Interview: Karen O’Connor

Karen O'Connor, BBC editor and correspondent, on free speech and privacy.

Tessa Mayes

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Karen O’Connor was interviewed as part of the spiked-report Restraint or Revelation? Free speech and privacy in a confessional age.

In my work, television journalism teams have all been involved in particularly difficult journalistic enterprises. We’ve always had to think of privacy and other ethical issues very carefully. I often find that the television codes of conduct mirror the thinking that one does editorially anyway.

The BBC has its own editorial guidelines. When we do secret filming, when we try and talk to people or when there is a genuine public interest in getting a response to something and we can’t, then we’ve always thought through the issues very carefully. The only thing that really has made an impact is that now people start quoting the BBC codes to you.

When people don’t want to talk to us they tend to employ public relations companies to engage us in a very long-winded fax war. For example, with Barrett Homes we were doing a programme about whether their building programme met all the environmental standards that should have been met. They engaged a PR company to go through every letter we sent and sent a reply to each one. As a tactic – particularly when it’s employed during the time you come up to production – it is very time-consuming. It’s not an un-useful exchange, but I’ve noticed that they tend to quote media codes from the Broadcasting Standards Commission and the BBC’s Producer Guidelines on editorial policy back to us in a very legalistic way – and much more these days, since rules on privacy became enshrined in media codes and BBC policy guidelines.

I think people do need to be treated reasonably. I’ve always worked on that principle. I think that people can take things too far in protecting their privacy, but you also as a journalist work on the principle that if people have nothing to hide then they have nothing to hide.

We were doing an investigation into a gynaecologist, and we had tried to speak to him on several occasions and had written to him with all the relevant questions that we wanted to ask. It was a serious, detailed and very thorough investigation with genuine concerns (he was later struck off by the General Medical Council). We knew where he lived but we didn’t know if he was at home. We knew that his wife was there so we didn’t go marching up to the front door. We waited outside for a long time to see if he would turn up. In fact, the police were called, and we had to move on when they arrived. We weren’t doing anything illegal, just sitting in a car on a public road. But if we didn’t know for sure he was there then that could amount to us bothering his family. So we had to be sure, and spent quite a lot of time establishing where he was as opposed to where he might be. We didn’t bother other patients or his family.

Who do I think should draw the line between private and public life in the media? We exist by charter in the BBC and so our editorial guidelines are enforceable. I think that this kind of internal regulation has worked very well for the BBC, and I don’t think it’s fallen apart particularly given the wider media context. Self-regulation in our case has worked.

I don’t necessarily think it’s worked in the case of newspapers, however. For example, things that the News Of The World has done, like the outing of paedophiles, doesn’t seem to have had much comeback really – even though what it has done can be very serious.

A very serious example of the implications of people going public with their story occurred in the making of the BBC Panorama programme on Omagh shown last year. We had to think through very carefully whether or not our actions could cause any kind of retribution to the people or their families.

I don’t particularly deal with celebrities in my work, but it’s a genuine area of public interest. I think it’s a general rule adopted by some journalists that if you court the media then you are asking the media to court you as a celebrity. The only thing that I’ve noticed in the past few years is that people are savvier about media codes. I think if journalists behave in a reasonable way then you’ve got nothing to worry about in terms of breaching privacy regulations – that is, if you genuinely try to be balanced and to give information.

One of the things that has developed more is that there is a requirement under the BBC code – this isn’t necessarily under the privacy section but it is a dealing point with the interviewee – which is to give more information about other people who are in the programme and the nature of the programme. It’s something you would tend to do on a fairness point anyway, but it’s becoming enshrined in the code and that gets quoted back to us a lot. Some people who do have something to hide tend to utilise these codes much more as a sort of smokescreen – as a way to try to get us off their back by engaging in detailed line-by-line scrutiny of our programme pre-transmission.

Not much has changed in investigative journalism. At Panorama, where you feel you have the backing of the BBC to rely on, I think a lot of people don’t bother to hinder what we are doing because they think it’s all too difficult. Programmes such as Panorama, Newsnight and the Today programme are very important; they bother to do investigations. On a day-to-day basis, if somebody from a certain organisation rings up and says ‘boo’, they have been hired to do this and it’s just par for the course. It rolls off your back if you’re doing a programme like Panorama.

Despite this, investigative journalism is growing. Paul Kenyon’s series Kenyon Confronts – a popular investigative series – has been re-commissioned, for example. People criticise ITV for axing World in Action and claim its replacement Tonight with Trevor McDonald isn’t so investigative. It isn’t, it has a different, more popular remit.

What really angers me, are the deals people come to privately behind the scenes. How valuable is what somebody says if they’ve been paid to say it? For example, the story about the Siamese twins family involved a bidding war within the media. You have to be quite sure that you’re doing something that isn’t going to affect the story. So the BBC came to the agreement that we can’t give licence payers’ money to people, but certainly any proceeds from international sales of that story could have been put in a trust for the child. But we can’t compete with ITV. By the same token, the BBC is supposed to be a media player, so at what point is it okay and what point is it not okay to pay for stories, and if you’ve paid for it, is it true? There must be a very good reason why somebody needs the money. For example, in the Siamese twins case they needed the money for medical expenses.

Another issue is how much you reveal about what you will and won’t discuss during an interview. Every single day journalists come to agreements with various contributors about the content of an interview. How open should you be about that? Shouldn’t the audience know about that? That used to be a big issue on Newsnight, when we would broadcast the terms under which they did the interviews. Contributors got furious and wouldn’t come again. Clarity with the audience is almost to me a bigger issue, and that’s something which is entirely an internal debate within the media at the moment.

Karen O’Connor is editor, correspondent, BBC and the former executive producer of factual learning at the BBC and a former deputy editor of BBC Panorama. She started her career in journalism as a reporter for the Nine Network in Australia and moved to London to work on the news output of TV-AM. She then worked at the BBC as a field producer and eventually as an output editor and filmmaker for BBC Newsnight.

Interview by Catherine Teare, researcher, LIRE media group

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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