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Helen Boaden: From Little Britain to Big News

She's the popular Head of BBC News with the personality of a progressive headmistress. Despite facing big cut backs and fierce competition, she tells Raymond Snoddy of her plans for "The Empire to Strike Back"

Monday 17 January 2005 01:00 GMT

Miss Helen Boaden, the director of BBC News, has no regrets. Absolutely none. Not a single trace. She shrugs off with gusto recent criticism of the BBC's response to the Asian tsunami disaster, and says she is "incredibly proud" of the "incredibly comprehensive" coverage of one of the most dramatic news stories of recent times - a story that came four months after she took control of one of the world's largest news machines.

"The sober, understated, unmawkish, highly factual reporting that we had made some of the human stories more, not less powerful. Less is more with a story of this dimension," insists Boaden in her first interview since taking over BBC News, with its 3,500 staff and £360m a year budget, from Richard Sambrook.

Criticisms in the press, some echoed internally, claimed that the BBC appeared slow to get its big-name reporters to the scene, was beaten to the draw by ITV in producing a news special on the disaster, continued to run some ordinary pre-recorded programmes on News 24 rather than going completely to rolling news, and that Boaden herself stayed on in her holiday home in Yorkshire rather than returning to London to symbolically take charge. Observers have also noted that the high-profile BBC journalist George Alagiah, who is of Sri Lankan origin, did not begin reporting from his native island until more than a week after the event. Some have blamed the bureaucratic nature of the BBC for what they saw as a slowness to respond.

"I have no regrets at all," says Boaden, a journalist who began her career on a New York radio station and has presented both radio and television programmes. "There is always going to be criticism of the BBC, particularly regarding big stories and particularly from our commercial competitors. The fact is that we were there from the beginning, we were the first there and the coverage was excellent. What people wanted in that story was the facts without spin, the right tone and continual updates."

Boaden believes that the corporation benefited from its investment in foreign bureaux, which allowed it to cover a story that stretched over thousands of miles. She says that following the earthquake at 12.59am GMT, the World Service reported the news at 2.30am UK time - a piece that was also on Radio 4. The first broadcast from the area came from BBC correspondent Rachel Harvey on News 24 at 3am, while Harvey was also the first reporter into the devastated city of Banda Aceh in Indonesia.

"If I have any criticism of our coverage it is that we should have used her [Harvey] more," Boaden says. "She did a superb job, and Andrew Harding, who was there within 12 hours, was also exceptionally good."

The BBC, she says, is characterised by a "mixed economy" that combines correspondents in 40 overseas bureaux - "people who are not big names, whatever that means" - with high-profile reporters such as Jeremy Bowen, Ben Brown and Matt Frei. "We invest in that because we want that kind of expertise," she adds. "Equally we use the big names and deploy them as we think fit."

Boaden has no qualms that the BBC's big names were not sent to South Asia from the outset. She argues that in some of the coverage on rival channels, reporters, as they spoke of their travails in getting to the spot, started to become the news. "The reporter as hero is not what people want for this story," she says. She also declares herself particularly pleased at both the range and the international nature of BBC's coverage, which included detailed reporting on the Kofi Annan aid summit in Indonesia. The story, barely mentioned by rivals, led the Ten O'Clock News.

Boaden is quick to shrug off criticism about the BBC losing out to the ITV news special, and her decision to stay on in Yorkshire with her newspaper journalist husband after the story broke rather than hurry back to London. "We could have gone early [with the special] but it would not have had the quality that we wanted. We wanted Jeremy (Bowen) to front it and we wanted a Colin Powell interview, which is what we got by going a day later. Personally I think ours was significantly better," she says.

She also explains that she was closely involved with the BBC coverage from early on Boxing Day, and discussed with colleagues whether or not to return to London. "I decided that I appoint people and trust people, my departmental heads and their editors, to get it right. On this occasion it was not going to be to the advantage of anybody for me to be here if it was only a gesture," she says.

