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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 February, 2005, 15:17 GMT
Ellen coverage splits audience
By Matt Holder
NewsWatch

BBC News chiefs address audience concerns over the Ellen MacArthur coverage, from accusations of over-hyping the story to poor commentary.

Coffin of Sqn Ldr Patrick Marshall
Should this story have been aired...

The time and prominence given to Ellen MacArthur's record-breaking voyage story seemed to split audiences.

For some, Ellen MacArthur's record-breaking voyage was the story of the year and deserved its blanket coverage.

But many others found the prominence the story was given above other news - such as the return of fallen UK servicemen - offensive.

"Why are you wasting so much time on coverage of the girl in the dinghy?" asked viewer Calum Ferguson.

And Michael Rigny said: "Millions of people could not care less about sailing records and devoting all this media space to this is a farce."

Ellen MacArthur returns triumphantly to Falmouth in Cornwall
...before MacArthur's celebrations?

'Tasteless and wrong'

MacArthur's return to Falmouth occurred on the same day that the bodies of 10 servicemen were returned to Britain - and many people thought that running that news below MacArthur's achievement was tasteless and wrong.

Kevin Dogherty said: "Our troops coming home in body bags today should have taken first news story at 6pm, this wouldn't happen in USA or anywhere else. I'm sorry BBC, but you got this wrong - celebrations should not have overtaken our dead soldiers."

And Susan Miller, whose husband is serving in Iraq, asked: "Can you please explain why our troops that have died in Iraq are not getting as much coverage as Ellen?

"It was her choice to be out on a boat for 70 odd days, our troops are out at war for four to six months and it is not up to them. I find the lack of interest very disrespectful."

In reply, Ten O'Clock News Editor Kevin Bakhurst said: "We don't want to underplay the return of the bodies of British soldiers in any way which is why the hour-long ceremony was covered in full on BBC News 24.

There were also complaints that the Ten O'Clock News should not have been extended to cover MacArthur's world record

"None of our competitors did this. It is also why we asked one of our most senior correspondents, Nicholas Witchell to cover the story for the BBC1 bulletins."

He said the decision to give other news more prominence in no way diminishes our respect and editorial commitment to those servicemen who died".

Millions tune in

Despite many people being offended by that decision to run MacArthur above the troops story, many others were also delighted that the BBC chose to give it such prominence.

After weeks of complaints that the BBC had not mentioned MacArthur's epic voyage enough - "Ellen is a national hero yet she is ignored by the national broadcasting company," as Anne Wilkinson put it - more than two million tuned in to watch the BBC News special on BBC One.

Ellen MacArthur's boat surrounding by crowds in Falmouth
Some said the BBC commentary spoiled the atmosphere on TV

However, the accompanying commentary rattled some viewers.

"I was increasingly irritated by what I can only describe as 'prattle' from the commentator," said Pam Raffety.

"Is there any chance that on future occasions we could have professional commentators who understand that less is more?" asked Caroline Adelmann.

And Chris Dennis e-mailed while watching the coverage to say: "Am watching Ellen MacArthur's return to Falmouth. Please ask the lady commentator to ease up on the verbiage and let the pictures tell the tale."

In response, Deputy Head of Television News Rachel Attwell said: "The 'presenter' on the stage was keeping the crowd warmed up while waiting for Ellen to re-emerge.

"He wasn't saying anything of any significance and there was a concern that he would overly plug the sponsors and we would not have control over that.

"Sian Williams meanwhile was talking over pictures of all the activity around the bay and had with her an interviewee to talk about Ellen. We made the decision that that was more interesting."

But despite the complaints, many people also rang and e-mailed to say how much they enjoyed the coverage.



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