Saturday 30 March 2019

BBC UK editor Richard Burgess on protests (again)

Here, from this week's Newswatch, is a transcript of the interview with the BBC UK editor Richard Burgess. He's talking about the BBC's coverage of protests. Enjoy!

Shaun Ley: From the Gilets Jaunes, or Yellow Vests movement, protesting for several months in France, to the now frequent demos across the UK, which are on subjects including climate change, supporters of such events demand and expect media coverage. To what extent should the BBC comply with their wishes? Well, one of those responsible is the BBC UK editor Richard Burgess, and he's with me now. Thank you very much Richard for coming into the Newswatch studio. What are the criteria you use to determine what demonstrations to cover and how much coverage to give them? 
Richard Burgess: Well, I don't think there are exact criteria, but I think there are a number of factors that you take into consideration. Scale is obviously one of them, which we saw with last weekend's march, a major march with a lot of people on it, that's something you've got to take into account. But I think there are a number of other factors around, is this a matter of national significance, is this is a live issue at the moment, and could the march lead to change in the future? So you take all those into account, but obviously there's the other factor, which is what else is going on on that day, what else is happening on the news agenda? 
Shaun Ley: You mention scale, and this is a very contentious issue with marches in particular, isn't it? I mean, last weekend, the organisers were saying they had more than a million people, the BBC was saying, I think, hundreds of thousands. How do you make that call? 
Richard Burgess: Well, I don't think you can ever absolutely say how many people are on a march, by their very nature, they are fluid events, people join, people leave, people move around, they're over large areas. It's almost impossible, if not impossible, to give an exact number. What we do is we obviously have people on the ground who will make an assessment, which is what we did at the weekend. And they were talking about, you know, how densely populated the march was, so we talked about hundreds of thousands, we talked in kind of, broad estimates. And then on the figure of a million, which the organisers were saying, we attributed that figure to the organisers whenever we used it. 
Shaun Ley: Difficult, though, isn't it? And it can be very politically charged, I mean one thinks of the Trump inauguration a couple of years back, that became a really serious issue about whether the media had distorted the numbers, had downplayed the numbers. You have to be really careful on this, don't you? 
Richard Burgess: I think that's right, and I think that's why we do talk in kind of broader terms, and when there are more definitive figures, we attribute those to the organisers or maybe to the authorities, although interestingly, the Metropolitan Police didn't put a figure on it at the weekend, and I think that's because they recognise the difficulty of putting figures on and the political sensitivity around those figures. 
Shaun Ley: You were candid in saying at the start of the interview that one of the things that can affect coverage is what else is happening in the news, there are lots of other things, it's going to get squeezed, if there aren't many other things, it may be something it's quite easy to fill airtime with. That's a difficulty, isn't it? Because you can spend the money, the resources, you are under an obligation then, live trucks, camera crews, producers, to get your money's worth for the licence payer. 
Richard Burgess: Well, not necessarily, I don't think there was a real issue at the weekend because of the size of the march and the issue that it was addressing. Which is... 
Shaun Ley: (interrupting) What about more generally, because there are lots of other demonstrations which the BBC covers, whether demonstrations on the future of the NHS, for example, or the Tommy Robinson demonstration outside the BBC's Salford headquarters? 
Richard Burgess: Again, I think we make decisions based on those criteria I talked about before, in terms of the scale and whether it's an issue of national significance, and what actually happens on the march as well is also a consideration. And then we will make a decision based on the news agenda that day, and sometimes we commit resources to staff and it doesn't get on, and that's - that's the business of news. 
Shaun Ley: I wonder what effect the referendum has had, because it's kind of created a very powerful sense of the will of the people. It's something politicians claim, we're speaking for the will of the people on either side of the argument. The protesters also say the same. Doesn't that perhaps require the BBC to develop a bit more of a careful judgment on this, because it is used so much to be, if you like, an emblem of a wider public feeling, rather than just those people who have turned up in a particular day for a particular project? 
Richard Burgess: I think you're right, and I think we do our best to reflect the range of opinion around Brexit. We know it's an extremely divisive issue, we know that it's a polarising issue for many of our audience, and one that people feel hugely passionately about. And so our aim as an impartial broadcaster is to give air to those opinions - not to create a false balance, but to fairly represent the views across the nation. 
Shaun Ley: What about other protests? I mentioned, in introducing the Gilets Jaunes protests, the Yellow Vests protests in Paris in particular. I mean they've been happening every weekend for months now,. We've covered them a lot on the News Channel. Some weekends, they are fairly quiet protests, other weekends, like the one when the Champs-Elysees was attacked, became much more newsworthy themselves. How do you make that call? Because I know it's not on your brief as home editor, but for BBC News in general, that's is a difficult judgment - which weekends we cover it, and if we cover it it because it's violent, are we in a sense creating encouragement for demonstrations to take a particular turn? 
Richard Burgess: I think that's a good point, and I think you need to be careful not just to cover protests when they turn violent or because they are particularly great pictures around fires in the Champs-Elysees and what have you, as you were saying. I think with our coverage of that, we've always tried to put it into the context of the wider political and social debate that's happening in France at the moment, and I think that's what's of interest to our audience around that story. 
Shaun Ley: And will you think carefully about the next Brexit protests, if there are any, how you cover them? 
Richard Burgess: Yeah, we do always, and we're careful how we cover them, the amount of coverage we give to them, and a range of voices that we feature throughout them. 
Shaun Ley: BBC News UK editor, Richard Burgess, thank you very much for coming in for Newswatch.

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