As a result, Boaden was able to monitor the channel's output in a slightly more detached way, with senior executives taking charge of every service - Roger Mosey heading up television news, Steve Mitchell radio, Rachel Attwell News 24 and Pete Clifton BBC online. "When big stories break the machine knows what to do, and the people in charge of their part of the machine know what to. We have some of the most brilliantly efficient deployment people. This is meat and drink to them and they just get on with it," she says. So, nothing fundamental should have been done differently, and therefore there is no need for anything significant to change in the future? "Absolutely not," she says without a moment's hesitation, before adding: "I think we tackled a huge story with intelligence, speed and class. I'm really proud of what we did."

These sentiments have the support of both her director general, Mark Thompson, himself a former head of BBC News, and Michael Grade, the corporation's chairman. Last week Grade told his journalists: "I watched as a viewer as the horror unfolded and I thought the BBC coverage was comprehensive. Most importantly I thought that the tone of the coverage was absolutely right."

Boaden is reluctant to crow about viewing figures amid such a human tragedy, but says that the numbers show that audiences are on the side of the BBC. Official ratings back her up - in the week from Monday December 27, News 24 had a reach of 8.9 million, a 1 million lead over its main rivals, Sky. Indeed last year, for the first time in its existence, the BBC's continuous news channel was watched by more people than Sky, with an average weekly reach in multi-channel television homes of 4.1 million, compared to Sky's 4 million. "With this tsunami story, people really did have a choice and they chose us," Boaden insists. Later, she sends a message suggesting that the headline of this article should be "The Empire Strikes Back".

Boaden is a tall, bouncy enthusiast for current affairs. At the age of 48 she is firmly in her prime and has the look of a progressive headmistress about her. Born in Colchester, Essex, her father was a geography teacher and her mother a housewife - albeit one who took herself off on courses on current affairs. "I think I absorbed a sense that the world is interesting and that life is complicated," says Boaden of the household where the first television set did not arrive until she was 11.

Boaden's previous incarnation as the head of Radio 4 was a success by anyone's standards. This was in no small part due to her painstaking avoidance of the the mistakes of her predecessor, James Boyle, who almost sparked a revolution among the notoriously demanding Radio 4 listenership by making too many sudden changes to the station's schedule. While she was controller the number of Radio 4 listeners reached 10 million for the first time, and the channel won its first Sony Station of the Year Award. Her personal highlights include obtaining the rights to the audio book of Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in its entirety for broadcast on Boxing Day 2000, commissioning the comedy series Little Britain and presiding over "adultery scandals" in The Archers.

Crucially, Boaden recognised that the average age of a Radio 4 listener, 54, meant that they were part of the Baby Boomer generation - the first to integrate high culture and pop culture effortlessly into their lives - and commissioned accordingly.

Despite the successes, Radio 4 was also responsible for two of the most embarrassing moments of Helen Boaden's life. On New Year's Eve 2002 she was waiting with her fireworks at home for the bongs of Big Ben to mark the start of the New Year. But there were no bongs on Radio 4 because of a technical problem. Boaden's network had lost Big Ben at a crucial moment. And during a two-minute silence to mark the Iraq war, someone at the station didn't realise that they had to use a special "silence" tape to commemorate the solemn event. Unfortunately, a young producer thought that the silence was another technical fault, apologised on air and proceeded to play Cole Porter records. "I've had a very bad time with silences," the former controller admits. "The thing is that cock-ups happen, but if you are genuinely apologetic, most of the audience are actually very understanding."

Boaden, a former reporter and editor of File on 4, and presenter of both Radio 4's Woman's Hour and The Verdict series on Channel 4, was drafted into the BBC News job without internal competition. The appointment was part of the corporation's attempts to draw a line under the Gilligan affair in the wake of the Hutton report.

Curiously, despite being controller of Radio 4, an award-winning journalist, and the fact that when she left File on 4 her farewell card highlighted one of her catchphrases: "Where's the evidence", Boaden was not involved with the Hutton enquiry. The Today programme and its reporter Andrew Gilligan were the responsibility of the BBC's news division, and the corporation's case was prepared by a small number of people.

"I was absolutely not involved. In fact it was slightly bizarre to be kept at arm's length," says Boaden, before adding through gritted teeth that there were a lot of people who might have had valuable experience to offer. "I think it is always dangerous to get into a bunker mentality whatever the issue, not just about Gilligan, Hutton, about anything, any story about any course of action," she adds.

