Rebels take Tripoli; Dale apologises…

I keep an eye on Twitter rather than live ‘there’. It can be a pretty febrile place, even when discussing less important matters than a bona fide Arab revolution.

At one stage last night, one Syrian broadcast journalist had Gadaffi dead; shot near Rixos Hotel where many of the world’s journalists reporting from the government side of the Libyan conflict were stationed. It turned out to be mistaken identity.

There was much discussion of how the Beeb had been caught out, and lost the UK coverage game to SkyNews. Although the BBC News Channel had some good interviews at the start of the night, the fact their main man Matthew Price (@matthewwprice) was on the government side, holed up with the CNN and other correspondents inside the Rixos, meant they simply had no feed from the rebel side that was less than four or five hours old.

By contrast, Sky News’ Alex Crawford (@AlexCrawfordSky), with the critical advantage of being on the right side when the story broke, took the brave – and, it turns, out intelligent – decision to move into Tripoli with the rebels, and accordingly beat even Al Jazeera (whose coverage was otherwise excellent) into Green (now renamed Martyrs) Square.

I’d be reluctant to extrapolate too much from last night’s events without some decent inside information, but it’s another victory for the private sector over the licence holder.

I’m not a huge fan of the Sky product overall. It has a virtual monopoly over televised sport (handed it on a plate by the Thatcher government at the beginning), and has few, if any, of the production obligations that its UK commercial terrestrial rivals have, which is rarely referenced by residual critics of the BBC.

That said, after years of fishing in the same homogenised Westminster village gossip pool as the BBC, the News product has lately seemed to have sprung into life (ironically, around the time the Hackgate strong began to re-emerge by my reckoning; although it may have its actual genesis earlier than that).

Two possible contributory factors:

  • No one anticipated the fall of Tripoli* to take place in such a short, dramatic and apparently viably broadcast-able timespan. Like so many other aspects of the ‘Arab Spring’, each ‘stage’ has been hard to predict. In this case, fortune has favoured the brave, and the fleet-of-foot.
  • In that regard, SkyNews is small and light and has a thin line of command. Compare it’s News Centre at Osterley in West Londonn- few desks, often skeletal back office crew – with the sprawling mega office that surrounds the BBC’s news operations at Wood Lane. Smart decisions quickly, are not the state broadcaster’s forte.

It’s possible that in making voluntary cuts under the last government, and further cuts under this one, the bureaucracy of the BBC has not yet made the necessary reforms to keep it’s news product fresh and relevant. But it is also possible that with so many masters to obey (not simply the licence payer), the BBC will always take hits like this, over the short run of a fast breaking story at least.

In other news, Iain Dale found out that Twitter can be dangerous for your reputation. He has apologised for calling the BBC’s man on the spot a wimp for not coming out of the aforementioned Rixos Hotel. After some intelligent peer pressure from SkyNews’s Neal Mann (@fieldproducer) he agreed to make a donation to the Rory Peck Trust

So who said journalism was dead? Yet for all that last night was great television, as Gil Scott Heron so memorably noted, the revolution [itself] will not be televised, brother

Question is, will we still be listening, or watching when the real work of remaking Libya begins?

*Adds: See Oracle’s corrective notes below