Get your rebuttal in first

5 Jan

It doesn’t happen all the time. But every now and then, the BBC launches a major news investigation on its website, and then stops it after three paragraphs. Like this:

That piece is approaching 3,000 words long, peppered with graphs and in-depth analysis boxes, but the rebuttal comes so high up in the story that you’re inclined to stop reading there and then. And the same is true here:

In that piece, the contradiction comes after 75 words, even though there are another 900 to read below it. And in this article, the government response comes so quickly it’s almost the first line of the story.

It’s not easy being the BBC. Like all Ofcom-regulated broadcasters, it has to be scrupulously impartial; doubly so, because it is funded via public levy by the grace of the government. The news division also gets thrust into the unenviable role of refereeing the endless Fleet Street culture war, by choosing to follow up (or not) on newspaper allegations of racism, illegal immigration, tax evasion, “waste”, and a hundred other started hares. It has also had to walk an impossible line down the middle of Brexit, and has now endured three consecutive governments that have more or less openly threatened its status and future. As a result of all these pressures, current and historical, its style guide is agonisingly neutral, its correspondents are intensely scrutinised for bias, and it draws its conclusions more slowly than any other major news provider.*

This is quite a successful approach to adopt when reporting on allegations made by third parties, as is the case with the third story mentioned above. Report the accusation, report the rebuttal (straightaway, in this case), fill in readers on the background. What’s the truth? There is no need to decide: just hand back to the studio.

The trouble is, the first two pieces are not allegations made by third parties: they’re allegations made by the BBC itself. The first is an online special under the general banner of the news division, the second is a companion piece to an edition of Panorama.

Yet it’s as though the he-said-she-said impartiality has become so ingrained that it is introduced even to a self-generated exposé – just as the corporation sometimes quotes its own correspondents as though they worked for someone else. But if you’ve done an original investigation, you ether believe in it or you don’t. You can’t distance yourself from your own allegations. Investigations aren’t “balanced”: they seek the truth on a particular issue and draw definite conclusions. Otherwise, what’s the point?

*For example, two days after the Nashville bombing, the BBC’s headline was “Nashville explosion ‘probably suicide bombing'”. The Mail’s headline the same day was: “Mother, 29, given TWO free homes worth $409K by ‘Nashville bomber’, 63, says she had no idea he signed property over to her a month ago – as feds probe if he blew himself up at AT&T building because he feared 5G is spying on Americans”.

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