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Will the BBC come clean over G20 cover-up?


9:45 am - September 14th 2009

by Sunny Hundal    


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In April this year the G20 protests were marked by the death of Ian Tomlinson and some notoriously bad coverage in the national media. But while even papers like the London Evening Standard have tried to make amends, the BBC steadfastly seems to believe its shambolic coverage was entirely fair.

After a misleading feature on kettling for the BBC website, Guy Aitchison from Our Kingdom and Stuart White from Next Left decided to jointly complain to the BBC in an open letter in May.

They made points covering these areas:
– Partial and incomplete reporting of events amounting to misinformation
– Grossly inaccurate statements about police tactics
– Poor follow up to the story of heavy-handed policing
– Lack of investigative impetus

The investigation to uncover the truth behind Ian Tomlinson’s death and expose the misinformation coming from police sources was carried out entirely by other media outlets. Not only was the BBC playing catch up, it seems that it wanted to deliberately play down the significance of a story involving a passer-by’s death at police hands during a controversial policing operation and a potential police cover up.

Remember that, according to Guardian journalist Stephen Moss they offered the Ian Tomlinson video to the BBC News team who turned it down as ‘a London story’. It was then used as an exclusive Channel 4 News story and became a huge storm.

Anyway, the following day Stuart and Guy they got a generic reply that did nothing to address their points. So they wrote again asking specific questions.

Last week, after three months, they got a more substantive reply, albeit one that still falls down on major points. Guy Aitchison says:

Unfortunately, they’re still not admitting their coverage of the G20 protests was anything other than exemplary. At points the letter is defensive and evasive and when it comes to Julian Joyce’s article on kettling, it’s just plain wrong.

On Friday Stuart White wrote an excellent post arguing the BBC’s continual evasion of its shambolic coverage questions its integrity:

The bare facts, then, are these. There is a clear discrepancy between the BBC version of events and that of The Guardian. In the case of The Guardian, Stephen Moss’s original report has been confirmed by our own source. Moreover, according to this source, the BBC version has been given by someone who was not directly in a position to know what happened.

Different readers might respond to these facts differently. Our view is that someone, somewhere in the BBC system is being dishonest.

They wrote back again and asked the BBC to clarify the specific points they raised. But the complaints department have asked them to start again through the web-based system.

The whole thing is outrageous on several levels. Not only was the BBC’s coverage biased towards the Met Police’s version of events but also downplayed many complaints made by protesters. The reporting was inaccurate at times and they did little to ask questions about Ian Tomlinson’s death until the media furore forced them to report the version of events showed in the Guardian video.

Even now its editors maintain their coverage was fair, even though both Stuart and Guy have picked apart several discrepancies. This cannot be laid to rest – the BBC needs to conduct a full investigation into its coverage. I hope both Stuart and Guy will take this further.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Events ,Media

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Reader comments


I remember. The way the BBC handled it was spectacularly inept. Basically Ian Tomlinson remained a ghost for at least a week. There was hardly any mention on the national news that one person had died – let alone all the news that started emerging later about cock-ups from the police. As far as the BBC went, it remained a heart-attack.

Ridiculous. Well, it would have been had it not been about something tragic.

On minor issues the BBC plays at being Leftier-than Thou and More-PC-than-Thou but on ALL the important issues the servile reptiles of the BBC, who know well on which side their bread is buttered*, jump to attention and do what is required of them.

Those of us who demonstrate, or who used to in our younger days, know what the piggies are capable of and know, too, that the MSM will put the wagons in a circle as and when required.

* You all saw the Attenborough episode in which the servile reptiles sought out the buttered side of Hovis slices, of course.

Agreed. Most of the MSM has got the story of police tactics quite wrong. There seems to be a fear of criticising the police in most quarters. The Guardian has given the best coverage that I have seen of this kind of stuff, as much as it pains me to say it. The BBC really should do better on this one.

I complained at the time about the BBC coverage on three separate occasions.
To date I have received no response at all to two of those complaints. I received a response to the first complaint, but only after three months, and that response was inaccurate and wholly unsatisfactory. I wrote and told them so, explaining why (in July) – they made me go back to the web-form again – and have received no response to date.

Shambolic seems too kind a way to describe the false, inaccurate and biased coverage of this particular matter, or their refusal to acknowlege that what they broadcast is in breach of their obligations to accuracy and impartiality, or their failure to comply with their own complaints policy.

Utterly appalling. Maybe we can get channel 4 to take this story.

While there are a range of questions about the BBC’s coverage, and its defence of them, it may be worth flagging up the new specific disagreement about a key fact in the latest correspondence, as Stuart’s latest post flags up, which is the BBC’s claim that it did not in fact turn down the footage (as was reported, and has been widely discussed), against Guardian reports that it did do so.

“We are as keen to break stories as any other news organisation, but I assume from the tone of the complaint that there is an implication that it was bias on our part. In truth the reason why we didn’t break, for example, the footage of Ian Tomlinson being struck by a police officer was that the person who had that footage chose, as they are perfectly entitled to do, to give the footage to the Guardian. Part of what the complainant here is referring to is the misapprehension that seemed to have grown up that the Six O’Clock News declined the footage – that is utterly untrue as the reason it was not on the Six o’clock news on the day it featured heavily on the Ten was that the Guardian embargoed it until 7pm. As a journalist I would have done anything to get that footage on air as it was a great story but we were not able to do it on the night.”’
– Ben Rich, deputy editor of the Six and Ten o’clock news, BBC

Stuart and Guy asked a Guardian source to comment on this point of fact. The source in question replied as follows:

‘The fact is that that we formally approached the BBC about the footage soon after receiving it. BBC 6pm rejected the story and directed us to the BBC 10pm (they, in turn, were luke warm until the Home Affair correspondent became involved). The 7pm embargo was applied by us after the 6pm rejected the footage, and when C4 confirmed they wanted to run the story. Ben Rich was not the editor we spoke to (there are several), so perhaps has been misinformed.’