Of Gilligan, she says that the former Today reporter was onto an important story but believes that "retrospective journalism" is no journalism at all, because you could say anything and hope it all comes right in the end. The fact she was not involved in the Hutton response meant she was able to serve on the Neil committee, which was set up to look at the lessons to be learnt from the affair. In the meetings she emphasised the importance of editors in moving the BBC forward.

"I like editors. I respect what they do. I like engaging with them, and they are the gatekeepers of quality and standards. You don't want them undermined and you want them brought in entirely to the journalistic standards that the BBC upholds," she says.

The review was a good opportunity for Boaden to stress the basic journalistic values to the BBC's younger generation of reporters, who don't always understand what impartiality is and often mistake opinions for facts, she says. Indeed, one of the Neil recommendations was the creation of a college of journalism. No final decision has been taken, but the college could end up being a virtual, rather than bricks-and-mortar, institution. Boaden, along with the rest of her staff, is currently taking an online course in BBC news policy that features dilemmas of all sorts from impartiality to product placement; training methods that could be expanded in the future.

Despite the BBC news machine continuing to pump out four-and-a-half hours of television and radio coverage for every hour of real time, the focus now is increasingly on the cuts demanded by management as part of the review of the corporation's Royal Charter. News, like other BBC departments, has to cut its budgets by 15 per cent over three years.

The cuts came as a bit of a news story for Boaden, who claims that she was not informed of the plans when she was appointed. "I think 15 per cent is a genuinely tough target. I am not going to pretend it is easy," she says. At the moment she is trying to find ways to make the savings without compromising editorial standards.

"Ideally you would try to create a situation over three years where some parts of news would take less than a 15 per cent cut to protect them, but that of course means others will have to take more," she says. There is a chance that some of the "less valued" services will have to go, and the governors are known to be considering the future of the special news programmes on BBC Three and BBC Four that have been criticised for providing poor value for licence payers. "I think the programmes are jolly good, but they may be in the wrong slots," Boaden admits.

Cutting waste and unnecessary duplication is another option. Boaden likes to tell the story of what happened when she was interviewed - repeatedly - for her tributes to the late Radio 1 presenter John Peel. There were comprehensive interviews with News 24, BBC newsgathering, Newsnight and BBC Three, all of which used separate clips that could have been taken from the first interview. Isn't part of the problem the very autonomy of editors that she espouses?

"The problem is not about the autonomy of editors, it's about planning," she replies sharply. "Editorial autonomy doesn't allow people to spend money willy-nilly. It's other people's money that they're spending." (I should here declare an interest, as I present Newswatch on BBC4.)

Away from financial matters, a couple of small decisions over the behaviour of individual correspondents and presenters illustrate Boaden's general approach. When Gaza correspondent Barbara Plett revealed in a broadcast that she had shed a tear for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, her bosses thought privately that she had made a misjudgement. But the BBC issued a press release saying it was all right. "I laughed because this was so Alastair Campbell of us," she says. "I said [on Feedback] that it was a misjudgement. I should have made it much clearer that where we do make errors there is no shame in being grown up and admitting it."

When Kirsty Wark went on holiday with her friend Jack McConnell, the first minister of Scotland, Boaden decided that this sort of matter was the business of the individual concerned, but that it is then up to editors to sort out any potential conflicts of interest on a case-by-case basis. It could, for example, mean that Wark is not used for an interview with Mr McConnell.

As she deals with problems large and small, and criticism fair or otherwise, Boaden, who likes journalism with lots of facts, believes she must now concentrate on asserting the core strengths of the BBC "in this very spun and opinionated world". These, she believes, are accuracy without attitude, impartiality, fairness and getting there first if possible. But above all else the BBC is about getting it right. "The world really does feel like your oyster at the BBC at the moment, and for BBC News we're focused on getting it right and telling the story straight. People across the world want that and we can give it to them," says the straight-talking Miss Boaden.

Wait for it ... here is the news, with all the facts checked

Sky gets the scoops but BBC News 24 has to be more cautious. By Ian Burrell

It is nearly a year since Mark Byford, then acting director general of the BBC, caused an uproar by giving the impression that the corporation was no longer interested in scoops.

