Saturday, 1 July 2017

Instant experts

Chris Cook, reading

I've been watching Chris Cook's Newsnight updates on the cladding/insulation issues arising from the Glenfell Tower fire and, from time to time, wondering whether to trust them or not. 

During his update on last night's edition I thought, "How can he be so sure?" and "What makes him such an expert all of a sudden?" 

Of course, he sounded confident and convincing and, like nearly everyone watching, I'm certainly no expert on such things myself so I decided I'd have to take his journalistic findings on trust. 

By coincidence, however, I come upon a blogpost by Dr Richard North this morning which comments at length on Chris Cook's reporting, saying that "BBC Newsnight has got the wrong end of the stick (as it so often does)". 

He makes a confident and convincing case that Chris "misinterpreted" one of the tests and wrongly implied that "desktop studies" are an easy option, and generally engaged in under-informed speculation. And the BBC man missed out the EU regulation angle too. 

His criticisms are far too detailed to summarise here, but you can read it for yourselves and compare it with Chris Cook's BBC website write-up too. 

Dr North comments, "If nothing else, this is an example of what you can end up with when you are the BBC and can get away with low-grade research".

Now, I've no idea if Richard North is correct or if Chris Cook is correct. (Is Dr North any more of a cladding/insulation expect than the BBC's Mr Cook?) But, nonetheless, it's a useful reminder never to take a Newsnight report on trust - especially if the reporter appears to be 'an instant expert' on the subject at hand.

Update: I've been reliably informed that Richard North is a former local authority environmental health inspector and, as such, will have had direct responsibility for the safety of buildings and, thus, will know his way round regulation issues. That suggests that he's considerably more knowledgeable about this than Chris Cook.


  1. The uninformed speculation from the BBC began the day after the fire. From my layman's point of view it does seem highly likely that the cladding caused the rapid spread of the fire, but we cannot say for certain until the enquiry has taken place. Yet less than twenty-four hours after the tragedy the BBC were reporting with absolute authority that it all would have required was a specific sum of money, that somehow the BBC knew, for it to have been averted. Already we now know that it is rather more complicated than that. In the same report/interview the BBC were demanding of a government minister that all he needed to do to assess the risks to similar buildings was send a few emails. Is their research carried out by interns trawling the internet?

    There was once this distinction between the overriding need for a scoop favoured by the tabloid press and the rather more measured approach of the broadsheets and the BBC. This may have been a myth, but that was the general idea. However, the BBC is now as bad as the tabloids at their sensationalist worst. The difference is that unlike the tabloids the motivation is not to sell newspapers, but to promote a particular political bias. If you ally this to a staggering level of arrogance and a total belief in their infallibility you end up what the BBC is today.

    1. Quite right Terry. It does seem to be all about the scoop, the exclusive, with 'Newsnight' at the moment. It is pure sensationalism.

  2. I have followed Dr North's blog for over ten years. You can trust him.

    Among many other things he works with the journalist Christopher Booker and today's blog post is on the EU aspect of Grenfell Tower - very powerful stuff.

    BTW North's son Pete is well worth following -

  3. It is clear from Richard North's two main articles on the 'cladding' issue that he has meticulously researched the subject, aided by his seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of EU regulations. Sources are quoted, unlike the poor efforts by well-paid journalists. The continuing puzzle is why no media outlet wants to avail themselves of his expertise and pay him handsomely to write columns, for it would surely only be to their benefit.