Friday 11 September 2009

BBC News and the G20 coverage: a question of integrity

On the evening of April 7 Channel 4 News broadcast footage obtained by The Guardian which showed a police officer physically assaulting Ian Tomlinson on the day of the G20 protests, a few minutes before Mr. Tomlinson collapsed and died.

The video evidence contradicted earlier claims by the police that Mr. Tomlinson had not been in contact with them prior to his death. More generally, the footage played an important role in crystallising a growing public perception that the police failed to maintain acceptable standards of conduct in their operation at the G20 protests. This perception promoted at least three major inquiries into the policing of the G20 protests and some revision of police tactics.

In our letters of complaint to the BBC concerning the BBC Newsroom’s coverage of the protests, Guy Aitchison and I reported the claim that the footage in question was offered first to the BBC Six O’Clock News, only to be turned down. As we put it in our original letter of complaint:

‘According to Guardian journalist Stephen Moss: "When The Guardian offered this astonishing footage to the BBC News at 6, apparently the response was "No thanks, we're not covering this, we see it as just a London story.""

We argued that, if true, this reveals a very poor grasp of the priorities which should guide the editorial judgments of a major public service broadcaster.

In their reply to our letters, which we received last week, the BBC maintained that the story in question is not true – a ‘misapprehension’. They were not offered the footage for the Six O’Clock News. Had they been, they would have been keen to show it. The relevant part of the BBC reply is as follows:

‘Moving on to consider the allegation, as also made in your original complaint, that there was initial disinterest in the BBC newsroom in the breaking news around police involvement in the death if [sic] Ian Tomlinson, Ben Rich, deputy editor of the News at Six and Ten, explains:

"We are as keen to break stories as any other news organisation, but I assume from the tone of the complaint that there is an implication that it was bias on our part. In truth the reason why we didn't break, for example, the footage of Ian Tomlinson being struck by a police officer was that the person who had that footage chose, as they are perfectly entitled to do, to give the footage to the Guardian. Part of what the complainant here is referring to is the misapprehension that seemed to have grown up that the Six O'Clock News declined the footage - that is utterly untrue as the reason it was not on the Six o'clock news on the day it featured heavily on the Ten was that the Guardian embargoed it until 7pm. As a journalist I would have done anything to get that footage on air as it was a great story but we were not able to do it on the night."’ (Italics added.)

We went back to The Guardian and asked a source there to comment on this point of the BBC reply.

The source in question replied as follows:

‘The fact is that that we formally approached the BBC about the footage soon after receiving it. BBC 6pm rejected the story and directed us to the BBC 10pm (they, in turn, were luke warm until the Home Affair correspondent became involved).

The 7pm embargo was applied by us after the 6pm rejected the footage, and when C4 confirmed they wanted to run the story. Ben Rich was not the editor we spoke to (there are several), so perhaps has been misinformed.’

Having received this refutation of the BBC version of events, we went back to the BBC. We emailed the person who had dealt with our complaint and asked if s/he would like to comment or revise anything in the reply to us. The person concerned simply referred us back to the standard complaints procedure. Knowing how long it can take to get a reply using this procedure, and feeling that we have given the BBC ample opportunity to respond, we have chosen to make the information public.

The bare facts, then, are these. There is a clear discrepancy between the BBC version of events and that of The Guardian. In the case of The Guardian, Stephen Moss’s original report has been confirmed by our own source. Moreover, according to this source, the BBC version has been given by someone who was not directly in a position to know what happened.

Different readers might respond to these facts differently.

Our view is that someone, somewhere in the BBC system is being dishonest.

We do not accept, therefore, that the BBC reply to our letters of complaint dealt with all of our criticisms to the standard of integrity we are entitled to expect.

Other institutions have been compelled to learn lessons following the G20 protests. If our judgment of dishonesty on this specific item is correct, then there must be real doubt as to whether the BBC Newsroom currently has the ability to reflect on its own shortcomings and learn the lessons that need to be learned.

(Note: This is a joint post by Stuart White at Next Left and Guy Aitchison at open Democracy.)

1 comment:

Sunder Katwala said...

Stuart & Guy,

This is interesting and well done with your tenacity in pursuit of accountability here. I was struck by this difference when I saw Guy's post on the letter, having also been under this 'misapprehension' from having read the Guardian's account at the time.

I hope the BBC might respond properly - without directing you back to the process - and otherwise would suggest that other media reporters might try to get at why these contradictory accounts are at odds with each other. I may have previously suggested this would be a good issue for Newswatch and Raymond Snoddy, and this latest exchange might well strengthen the case that they might be able to dig into this a bit more.

This ought to be cleared up by the BBC: if they were indeed offered the video for the six o'clock news without the 7pm embargo, then they need to acknowledge that, and withdraw the statement to the contrary.

And, while there may be one or more miscommunications somewhere, I just can't see why The Guardian have any reason to invent this account of offering it to the Six. (Nor can I see why your Guardian source or another Guardian person directly involved should not now give a clear public account from their side if a basic fact is in dispute in this way. (I do note that Moss also uses the word "apparently" so his too is probably a third hand account).

In retrospect, I am sure most people at the BBC will agree with Ben Rich that they should "have done anything to get that footage on air". While human decisions will always be fallible), that might be a chance to step away from somewhat Panglossian tone defending of everything in this case, and perhaps acknowledging there might be things to learn from it for the future.