A slight depature from the usual fare. I wasn’t going to write anything about this, but I’ve been fuming about it all day and so I really should get it off my chest. I blame veteran journalist Roy Greenslade, whose Guardian blog is essential reading on the profession, for directing me to it – a soft interview with two members of the BNP on… the BBC News website.
Well, it’s the website of Newsbeat on Radio 1, but to all intents and purposes it’s the BBC News website. I should know, because I worked there for 10 years – which is half the reason why I am fuming, because I still hold an enormous amount of affection for the site and hate to see it dragged through the mud. In the latter part of that I had daily contact with the people behind the Newsbeat site, so I was going to hold my piece.
But this episode goes straight to the heart of some of the worst practices you’ll see when broadcasters get involved with the internet. It seems like Newsbeat’s having a bit of a season discussing the British National Party – today listeners are being treated to a Q&A with Nick Griffin, and yesterday they heard from two “young BNP members” talking about their beliefs. A few years ago, I was a paid-up subscriber to the “no platform” viewpoint, in that hateful groups who’d deny others freedom of speech should not be given access to the airwaves. However, with the fascist-founded party having gained some sort of electoral toe-hold, and with people believing their cries of martyrdom each time they’re denied to right to spout their claptrap, I believe such an approach becomes counter-productive.
Their views should be heard, and given rigorous scrutiny. The BBC’s decision to allow Nick Griffin onto Question Time troubles me, not because I don’t want his fat face filling my TV screen, but because Question Time is such a cosy forum that you can just picture David Dimbleby going to a question from “the man over there in the green” just as Griffin is about to make a right berk of himself.
Unfortunately, rigorous scrutiny wasn’t on offer on the Newsbeat website, which is merely a verbatim transcript of what sounds like an incredibly tame interview. I haven’t heard the radio interview – but I imagine that by now, most of the people who read the interview won’t have done. It even appears the “young BNP members” aren’t ordinary members either – something which isn’t mentioned in the interview. “BNP members challenged on beliefs” – really?
It’s worth pointing out – because the story doesn’t – that Ashley Cole was born in Stepney. I don’t want to single out reporter Debble Randle, whose interview may well have worked brilliantly for radio. But that’s it – she’s a radio reporter who has had her material pasted on the internet without context and without much thought. Her bosses, however, should have known better.
While the BBC went to great lengths to incorporate Newsbeat into their online news service – born out of the perennial fear that young people don’t watch/listen to/read BBC News – it doesn’t seem to be taking what goes up there seriously. I complained about the soft treatment these two bigots received:
How on earth does this story “challenge” the BNP members
interviewed for the piece? It does nothing of the sort, and gives these
two bigots a free platform.
The reply, sent on behalf of Newsbeat editor Rod McKenzie, seemed to be to a different complaint. About the radio broadcast. Forget the website, it doesn’t matter.
The BNP was given airtime because we’re an impartial newsgathering
organisation. It’s our job to examine all political parties and put
their representatives on the spot with fair and firm questioning.
Impartial journalism and censorship do not sit happily together. We
believe in getting the facts and the arguments out there for people to
decide – not in judging what is “right” or “wrong” in a political
context – that’s for you to do.
Oh, the joys of cutting and pasting. There’s also a BBC News editors’ blog entry, which fails to mention – or even link to – the Newsbeat website stories.
But 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. And when the general election comes around, the BNP can use it in their publicity. Helping more bitter losers think that picking on the Asian family up the road is going to get this country out of trouble.
And all because radio executives in an office in London forgot about the power of their website. Shameful.
What personally troubles me is that there’s scores of people who work on the BBC’s news website, who have little to do with radio or TV, but are fully conscious of the impact of their work online, and have worked over the years to make that site the best in the country by miles. Then stupid decisions by people for whom the web is an afterthought can undo all that hard work.
My own theory is that the BBC is under so much pressure from the Daily Mail and from the right-wing echo chamber of bullying, attack blogs and their comment drones on every story about the corporation, that its backbone has gone. I was lucky enough to have a collection of bosses at the BBC news website who took decisions, stuck to their guns, and generated a huge amount of respect and loyalty.
But there are others in the corporation who panic at the sight of criticism, and I suspect that they are trying to appease those who say the corporation has a left-wing bias. Here’s news for you, guys – letting BNP propaganda through unchallenged isn’t the way to do it.
UPDATE 7.45PM: Just found Debbie Randle’s response to Roy Greenslade’s criticism on Twitter. Apparently he should have listened to the full interview and not “the shorter transcript”. So what the hell is “the shorter transcript” doing on the Newsbeat website if it doesn’t give the full story? And what’s the point of the Newsbeat website if it can’t stand its own material up without constant reference to the radio programme?