If this BBC account is mistaken (and the footage was offered and turned down, as The Guardian claim), then at least this would also acknowledge that that this was a mistake (with the benefit of hindsight) in editorial judgment; indeed the deputy editor states that he “would have done anything to get that footage on air as it was a great story”, as was no doubt obvious to all in retrospect.

Thanks for raising this, Sunny. I’d be particularly interested to read of anyone else’s experiences of complaining to the BBC on this issue, like Clarice @ 4, and of the kind of reply you got.

For me, the story started when I returned from the G20 protests in the early morning of April 2 and switched on the BBC News. As someone who basically trusted the BBC, I expected to see some reporting that reflected my experience of the day, which was of heavy-handed, disproportionate police tactics. What I saw was a report that focused on the violence of the demonstrators and the successful efforts of the police to ‘keep control’. I was angry, but I expected that this imbalance would be corrected in later reports. It never was – or, at least, it was only corrected, partially, in the course of the next few weeks when other news outlets broke important new information which BBC News simply couldn’t ignore.

Sunder is right that the specific issue on which Guy Aitchison and I said we think someone, somewhere at the BBC is being dishonest is that of whether or not the BBC News turned down the opportunity to be the first to air the footage showing a police officer assaulting Ian Tomlinson. Here we have two conflicting accounts of what happened, and we believe that given by our source at The Guardian (which holds that BBC News did turn down the footage).

More generally, the BBC’s reply to our two letters of complaint is extremely defensive – they appear less interested in getting to the truth of the matter than in trying to avoid any acceptance of error. This leads to some pretty tortured reasoning, e.g., over the BBC News website article on kettling which Guy and I maintain was inaccurate.

I think the BBC are in a state of deep denial over their coverage of the G20 protests. They got their editorial judgment wrong on the day. That, in itself, is excusable, I think. But instead of looking at their initial reporting and saying ‘Hold on, we’re missing something important here’, they seem to have immediately fallen into a defensive mode in which no error was acknowledged. This would help explain why they were then repeatedly in the position of playing catch-up with other news outlets, and never played a role in breaking any significant developments in the emerging story. And it would help explain why they adopted such an extremely defensive position in their reply to our letters of complaint.

In the battle between Fox and the BBC, I am firmly on the side of the BBC. But the reasons why I prefer the BBC to Fox in general, are also the reasons why I think it important to break down this state of denial and prompt the BBC to learn from its mistakes over the G20 protests.

If I remember correctly the entire press, with the exception of the Guardian’s ‘Tweets’ from the demo, were attempting to defend the police and their tactics. I remember some of the incredulous rumours that went around about Iain Tomlinson, of protestors dressing up as police officers and charging at Iain Tomlinson, and some of the smearing that happened to the guy’s family.

The immediate aftermath of Iain Tomlinson’s death proved that mainstream media, be it the BBC, Times or Mail, were all complicit in swallowing the cover-up story whilst dismissing the evidence from the protestors. National newspapers continued to publish photos of ‘anarchist’ violence next to images of Iain Tomlinson laying on the ground.

If it wasn’t for the ‘Tweets’ from a select number of Guardian journalists then it may really have turned into a media-backed cover-up. That would have been a damning indictment on the state of investigative journalism from our national press.

I’ll be happy to forward my complaint and its reply to you Stuart

Is anyone seriously claiming the police were any more aggressive than they’ve been in the past at the G20? I thought they were pretty restrained…I’m personally still waiting for a proper enquiry into Hillsborough…and what about the things that went on out of sight away from the cameras in various South Yorkshire pit villages 25 years ago?…oh shit…forgot…we weren’t dealing with a bunch of middle class ‘radicals’ with iPhones…silly me. “Yeah man..they were like..y’know fascist animals” FFS…they’re tamer now than they ever have been…the fact that they’ve got all sorts of new idiotic discriminatory powers is down to NuLabour..Jaquci Smith..Straw..and that bunch of crypto-totalitarian arseholes half of you lot were raving about 10 years ago.

And I hate to say it…but Ian Tomlinson was wacked on the back of the legs then pushed over…tragedy, I grant you…but most people get up and walk home after that.

Actually, Monkeyfish, I don’t think anybody on this thread (or in the original article) has made the claim that the police acted more aggressively at the G20 protests than they have on various (perhaps many) occasions in the past. Nor does anyone need to make such a claim in order to criticise the BBC News’ coverage of the protests.

Oh good..cos I was definitely picking up such a vibe. So maybe a history of the Beeb’s coverage would be in order then, yeah…to make a suitable comparison or indeed discover if this is an ongoing problem? Wouldn’t Hillsbrough or the miners’ strike seem appropriate starting points since both had a greater impact in terms of injuries/ fatalities and their historical significance? I get the feeling the g20 might be largely wiped from the collective conscience once Pandora and Tristan start to compile CVs and judge their participation as inconvenient and irrelevant youthful indiscretions…(unless they get a job with the Guardian or something…then they can sport their junior rebellion badges with abandon…ooh what a pair!)


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