BBC News 24: Where the news never stops
In one of the busiest - and most sensitive - news weeks for years, Ian Burrell reports on a hectic day in the life of BBC News 24 swings into action
Monday 24 July 2006
00.00, THURSDAY, 20 JULY
After the bloodiest day of violence so far in the latest crisis to grip the Middle East, 300 people are dead and a further half a million displaced.
Andrew Clark, the overnight editor of BBC News 24, settles into his seat with a challenging night ahead, yet comforted by the knowledge that the corporation's heavyweights are all in place. In Beirut, where Israeli attempts to crush Hizbollah are reducing the Lebanese capital to ruins, BBC star correspondents Gavin Hewitt and Jeremy Bowen are on the streets. Ben Brown is also in the city, anchoring News 24's coverage.
After criticisms that the BBC's rolling news channel was sluggish in deploying its big-name presenters at the outset of global stories such as the Asian tsunami, it no longer dares to hesitate when big events occur.
Veteran correspondent Jim Muir has entered the heavily-damaged southern Lebanese city of Tyre, the only British television correspondent to do so. Clive Myrie, meanwhile, has reached Cyprus, where he is prepared to report live on the arrival of British citizens evacuated on HMS York. "There's a cast of thousands out there," says Clark, in his soft Scots accent. "This is the good thing about the BBC, its ability to have people in all the key locations. It does show that the BBC is the biggest news-gathering operation in the world."
Behind a studio where anchor Chris Eakin presents alone, Clark works from a bridgehead known as the "hot desk". He points across at the largely empty newsroom and says: "That's called the cold area, although nowhere's cold in this damn heatwave." As weatherman Liam Dutton will point out through the night, it has been the hottest July day on record with temperatures topping 36 degrees. The Middle East may be in crisis but there is domestic news to report as well.
As well as monitoring feeds from television news-wires APTN, Reuters and Eurovision, Clark keeps an eye out for UGC - "user-generator content", such as e-mailed photographs and video footage captured on mobile phones. Since midnight, the most remarkable contribution has been a shot of a vegetable patch taken by someone called Goldie. "Here's a close-up of the flower on my elephant garlic," is the accompanying copy.
E-mail traffic on the Middle East coverage is rather more serious. "I've always watched BBC News. I will no longer tune into your TV News," warns Sandra Ross at 12.05am. "Your coverage of the Israel-Hesbolah conflict is visually unfair and slanted against Israel. Your tone and attitude is very different from other fairer commentaries. I'm very disappointed in BBC" (sic).
Clark, who says he detects a "cut-and-paste job", says the BBC comes under intense scrutiny on such a story. "There's a hell of a lot of pressure. There's quite a lot of people who write in regularly and complain that we are pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel."
He says that all BBC news staff recently undertook an online "Middle East test", hosted by Jeremy Bowen, requiring them to select balanced panels of guests and answer questions on the region.
After conducting a review of the first editions of the newspapers with the Mail's Lauren Booth (a number of papers are looking to move away from the Middle East agenda), Eakin gives way to Alastair Yates.
This is the key bulletin of the early hours. In the "galley", the hub of News 24's production operation, director Janet McAllen, is pulling the strings. "This is BBC news, I'm Alastair Yates," announces Yates. "Intense fighting continues in the Middle East as Israel keeps up its military operation..." The lead story is Muir's report from Tyre but another piece follows from Lyse Doucet in the Israeli city of Haifa, which has also suffered casualties. "We've put this in for balance, explaining what's going on in Israel," says senior producer Richard Gordon, moving his hands up and down as if weighing two pieces of fruit and then repeating: "We have to get the balance right." The bulletin includes early reports of an Israeli attack on what it claims was a Hizbollah bunker in Beirut.
The channel is suddenly filled with American accents as it takes a news round-up from ABC, a network with which the BBC has close ties.
