How the papers over-egged BBC cuts reports

is the BBC's media correspondent. Twitter: @BBCTorinD

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Devil and Detail 3: An occasional series highlighting stories that are not all they seem.

With all due respect to MediaGuardian, I don't think it added to the sum of human understanding with its coverage of the latest BBC cuts announcements.

Its first story was headed "BBC Trust chair: we may cut back digital channels" and went on: "Sir Michael Lyons casts doubt over future of BBC3 and BBC4 as corporation seeks to make at least £300 million in savings."

Only in the third paragraph did it admit that the BBC Trust chairman had said nothing at all about the digital channels:

"[Sir Michael] added that the corporation should continue to concentrate on doing 'fewer things better' - prioritising BBC1, BBC2, Radio 1 and Radio 2 - but made no mention of any of the BBC's digital TV or radio services." (my italics)

Had MediaGuardian identified this as a 'dog that didn't bark' - making it clear this was its interpretation of what he said - it might have worked (though Sir Michael didn't mention Radio 4 or Radio 3 either and no-one suggested they were for the chop).

To state it so baldly, both in the headline and the standfirst, misled many people - not least in the BBC.

The BBC Trust put out a statement later, saying: "The Trust has never suggested that the Executive should close any individual service." But how many people will have read that? It wasn't added to the MediaGuardian story and many - not least at the channels themselves - think the Trust has asked managers to target BBC3 and BBC4.

The following day, further confusion was sown by coverage of Mark Thompson's address to BBC staff.

MediaGuardian's first report said the BBC was seeking "an extra 20%" in cuts. Some - including the National Union of Journalists - interpreted this as being on top of the 16% cuts already identified as the cost of the BBC's new licence-fee obligations - the World Service, BBC Monitoring, S4C, rural broadband and local TV.

Responding, the NUJ said "budgets would be slashed" by about £700 million and went on: "The announcement goes way beyond the cuts set out in the Comprehensive Spending Review which pushed £340 million of costs onto the BBC and represented a 16% cut in real terms."

In fact, Thompson was proposing a rise of four percentage points, from 16% to 20% - £400 million a year on average. That's still significant, but not "way beyond" the £340 million earlier identified.

MediaGuardian later adjusted its first sentence to read: "The BBC director general, Mark Thompson, told staff today that he was raising the target for cuts at the corporation from 16% to 20% over four years."

But by then the horse had bolted.

The Daily Telegraph reported: "Jeremy Dear, the leader of the National Union of Journalists, yesterday estimated Mr Thompson's new proposals as equivalent to a £700 million-a-year cut to the BBC's existing annual budgets."

Of course, some might argue that the BBC didn't make itself clear enough (and the figures are certainly complex).

Judge for yourself: this is the BBC press statement.

Torin Douglas is BBC News' Media Correspondent, @BBCTorinD.

Also see

Devil and Detail 2: BBC strike

Devil and Detail 1: Jeremy Hunt's Telegraph interview

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