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9 July 2012

Why are the BBC acting as stenographers for the police?

They shouldn't type up official statements.

By Alex Hern

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.

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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:

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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.