10 things I know at 40

1. “And for the rest, we live because we cannot afford not to, because that is life” – Renato Serra

Renato Serra quote on bicycleI first read this quote in the chapter titled Obsession in Mira Liehm’s Passion and Defiance: Italian Film from 1942 to the Present while studying at Manchester University (same drama course and year as Benedict Cumberbatch, not that I knew him) in the late 1990s. It has stayed with me – I even have it in the original Italian on my bicycle.

2. Learn to ride a bicycle

There are few inventions which have done more to liberate the individual. From the glory of Fausto Coppi, to Rwandan hill farmers able to get coffee to market quicker for a better price and Nobel Peace Prize nominated Afghan women’s cycling team‘s liberation from a repressive lifestyle – the bicycle has enabled so much freedom for individuals.

My Raleigh Burner MkII, which I had from about the age of seven to my mid-20s, represented freedom and escape. It was reliable transport that I could use no matter what.

3. You can get away with just about anything in a good suit

And the greatest suit ever is the one Cary Grant wears in North by Northwest. Grey Glen check, three button but cut so it looks like two, worn with a white shirt, oxblood shoes and silver silk tie (and here Arnel sunglasses).

Cary Grant in North by NorthwestUnimpeachable class – probably made by Kilgour of Savile Row and Esquire agree it is the greatest suit in cinema.

According to my research, so long as you’ve got a good suit, a working credit card and a full packet of cigarettes, life offers boundless opportunity for fun.

Equally important is that a blue shirt and beige chinos should never be worn to work by any man with dignity and the ability to buy his own clothes. It is the very definition of the death of imagination, aspiration and individuality.

4. Don’t be afraid to feel

Love, fear, excitement, joy, sadness. The myriad of human sentiment, don’t fight it, live and embrace it. Your life will be richer for every emotion you discover.

5. You will succeed in ways you don’t expect

I used to write an Atomic Kitten fan site/blog. It got me an interview at the BBC for the Top of the Pops website in the summer of 2002. I didn’t get the job. But they called me back and offered me a six month contract on a new site called Celebdaq – a celebrity stock exchange game. For a while we were the hottest site in town, we nearly got sued, we won a Bafta.

I’ve worked on Panorama, Virgin Media, BBC Radio 5 Live, broke the news of Lady Thatcher’s death on @BBCBreaking, verified the footage of Gaddafi’s capture,  produced all the social media that was seen on the BBC’s London 2012 Olympics television coverage, been part of the team that named Jihadi John as Mohammed Emwazi, produced Laura Kuenssberg on the 2015 General Election results programme.

And all because I wrote about being an Atomic Kitten fan.

6. Creating music with friends is untold joy

I’ve been in two bands – one at school where we played indie covers that we loved but no one else did (Homeboy by Adorable, In The Mouth A Desert by Pavement to name two) and one with two very dear friends in my 20s, where we got a track on a BBC One trailer and I swear we were briefly hotly tipped in Albania (thanks to BBC World Service). That song was Sunshine, and I still love the sensations and emotions it brings back.

As our lives changed, so did the music and we eventually parked our dreams. Sometimes I listen to those tracks and regret not pursuing it harder. Then I remember how much fun it was and regret nothing.

7. The best seat in the cinema is Row 3 in the middle

The screen envelopes your field of vision, the overwhelming scale and sensation of cinema feels right. And these days no one else seems to sit down there, so there’s no distractions.

8. Be a stranger in a strange land

As life experiences go, being a foreigner is one everyone should experience. It helps you understand the world better to be the other person. It also taught me a lot about who I am and how people perceive others.

I lived in France for a year and a bit – I was the odd English guy in Vichy who liked to party. I was there for the World Cup in 1998, something I will never forget.

9. A dog will see you through the darkness

Fausto has been part of our family for four years. When we first got him he was a wild pup, now he’s a loving companion.

Walking him has been hugely important to me. When your job involves the sort of horrors I see and hear about from witnesses on a daily basis, having someone who will listen and then lick me in the face keeps me sane.

10. 40 is less than half the way through your working life

With retirement now likely to be at least 67 by the time I retire, it’s even longer than it used to be. That lottery win better happen soon.

BBC London 2012 Olympics

London 2012 Olympics – how we used social media in BBC Television output

What was the aim?

