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Last Updated: Friday, 13 January 2006, 11:14 GMT
Sending costs sky high?
The irony wasn't lost on the new Conservative leader, David Cameron.

Outlining his environmental policies in his victory speech last month, he said: "I tried to make a start this morning by bicycling to work. That was a carbon neutral journey until the BBC sent a helicopter following me."

Helicopter shot of Cameron
David Cameron being followed from above
Indeed, Mr Cameron, conveniently wearing a bright red jacket, was tracked from his home in west London into the gates of Westminster. Footage was carried live on Breakfast.

Viewer Liz Main said it was an unnecessary flight and "an astronomical waste of the licence payers' money". Another caller described it as a "ludicrously expensive gimmick".

In fact it wasn't the first time the use of a helicopter has been questioned by the audience. After David Blunkett's resignation from the government in November, his car trailed round the streets of London.

Editorial imperative

"If you really wanted to know where he was going," said News 24 viewer George Cropton, "a few judicious phone calls would have been far less expensive."

Newsgathering producer Richard Critchlow, who specialises in aerial filming, agreed that the BBC is using helicopters more than it has in the past - but there is a reason.

BBC News helicopter
The BBC now has a helicopter on contract
"Before the London bombings of 7 July, we would book a helicopter on a story by story basis," he explained.

"But 7 July brought into sharp focus the editorial imperative that we have to be able to get shots over London as quickly as possible.

"Within the helicopter industry, the only way to do that is to enter into a contract with a supplier for a minimum number of hours, which we've now done over a six month period.

Threshold lowered

"In entering into that contract we now have more hours available to us than we had by booking a helicopter on a story by story basis. That has enabled us to lower the threshold at which we would use the helicopter on a news story, so viewers may notice we are using it on stories we wouldn't have done previously."

It's an expensive tool in our armoury, but it's also an invaluable tool
Richard Critchlow
Senior Producer, Special Events
So how much does it cost? The BBC couldn't discuss the details of its contract, but a look on the internet and a couple of phone calls show you're talking at least 1,000 for the shortest flight.

"There's no doubt that it's an expensive tool in our armoury, but it's also an invaluable tool," said Richard Critchlow. "We really believe we get value for money from the helicopter."

He pointed out that it could give an idea of the scale of an event, such as Live8 or George Best's funeral. It could allow access when roads were blocked - a helicopter was used to get pictures of motorists stranded by snow on Bodmin Moor.

Appealing idea

And it was only when a helicopter started beaming live pictures that many viewers could get a real sense of the effects of last month's fire at the Buncefield petrol depot.

Buncefield fire
A helicopter showed the scale of the petrol depot fire
While helicopters aren't cheap, the cost often has to be set against other expenses. Viewers complained that Newsnight's Michael Crick flew around the UK to cover the 2005 election campaign - and programme editor Peter Barron doesn't blame them.

"It was an appealing idea to send Michael Crick up in a helicopter but we initially thought it was going to be far too expensive," he said.

Save money

"But then we did a study and we compared it with what we'd spent going to constituencies in the last election and we realised that we could actually save money.

Newsnight helicopter
Newsnight took to the air for the 2005 election
"Normally when you go out and make films you have a lot of costs such as staying overnight in places, feeding material back, editing in the field and things like that. But with the helicopter we were amazed that we could go out and do a report and get back to Newsnight's offices in London usually by five or six o'clock."

So viewers can expect to see more footage from helicopters - especially as the battle between the news channels hots up.

"We are committed to providing news first on News 24, and we can now get a live shot over London within 15 minutes of a telephone call," said Richard Critchlow.

"I think hand on heart there have been times when we've sent the helicopter to something and retrospectively we've realised that it didn't merit the helicopter being there.

"But we take the view we'd rather it was there if the story does turn out to be as big as we initially suspect it to be rather than finding the story was huge and we didn't have the helicopter there at all."


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