The BBC press office response on Twitter (see below) to criticism of the way in which a video clip shown on it’s lunchtime news bulletin was edited is interesting. They claim that the sound of audience laughter and jeers in reaction to Boris Johnson’s answer to a question about honesty was cut to save time. And they point out that the full clip, including the laughter and jeers, was broadcast in full on a later news bulletin. The latter is undeniably true. The former is at least superficially plausible. Taken as a whole, the response nicely typifies the way the BBC deflects criticism.
Time is always a critical constraint in broadcasting and rarely more so than in news broadcasts. Shaving seconds – and even fractions of seconds – from video clips is normal practice. And audience noise is one of the things that can generally be thought superfluous. What is missing in this instance is the crucial consideration of the effect on the story of the editing. As Ian Fraser notes, in this case “the laughter was the story”.
That is why the explanation is neither credible or satisfactory. The people responsible for producing these news bulletins are supposedly some of the best in the world. We may reasonably assume that the BBC itself would claim that they ARE the best in the world. Which is what makes it so difficult to believe that they would not take due account of the way any editing might alter the sense or meaning of the video clip. For broadcast journalists and technicians working in news this is fundamental. In every instance, if the first question concerns the amount of time that can be saved, the second question which follows automatically and inevitably is about whether and how the edit impacts the accuracy and veracity of the report. The only exception to this is when considerations of accuracy and veracity come first.
We are being asked to believe that nobody in the production team realised that the laughter and jeering was the most significant part of that video clip.
The attempt to bolster this spurious excuse by reference to the fact that the unedited video clip was broadcast on a later news bulletin also doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. We are meant to suppose that the second somehow cancels out the first. But it doesn’t. It can’t. The edited clip cannot be ‘unbroadcast’. Viewers cannot ‘unsee’ it. Showing the edited clip has had an effect. It has altered the audience’s understanding of what happened. It has distorted their perception of the incident. And it has done so in a way which looks purposeful.
It may well be true that the BBC has “fully covered Boris Johnson’s appearance on the BBC QT special, and the reaction to it, across our outlets”. But how many instances of manipulation must there be before it matters?
I suspect this pattern of a glib excuse coupled with a generalised assertion of probity will be found in a large proportion of BBC responses to complaints of a failure to be duly impartial. There will always be an ‘innocent’ explanation. Often of a technical nature that the public are condescending not expected to understand. And the BBC will always be able to demonstrate due impartiality ‘across its outlets’. If the explanation isn’t ‘innocent’ enough, it can borrow some of the innocence from elsewhere on the BBC’s programming.
The BBC can, and does, claim that there is no evidence of systemic bias in its news reporting. That is only true if one doesn’t regard episodes such as the one under discussion as constituting evidence. They may be portrayed as isolated instances. On-off examples of only apparent bias which can easily be explained. Unconnected flaws in the otherwise perfect gem that is BBC news and current affairs coverage. But there are few more insidious forms of propaganda than the small and subtle lie which is afforded credibility by being embedded in a seam of almost pure truth.
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