To make social media from athletes and prominent figures involved in London 2012 an integral part of the conversation with our audiences.

Originally this was proposed with the emphasis on BBC Three with its younger audience more attuned to social media, in particular programmes presented by Jake Humphrey. Once we started developing the proposition, it became obvious that we could make this work as part of output across all timeslots and networks.

How did we reflect this in presentation?

By using it as a natural part of the script and flow of programmes. As far as possible it was treated as part of a conversation within the programme rather than something from outside the programme.

We applied some simple rules which we felt would enhance the audience experience and awareness of social media during the Olympics:

1. It should never get in the way of the action
2. It should to add something to the editorial output and should never be used for the sake of showing social media
3. Make best use of the strongest points of engagement – on air calls to action and engaged presenters on the home platform (in this case Twitter)

What we wanted to avoid was the jumping out of narrative experience where the social media is presented as “here’s the social media bit!” as if the conversation is entirely disconnected from what is happening onscreen.

We also looked to use new technology such as Kinetrak, Splashtop and iPads to offer innovative ways of presenting the information onscreen.

With Kinetrak, the feature was the presenter-controlled graphics, not the content – we used it for medal tables, stills and not just social media.

Who we worked with

The backend was an iteration of IMI Mobile‘s platform, better known to BBC staff as the MMC or WIN Multimedia Console. This console pulls in social media feeds from a variety of sources and allows the producer to output them, via selected feeds, to assigned destinations (eg graphics, presenter device).

The Olympics iteration took advantage of a broad range of functions that I knew existed in different parts of the BBC but which hadn’t necessarily been used together in the same iteration.

Each user was given a unique login, allowing me to track and audit usage, and training on how to make best use of the functionality for their output.

IMI also supplied functionality which allowed social media to be pushed to presenters on an iPad by the producer/gallery and skins to brand them with.

For onscreen, Mammoth Graphics handled presentation and worked with Kenziko to pass the output feeds from console to Viz RT graphics machines. They also delivered the Kinetrak solution for gesture-based presentation which you can see on their website.

Keep it simple and consistent

#bbc2012 was used across all platforms (broadcast and social) as the single point around which the audience could engage
#bbcthree2012 was unique to BBC Three and used specifically for the points where we wanted the audience to be part of the programme
#bbcmoment was about reflecting the biggest moments during the games and the inspiration it fostered among the audience

The power of the presenter and pundit

The key to making it stick in programmes is the presenter. If they feel comfortable and engaged then everything else can flow from that.

We were lucky to have a group of presenters who, across the board, felt able to discuss and involve themselves in how and when we could use social media in their presentation.

Jake Humphrey was probably the presenter who delivered the highest profile engagement. His track record with engaging audiences through twitter from F1 proved invaluable in driving the usage of social media in programmes he was presenting.

Even when faced with the logistical challenges of the Velodrome which meant he simply didn’t have space or time to use the iPad, Jake could be seen using his smartphone to find material and use it in the programming. His on and off air engagement certainly benefited the programmes he was presenting, opening them up to an audience who really appreciated him.

Clare Balding built a very strong engagement, not just in the studio but everywhere she went, through her calls to engage with #BBCMoment, rallying thanks for the Gamesmakers and in the way in which her dialogue with the athletes and celebrities around the games enhanced the BBC’s reputation on social media.

As a pundit, Ian Thorpe shows how strong a growth trajectory a considered and well-thought out attitude to social media can develop. From a standing start during the Games, he grew into an easily recognisable and engaged personality on twitter.

On BBC Three, Sonali Shah, Rishi Persad and Manish Bhasin were all genuinely engaged. It wasn’t uncommon for them to be requesting material to use in programmes rather than wait for it to be provided.

BBC One were more restrained in their use by the nature of output but they were receptive and willing to use content where they could. The use of it during the big interviews in Gary Lineker’s peak-time show worked well and allowed it to be woven in without having to explicitly refer to it on air.

Matt Baker and Jake Humphrey were both comfortable with using material and even more ‘traditional’ presenters warmed to the possibilities. For me the proof of this comes from a moment that happened in the studio, unseen by the audience: Sue Barker reading tweets off an iPad and then dropping them into her script on air as casually and naturally as Jake.

Secondary influencers

Output producers and editors are just as valuable in the process. The ones who made best use were the ones were most receptive and made the effort to figure out how and when to include material.

