'We need to handle painful stories with great care': Peter Horrocks, BBC

Indian television channels have been criticised for their coverage of the November 26, 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai. Both the content and tenor of the coverage have come under scrutiny. How would older, more experienced television networks like the British Broadcasting Corporation have handled a situation like the one in Mumbai? To find out, Agenda emailed questions to Peter Horrocks, Head of the Newsroom at the BBC in London

If a terror attack like the one that took place in Mumbai on November 26, 2008 were to occur in London, would the BBC feel justified in giving it blanket coverage for over 60 hours as did Indian television channels?

We would and we did when London was attacked in 2005, and when New York and Washington were attacked in 2001.

What kind of norms and guidelines has the BBC developed to cover such terror attacks, particularly after the July 7, 2005, train bombings in London?

We have a detailed section of editorial guidelines dealing with national emergencies, war and terror that all our news staff must be familiar with. These guidelines have been in use for many years preceding the London train bombings in 2005. They deal comprehensively with all issues: what language to use, attributing information correctly, what images to show, and who is appropriate to use as a live contributor (here is a link to our full editorial policy guidelines http://www.bbc.co.uk/guidelines/editorialguidelines/).

In the aftermath of the train bombings, did the BBC stick to telecasting information only from official sources or did it investigate independently and make public this information even if it was from unofficial sources? Do you think journalists need to stick to verifiable sources of information at such times, given the panic amongst the public and the fact that the media is the only source of information for them? Or is it justified for them to make public whatever information they can gather? In Mumbai there were several instances where TV channels quoted unnamed sources for information that turned out to be completely wrong. Is this inevitable?

Our guidelines begin with this description: The BBC has a special responsibility to its UK and international audiences when reporting conflict. At such times, large numbers of people across the world access our services for accurate news and information. We must ensure they can be confident that we are telling them the truth. They also expect us to help them make sense of events by providing context and impartial analysis and by offering a wide range of views and opinions.

We need to be sensitive to the emotions and fears of our audience when reporting matters involving risk to and loss of life, as well as human suffering and distress. Some will have relatives or friends directly involved. We will need to handle painful stories with great care.

After 2005, we were careful to source all information about casualties, causes and deaths, and also to provide helpline information to concerned friends and relatives. It is always also important to us that, as far as possible, next of kin do not receive first news about their loved ones from our news coverage, and that we are careful not to make uncertain times any worse by broadcasting information we are not confident about.

Indian news channels are afflicted by what we call "the breaking news syndrome". What are the BBC's norms when it comes to newsbreaks that are not fully confirmed? Do you wait until they are verified or do you go with the story even with partial information?

Whilst wishing to be as fast as possible to break news, as every news organisation should be, we are more concerned that our news coverage is accurate. As a general rule, if a story has not been supplied by a BBC correspondent, or received firsthand confirmation from a primary source, we apply a two-source rule to breaking stories. That is, two separate secondary sources such as reputable news agencies. Sometimes we break a story and attribute it, therefore making clear that at that stage we are only reporting what another news source is reporting.

Do you think journalists need special training to cover conflict, terror, war? What would such training entail?

All BBC staff who are expected to cover these kinds of stories must have special training. As well as detailed knowledge of our editorial guidelines in these areas, we also provide mandatory safety training. This is a week-long residential course that must be renewed every three years.

InfoChange News & Features, February 2009