Yates, a veteran News 24 presenter with a certain gravitas, begins another bulletin. During a lull he comes into the galley for a chat. "People think we are sitting here and nothing much is happening, but when the Iraq war started I was on duty that night and it broke at 02.30am. Wars can break out at any time of the day or night." He is clearly greatly enthused by the knowledge that his work is being simulcast not only on the global channel BBC World but - at times during the early morning - on BBC1 and BBC2 as well.
The channel reports that in Lagos, Nigeria, efforts continue to rescue 100 people believed trapped in a collapsed building. News 24, simulcasting through the small hours with BBC World, has to keep in mind the changing make-up of its international audience. The 1am and 2am bulletins are popular in Asia, where people are just waking up, and the 3am and 4am slots attract around a million viewers in America.
Yates, before concluding his shift, conducts a phone interview with Fouad Makhzoumi, the Dubai-based president of the National Dialogue Party of Lebanon. Makhzoumi complains angrily of a war being conducted "by proxy".
Breaking news arrives via the World Service that Israel is claiming that 80 bombing raids took place in Lebanon during the early hours. Yates announces this before giving way to Stephen Sackur's recorded show HARDtalk.
Downstairs on Breakfast, presenters Kate Silverton and Bill Turnbull convene with programme editor Mark Grannell and assistant editor Paul Royall to discuss tactics. Grannell says: "Breakfast is basically three hours and 15 minutes of live interviews, so there's a hell of a lot for Kate and Bill to do. We always have a brief meeting at 5am where we talk about the top two stories and the talking point of the programme." The top story, inevitably, is Lebanon. The second is John Reid's shake-up of the Home Office, alongside the release of crime figures showing a sharp increase in street robbery.
Silverton, who has been in since 4am and up since 2.30am, runs a fine-toothed comb through the detail of the rapidly evolving Lebanon story, but not through her hair, which is still in curlers as she sits at her desk. "You are time-restricted and things move so fast," she says of the task ahead. "You've got a lot of correspondents you talk to and you want to prioritise which questions you ask which correspondent and when." Silverton, a familiar presenter to News 24 viewers, is clearly across her subjects and not an autocue-dependent newscaster. In spite of the curlers she looks glamorous. Royall says: "She is very much one of the up-and-coming faces and I know the audience really like her because I monitor the e-mails. She's a good mix - good-looking but not in a Barbie way and very intelligent."
For the next two and a half hours, News 24 broadcasts Breakfast, which averages a million viewers, most of them watching on BBC1. The Breakfast studio, known in the BBC as N6, is a example of the corporation's current cost-cutting, a no-frills approach, even to the point of being decorated in Stelios orange. Peter Beaven, the floor manager, makes sure that guests - including Home Office minister Tom McNulty - don't trip over cables and that Bill and Kate look at the right cameras.
In the gallery, the director Chris Cook is pumped up on adrenaline, bouncing around in his chair and with party streamers wrapped around his neck (there are several birthdays in the Breakfast team today). "The best thing is if you have fun and you're relaxed. Then they are all relaxed. There's no point shouting at them," he says of his presenting team.
The tone on Breakfast is lighter than the rest of the News 24 offering, with items on Britain's friendliest street (Gratitude Road in Bristol) and the record temperatures in the Surrey town of Wisley. But Lebanon still dominates and the handback to News 24 proper at 8.30am is preceded by a powerful piece from Muir in Tyre saying that the evacuation there is at last about to get underway.
While Julian Worricker and Jo Cockburn present from the studio, the senior editorial staff gather for a conference headed up by News 24 controller Kevin Bakhurst. The review of the previous day's output is so lavish in its praise that the meeting takes on the air of a self-improvement convention. But perhaps there's no harm in a little positive thought when the channel's staff work among union posters titled "Facing The Chop?" and photocopied articles about the bonuses paid to bosses, headlined, "We've been screwed".
