Friday 16 March 2018

James Stephenson, News Editor, BBC News and Current Affairs, on the BBC's Telford coverage. Do you believe him?

I was waiting for tonight's Newswatch with Samira Ahmed to tackle James Stephenson, News Editor, BBC News and Current Affairs, about the BBC's coverage/lack of coverage of the Telford Muslim grooming gangs scandal, but tonight's Radio 4 Feedback with Roger Bolton got in there first. 

It is to the BBC's credit that they broadcast such self-flagellating interviews, but such things raise as many questions as they answer.

Listening to it, I was alarmed by the tone of Roger Bolton's introductory framing. 

It included dismissive language about "social media" being "awash with accusations" against the BBC and about "Twitterstorms" accusing the BBC of being too over-cautious and "PC" in its coverage/non-coverage of the Telford paedophile gang scandal.

Curiouser, however, was his weird language of "alleged widespread sexual abuse in Telford" and the use of "claimed" as far as the "Asian" background of the bulk of the grooming gang perpetrators is concerned. Are such things still in any doubt?

So I expected the worst but, to be fair to him, Roger then went on to also do himself credit by putting to the BBC high-up some of the questions I wanted putting. 

He even raised the 'religion' question - without, however, daring to name the religion (Islam)!

As for James Stephenson, News Editor, BBC News and Current Affairs, well, he certainly talks a good talk. 

And, yes, his basic message was the usual and depressingly predictable 'We got it about right'.

But, still, I think he made a pretty good fist of defending the indefensible. He said all the right things, and sounded as if he was being sincere, and some of his points struck me as being reasonable.

His fixation on the Victoria Derbyshire show's strangely mawkish coverage as the 'evidence of impartiality' of choice was cleverly chosen.

But I think the picture he painted of the BBC's coverage is woefully short-sighted and complaisant. His idealistic-sounding assertions about what the BBC 'did' aren't, for the most part, in tandem with the reality of what the BBC actually did (or didn't!). He was just asserting the BBC's impartiality. 

And, I'm afraid, I don't buy his cherry-picked examples of the BBC 'doing the right thing' (backed by Roger Bolton). They are pretty rare cherries, and - if he's being truly honest about it - he should have admitted that. 

And I don't buy his claim that "we are not shying away from these kind of difficult issues. We are advancing towards them". This blog this week (and in previous weeks, months and years) has, I think, providing copious evidence to the contrary. 

Anyhow, please judge for yourselves by reading on and thinking about the following transcript:

Roger Bolton: Hello. Did the BBC under-report the sexual grooming and abuse scandal in Telford? Social media is awash with accusations that the BBC is running scared of the story for politically correct reasons. The corporation's news editor is here to respond...

