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.

HEINZ BAUMANN/GALLERY STOCK
Show Hide image

With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad