to podcast.)

Of course the numbers reading individual blogs will not reach the million or so who watch Newsnight every night any time soon, but it's the two-way nature of them that makes them compulsive and addictive. I don't know any of my contemporaries who would describe themselves as problem TV viewers, but I know plenty who can't leave Technorati alone.

Monkeys and hamsters

Peter Barron | 15:31 UK time, Thursday, 25 May 2006

A monkey on a child's shoulderThe film on Newsnight last night about Colombia featured some amazing scenes in which, variously, monkeys were breast-fed by a human, shot down from trees, and even cooked and eaten. The sort of thing, one might think, that viewers would be on the phones complaining about. The fact is that no-one called - though one person did ring to object to us featuring Freddie Starr.

Mark Oaten - newsworthy?

Peter Barron | 16:24 UK time, Wednesday, 24 May 2006

Following Tuesday's show, a number of viewers complained about our item about Mark Oaten (you can watch it here).

Newsnight logoTheir complaints split into two main areas - first that he was an unsuitable choice of guest and second that it was an inappropriate choice as lead item. Let me respond to each in turn.

When Mark Oaten resigned as a leading member of the Liberal Democrats' front bench team following a sex scandal, Newsnight - in common with most of the media - requested an interview. This would surely - by any yardstick - have constituted a newsworthy item. Until a few days previously he had been a contender to be the leader of the Liberal Democrats. At that point Mr Oaten refused all interviews. Eventually we persuaded him to talk for the first time on television about the circumstances of his resignation to Newsnight. He did not want to do a formal interview but instead suggested a film in which he would discuss these issues.

While the film was presented by Mr Oaten, most of its content was made up of interviews with Mr Oaten conducted by our producer. Mr Oaten was clearly trying to explain, although not excuse, his behaviour, but did so in response to our questioning and under our editorial control. The result was, I think, a rare and extraordinary insight into the pressures and temptations involved in political life at Westminster. I accept that many disagree, but I strongly believe it was a worthwhile and newsworthy item.

Should we have led with it? Newsnight, unlike more formal news bulletins, is a hybrid between news and current affairs. Our primary aim every day is not necessarily to reflect the biggest stories in the world that day, but to reflect, analyse and discuss a range of current issues. The function or dysfunction of the Westminster machine is clearly an issue of huge current concern.

We did not set out with a firm intention that this would be our lead item, but continued to weigh up our options in the course of the day. By late afternoon we faced the choice between the Oaten film and an analysis of the Government's latest asylum figures. In terms of exclusivity, novelty and interest we concluded that the Oaten film should go first.

I accept that the circumstances of Mr Oaten's resignation will be distasteful to many viewers, but Newsnight's aim was not to justify his actions or assist his rehabilitation - it was to try to explore what it is that has led many politicians down the years to take these kind of risks.

Simple and stylish

Peter Barron | 16:12 UK time, Tuesday, 23 May 2006

Here's a selection of viewer feedback on Newsnight's redesign which aired last night.

Newsnight logoMy personal favourite was the anonymous viewer recorded on the overnight duty log:

Felt that the new set was excellent. Totally excellent, 100% approval.

And there was a pretty lively session on the TV Forum website, that wonderful uber geek talking shop on TV presentation.

My favourite there was this approving critique of our new Astons.

You can see more viewer comments below...

Read the rest of this entry

The news cone

Peter Barron | 16:55 UK time, Friday, 19 May 2006

On the wall of my office there's a chart entitled the Newsnight cone. This is a rough aid to help us think about who are audience are when deciding what to put in the programme. It was inspired in fact by the head of Radio One, and since he's just won an armful of awards including station of the year I feel confident enough to say it's not what Jeremy might call "bollocks"

newsnight.gifAt the sharp end of the cone in our case are "opinion formers" - politicians, public bodies, media organisations - people who watch Newsnight as if their life depended on it. These are a highly influential, highly desirable audience, but they are few in number.

Next are what we call the "dedicated loyalists". Often related to members of the production team, they lap up what we do, watching maybe three or four times a week. If you're reading this you could well be one of them. They love our agenda, laugh at all our jokes, and some of them - like Jeanette (hello Jeanette) - commune with us one to one on an almost daily basis. There are more dedicated loyalists than opinion formers, but perhaps not many more.

Continue reading 'The news cone' on the Newsnight site

Never mind the Baltics

Peter Barron | 11:50 UK time, Wednesday, 17 May 2006

I'm sorry if any of our viewers were offended by Jeremy's use of the word "bollocks" (which, if you want, you can see here).

newsnight.gifJeremy was - jovially - expressing his annoyance that Newsnight had been duped by a press release from the Baltic Centre which claimed that Sam Taylor Wood's latest work showed a man playing a cello which had been digitally removed.

Many of our viewers contacted us to say they thought he was simply miming, and when we contacted the artist she admitted that that was indeed the case. I think Jeremy was attracted by the alliteration of the "Baltic talking bollocks", and in mitigation it was 11.15pm.

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