Why are the BBC acting as stenographers for the police?

They shouldn't type up official statements.

Yesterday, I reported on the bizarre disconnect between an official Metropolitan police statement, and the actual event they were describing.

Click through for more detail, but the short version is that, despite video showing a police officer wrestling what appears to be a teenage boy from his bike onto the floor in the path of a moving vehicle, the Met statement – reprinted without comment by the BBC – refers simply to the fact that "the male fell off his bike".

The story here isn't the disproportionate response by the police (although that is itself problematic, and we would still like to speak to the boy involved).

Instead, it's twofold: The first problem is the fact that the Met press team released a statement which bears little relation to events as they seem to have happened. In this incident, the damage done appears to have been minimal; but it's hard not to draw a parallel with the deeply-flawed initial reports in more serious events, like the killings of Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson. Whether or not the misstatements are intentional, the Met clearly needs to be much more hesitant about releasing comments before they are certain of the facts.

But the second concern is the role of the BBC. While it is unclear whether the Met deliberately misled, or simply interviewed the officers involved and released an unchecked report, the journalist writing up the story for the broadcaster had the video and the statement to hand. The conflict must have been obvious, but there was no hint of awareness in the story as published. In this case, the organisation apparently saw its role as little more than a stenographer to the powerful, printing the statements of the police but writing nothing which contradicted them.

As if to underscore this latter point, at some point since our story was published yesterday, the BBC updated theirs. The police statement now reads:

The Met's torch security team prevented him from gaining access to the torchbearer causing the cyclist to fall from his bike. [emphasis added]

There is no comment in the piece about the initial discrepancy, nor any mention as to what has been updated; the only hint that everything was not OK to begin with is the line "Last updated at 19:46" (with no date). The story now implies that this is what the Met had been saying all along, erasing their earlier statement from history.

If it isn't clear, this isn't journalism. This is the reverse of journalism. If the BBC's job is merely to reprint the statements of the police (and to update those statements if the police change their mind about what they want to say), it can likely be done cheaper by just giving them the login to the website.

A police officer causes a cyclist to fall from his bike.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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Britain's shrinking democracy

10 million people - more than voted for Labour in May - will be excluded from the new electoral roll.

Despite all the warnings the government is determined to press ahead with its decision to close the existing electoral roll on December 1. This red letter day in British politics is no cause for celebration. As the Smith Institute’s latest report on the switch to the new system of voter registration shows, we are about to dramatically shrink our democracy.  As many as 10 million people are likely to vanish from the electoral register for ever – equal to 20 per cent of the total electorate and greater than Labour’s entire vote in the 2015 general election. 

Anyone who has not transferred over to the new individual electoral registration system by next Tuesday will be “dropped off” the register. The independent Electoral Commission, mindful of how the loss of voters will play out in forthcoming elections, say they need at least another year to ensure the new accuracy and completeness of the registers.

Nearly half a million voters (mostly the young and those in private rented homes) will disappear from the London register. According to a recent HeraldScotland survey around 100,000 residents in Glasgow may also be left off the new system. The picture is likely to be much the same in other cities, especially in places where there’s greater mobility and concentrations of students.

These depleted registers across the UK will impact more on marginal Labour seats, especially  where turnout is already low. Conversely, they will benefit Tories in future local, Euro and general elections. As the Smith Institute report observers, Conservative voters tend to be older, home owners and less transient – and therefore more likely to appear on the electoral register.

The government continues to ignore the prospect of skewed election results owing to an incomplete electoral registers. The attitude of some Tory MPs hardly helping. For example, Eleanor Laing MP (the former shadow minister for justice) told the BBC that “if a young person cannot organize the filling in of a form that registers them to vote, they don’t deserve the right to vote”.  Leaving aside such glib remarks, what we do know is the new registers will tend to favour MPs whose support is found in more affluent rural and semi-rural areas which have stable populations.  

Even more worrying, the forthcoming changes to MPs constituencies (under the Boundary Review) will be based on the new electoral register. The new parliamentary constituencies will be based not on the voting population, but on an inaccurate and incomplete register. As Institute’s report argues, these changes are likely to unjustly benefit UKIP and the Conservative party.

That’s not to say that the voter registration system doesn’t need reforming.  It clearly does. Indeed, every evidence-based analysis of electoral registers over the last 20 years shows that both accuracy and completeness are declining – the two features of any electoral register that make it credible or not. But, the job must be done properly.  Casually leaving 10m voters off the electoral resister hardly suggests every effort has been made.

The legitimacy of our democratic system rests on ensuring that everyone can exercise their right to vote. This is a task which shouldn’t brook complacency or compromise.  We should be aiming for maximum voter registration, not settling for a system where one in five drop off the register.