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.

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.