Page last updated at 13:43 GMT, Friday, 8 August 2008 14:43 UK

Shaun Ley's week

By Shaun Ley
Presenter, BBC Radio 4's The World at One

In our daily programme meeting, we have an inverse ratio rule: the longer the list of possible stories handed out by that day's editor, the less news there is.

Gordon Brown and David Miliband
There has been much speculation about Labour's leadership in the papers

You see, on a busy day identifying the most important story is pretty straightforward. There might be a debate about which other stories to cover, but the choice can usually be confined to one side of A4.

We're in August, however, and as the daily newspapers start to get thinner, our list gets longer. On one day this week, it stretched on to a second side of A4; and we're not even half way through the month yet.

Not that there aren't things happening. After all, it's not the summer holidays everywhere, and some news like war, death and natural disaster knows no respite.

Perhaps that's why at this time of year you'll hear more international news, and see it in newspapers which normally ignore it.

Headlines matter

Actually, we could probably still fill the programme several times over, but you have to have some sort of threshold of interest.

For example, on Wednesday we could have done an extensive sequence on that morning's coup in Mauritania. But whilst it might interest some, it was hard to see the relevance for a wider audience.

In an ideal world, if there wasn't enough news we'd simply produce a shorter programme.

I couldn't confirm the story was true because the sources were ghosts in the political machine

That, though, would play havoc with the controller of Radio 4's schedule, and leave an awful lot of gaps for the continuity announcers to fill. Instead, we stick with our ever lengthening list.

The problem is, if anything, more acute for newspapers.

Although their core readership will buy the paper day in, day out, they need those additional sales generated by the strength of the front page. So headlines matter.

Anonymous sources

Which, as Michael White of The Guardian suggested on Wednesday's programme, may explain that day's lead in The Daily Telegraph - "Miliband Lines Up Milburn For The Treasury".

This was certainly a headline likely to make punters part with their 80p, particularly those fascinated by Labour's leadership shenanigans. No other paper had the story, so the "exclusive" tag was well-deserved.

Yet like many such stories, it was a difficult one for anyone else to substantiate.

For all journalists, whether on paper, on line or on air, the problems are the same: is the source reliable?

The anonymous quote is often a feature in political stories, "friends of" and "sources close to" serving as useful euphemisms for those unwilling to go public.

Anonymity, of course, doesn't mean a story isn't true, and off-the-record sources are hardly confined to politics. But they do seem to provide a large slice of the newsprint in political coverage.

In some ways, it's easier for broadcasters. In radio and television, the voice of a contributor has more impact than a quote read out by a presenter. This can be frustrating.

Column inches

As a political correspondent, my job on a Saturday night was to read the first editions of the Sunday newspapers and attempt to stand-up their juicy front page leads.

More often than not, I'd have to disappoint an eager editor anxious to fill her or his bulletin tray. I couldn't confirm the story was true because the sources were ghosts in the political machine.

Broadcasters rely on anonymous sources, too, of course (not that they're truly anonymous, the reporter has to know who they are). It's just that they form a far smaller part of any story subsequently broadcast.

Instead, we have to find people who will actually speak publicly, and that at least allows the audience to evaluate for themselves what's being reported and the credibility of the person saying it.

But for all journalists, whether on paper, on line or on air, the problems are the same: is the source reliable; are they in a position to know what they say they know; is there any other way to verify the information; and are they using you?

That latter point must have occurred to the team at the Telegraph.

After all, this is a story which could have served different people's interests in different ways: Mr Miliband's camp, in demonstrating the kind of support their man might be able to attract; Mr Milburn's supporters, in sending a message to Number Ten that it needed to make him an even better offer; or Gordon Brown's, in painting David Miliband as a Blairite harking back to the past rather than a fresh face for the future.

I've been talking to a couple of "sources" myself in the last few days. They haven't featured in any of my broadcasting, and they have very different perspectives on Labour's future.

You'll have to take my word for it that they have some cause to know what's going on.

But they've left me with the impression that the Labour speculation is not simply a case of filling column inches in a news-starved August.

Things may come to a head a good deal sooner that we've been led to expect.

Martha Kearney is away.


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