The BBC Three teams had more of a remit to do so, but I was really happy that the output editors all took the time to learn how to use to console and were willing to suggest ways of making it work for their particular programme.

Production teams, including the Multimedia Broadcast Journalists/TV Sub-editors, who engaged with the console and learned how to benefit from it inevitably gained the most in terms of reflecting the conversation onscreen.

Having support for what we were trying from all parts of the organisation, top to bottom, was also really valuable to me on a professional level, as it allowed me the confidence to try methods of working without the fear of what the reaction would be from senior management.

Missed opportunities or managed experience?

In some programmes we used less social media because it failed to pass muster with our rules.

For example, during Super Saturday on BBC One where there was so much happening that it simply made no sense to be trying to get the reaction from athletes into the programme because the action just kept coming.

On Olympics Tonight we had conceived there would be social media but given its late timeslot and that the action would be some distance from the time of the tweets, we questioned what it would add.

This was in the sense of asking what a tweet from mid-afternoon would add to an interview or discussion at nearly 11pm. We didn’t exclude material and it informed the programme where relevant, but we felt that featuring it would look dated given how moods change on social media and that the aim was to reflect the conversation happening relatively concurrently, not conversations that happened in the past.

My main disappointment was that I was not able to better support morning programmes as well as daytime and evenings. If I could have cloned myself, I think we could have made much greater impact by covering the beginning of the day when there’s the opportunities to use social media to talk up the upcoming action.

Mishal Husain was keen to engage and use her audience and experience from working across BBC News output and there were certainly opportunities to do a mix of review/preview of the day’s action.

The flipside to this is that on BBC Three, the morning gallery team were trained on the console and found ways to use it to deliver content unsupported by a social media producer.

Sonali Shah’s interview with Laura Trott was done entirely by the production team and presenter working with graphics and entirely on their own initiative.

Where does a social media producer fit into the production workflow?

Positioning of the social media producer is key. At London 2012, the role was new and so much of my experience was discovering what could be considered best practice and then trying to apply it.

Over the course of the fortnight, we established that the most effective way for the role to work is for it to be part of the output gallery so that they can gauge the programme demands and adapt to changes in live output accordingly.

With two live galleries running at the same time, this raised the question of whether one person is enough. My experience was that given the nature of live sport, it was rare that both BBC One and Three would be looking for social media output at the same time.

Part of the role is clearly identifying opportunities in the schedule for social media content, which requires knowledge of the schedule of live events and liaising with output editors to establish requirements and to offer content as appropriate. This is more straightforward at either end of the day when there are fewer major events to choose from, but it can be complicated during the peak hours when the number of events mean that programme running orders are much more fluid.

Given the ad hoc nature of live schedules during peak, this makes it challenging to work across the two galleries’ output simultaneously. Being mobile helped but I did feel there were times when it was impossible to be in two places at once. This would be best mitigated by having backup in the form of training for output editors and production co-ordinators so that they aren’t reliant on the Social Media Producer.

Where we think it worked well

#bbcmoment used unprompted by Clare Balding – which led to gallery and feature across platforms. This came from Clare, not from our prompting, showing that a simple proposition can be effective in moving the conversation from an off-air space towards broadcast.

Suggested by Clare Balding

became gallery from BBC 2012 team:

The pictures in the gallery represent a fraction of the engagement we got from the audience (a rought estimate says we received over 300 different pictures relating to this CTA)

Jake Humphrey punts out for questions for Brad Wiggins and gets hundreds.

This shows how a combination of presenter-led effort with a nice clear CTA and the support of the programme team to get it on air can really lead the editorial in a way that delivers something fresh and different from the standard interview. You can also see how Jake is using the iPad functionality to script the interview questions as part of his range of presenting options.


In the studio environment we experienced almost no issues in delivering a workable connection for the presenter to receive social media at their presentation point. This was done over a dedicated wireless connection. As much of what we delivered was text based, it was relatively low bandwidth.

We did not make any significant use of the technology for presenters on location due to lack of guaranteed bandwidth. This is an area we should explore for future events with the possibilities of 3g/4g or our own wireless provision.


So we used it, there were no major disasters or emergencies, and most people appreciated it. I’d say it’s worth doing it again. See you in Rio 2016, or maybe sooner?