Jon Williams, world news editor, then outlines the day's likely developments in the Middle East. The next Navy evacuation ship, HMS Bulwark, with capacity for 5,000 people, is approaching Beirut. Clive Myrie and a BBC crew are on board, along with other British journalists. The possibility of a big Israeli push across the Lebanese border prompts logistical concerns over the possible need to transfer a satellite dish currently based in Haifa. Gavin Hewitt, filmed the previous day under fire in Beirut, has headed southwards in search of another scoop but is due to be replaced by Feargal Keane.
BBC1, meanwhile, is so excited about the impending evacuation from Beirut that it is clearing space in its schedule for live coverage from News 24. The meeting ends with a chorused rallying cry: "Let's crack on!"
Ben Brown makes his appearance on the quayside in Beirut on the impending evacuation.
Domestic news interrupts with a live report from Cheshire of deaths in a fire in Altrincham.
The simulcast with BBC1 begins with the strapline (known in the trade as an "Aston") "BRITISH EVACUATION". Ben Brown stands before HMS Bulwark as up to 2,000 British passport-holders, including frail old ladies and mothers with their babies, start boarding the moored warship.
"These people are leaving with mixed emotions," says Brown. "Their joy at getting out is tinged with sadness." It is strong stuff but it could be even better - an urgent cry goes up in the gallery: "Have we got any evacuees? We need evacuees..."
A buoyant Bakhurst strides into the room. "Sky are really feeling the pain on this one," he suggests. "Jeremy Thompson [one of Sky's star presenters] is in Haifa. They saw Ben in Beirut on the Friday and they sent Thompson but they couldn't get in. This is the biggest story of the year and they're not there, which is great for us."
Brown starts lining up the evacuees, starting with a young couple. "I've never experienced anything like it," says the man. "Hearing the explosions and feeling them in some cases. It worries you."
Brown only arrived on News 24 in April and has been presenting rolling news as well as the major BBC bulletins at 6pm and 10pm. Now he is playing the starring role in arguably the most important British news story of 2006.
He links up with Christian Fraser, who is in Cyprus waiting for the arrival of the Bulwark. It sounds almost boastful when Brown then says: "We do have another of our correspondents who is on board HMS Bulwark," and then hands over to Myrie. They are like adults throwing a ball around while children (rival news broadcasters) look upwards in frustration.
Matthew Amroliwala, who has taken up residence in the News 24 studio, looks equally frustrated, as he is not getting a look-in. Brown finally experiences a minor setback when one tired evacuee snaps at him: "You don't need to ask why we're leaving mate, come on!"
But after the presenter expertly fills two minutes to go into the news, strand-editor Mariita Eager coos down the line: "Ben, well done love!" She puts her head on her knees, then looks up and shouts out: "Well done everyone... wooo-ah!".
A change of scene as coverage switches to the House of Commons debate on criminal-justice reform, with David Davis at the despatch box for the Tories.
Amroliwala reports the breaking news of a court decision not to continue with manslaughter charges over the 1999 death of Everest climber Michael Matthews, 22.
Amroliwala and co-presenter Jane Hill give way to new team Louise Minchin and Tim Willcox. More breaking news at 14.06pm: 29 people have been injured in an accident on the Runaway Train at Alton Towers, and Zinedine Zidane faces a three-match ban for his World Cup Final headbutt, even though he has already retired from football.
Jon Williams explains the key to the earlier successes in Beirut: on 30 May the BBC reopened its bureau in the city after a 15-year absence. The plan had been to cover the story of Lebanon's rebirth, not its destruction. "Having a permanent presence in the city means we can move people in and out because we know which buttons to push. The advantage we have over Sky and ITN is that they will be working out of a hotel room."
The BBC now has 30 staff in Beirut, including its Middle East bureau editor Simon Wilson, Ben Brown, Jeremy Bowen, Beirut correspondent Kim Ghattas and a clutch of engineers and security experts. Williams emphasises the value of the BBC's relationship with the Foreign Office (and British ambassador James Watt) and the Ministry of Defence (and chief press officer Sam Keayes). He says that while the evacuation is "a story which sells itself", the BBC must remain to report the ensuing hostilities in southern Lebanon and the growing humanitarian problems. He says: "The whole story about Israel and Palestine is about two competing narratives. The challenge for us is giving the audience an insight into those competing narratives. We have been pretty careful to ensure that the assets we have deployed have been split between those on the Lebanese side of the border and those on the Israeli side."
