More pressure on the BBC over Newsbeat BNP feature

Newsbeat BNP grabNewsbeat’s dereliction of editorial responsibility in reporting the BNP has become a story in its own right. Both Welsh secretary Peter Hain and shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt have criticised the BBC, and the Mail On Sunday made it their front page yesterday. (Roy Greenslade gives more background on the development of the story on his blog.)

So far, the BBC has failed totally to offer an acceptable response to this lapse. Both the editor of Newsbeat and the BBC’s chief politics adviser have defended a piece of journalism so weak it amounted to little more than handing the airwaves to senior BNP members for them to expound fallacious and hateful opinions. Clearly, this is inadequate journalism, and it demonstrates a serious flaw in the way BBC News has interpreted its commitment to truth and accuracy.

The BBC Trust has just opened a public consultation on the corporation’s editorial guidelines. That means the Trust is waiting to hear from viewers and listeners about issues like Newsbeat’s lousy interviewing – if you fill out the questionnaire, I’d recommend paying special attention to section one on “Accuracy and Impartiality”. If you love the Beeb like Charlie Brooker and would do “anything to keep it running”, this is probably better than mass murder as a way of addressing one of those “dumb things” the corporation sometimes does.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

Unsatisfaction: Newsbeat and the BNP

The first formal response in any complaints procedure is the “disappointing brush-off”. My brush-off from Newsbeat arrived yesterday. Understandably, it’s a form email designed to cover all the objections received to the BNP interviews. Less understandably, the reply only refers to the radio version of the story: my complaint was specifically addressed to the online transcript.

On the 853 blog, Daryl points out that this shows a failure to understand the difference between radio and internet journalism:

what Rod McKenzie and his team at Newsbeat need to realise that while radio is a wonderful, intimate medium, it is transient. That lovingly-crafted audio piece will be forgotten next week. But that lazily slapped-up Q&A with the two “young BNP members” will still be there next week. And the week after. And next year. And it carries the BBC logo, so people around the world will think this is quality journalism – slurring the many excellent reporters I worked with in my decade there.

853, “BBC’s website cosies up to bigots”

Furthermore, my complaint was about two specific instances in which the BNP’s false and bigoted reasoning was allowed to stand as fact: the false analogy between species and race, and the untruth about Ashley Cole’s birthplace. It wasn’t a blanket objection to coverage of the BNP. But Rod McKenzie’s reply doesn’t address those issues, it only asserts that Newsbeat has a duty to cover the BNP – which is puzzling, given that I never claimed otherwise.

It’s confounding to be presented with an editor who seems unable to acknowledge that, as well as deciding whether or not to cover an issue, his journalists have the capacity to cover something well or (as in this case) very badly indeed. McKenzie presents editing in this email as a matter of inclusion or omission, not quality control.

Underlining the slightly patronising tone is McKenzie’s expectation that those who complain about the piece would be shocked to discover that the BNP has support: “This may surprise you, but a great many texts we received yesterday – were broadly supportive of the BNP.” (It’s the dash he slips in to anticipate my astonished pause that really aggravates me here.) Whereas it’s that kind of positive reaction to the propagandising Newsbeat interview that many of the complainants will have anticipated, and feared.

After the jump: McKenzie’s reply in full Continue reading


Newsbeat BNP grabBBC journalism often excels its commercial rivals. For detail, depth and balance, it’s easily my preferred source on many stories. Within a year, we’re very likely to have a Conservative government which has already declared itself hostile to the BBC; as Johann Hari points out, it’s probably more important than ever that the BBC’s supporters proclaim its strengths as often as they can.

It’s also more important than ever for the BBC to display those strengths. But this Newsbeat interview with two BNP activists shows that the corporation is as capable of slack, sloppy, damaging journalism as any other organisation. Roy Greenslade goes over the major flaws in his media column for the Guardian, but it comes down to a willingness to accept and republish BNP beliefs on their own terms, rather than do the dirty work of challenging them.

When the two activists compare white British people with endangered species such as the giant panda, interviewer Debbie Randle timorously suggests, “But we’re the same species which makes it a bit different, doesn’t it?” The BNP supporters reply with:

You could say that but if all of a sudden there weren’t any sparrows and there were only crows, I’d still be sad there weren’t any sparrows.

This not only fails to address Randle’s wholly accurate comment about species, it also repeats the fallacy by using two different species to represent white people in opposition to people of all other races (who are the crows here, presumably because BNP voters think Dumbo is a good treatment of racial politics). Randle doesn’t ask what would happen if the crows and the sparrows were able to mate and breed, or how the crows are going to kill the pandas. The reiterated statement is allowed to pass, and then published unchallenged on the BBC website.

According to the link, this article was originally titled “Young BNP members explain beliefs”. It now appears as “BNP members challenged on beliefs” – suggesting that someone in the editorial process realised that inviting the BNP to “explain” their racism really wasn’t going to pass as a probing piece of journalism.

debbie randle status

However, the journalist responsible seems to consider her work acceptable – on the left is a screengrab of a Twitter update, in which she suggests that it’s unfair to judge the interview on the basis of the edited version on the website.

And her editor, Rod McKenzie, is just as clueless: in a post on The Editors (the internal watchdog of BBC news), he argues that the fact that Newsbeat received texts and emails supportive of the BNP shows he was right to publicise their views in this way.

