BBC BLOGS - The Editors
« Previous | Main | Next »

Substantiating stories

Gary Smith | 10:39 UK time, Tuesday, 30 January 2007

There's always a certain nervousness when you hear that the competition has got a story. Just before six o'clock last Thursday evening I happened to be visiting the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh with some other BBC editors when I got word that Tom Bradby had a cash for honours exclusive on the ITV News at 1830.

BBC Scotland's political editor, Brian Taylor - our guide for the day - showed his usual resourcefulness by piloting us into the members' bar, and getting the TV switched over to ITV (apparently MSPs generally prefer the BBC!).

A group of us gathered round the screen. Bradby had to compete with a nearby piper tuning up for a Burns Supper, but we managed to hear the gist of his story - that there was, he claimed, a second computer system in Downing Street, from which important e-mails appeared to have been deleted.

This sounded strong in the headline, but it turned out there wasn't much more in the piece beyond those two lines. And his story included Downing Street's absolute denial that this was true.

Our political correspondents back at Westminster checked it out, but couldn't stand up the story for themselves. So we reported it through the evening on our various programmes as Downing Street denying a report that... etc etc.

This caused the Daily Mail at the weekend to launch an attack on the BBC for "burying" the cash for honours story.

Sorry chaps but that's just nonsense.

This was a story on ITV News and in the Daily Mail. The rest of the newspapers reported it as we did - someone else's journalism that couldn't be verified independently, and that had been denied.

We're as keen on good stories as anyone else. As the BBC's deputy director general, Mark Byford, says in yesterday's Independent: "We want to break stories of significance and inform our audiences of new lines and developments. What matters is whether the stories stand up and can be substantiated." This one didn't and couldn't.

It's perhaps worth reminding people of a couple of other stories on the cash for inquiries inquiry where we were ahead. Allegations of offers of "a k or a p" (knighthood or peerage) which formed part of Bradby's story were originally a BBC scoop and lead story on the Ten O'Clock News before Christmas.

And more recently, the BBC was first to break news of the arrest of Downing Street aide, Ruth Turner, the most significant (and substantiated) development in the cash for honours inquiry since Christmas.

We're as keen to broadcast an important story as any other broadcaster or paper - but only if we're happy it's true.


  • 1.
  • At 11:41 AM on 30 Jan 2007,
  • Martin wrote:

Gary, praying in aid Mark Byford doesn't really help your case as his judgement over political reporting hasn't commanded much respect since he stood next to Richard Ryder and gave his seal of approval to that craven apology post-Hutton.

I sat mere feet from him at the 2005 Governors AGM and saw how green he turned when audience member after audience member joined the criticism of that apology - when the BBC REALLY needed someone to defend its journalistic independence Byford was found lacking and failed the LF payers.

That said it's clearly right not to run stories you can't substantiate but at the end of the day who really gives a hoot what the Daily Mail thinks?

  • 2.
  • At 11:49 AM on 30 Jan 2007,
  • Joseph wrote:

What a load of self justifying rubbish you spout Gary.

If only you used the same criteria when attacking the Conservatives, USA, Israel and the British Public.

I do not for one second believe that if it had been the Conservatives who it was claimed had a 2nd email system (incidentally No.10 have admitted to a 2nd system for use when responding to the media) that you would not have reported it, many times you run with stories which are unbalanced and can only be construed as examples of your institutional bias towards Labour.

It seems that the BBC is always having to defend itself against charges of bias because you will not accept how out of touch with the Public you really are.

I work in the Netherlands and am forced to listen to the BBC world Service, this service has been hijacked by the loony left, the presenters are the height of rudeness unless you are a minority, and if you are a minority (especially extremists) the BBC treat everything you say as 100% true without checking the facts.

The BBC is supposed to report the news not try and set the agenda, and I pray that either the Liberals or the Conservatives win the next election and start asking if the BBC is fit for purpose.

  • 3.
  • At 11:58 AM on 30 Jan 2007,
  • Mark E wrote:

"And more recently, the BBC was first to break news of the arrest of Downing Street aide, Ruth Turner, the most significant (and substantiated) development in the cash for honours inquiry since Christmas."

Would that be the same story that Newsnight pushed aside for the far more pressing issue of an email between two local Tories?

And I am glad that you are now waiting until a story is true before you publish it. Hopefully, this will avoid the situation that happened last year where you published a story about an Israeli attack in Lebanon where your original story reported dozens of deaths which later turned out to be propoganda.

  • 4.
  • At 02:00 PM on 30 Jan 2007,
  • Sam I wrote:

If it was un-substantiated, why did you feel the need to report on it at all? It was no more than ITV gossiping.

