The BBC’s editorial complaints unit has partially upheld my complaints about September’s Newsbeat website feature based on an interview with two members of the British National Party.
While it didn’t agree with my overall assertion that the interview – where they set out what they and the party believed in – was “just a puff piece” for the racist party, it said members “Joey and Mark” should have been challenged when they said England and Chelsea defender Ashley Cole was not “ethnically British”, implying that he wasn’t born in the UK. (He was born in Stepney, east London.)
Head of editorial complaints Fraser Steel writes:
“The view that Ashley Cole wasn’t ‘ethnically British’ (expressed by Joey) rested on assertion, not explanation. The distinction between those who are ‘enthnically British’ and those who are not is clearly an important one in the BNP’s presentation of its policies, but (at the least) contentious, and not self-evidently coherent or well-founded. I think it is correspndingly important for BBC interviewers to subject it to scrutiny when it is put forward. In this respect I believe the interview fell well short of the guideline I have quoted, and I’m therefore upholding your complaint to that extent.”
Mr Steel also upheld my complaint about the feature linking only to the British National Party’s website, and no other source of information.
“I don’t think the views put forward on behalf of the BNP were treated with sufficient rigour for a sole link to the party’s homepage to be justifiable, and I agree that it would have been better either to provide links to a range of viewpoints or not to have provided the link at all. I am therefore also upholding this aspect of your complaint.”
I should point out here that I used to work for the BBC for 10 years on its news website, so found making the complaint particularly awkward because it involved making a formal grumble about people I’d happily worked with on a professional level and got on well with personally. (The Newsbeat website is run by the Newsbeat team, and not my old colleagues in the news website team.) But as a piece of work it was so slipshod, so shoddy, and because of the subject matter, so dangerous, that I felt that action needed to be taken. And I’m pleased that the editorial complaints unit agrees with me on some of my points. (I’m also grateful to them for dealing with my complaints civilly and swiftly – a strange feeling after dreading their interventions for a decade!)
I hope that lessons will be learned from this. The website story was based on a broadcast interview, which has belatedly been attached to the page in question, but my complaint was solely about what appeared on the website. I know that in my own time on the BBC News website, all hell would have broken loose if anyone had tried to publish anything as sloppy as that. Like most media outlets, the team there are fully aware that reporting the BNP is fraught with danger, and on the vast majority of occasions they handle it well. Seeing Debbie Randle’s cheerfully naive Q&A with these bigots was alarming, because it drove a coach and horses through those high standards.
But put yourself in her shoes for a moment. Why would you publish something like that? The answer comes from above, high in the BBC hierarchy, where it has been decided that the BNP should be treated like any other political party.
Fraser Steel again:
“Rigorous testing doesn’t necessarily mean adopting a confrontational style of questioning, and I would consider the views of a political party to have been tested with appropriate rigour if the questioning were to leave audiences (or, in this case, readers) clear about the nature of those views and equipped to form a judgement on their merits.”
But nowhere in the Labour Party’s history has a senior activist tried to blow up the Lib Dems’ offices. Members of the Conservative party don’t go around wearing swastikas. Green activists don’t have their own paramilitary force. And, believe it or not, UKIP supporters don’t go around beating up people who want us to join the euro. Yet BNP activists and supporters have done just that over the years. Who says? The BBC said, in its 2001 special BNP: Under The Skin.
On a journalistic level, the BNP is a news story on stilts, because it represents danger to most people – a political refuge for the ignored and misled which also threatens the safety of our fellow British citizens. In crude news terms, the frisson of violence associated with the party makes it interesting in a way, say, the Liberal Democrats aren’t. Even this summer, its leader on Epping Forest council said the party could not have been behind an alleged firebomb attack on a man’s home because: “Firebombing is not a British method. A brick through the window is a British method, but firebombing is not a way of showing displeasure.” As a journalist, why wouldn’t you quiz a BNP member about why they’ve joined a party which has officials spouting that stuff?
This is not a normal political party. To treat it as such is not only cowardice, but a basic journalistic failing. The BBC acknowledged this when it invited Nick Griffin onto Question Time – and the vast majority of the programme was dedicated to his being there, with host David Dimbleby turning master interrogator as well as benign chairman.
It also strikes me as a little contradictory that while the interview was not rigorous enough to warrant just a single link to the BNP’s website, it was still deemed rigorous enough to be published. If you link to a range of viewpoints, then they need to be reflected in the story itself. If you were to link to, say Hope Note Hate, Unite Against Fascism or Nothing British (there’s a range of viewpoints for you) then to give that link context, you’d need to include a contribution from that organisation in the story. But the intention here was simply to give the BNP a platform to state its case, and not give a voice in the copy to any opposing view. I suspect that element of the ruling will be causing some scratching of heads inside Television Centre.
While I’m pleased to see some of my complaints recognised and acted upon, the BBC needs to realise it can’t go on in this fantasy land of treating the BNP like another political party, if only out of fairness to its own journalists. The mess which was the original Newsbeat piece was the result of this muddled thinking. With a general election due in the next few months, it needs to get its act together on the BNP – and quickly.
My correspondence with the BBC:
My complaint to the BBC, dated 6 October (PDF, 17.2K)
The BBC’s response, dated 11 November (PDF, 1.3MB)
(NB: I didn’t mention the identities of “Joey and Mark” – who turned out to be senior BNP activists – in my complaint because I wasn’t aware of them at the time I made my first complaint to the Newsbeat team.)
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