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Last Updated: Monday, 11 April, 2005, 08:29 GMT 09:29 UK
Back to school for news crews
By Fran Unsworth
Head of Newsgathering

Thousands of journalists have gone back to the classroom in the wake of the Neil Report - one of the BBC's reactions to the damning Hutton Inquiry.

Lord Hutton
Jan 2004: Hutton Inquiry attacks BBC's "defective editorial system"
June 2004: An internal review - the Neil Report - urges BBC to strengthen its journalism and its training
Oct 2004: BBC launches online editorial policy course
Nov 2004: Second face-to-face course launched - Sources, Scoops and Stories
April 2005: To date, more than 6,500 staff have sat both courses

It was one of the biggest crises in the history of the BBC.

Lord Hutton's inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr David Kelly concluded that the key allegation made by Today reporter Andrew Gilligan was unfounded and that BBC editorial and management systems had been defective.

The chairman, Gavyn Davies, resigned. Shortly after - amid emotional scenes at Television Centre - he was followed by the director general, Greg Dyke.

The BBC set up a committee, chaired by Ron Neil, a former editor of BBC News and Current Affairs, to consider the lessons for BBC journalism.

College of journalism

The committee spoke to dozens of senior journalists. Many put forward thoughts not directly linked to the events covered by Hutton. The best of these were also included in the final report.

The committee concluded that BBC journalism had to be true, accurate, in the public interest, impartial, reflecting the relevant diversity of opinion, independent and accountable.

More specifically, all BBC journalists had to take and keep good notes, check and verify their sources, treat all parties fairly and not rush to air at the expense of getting it right.

Helen Boaden

The committee also recommended the creation of a college of journalism to improve and regulate training and the reform of the BBC's system for handling complaints.

The BBC Governors accepted the report and pledged to implement it.

In February, a new clearer, faster complaints procedure was introduced and a blueprint for the college will go the Governors in the next couple of months.

But the biggest task has been making sure every BBC journalist is aware of the Neil recommendations, understands them and acts on them.

Issues and dilemmas

Across the whole BBC - from Newsnight to Newsround and World Service to local radio - the corporation employs more than 7,000 journalists.

On top of their day jobs, those journalists already have a busy schedule of training. Changes in production technology alone require many hours of re-skilling.

Everything, therefore, had to be done to make sure the Neil recommendations were implemented as flexibly yet consistently as possible.

A reporter taking notes
Note-taking remains vital despite modern technology

The broad lessons were included in updated editorial guidelines journalists could access via their desktop PCs.

Two interactive modules allowed journalists to work their way through the main issues and dilemmas. Although individual scores are not being collected, team strengths and weaknesses are being fed back to editors.

These were blended with a series of taught courses in which participants worked their way through an imaginary but realistic newsroom scenario.

These dealt with the detail of the Neil recommendations - making clear, for instance, why good notes are so important, what needs to be noted and how long those notes should be kept.

To date, more than 6,500 people have been through those courses.

Better journalism

To hit those numbers, courses have had to run pretty well constantly since last autumn. Special sessions have been laid on for shift workers and staff in foreign bureaux.

Even the most senior staff are expected to attend. The Director of BBC News, Helen Boaden, described her experience as "very good". "It got the brain cells working," she said.

Has all this made a difference to the output? I believe it has.

Serious allegations that might previously have been broken in a live, unscripted report are now handled more carefully. But it's not all about stopping people doing things.

Mark Thompson announces BBC job cuts
The college of journalism looks set to go ahead despite the BBC cuts

When the Governors endorsed the Neil report, they said the BBC had to maintain its "commitment to investigative journalism set within a strengthened editorial framework".

The fact the courses have been well received is evidence, I'd argue, that they have strengthened BBC journalism. Participants have come away with a clear idea of what's expected of them and the confidence to do it.

The success of these courses will be built on by the college of journalism.

The current cuts - particularly those faced by the BBC's personnel services - have made it harder to settle the precise form the college should take but the basic commitment is absolute.

The BBC has always had a vital role in training journalists and that will continue.


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