The Media Column: This is 5 Live. Goodbye, Saddam, and hi to a man in a football scarf

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The Independent Online

The first word came from Iran. The official news agency there, IRNA, is the mouthpiece of the Iranian government and does not carry many scoops. But the IRNA report - a newsflash at 9.52am on Sunday, quoting the Kurdish leader, Jalal Talabani - was picked up by international agencies, so that at 10.04, Britain's Press Association could tell every newsroom in the country: "Saddam Hussein has been captured in the Iraqi town of Tikrit, unconfirmed reports said today." Ten minutes later, the US defence department, while officially refusing to confirm the rumour, announced that it was to hold a "very important" news conference later in the day.

At 11.07, the news was as official as you would want. The Press Association issued a statement: "Prime Minister Tony Blair today confirmed the capture of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein."

You might have thought that was good enough. It was for the British networks. By that time, Sky News, BBC News 24 and the ITV News channel were all reporting as fact that Saddam had been detained. Yet anyone skipping channels for an American perspective, over on CNN International or Fox News, would have found a curiously reticent attitude. Despite Blair's confirmation, CNN's tickertape continued to talk of "unconfirmed reports that Saddam has been captured". Did someone forget to update it? Bizarrely, the anchor on Fox - the overexcitable, flag-waving channel whose behaviour is criticised on this page by Martin Bell - was still referring at 12.05 to the "reported capture" of Saddam. (Though, a few moments later, she did ask her correspondent: "Tony Blair has confirmed Saddam's capture - what does that mean?", to which she received the reply: "It tells you they are pretty sure they have captured him.")

It was only when Paul Bremer, the US administrator in Iraq, stepped out to deliver his precision-guided soundbite - "Ladies and gentlemen... we got him" - that the American networks were prepared to drop their reticence and announce as fact that the tyrant had been captured. Actually, Fox misheard Bremer and flashed up a big caption: "WE GOT EM."

I mention that discrepancy not as criticism, but with a note of surprise. I do not think the British channels were wrong to jump in and declare something to be true after the Prime Minister had said so (just as long as they don't take his word for it on weapons of mass destruction). But I am baffled that Blair's confirmation was not good enough for the American-owned channels.

Meanwhile, over on BBC radio, 5 Live broke into its scheduling for a programme presented masterfully by Jeremy Bowen. It was let down only by the contributions of Charlie Whelan, Gordon Brown's former spin doctor. In the past, I have been a big fan of Whelan on the radio - his double-act with Andrew Pierce of The Times worked beautifully on the now-defunct Sunday Service - but this weekend his services were redundant. He was part of the discussion only because he had been in the studio when the story broke. He should not have stayed.

Radio 5 Live's other difficulty was less personal. How it must have hurt Bowen at 2pm to be told to stop talking about Saddam and instead to hand over to a man with a football scarf for four hours of Premiership commentary. The 5 Live station - a brilliant creation and, like all the best inventions, one we didn't know we needed until it came along - is a curious mix and usually works well. But news and sport sometimes clash.

The BBC launched its digital channel 5 Live Sports Extra for just such occasions when the real world interferes with the football timetable. It is true that not many 5 Live listeners have digital radios yet - but they are able to listen to 5 Live Sports Extra through their television if they have Sky, Freeview or digital cable. You don't think that the radio folk at 5 Live are reluctant to remind viewers of that facility, fearful that, once they switch on their tellies, sports fans will want pictures to go with their words and tune into Sky Sports instead?

If that is the case, it is not much of an excuse. The BBC's network for live news really ought to have stuck with the Saddam story for the whole day. Apart from anything else, big news can be a ratings-driver. The BBC's 10.15pm news bulletin grabbed a peak audience of 8.4 million - double the number it would expect on an ordinary Sunday evening.

v.graff@independent.co.uk

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