BBC 'overly cautious' when covering May Day protests

The BBC’s news chiefs held an inquest into coverage of the May Day protests, which some journalists have criticised for being "overly cautious".

Coverage of the anti-capitalist protests in London on BBC News 24 particularly came under the spotlight after it emerged that it had attracted 196,000 viewers compared to the 625,000 who tuned in to Sky News.

Although the BBC maintained that it was usual procedure to analyse its reporting of a major event, insiders said there was concern that its coverage on News 24 had not stood up to that of its rival, Sky News, which succeeded in getting pictures of protesters ripping out CCTV cameras.

"Our coverage was a bit disastrous," said an insider. "In the end, most people in the newsroom ended up watching Sky because they had better pictures."

While the BBC had employed helicopters to get bird’s-eye views of the day’s events, insiders argue it was a mistake not to allow its reporters closer to the action.

"I think they were a bit too concerned about the dangers of putting live crews into Oxford Street," the insider said. "Of course, there are some risks, but journalists work in situations that are a lot more dangerous when they are in other countries."

The BBC’s head of news, Richard Sambrook, and head of newsgathering, Adrian Van Klaveren, sent an e-mail to the 120 journalists and crew assigned to the story telling them they were to put safety first and that they should ensure the views of the protesters were also reported.

But with BBC chiefs keen to establish its 24-hour news channel as the market leader by the end of next year, its coverage of the protests has been described by one insider as "a bit of a setback".

A spokesman for the BBC said it was "absolutely normal for every bit of our coverage to be analysed and dissected. There are always areas where we could have done better, and May Day was no exception, but it was decided in advance that we would not compromise the safety of our journalists."

He also claimed that by using the helicopter, the BBC had succeeded in getting some "excellent pictures" of how the police had penned in the protesters in Oxford Street.

Sky News sent out five roving reporters in Oxford Street, Park Lane, Parliament Square, Whitehall and Trafalgar Square who had access to two mini cameras which were driven to them on motorbikes for them to file their reports.

"Our aim was to be in the thick of it," a spokesman for Sky said. "Our reporters were asked if they were prepared to go in, and they all said they wanted to. We obviously took every precaution necessary to make sure they were safe and escape routes were planned beforehand."

by Julie Tomlin

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