Bakhurst is happy. "I think today was a pretty big day. The biggest single evacuation of Brits from a war-zone that most people can remember and we are pretty proud of our coverage." He says the story has been the most important since he became head of the channel in January. Figures for June showed that News 24 has extended its lead over Sky News with 5.74 million viewers watching each week, compared to Sky's 3.8 million. Bakhurst credits BBC news chief Peter Horrocks with helping to transform 24's reputation by encouraging the BBC's leading presenters to work for it.
Heavyweight presenter Peter Sissons is in the studio and he and Brown (who is still on the quayside in Beirut, and has just texted Bakhurst to say that Sky has arrived in the port) jointly present the hourly bulletin. Brown interviews an unapologetic Ehud Barak, a former Israeli prime minister, as Bulwark sails with 1,600 evacuees.
News 24 starts simulcasting with the Six O'Clock News bulletin, presented by George Alagiah and Sian Williams. A fresh report from Jeremy Bowen shows that he has spent his day touring the southern suburbs of Beirut with other journalists, as invitees of Hizbollah.
"They've given this place a real pounding," says Bowen, describing the extent of Israeli bombing. "Every direction you look, that way, that way, that way, there's destruction."
Clive Myrie then files a report from the the Bulwark, showing how the evacuee-laden warship "now reverberates to the sound of children."
Chris Eakin returns to the News 24 studio, which he had left at 00.35am.
Lyse Doucet interviews Prince Hassan of Jordan who says the crisis is "lurching towards all-out war in the region."
Some rare good news. Israel says it will allow aid into Lebanon.
An interview with Israeli government spokesperson Miri Eisen, who says Israeli military action is merely designed to create a "border of peace".
News 24 reports an interview with Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Al-Jazeera TV, claiming his organisation's leadership is still intact. Business journalist Julia Caesar reports Google's second quarter profits increase of 110 per cent.
After 21 hours of my monitoring, it is becoming clear why viewers tend to dip in and out of rolling news coverage rather than watching repeat packages. There are only so many times you can watch an item about the deployment of emergency water-bowsers in Mansfield.
More than 12 hours after he started reporting this morning, and eight days after he flew from London and drove for 20 hours from Amman to enter Beirut, stalwart correspondent Ben Brown is still providing live commentary. Jeremy Bowen is at his shoulder, supplying analysis.
Reports arrive of two Israeli helicopters crashing after a collision in northern Israel, close to the Lebanese border.
It has been a long day. The death toll in the conflict has climbed to more than 300 Lebanese and 29 Israelis. Thousands have fled for their lives, including 3,000 British citizens, while a hardy few have hurried to be by their sides to report their sad stories.
It is not a time for triumphalism, but senior staff at News 24 believe that in their coverage of the evacuation of Beirut their young channel has passed an important test.
Midnight brings no interlude. This is rolling news and the world moves on.
The Middle East and the quest for impartiality
In pursuit of impartal reporting of the Middle East, the BBC College of Journalism - its editor is the former Today programme editor Kevin Marsh - created a Middle East "training module" fronted by its Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen. Part of the module was a series of multiple choice questions, designed to test journalists' knowledge of the Middle East. The BBC has released the following three questions.
Can you answer them?
1 The International Court of Justice at the Hague found that the barrier being built by the Israeli government is illegal. Why?
a) Because it is being constructed along Israel's boundary with the West Bank
b) Because it is being constructed inside the West Bank
c) Because it is being constructed inside Israel
2 What is the Green Line?
a) The border between Israel and the West Bank
b) The boundary between Israel and the Golan Heights
c) The boundary between Israel and the West Bank
d) The border between Israel and Jordan
3 Are the majority of Palestinian Muslims Sunni or Shia?
ANSWERS: 1 b; 2 c; 3 a
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