  • 5.
  • At 05:59 PM on 30 Jan 2007,
  • Mark wrote:

It's not getting the story right which is most troubling about BBC's reporting, it's the spin it invariably puts on it even as it reports it. It pervades everything no matter how seemingly insignificant. I don't know if BBC is even aware of it when it does it. Take the report about the awarding of a megacasino to Manchester today. In the reports leading up to it and when the news broke, BBC left no doubt that it was opposed to the idea of a megacasino by the preponderance of words about the damage gambling does to the lives of some people and the presenter's tone of voice. BBC just can't seem to be satisfied with only reporting the news, it must tell its audience how the world should be reordered according to its own view as it reports. Awful journalism BBC, just bloody awful.

  • 6.
  • At 08:04 PM on 30 Jan 2007,
  • Ken wrote:

Hang on, what about when you were trawling Westminster looking for gossip about John Major’s government and Margaret Thatcher’s government before that?

You managed to make stories out of the thinnest rumours against the Conservative Party in those days. Is this the new cleaned up BBC?

  • 7.
  • At 08:17 AM on 31 Jan 2007,
  • Gordon wrote:

Unsubstantiated?, looks like the BBC have got in wrong again!

Typical of the BBC to bury their collective heads when it's Labour in the firing line, if this had been the Conservatives we would have been treated to wall to wall coverage.

Double standards at the BBC you bet.

  • 8.
  • At 11:59 AM on 31 Jan 2007,
  • Gordon wrote:

So BBC can we expect that now the story has been confirmed will you start to report it?, if the BBC continues to ignore real news if it does not fit it's pro-Labour anti-Conservative agenda than your viewing figures will continue to drop.

I try and keep a balanced view on my opinion of BBC bias, however, you keep repeating the same mistakes, Israel is not a pariah state, the US is not after World Domination, the Catholic Church has just as much right to express itself as some nameless Extremist from the Taliban & the UK has more that one newspaper, you do not have to keep using 'experts' who happen to be Guardian columnists, and most important of all Lord Puttman is not impartial, he has already attacked the police for arresting Ruth Turner and yet you seem to think that a Labour crony is a balanced choice to be Chairman of the BBC.

  • 9.
  • At 10:04 PM on 31 Jan 2007,
  • Marion wrote:

Sorry but the BBC have lost all credibility.
It seems the BBC are quite happy to report completely unsubstantiated Palestinian propaganda as fact and yet do their utmost to bury any story that is negative to Labour.
When are you going to do an in-depth story on the Smith Institute?
And when oh when are you going to let people comment on the Cash for Peerages developments on the Have Your Say board. Seems that Reid has been offered up as a sacrifice to avert attention from Blair and Brown!! It's about time the BBC exposed this whole Labour shambles ... but then what do you expect from an organisation that's been stuffed with Labour cronies!!!

  • 10.
  • At 07:13 AM on 02 Feb 2007,
  • nehad ismail wrote:

Very soon the Cash fro Honours story will surpass the Big Brother fiasco.

This is a unique opportunity to do away with this archaic system of rewarding people with honours for doing jobs they are paid handsomely for.

Why should any one who made a fortune in the music or film business or even in the steel industry be rewarded with a title.

The entire charade is a scandal and the sooner it is abolished the better for the country.

  • 11.
  • At 11:02 AM on 02 Feb 2007,
  • Tom wrote:

The internet in a nutshell: self-righteous idiots respond to self-righteous idiocy and nothing ever changes. Well done.

  • 12.
  • At 12:27 PM on 02 Feb 2007,
  • Danny wrote:

Whilst we are on the point of BBC bashing and their reporting of stories, it's funny how the Blair story about whether he will quit or not has been hidden behind the climate story. Amazing. Yesterday the terrorist story, today the climate story, all making the headlines above the troubled Labour issues. How well you try to hide Labours troubles. I suppose you are hoping that it will just go away and that it really was an unsubstantiated story, whereas we are all hoping that Tony Blair will resign, or go one better, dissolve parliament and call for a General Election. Oh by the way, where were Gordon Brown and John Prescott when all this was going on - look how quick they came out to support their leader - silence

The BBC run unsubstantiated stories all the time. A couple of times a week they'll run a story reporting the results of a survey. For example in the last week they have published claims that the British public are more concerned by online fraud than they are by MRSA, global warming etc. Fair enough. However, and frankly the crux of the matter is, there is no attempt to investigate beyond the snappy headline, and so without any further thought or attempt to substantiate the results are repeated verbatim. I wonder how many people read this report and thought "that's worrying" but didn't think to question the rationale behind these claims. This survey was produced by a credit card company trying to sell a more difficult (supposedly) to defraud credit card. Why isn't this mentioned? Better still why wasn't the story bracketed with a massive caveat. But no, it's just easier to warm over the press release and pass it off as "news" when even the most cursory investigation would expose the motivation behind the results. Over the last few months the BBC have carried the results of a myriad of surveys which specifically produce the results the instigators require. So we've had a survey from a web company who design easy access websites telling us lots of websites are difficult to access, a company flogging PC backup utilities claims people don't back their PCs up often enough, and (my personal favourite) a survey from the Royal College of Physicians about trusted professions telling us Doctors are the most trusted profession. It happens so frequently that it's become something of a running joke round these parts

This post is closed to new comments.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.