Here’s a little exam question for you: list the following news items in order of importance …
1. Phone-hacking: allegations of a too-cozy relationship between the prime minister, the police, and one of the world’s biggest global media corporations, some of whose journalists illegally accessed private voicemail messages and paid police for information.
2. Eurozone crisis: growing fears that Greece, and perhaps other eurozone countries, will not be able to pay their debts, leading to renewed financial and economic turmoil. (At the same time, unless the Obama administration can do a deal with Congress on debt ceilings, there’s a chance of a US default as well.)
3. Famine in east Africa: the UN has declared an official famine in parts of Somalia … tens of thousands of people have already starved to death, and many more are suffering from acute malnutrition in a crisis described as the worst for several decades.
On Wednesday night, as it happens, those were the three main news stories of the evening. We had to choose how to structure the programme, something we do every night, but which sometimes poses tricky issues of news judgement.
I know, because a number of you have told me, that some of you feel we have devoted too much attention to the phone-hacking saga. In last week’s newsletter, I tried to explain why we think it’s important.
And on Wednesday’s programme, Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian said he believes the saga illustrates an important truth about how we are governed – in his words, it shows “a corporate titan with overwheening power over both the police and successive governments.”
So, on Wednesday, the first item on the programme was about phone hacking. Not necessarily because we thought it was clearly the most important story of the day, but because we thought we had some interesting material and some interesting contributors.
In addition, we knew that the following night – ie last night – we would almost certainly be leading the programme with the eurozone crisis, because yesterday EU leaders were meeting in Brussels to thrash out a new rescue plan for Greece.
On the Somali famine, we had a powerful interview with the former president of Ghana, John Kufuor, but we remembered that we had already covered the drought crisis in some depth over previous weeks, which is why it didn’t go at the top of the programme.
Last night, as we had expected, the top story was indeed the eurozone deal. It was announced at about 8pm, perfect timing for us, because we were able to report the terms of the deal, analyse its implications and garner some first reactions from Germany and Spain.
We hadn’t planned to do any more on phone hacking, but then, mid-evening, two important new developments forced the story back onto the agenda. We are, after all, a news programme; our task is to report the news as best we can in the time available, and if something significant happens a couple of hours before we go on air, we are duty bound to cover it.
Which is why we also had to make space for a tribute to Lucian Freud, the titan of contemporary British art whose death was announced shortly before 10pm.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, I think it might help you understand how we decide what goes into the programme each night. Every day we try to strike a balance, because there’s no point in us coming in to work each day unless we can persuade you to listen to the programme.
We want you to be informed, interested, surprised and – sometimes – entertained. We want to bring you up to date with the latest developments in long-running stories – and help you understand their significance and their context.
So, yes, we’ll keep an eye on both phone hacking and the eurozone – we’ll have a series of reports from around Europe over the next couple of weeks – and we’ll watch the fraught budget debate in Washington as well.
And if something unexpected happens – news, perhaps – yes, we’ll cover that as well.