We begin with a Twitterstorm with the BBC at the centre. The charge is that the news division failed adequately to cover a story about the alleged widespread sexual abuse in Telford in Shropshire, and that it did so because it is politically correct and afraid of charges of racism, since it is claimed by the Sunday Mirror that many of the offenders come from an Asian background. This story appeared in the paper under the headline 'Britain's worst ever child grooming scandal exposed'. The Sunday Mirror went on to suggest that up to 1,000 young girls were abused as the authorities had failed to act over a period of 40 years. On Wednesday Superintendent Tom Harding, who is in overall charge of policing in Telford, said he feels the story had been "sensationalised" and significantly disputes the figure. The Sunday Mirror's abuse story was picked up by a number of news outlets but, initially at least, not by the BBC -  though it was mentioned in the online newspaper review. This lack of coverage was quickly picked up by, amongst others, Nigel Farage on Twitter, Nick Ferrari on rival Radio station LBC, and in a column in the Spectator by Douglas Murray titled 'The BBC's shameful silence on the Telford sex scandal'. Cue a furious exchange of tweets as thousands of people pitched in, on both sides: 
  • The BBC ignores a paedophile scandal involving more than 1,000 girls over 40 years in Telford. Even the local BBC website ignores it, presumably for fear of racial controversy.
  • The BBC have done interviews with actual victims. It is shameful that people are trying to use the abuse of children in Telford just to attaFck the BBC with no concern for the victims of abuse.
  • I have undertaken a long journey. I've argued for public service broadcasting. I value Radio. But I finally cannot switch on Radio 4. The BBC has abandoned Brexit voters and have ignored Telford. It no longer has a moral compass. 
And even when it was pointed out that the BBC had covered the story - online, on the Victoria Derbyshire show, and The World at One on Monday and then on Woman's Hour many felt it still wasn't enough. As tweeter St.John Smythe put it:
  • The near-silence of the BBC on a story about the abuse and rape of hundreds of young women is a disgrace. It's clearly in the public interest. The BBC are no longer fit for purpose.
So was the BBC slow to cover an important story and did it not give it enough prominence when it did? Questions for James Stephenson, the BBC's News Editor who joins me now. James Stephenson, were you late coming to this story?
James Stephenson: I really don't think we were. And I know that's suggested by other people but I don't think it's the case. If you look, for example, at the Victoria Derbyshire programme at 9 15 on Monday morning, it was leading on that story, as it happens, led again with it the following day. The World at One, as you've already said on Monday, interviewing the local council leaders. So I think the answer is 'no'.
Roger Bolton: But all of those things are on Monday and Tuesday. The Sunday Mirror comes out on a Sunday, and they're making the point in the evening bulletins, or even if they look at the BBC News website - I have a copy in front of me - that story is not running. Why?
James Stephenson:  So, yes, you make a fair point there, and the Sunday Mirror did a great piece of work, and they've talked to a large number of people in Telford and, credit to them, they've tracked that story over quite a period. With stories like that we need time to check them, put our teams on them, put our correspondent on them, work on them. I think it's a reasonable amount of time for a Sunday story to be coming back strongly with our own content and our own journalism it on by Monday morning. You would be the first to acknowledge that it's important for journalists when they are presented with a story that they they do their own work on it. We put our own journalism together, and then we run it. And I think that's what we've done in this case.
Roger Bolton: You seem to be suggesting that it's not very important for the BBC to be first. You want to be accurate. If necessary, you're going to wait 24 hours. But, on the other hand, you're a news organisation. Everybody goes to you first when they hear this story...when they heard about this story on (sic) the Sunday Mirror, and on Sunday they want to know what you think.
James Stephenson: We definitely aspire to be first, and I think if you...a fair-minded listener would  see that we are on many occasions the first with with original journalism. In this case the original journalism wasn't ours. It was the Sunday Mirror's - and credit to them. When you're following up a story the process  of following up - particularly a complex and difficult story - then you need to get that right and you need to publish when you're ready.
Roger Bolton: But there is widespread concern - you may say it's not well-founded - but on issues where there is a racial element the BBC is very reluctant, or very nervous, about getting involved. Was the fact that in this case a number of the alleged perpetrators were from an Asian background? Do you think that did have an impact in slowing down what you were doing because you are particularly concerned about race relations?
James Stephenson: No. This is an important piece of new journalism but the story and the scandal and the horrors really of what's unfolded in Telford have now been brought out over quite a period. And if you look at the BBC's coverage, we have given full coverage to the unfolding revelations of the terrible things that have happened in Telford - most significantly, most prominently, I would say, that the outcome of Operation Chalice that, as you know, was launched in 2011 and gave rise to prosecutions and a conviction of seven men in 2013 - and we covered that prominently, as you would expect. And, no, there's absolutely no question of us flinching away from difficult areas. I'd say the opposite. I think we are committed to going to the most difficult stories in the UK and around the world and covering them as clearly, as fairly, as accurately as we can, difficult or otherwise.
Roger Bolton: Now some of our listeners think, again, the problem in the background here is the religion of some of those involved, and they want to know: what are the editorial considerations in deciding when to mention an accused person's race or religion in stories about grooming and sexual abuse? 
James Stephenson: Well, this is one of the more challenging areas of editorial decision-making and it's a matter of judgement. And the judgment is about where it's relevant. Where it's relevant to the story we include it. Where it's not relevant we don't. And, you know, that's easy to say; it's actually quite hard to implement  because you have to make the decisions based on the facts as they are presented, as they appear, in a particular story.
Roger Bolton: Can we look at another aspect, about the white working class again? And, again, an allegation, for example, made by Lucy Allan MP, who said this week that the BBC is "not strong on standing up for white working class" and, again, the suggestion is that in the case, this case we've been talking about, the fact that the girls involved were white working class made the BBC less interested in them.
James Stephenson: Again, I don't think that is the case. I mean, obviously, Ms Allan is the MP for Telford. She is entitled to her view. She's pushing rightly at these issues. But I don't think it's a description that I recognise. We're committed to honest, accurate, fearless journalism - and going where that takes us.
Roger Bolton: But you have acknowledged in the past....former Directors General have acknowledged in the past...I'm thinking now of Mark Thompson...about the dangers of a groupthink. a liberal groupthink. With the best of intentions. But it can permeate newsrooms. And we have in our audience still this suspicion that the BBC is part of that groupthink. And you've got to deal with that suspicion, haven't you?
James Stephenson: We absolutely have. And I'm sure that's part of the reason why you've chosen to take on this subject on the programme today. We have looked long and hard at our own coverage and our own understanding of these issues, and I can really give an assurance that we are not shying away from these kind of difficult issues. We are advancing towards them. And, yes, you're right to say that in any organisation, and any journalistic organisation, any newsroom, there's a danger of people having a shared view of stories. We work really hard, as part of our our commitment - which is a genuine commitment to impartiality - to challenge our own thinking, to be open to other's input and other sources. And that includes external contributors who challenge what we're doing. And they ask the kind of questions that you're asking about 'were we fast enough?' 'did we consider it to be important enough?' 'was it prominent enough?'. Of course, we've been a period of extraordinary news - and not just in recent weeks but in this week itself - so the space in setting up some of our more prominent output has been squeezed. I really do discourage people from the idea of thinking that there's some hidden agenda. Our agenda is journalism. And we don't always get it right, but we are always seeking to do an honest job.
Roger Bolton: Our thanks to James Stephenson, the BBC's News Editor.