Now, Rachel Attwell, the head of BBC News 24, is at it again, acknowledging that her rolling channel is often beaten to the punch by its rival, Sky News. "They are just prepared to go for it in a way that we are not," she admits. "We will wait. Sometimes it is 10 seconds and sometimes 30 minutes. And sometimes it is unbelievably frustrating because you see Sky saying something and you think, 'This must be true', but you cannot individually verify it."

Attwell, deputy head of BBC Television News, has been in charge at News 24 for five years. While she is clearly happy with the product that her team is delivering, she also knows that the more daring approach of her rivals at Isleworth does invariably bring results.

"Ninety-five per cent of the time, it pays off for Sky: they put out a story from one source and it turns out to be right and so they are first. We will wait for a second source," she says.

As a consequence of this more cautious approach, she realises, it is Sky News and not the state broadcaster that is the station of choice in the newsrooms of newspapers, news agencies and radio stations across the land. "It amazes me the number of people I talk to who work in newsrooms and say, 'Sky is a huge market leader and we watch them because you trail behind'," says Attwell.

She is amazed because the suggestion that Sky is out on its own no longer holds true; News 24 finished the year with an average weekly reach (people who watched at least three minutes of the channel's coverage during seven days) of 4.1 million, compared with Sky's four million. But although this interview has been arranged to mark that breakthrough, Attwell is at pains not to come across as triumphant. Indeed, she seems more anxious not to antagonise her rival.

"I think the two channels are extremely close, and that's a very satisfactory situation as far as I'm concerned," she says. "I have no desire for us to surge ahead, or for them to surge ahead. I think a situation in which the two channels have their own audiences who know what to expect from them is a highly satisfactory one."

It is a situation that she compares to that of BBC News and ITV News carving out two distinct audiences in times past. Under that model, Coronation Street viewers were more likely to prefer the Gray's Inn Road approach to current affairs to that offered by the team at Television Centre.

The Sky News audience, she claims, is a "multi-channel audience", while News 24 is embraced by an "old-fashioned BBC heartland" viewer, who is often watching on Freeview. "There are people in multi-channel homes who absolutely hate the BBC, and there are people in BBC homes who absolutely hate Sky and think that it is horribly Americanised," she says. "What has happened over the past year is that each audience has found the channel that makes them most comfortable."

These people that "hate" the BBC, she believes, "perceive the BBC to be traditional, stuffy, old-fashioned". It is a perception with which she naturally disagrees, but which she thinks is "very hard for the BBC to shake off".

Sky, Attwell acknowledges, "has energy". She exemplifies this point with what some might take to be faint praise, acknowledging the rival's keen eye for a softer angle that would not suit the BBC. "They are very good at identifying a human-interest type of story. Rather better than us. I think that this tsunami story, for example, has been very interesting in highlighting the difference in approach; the BBC has had a little less focus on the British missing and dead," she says.

The corporation has been stung by criticisms that, while Sky has positioned its key presenters at the scenes of disaster, some of the best-known BBC journalists have not been covering the story. "Sky's greatest concentration and their big guns have been in Thailand, where tourists missing has been the biggest story," she says. "We've concentrated our big guns in Sri Lanka and Indonesia. It's a question of emphasis."

The BBC, according to Attwell, will always stand back and "have a slightly more analytical and internationalist approach".

So, expect News 24 to continue to grow as the expansion of Freeview ensures a larger proportion of traditional BBC news consumers engage with multi-channel television. But expect Sky to keep getting scoops.

Attwell appears to regard this as a consequence of the special demands placed on the BBC by its audience - and by the rest of the media. "Newsrooms use Sky almost like a copytaking service. I know that whenever I've said, 'Sky does sometimes get it wrong', they say, 'Oh well, never mind'. Whereas if the BBC gets it wrong, it becomes a huge hoo-ha."

When News 24 wrongly reported that Osama bin Laden had been captured, for example, the BBC was pilloried. "Sky and ITV will do that once a week and no one notices or cares," Attwell complains. "There's an expectation from people that when we put something on screen, we've got it right."

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