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A matter of time

Gary Duffy | 12:49 UK time, Monday, 14 August 2006

It's sometimes frightening to think how many stories we publish on the BBC News website. As the UK editor, I can sometimes lie awake at night worrying about what legal bombshell may be hiding away at the bottom of an index.

A graphic of the BBC News websiteThe internet is an evolving medium and so, naturally enough, is the law in this area. I suspect some key issues have yet to be tested before the courts (though this is not an invitation, I should say, for someone to start the ball rolling).

One of the questions that comes up quite a lot for us is the scale of the archive. There have now been over a million articles published since we began in 1997. We do sometimes get requests from members of the public who were quoted in stories a long time ago to have these references removed. The reasons can be trivial, such as they now find what they said embarrassing, or perhaps they have changed their view on the topic.

There have also been people convicted of a variety of offences who have asked us to take stories down, claiming that it is preventing them from getting on with their lives. Our response to these requests has generally been robust. We like to think of the large backlog of stories at the news website as equivalent to a newspaper archive. Every effort was made to ensure that the stories were accurate and reliable at the time of publication, and they remain in the archive for the record. If we start to alter this version of history, where on earth do we begin to draw the line?

It is true that until newspapers began setting up comprehensive websites of their own, the web provided much easier access to this kind of material, as opposed to a trip to your local library to hunt through back editions. One search on Google relating to a potential job applicant, for example, and a whole range of material may pop up.

With all this in mind, we are taking some comfort from a court hearing earlier this year where a High Court judge reaffirmed that a court report on the internet is protected by qualified privilege, even if the report is available some time after the proceedings took place. This basic protection from legal action had always been available to journalists in the past, and it is comforting to see that it still applies in this internet age.

Comments

Gary,

I must say I'm ever so grateful to the BBC for pointing out this story to me:

http://rswipe.blogspot.com/2006/08/at-last-some-good-news.html

You really wouldn't have thought he would be brought to justice like this all those years after the actual release of 'Karma Chameleon', would you?
Still - better late than never, eh?

Hayzee Fantayzee next, wouldn't you agree??

Cheers,

Bob

  • 2.
  • At 03:00 PM on 14 Aug 2006,
  • Duncan Hothersall wrote:

Glad to hear that people aren't being allowed to go back and change history. How else would we learn from it?

Then again, we do need to remind ourselves that history goes back even further than the birth of the web...

Some historical perspectives on the current situation in the Middle East talk about going back four or five years to see the roots of this conflict; in reality to understand it at all we need to look at least at the last 100 years in this region. And you can't easily Google that.

  • 3.
  • At 03:43 PM on 14 Aug 2006,
  • name wrote:

The BBC has experience in changing history with all its stealth edits. That way it can claim it is never wrong.

Is Gina Ford after you as well? Bad editor! Go sit in the naughty corner.

I wonder if the BBC News website also archives each version of the same article before it's updated. If so, it'd be nice for users to have access to each revision of each article.

  • 6.
  • At 10:03 PM on 14 Aug 2006,
  • Trevor Martin wrote:

I am mystified by this article and by some of the others that have appeared on this editors' blog.

It reads like a conversation they should be having amongst themselves by the water cooler.

What's with all the self justification?

Sounds like the BBC is having a crisis of confidence.

Anyway: you should delete things that cause harm to others and let them move on with their lives.

Newspapers only had a shelf life of a few days. Things posted on the internet last forever.

Stop being bullies.

I have been a listener of the BBC since 1970. I have been a regular visitor and have contributed since 1997 [in the Internet]. The people who are now making these requests should have at least thought about what they were going to write before doing the actual writing.

In most of the Webpages, there is a Preview, and Cancel Site.

Those who say that they have not been able to get on with their lives can always publish a recantation of previous ideas in the website. What is past is past. The Present is Now and The future is sowed by what is committed in the present.

I understand your stance but as I'm reasonably sure the producer's guidelines state, BBC staff must take care over the fact that members of the public won't be familiar with industry practices and ensure that they are clear on all issues concerning any contribution they make.

Perhaps as well as being 'robust' at the point of denial BBC reporters need to be more proactive in ensuring people understand the implications of giving a comment?

Only the other day one of the News24 reporters tried to get two passing youths to comment on the terrorism story.

This was live on air and no attempt was made to advise them that you might 'robustly' refuse to remove their comments at a later date.

  • 9.
  • At 08:55 AM on 19 Aug 2006,
  • Bryan wrote:

Mr. Duffy, most of the comments here make excellent points and, I believe, require your response - especially the question of stealth editing.

One of the most striking examples of such practice was when you had that triumphant headline that shouted out, "Israel Kills Lebanese Civilians" and was then quickly, and stealthily, changed to something more moderate.

You say, "Every effort was made to ensure that the stories were accurate and reliable at the time of publication, and they remain in the archive for the record. If we start to alter this version of history, where on earth do we begin to draw the line?"

Come off it, Mr. Duffy. The BBC stealthily revises its reporting on the historical record as it occurs. And, far more seriously, it practises historical revisionism, even as history is being made, by its omission and distortion of facts.

  • 10.
  • At 06:34 PM on 20 Aug 2006,
  • Jenny wrote:

Gary Duffy blogged: We do sometimes get requests from members of the public ... There have also been people convicted of a variety of offences who have asked us to take stories down, claiming that it is preventing them from getting on with their lives. Our response to these requests has generally been robust. We like to think of the large backlog of stories at the news website as equivalent to a newspaper archive. Every effort was made to ensure that the stories were accurate and reliable at the time of publication, and they remain in the archive for the record. If we start to alter this version of history, where on earth do we begin to draw the line?

I sincerely hope, sir, that you yourself do not some day experience the down-side of someone enforcing such a thoughtless rule. Why do you the UK has rules "expiring" many convictions for offences and "points" on driving licenses, and criminal records? What places your record of events, opinions or remarks above those?

What is worse, you apparently have no rule on correcting errors, even of fact. Whereas the leading newspapers now have designated senior editors who consider material complaints, and publish their findings and reasoning, the BBC, which supposedly has a rigorous complaints procedure, after gladly noting them, and has had for many years, hardly ever seems to actually do anything as a result of any but the most serious ones - presumably for exactly the reason you have used. Thus stories on your website with blatent factual errors stay there, unchanged. Whereas a site of a newspaper of record such as The New York Times corrects, with a note to the effect, or adds a correction on the page.

That isn't, as you would have it, rewriting history, but protecting the site's status as as a location of reliable information. The fact that you regularly provide links to previous stories means you have even less excuse for leaving corrections unmade on the grounds of "historical record".

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