Archive | January, 2015

From our own correspondent

26 Jan

This has always seemed a bit odd of the BBC, don’t you think?

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A while ago, we caught the Daily Mail using claim quotes for an assertion that only the writer of the story had made. This is almost the opposite: the quoting of a fellow journalist at the same  news organisation as though he were a third party voicing an unproven opinion.

It’s a widespread phenomenon on the BBC website:

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A large part of the problem is that, unlike TV news reports with their time-honoured verbal signoffs (“Joshua Rozenberg, at the high court, for BBC News”), most BBC web stories carry no byline. That means there is no implied authorial expertise in the piece itself, so the writers have little choice but to rely on the broadcast arm’s brand-name correspondents. But quoting a journalist that readers recognise does draw attention to the fact that the author of the article is not that journalist, and leaves a puzzle as to whose voice the article is actually speaking in.

In a print environment, the contribution would simply be folded, unattributed, into the body copy and the legal correspondent’s name would be added to the byline. In an anonymous article, that’s not possible. But done like this, the reporter seems reduced to third-party status: just another interviewee like the foreign secretary or the copyright lawyer; just another participant in the debate with a point of view.

The BBC, as a high-profile public body with an intrinsically political source of funding, has a long tradition of having to report on itself. Normally, it does this with fearsome impartiality, even in the most existential of crises, such as the row over the Hutton report. When an official inquiry condemned its reporting on the intelligence dossier that played a central role in the Iraq war, the chairman and director-general both departed within a week. But BBC News, responding to the story, reported on BBC News, the instigator of the incendiary report, as though they had never met.

Carol Malia, who presents the Look North evening news programme, was involved in a protest at the BBC’s studios in Newcastle.

She said: “Any news organisation has to be seen as impartial to be credible and that is what we are fighting for.”

Mike Baker, an education correspondent in London who has worked for the BBC for 24 years, said staff wanted to make a “symbolic” protest.

Any newspaper would have closed ranks and decried injustice in banner headlines. The BBC interviewed colleagues on its own solidarity demonstration as though they were striking factory workers in Pennsylvania.

The problem is, impartiality as acute as that creates echoes even when you don’t want it to. Look at the quote in the story from Clive Coleman, the legal correspondent, in the article about Rihanna. It’s hard to know quite how to take it. It’s a simple statement of fact, but has been attributed to someone other than the author. Does that suggest that it is, in fact, open to doubt? Has it not been checked – or could it not be double-sourced in accordance with the BBC’s rules? (Although if it turns out to be wrong, the corporation could not possibly be hoping to distance itself from someone identified as a BBC correspondent.) Is it true or not?

Or is the identification of Mr Coleman as an employee of the organisation meant as an assurance of quality? In which case, it would be much better to have no attribution at all, and write it into the story as fact, along with his supporting evidence for the statement.

Fairness and balance is the highest of journalistic goals – indeed, for BBC News, funded by every licence-payer in Britain, it’s the only way it can possibly operate. But, as Jay Rosen has pointed out, there is such a thing as too much innocence in journalism.  Putting quotes around facts determined by your own specialist correspondents just gives impartiality a bad name.


Dateline unknown

3 Jan

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Coming up next on global anglophone news: ‘Welfare-to-work programs have failed to reduce unemployment‘.

It was the top article on the business site a few days ago, which was interesting – a slightly wonkish policy analysis doing better than more immediate stories about the collapse of a big parcels firm at Christmas. For readers interested in UK politics, it looked intriguing. The issue has been quiet in Britain of late – it’s been a while since the Labour party’s New Deal or even the coalition’s Work Programme were in the headlines. What’s it about?

Welfare-to-work programs promoted by successive governments have had no impact on unemployment as they fail to take into account the changing labour market, researchers have found.

Well, this looks like bad news for Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary. But why is it coming up now? The headline unemployment rate is falling at the moment.

The Australian National University (ANU) research, reported in the Australian on Friday, shows that the proportion of unemployed men aged between 25 and 54 has not changed in almost 15 years, staying at 9-10%.

Ah. Right. This is about Australia.

The first hint you get that this is an antipodean story is here, in the second paragraph of the body text. Nothing alerts you to its provenance before that. The five-most-read counter is a global one that aggregates all Guardian content blindly. The headline and standfirst lack any regional identifiers, and there is no dateline after the byline. And why would there be? The story was, from an Australian point of view, produced by a home reporter about a national report on a domestic topic. You would no more put a dateline on it than you would on a metro-desk story about the city council. Like many articles in the rapidly coalescing global news industry, its international success – or at least its performance relative to stories on two other continents – has taken it rather by surprise.

With British news organisations expanding abroad in the hope of becoming trusted sources of news inside other countries, there are going to be a lot more stories like these: local pieces written in-country as a way of establishing credentials with a local audience, but available globally (and administered, at least for part of the day, from thousands of miles away).

Websites are becoming electronically editionalised to compensate – so much so that some auto-detect your location and make it quite hard to change. But the news editors themselves move back and forth between the offices, taking their old interests out to the satellites and bringing newly learned agendas back to London. And three-newsroom operations throw off so much material that apparently it can’t help but leak across the boundaries – unknown Australian models starring in Britain’s sidebar of shame, Hollywood weddings with dress sizes incompletely altered for UK consumption, or, as here, some parts of a very large website still blind to the technological segregation in other parts.

Perhaps the really alert British reader would have seen that “program” was spelt without its last two letters and realised something was up. But I’ve read so much mid-Atlantic and up-from-Down-Under news that I’m honestly starting not to notice.