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Last Updated: Friday, 24 March 2006, 15:59 GMT
Demonstrating bias?
Is the fact that thousands of people have gathered for a demonstration in central London - or Manchester or Glasgow - newsworthy?

Well over 100 people contacted the BBC after the march and protest in Trafalgar Square on 18 March, marking the third anniversary of the war in Iraq.

Why was there nothing on the main bulletins? they wanted to know. The organisers claimed 100,000 people had attended, though the police figure was 15,000.

"There is not one comment about it on any BBC channel or on the internet but a French rally that ended in violence was headline news," said Neil Creaton.

"Is violence the only way to get any publicity regarding a very important issue?"

And Stuart Hamilton said: "This is a nationally important story that should be being given the status that it deserves."

'Quite small'

BBC News 24 did in fact carry an interview with a protester in peak-time, but it was not on the BBC One bulletins.

Speaking on this week's NewsWatch programme, weekend editor Aziz Rashid explained: "We sent out a crew to cover this march in Trafalgar Square, and our information from on the ground was that very few people had turned up.

Protest march
Figures about attendances at protests are often disputed
"We'd seen protests of two million, then 100,000 then 40,000 and now 15,000 - 20,000. So we didn't think it was a very big turnout on what is a huge story. That seemed quite a small demonstration compared to others in the past that we've covered."

Mr Rashid stressed that they didn't rely on police estimates, which were treated as just one source: "I think we always listen to what the demonstrators say. They said there were 100,000 people - the police said there were 15,000.

"We had a team on the ground who are used to marches in Trafalgar Square and estimating numbers and we went by what our team said and they felt it was 15,000 -20,000 people and other news organisations used a similar number."

Whenever we decide on what news stories to cover on a day, it always depends on what else is happening in the world
Aziz Rashid
Weekend news editor
But is it really just a question of numbers? In February, the bulletins did report on the student protests in Oxford in support of an 18m biomedical research lab which will conduct experiments on animals. "That was interesting because it was the first time we'd seen a protest by people marching for animal testing," said Mr Rashid.

He thought this newsworthy against the backdrop of some of the extreme protests carried out by animal rights activists against people working in the pharmaceutical and other industries.

"For 700 people to stand up and say we're going to make a stand against this was quite significant. So even though this was a small protest we felt this was newsworthy."

Other stories

Bulletins on BBC One are shorter at the weekend so there is more pressure on space. Aziz Rashid told NewsWatch: "Whenever we decide on what news stories to cover on a day, it always depends on what else is happening in the world.

"On this particular day 100,000 people had turned up for Slobodan Milosevic's funeral in Belgrade. Now there was a lot of talk as to how many people would go to the funeral and how influential he still was, even though an indicted war criminal.

"The other story was 600,000 people had turned out on the streets of France to protest at a new government law. We thought this was an important story in France's political future about where the government wants to take it - people are talking about Thatcherite reform.

"And our third main story of the day was a story that no-one else was doing. The BBC was in Bombay for the trial of two British men who had set up an orphanage in Bombay in order to abuse children. And that was our exclusive report.

"So those were our main stories on a 10 minute bulletin at teatime and then a 17 minute bulletin in the evening."

Democracy

Some viewers felt the lack of coverage reflected a deeper concern.

"It amounted to effective censorship of dissent on the single most important issue facing the country and the world," wrote Michael Goulden.

"A fearless and independent BBC is crucial to the strength of our democracy. When are we going to get it?" asked Andrew Jackson.

"I hope that's it's only very few people who think we're censoring this kind of information," said Aziz Rashid.

"We've covered lots of anti-war protests. We've covered the third anniversary of Iraq a lot - in fact, we led with it on our bulletins on Sunday, which said that the former Iraqi prime minister was saying Iraq was in a state of civil war, which was hardly pro-government.

"So I don't think we were censoring it - it was covered on the website and BBC Radio, we covered it on News 24 and other BBC programmes did mention it. It's just that we have short bulletins at the weekend and because very few people turned up we didn't do it."


SEE ALSO
Head to head: Animal research lab
25 Feb 06 |  Politics
In pictures: Global anti-war protests
18 Mar 06 |  In Pictures
The pro-test protesters
22 Feb 06 |  Magazine


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