This shrugging off of journalistic responsibility sits badly with my inclination to admire and cherish BBC news. Richard Sambrook, director of BBC Global News, takes the name of his personal blog from the CP Scott dictum, “comment is free, but facts are sacred.” Randle and McKenzie have allowed the BNP’s comment to suffocate facts here: white people aren’t endangered, white and non-white are not different species, Ashley Cole was born in the UK, and so endlessly on.

The Newsbeat interview might be helpful as evidence that the BBC isn’t a fulminating hive of left-wingery; as evidence of the corporation’s newsgathering and reporting prowess, it’s devastatingly poor. Complain to the BBC at this link.

Related: Pickled Politics, “The BBC continues pandering to the BNP”

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009. Post title by Louise Johnson.

Stitched up

Giving an interview is an act of trust in someone else’s ability to represent you. And a good interviewer is one who accepts that they’re responsible for the way their subjects appear: not obliged to make them look good or bad, but to be accurate and fair.

hitler moustache

One of the things I learnt from the last big interview I did was the value of collaborating with the subject, and it’s a principle that I found reinforced by Dan Baum:

the ensuing back-and-forth usually helps me make the story better. I honestly can’t think of a time when somebody took the opportunity to take something back. What usually happens is, the source says something like, “You didn’t get me quite right here. What I was trying to say was this….” And that opens up a second interview — a deeper one, that often leads to even more interesting insights. I’ve had reporters throw up their hands in horror at the thought of allowing a source to amend a quote after the interview. But why not? Isn’t the point to portray people, and their ideas, accurately? I would never show a source my story before publication, but until I’ve processed them into copy, the notes from our interview feels to me like our joint property. I don’t want to play “gotcha” with sources; I want to understand and convey their ideas properly. I want them to read my stories and say, “He got me right,” even if they don’t come off well in the article.

(I can see exceptions to this. If the governor admits in an interview that he looted the pension fund to play the horses, I’m not going to let him take that back. But in the 16 years I’ve been offering to share interview notes with sources, something like that hasn’t happened to me.)

WordWork, “Type fast”

When I interviewed Graham Linehan, his go-over on the transcript was exactly was Baum describes – in a couple of places he restored what was lost in tone when the words were detached from his voice, in a couple of others he clarified the normal ambiguities of speech so they could survive the page. He didn’t remove or retract anything, but he was able to rephrase things in a way that would have been rankly dishonest if I’d done it myself.

That only works, of course, if you “don’t want to play ‘gotcha’ with sources”. If the “gotcha” is what you’re looking for, you’re going to have to try something else. Say, for example, you’re Brian Logan – you’ve pitched a feature about the new offenders of standup comedy, had it accepted and now you need to harvest a few good quotes to inject a hefty jolt of outrage into your reader. Ideally, you want it to read something like this:

This year, veteran comic Richard Herring is sporting a Hitler moustache for his show, Hitler Moustache, in which he argues “that racists have a point”. […] One recent [podcast] episode aired Herring’s purported hatred of Pakistanis, a routine that he expands on in his new standup set. In another routine, he claims to support the BNP’s policy to deport all black people from the UK. Into the awkward laughter that greets this joke, he says: “Don’t go thinking I’m the new Bernard Manning. I’m being postmodern and ironic. I understand that what I’m saying is unacceptable.” Then he pauses. “But does that make me better than Manning, or much, much worse?” This is “playing around with things”, he tells me: “it’s the intent behind it that’s the important thing.” But is it?

The Guardian, “The new offenders of stand-up comedy”

Unlike Baum, Logan isn’t generous enough to let us in on his techniques for journalistic success. But Richard Herring can:

I did sense during the interview that Logan seemed uninterested or bored by a lot of what I was saying. I felt like he wasn’t listening to much of it, but hoped this was just the affected smugness and superiority that I have sensed in his reviews. He works for the Guardian and I felt I could talk in quite a lot of detail about what I do without fear that he would become sensationalist and take things out of context. I didn’t tape the conversation and I have done several long interviews recently and so can’t remember everything that I said, but I know that I was careful to explain myself and the context of some of my more contentious ideas. I was largely critical of offensive comedy, arguing that it takes a very experienced and thoughtful comedian to get away with it and that there must always be a point behind it. I briefly described the “maybe racists have a point” routine from the new show, but (as far as I remember) expressed concern that most of my show was, if anything, a bit of a throw back to the 1980s political and polemical comedy and was a bit right on. […]

I had a slight nagging sense of unease about it all. Just the distance and detachment that I had sensed, perhaps, though I thought he might pick up on me saying that after a certain point a comedian is not responsible for the stupidity of the audience – I had said that Al Murray was not necessarily at fault if his audience took him literally, but Al has said something similar himself.

The article came out today and I was, I have to say, pretty astounded by how it misrepresented what I had said and my material. Here it is.

Richard Herring, “Warming up” 27 July 2009

If Herring’s description of the interview is right – and what I’ve heard of the show suggests that the Guardian piece has framed him horribly – it sounds like the interviewer was sitting out the interview, waiting for the “gotcha”, possibly rather bored at having to listen to all the self-scrutinising stuff about a comic’s responsibilities when using offensve material. He got his moment, and he was able to push his facile little thesis that there’s a new reign of nasty in comedy.

And then, Herring got to unravel his interviewer’s methods publicly. And this is another, excellent and self-interested reason for journalists to follow Dan Baum’s advice: if your interview subject is a public figure, they’ll almost certainly have their own blog. If you stitch them up, they can let the people who’ll be most furious with you – their fans – know what you’ve done. If you’re not worried about the ethics of interviewing, you should at least be worried about what readers and colleagues think of your ethics.

© Sarah Ditum, 2009