Digital Newsgathering Journalism Social Media Verification

#bbcsms: BBC processes for verifying social media content

Below is the text of an article I wrote for the BBC College of Journalism website on verification processes for social media in BBC News, published 11 May 2011:

From Tunisia, via Egypt, to Libya and Syria, verifying and acquiring eyewitness/citizen journalist/user-generated content has become increasingly complicated as the material has become more sophisticated.

At the UGC (user-generated content) Hub in the BBC Newsroom in London, our process has become much more forensic in nature and includes:

– Referencing locations against maps and existing images from, in particular, geo-located ones.

– Working with our colleagues in BBC Arabic and BBC Monitoring to ascertain that accents and language are correct for the location.

– Searching for the original source of the upload/sequences as an indicator of date.

– Examining weather reports and shadows to confirm that the conditions shown fit with the claimed date and time.

– Maintaining lists of previously verified material to act as reference for colleagues covering the stories.

– Checking weaponry, vehicles and licence plates against those known for the given country.

That’s not an exhaustive list, but those are some of the most common things we do in BBC News.

This can take anything from seconds – as in the case of the eyewitness in Bahrain who pointed their laptop’s camera out of the window to prove they were near Pearl Roundabout – to hours, as we hunt for clues and confirmation.

During the battle for control of Zawiyah in March, taking our time, checking against existing sources and using our knowledge meant that we avoided running old material.

One clip appeared, linked to claims that it showed protests after Friday prayers on 4 March 2011. The location was one we had become familiar with. The clip appeared very soon after prayers and our suspicions were raised by the length of the shadows in some shots. The protester stripped to the waist and on their knees also seemed familiar to me.

Other outlets were running with it and there was a degree of pressure to verify it quickly. We soon had the answer when we found that one section had appeared in Ian Pannell’s report a week earlier.

We also made sure we alerted, one of the main sources cited, to our findings so that it could reflect the correct information.

The expertise and local knowledge of both BBC Monitoring and BBC Arabic has been vital. They speak Arabic for one, and they understand accents, humour and nuance in a way we could never hope to match.

I can’t tell a western Libyan accent from an eastern one, but I know that there’s at least one colleague an email away who can. Likewise, when it comes to telling Homsi from Damascene dialect, there are people who can bring that knowledge to the process.

Around 3pm on 23 February, we were asked to verify video claiming to show bodies in the morgue of Al-Jalaa hospital in Benghazi. BBC Monitoring was able to confirm that the accents were eastern Libyan, what the captions and voices were saying, and to give context to the likely date of the events. By 6pm, this verified material was in the system in time for the Six O’Clock News on BBC1 and the BBC News Channel, as well as BBC World News and our website.

There are few organisations which can call on the breadth of resource and knowledge that we can within the BBC.

Whereas a single shot from an individual’s ‘perspective’ used to be the most common form we received, now more material appears as an edited sequence of clips, whether from traditional news agencies, activist groups or individuals.

Some activist groups, in the absence of foreign journalists on the ground, have filled the space left by the traditional agencies. Shaam News Network in Syria and Freedom Group in Misrata, Libya, are examples of how a motivated group with an internet connection can take ownership of the narrative. It’s important to remember the context in which they exist, especially in terms of awareness of their partisan nature.

But, regardless of provenance – from the most established source to the individual who has only ever uploaded one clip – everything we see goes through the verification process before we give our opinion on it. If it says it comes from the social media sphere, we question it until we’re happy that the claims being made stack up.

Contacting witnesses has also had to move with the times and circumstances. Monitoring and blocking of mobile phones and landlines mean that we’ve become increasingly dependent on VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) services, satellite internet and satellite phones to speak to eyewitnesses.

Establishing relationships of trust with people in such precarious situations is a huge challenge and one we take very seriously. We have very clear guidelines for contacting people, with the goal that we should never expose them unduly to danger. We will never ask or encourage anyone to put themselves at risk to tell us their story.

We are hugely indebted to these people, as well as family and friends who put us in contact with them. Without them, much of the story of the ‘Arab Spring’ would never have been told.

Journalism Podcast Portfolio

Talking Tour De France on BBC Radio 2

Here’s a hit I did for Chris Evans’ BBC Radio 2 show yesterday trying to demystify the Tour De France for them.