Sunday 10 February 2019

A rare BBC concession on 'Newswatch'

The 'offending' headline

This week's Newswatch was one of those editions where the BBC refuses to put anyone up to answer - a case of the BBC refusing to speak to the BBC.

However, that meant more topics were covered, beginning with this:
Donald Tusk's comments about hell this week annoyed many people, but did BBC News pour oil on the flames by distorting his words in their headlines? 
What Mr Tusk had said was: 
I've been wondering what the special place in hell looks like for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it safely. 
And what Newswatch viewers were complaining about was this kind of thing - George Alagiah's introduction to BBC One's News at Six on Wednesday:
Less than 24 hours before Theresa May returns to Brussels for negotiations over Brexit, the President of the European Council stands accused of insulting British politicians. Earlier today, Donald Tusk said there was a "special place in hell" for Leave-supporting politicians - those were his words.
Except, as Samira Ahmed then pointed out: 
But some viewers pointed out that those weren't quite his words, or at least not all of them. Mr Tusk spoke of those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan of how to carry it out safely, but that last thought, though it featured elsewhere in the programme, was not included in George Alagiah's introduction.  
One viewer said, "This is not what he said. Not the same thing at all and highly inflammatory at this time." 

And a second (more conspiratorial-minded) viewer accused the BBC of "manipulation" in order to suggest that Mr Tusk "had used an aggressive tone". 

A third viewer said:
He spoke of those who had promoted Brexit without a sketch of a plan to carry it out safely. The essential theme of his remark, which was rarely mentioned, "Safely", he was talking of those who had promoted Brexit, not as you variously reported or implied either all Brexit supporters or Brexit voters. He was musing on a question, "I have been wondering," whereas it was repeatedly reported without reference to that pondering. Both flowing subtext on the screen and reporting oversimplified the comment. It was very difficult to understand because it was so misleading. Making things simple can be at the cost of truth. I accept absolutely that the remark was worthy of attention, but I expect better of the BBC which, by using shorthand and half quotations, spread misinformation on a sensitive subject. And it is simply poor journalism. 
Further instances were cited - from the Today progamme, the initial headline on the BBC News website, and from the BBC Politics Twitter feed. 

Unusually, the BBC statement partly conceded the point. 
It is often a challenge to summarise complex stories in our headlines within the strict word-count limits on our site. The summary of the story and the opening paragraph made clear that Mr Tusk was referring to a specific group of people - those who promoted Brexit without a plan. But our original short headline on the website and News App was misleading, so we amended it. A tweet that promoted the article was deleted, as in some formats it did not provide the full context.
Now that is unusual for Newswatch.

Unfortunately, that hasn't quite finished matters. The same sort of people have been up-in-arms again today as Andrew Marr did exactly the same thing during his interview with the Austrian foreign minister this morning: 
Let me ask you about one other thing that has caused huge offence in Britain, which is Donald Tusk's comments about Brexiteers having a special place in hell. This is a human process of course and tempers are getting frayed but it caused real distress and was very, very unhelpful perhaps to the EU side.  
What's the betting he gets a mention on next week's Newswatch?

Did these viewers have a point, or were they really just nit-picking (on the EU's behalf)? And why was the BBC so unusually candid about having 'made mistakes' here?


  1. Yeah they’ve got a point - however these same people would swear blind that the leaders of the Brexit campaign haven’t got a plan, when they have in fact and on numerous occasions, discussed thier plan which has been completely ignored by the MSM.

    1. No, they haven't really got a point...Unless Donald Tusk is prepared to stand up and say "There were many farsighted Brexiters who had plans for what should happen after a pro Leave vote." then all the media abbreviation was completely correct. The BBC is a £5 billion operation. Couldn't the BBC have actually taken the trouble to contact Donald Tusk's office and ask for clarification on exactly what he meant?


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