  1. So, yet another "analysis" that avoids use of the words "Islam", "Muslim", "Sharia" or "Kaffir" (Bolton very careful NOT to mention the name of the religion concerned). All these are highly relevant to such cases. But the BBC has a mission NOT to explain.

    In my view, the purpose of items like this on Feedback is to put up a smokescreen. The BBC is only too happy to have people view the issue as a "sensitive racial issue" or do get into the minutiae of whether Victoria Derbyshire, watched by 0.1% of the population, dealt with the issue. [In passing, I'll note that female orientated programmes like Women's Hour have tended to be the ones that give the issue some coverage.]

    What appears like openness, is rather more an exercise in deception, diversion, concealment and victim blaming.

  2. It was a surprising gambit
    Suddenly they come out with all guns blazing
    ..just like a cornered rat.

    "in this case *a number* of the alleged perpetrators were from an Asian background?"
    Well that's spin and the usual issult to most Asians (Chinese, Viet, Japanese etc)
    Actually 'Almost all the perps are ethnic-Pakistani'

  3. BBC guy tried to palm off Telford Groom/Rape gang
    "Oh it was only a Sunday story"
    No Mirror tweeted at 10pm on the Saturday night …
    VD didn't properly report until Tuesday
    Bbc web reports were late & buried
    #BiasedBBC banged-on about Weinstein from beginning

    If there was dirt on Brexit/Tories/Trump th BBC would have run with it straight away , not waited 48 hours, no matter Saturday/Sunday

  4. The BBC seemed to have held back on the Nottingham bus attack murder March 15 ie only on March 17 lunchtime have they stepped up, whereas other media gave it headlines much earlier
    "AN 18-year-old Egyptian student has died three weeks after a suspected racist attack. Mariam Moustafa was jumped on by a 10-strong group of female* yobs while waiting for a bus on February 20."

    * video shows black girl

  5. If James Stephenson was thinking of victims
    he would have mentioned that
    Sunday 18th is National Child Sexual Exploitation Awareness Day.

    But unlike Suffragette Day and International Women's Day there is no crusading for this at the BBC.
    All I spot is one charity worker will be appearing on Radio Derby at 7:15am in the religion program.

  6. Is the BBC really relevant in the age of the internet where people can search for the truth and ignore those broadcasters that seek to social engineer and manipulate by way of misinformation, omission and false witness? I'm sure I'm not alone in saying that the BBC are of absolutely no importance in my life and I avoid as much as possible any of their doubtful output.

  7. The BBC's breathtaking circumlocution on these matters is laid bare in their coverage back in 2013 of the outcome of Operation Chalice, which James Stephenson pointed to as an example of the BBC's coverage of these issues. For example, the word "Muslim' is mentioned only once, and then only because the piece contains a quote from the Telford Muslim Council stating that others in their 'community' must not be blamed for the crimes. In other words, the standard 'nothing to do with us, guv'. The report is here:

  8. That religion that the BBC dare not speak its name, again. That there might be a religious aspect is buried in the middle of the interview and given protection by 'not wanting to be racist'. For goodness sake! Islam is one of the world's major religions, a third of its people are trapped in its clutches, its openly stated, (but never by the BBC), goal is total domination. It is hardly a delicate flower that needs sheltering.
    Contrast that with the way the BBC handles other 'philosophies', it has no problem with identifying those it doesn't like as 'right-wing' or, heaven help us, 'far-right'. There is no 'protecting minorities' there.

  9. Newsnight is many things, but despite Evan’s particular predilections, seldom self-flagelating.

    In fact last night were they not affording a pulpit to Owen Jones, him having hit twitter to complain that they were failing to get it about left?

    Curiously responsive of them.

    1. It has been noted, with some irony, that in letting Owen free rein live, when it came to the edited highlights, much was again ‘sorted in post’.

  10. Some of Stephenson's answers sound plausible, but they don't stand up to scrutiny.

    He gives as a reason for the Beeb's delayed coverage the fact that it was the Sunday Mirror's story, and the BBC journalists needed to do their own work to verify the facts.

    Sounds reasonable, doesn't it?

    But the "shock horror" Presidents Club dinner story was not based on original journalism by the BBC, yet that didn't stop the Corporation jumping all over it and giving it extensive coverage on their news programmes and website right from the beginning.

    Ditto the Hollywood #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein stories. Other people broke those stories, the BBC jumped on the bandwagon immediately.

    Had the Presidents Club been a gathering of wealthy Muslim businessmen, and had the #MeToo campaign been directed at Muslim abusers, I suspect the Beeb would have been just as tardy and mealy-mouthed as it has been with Telford.


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