Imagine the scene: it is very early last Monday morning, and a producer on the BBC Breakfast programme is putting together a report on the previous day’s Remembrance Sunday event at the Cenotaph in Whitehall.
A message from the programme’s editor pops up on their computer screen: ‘A word from the bosses – apparently Downing Street are fretting that the PM didn’t exactly look his best yesterday. They want us to spare his blushes by pulling up some archive stuff – can you dig out something that makes him look less of a prat?’
Do you believe that’s the explanation for why a sequence from 2016 rather than the previous day somehow found its way into that Monday morning TV report? Really? Do you seriously believe that BBC journalists take orders direct from Downing Street?
And that if anything remotely like that had happened, someone wouldn’t have blurted it out? I mean, please. Seriously?
Apparently, however, judging from the storm on social media that followed, a lot of people do believe exactly that. Including, to my amazement, some former BBC journalists who appear to have an extremely low opinion of their former colleagues.
One of them wrote on Twitter on Monday morning: ‘As a former [producer] on that programme, I can assure you that people who’ve been up all night don’t go to the trouble of finding three-year-old pictures and inserting them in an edit unless they’ve been told to. There is something very fishy about this …’
And after the BBC blamed the mistake on a ‘production error’, another wrote: ‘I used to work for BBC News. The previous day’s footage is right there in front of you. Footage from three years ago needs to be specially ordered from the Library. What sort of ‘error’ is that?’
A couple of hours later, that particular former producer admitted that they had left the BBC many years ago, ‘when we still used tape’. In other words, they had not the foggiest idea how the BBC’s digital editing systems are set up or how archive material is accessed in the digital age. But the damage was done: their first tweet was approved of by more than thirteen thousand people and retweeted by seven and a half thousand; the second by only a handful of people.
Similarly, a tweet from the former producer who had complained that there was something ‘very fishy’ going on was retweeted by eight thousand people and approved of by twenty thousand. A later tweet, from the same producer, in which they accepted the BBC’s explanation of how the mistake arose (‘I don’t doubt now that’s what happened’) was retweeted by just twelve people and approved of by a paltry twenty-five.
So here – just in case you have better things to do with your time than pore obsessively over the minutiae of the BBC’s production processes – is the official explanation for what happened. On Sunday morning, before the Remembrance Day events had taken place, BBC Breakfast ran some archive footage from the ceremony three years ago. When, the following day, a report on the event was being prepared, that archive clip – which, remember, had been broadcast on Sunday and therefore would have been marked accordingly in the digital archive, was included in the report by mistake. Did no one notice that Boris Johnson, who was foreign secretary in 2016, was carrying a green wreath instead of a red one? No, they didn’t. (Note to BBC news managers: that’s what happens when you slash staffing levels.)
Declaration of interest: I worked for the BBC for more than twenty years, and as a veteran of literally thousands of live news programmes – admittedly radio rather than TV – I can let you in on a secret: behind the scenes, they tend to be pretty chaotic. Often, taped items are transmitted before anyone has had a chance to check them; and often, no one on the production team is watching or listening to them as they are broadcast, for the simple reason that they are trying desperately to sort out the rest of the programme.
Former BBC journalists know all this well enough, so why are some of them so ready to join the chorus of ill-informed and sometimes ill-intentioned criticism, often from politically motivated sources, which descends on the BBC every time it makes a mistake? Some of them, I suspect, have convinced themselves that the place fell apart as soon as they left; others simply enjoy discomfiting their former employer. And some, I’m sure, are seriously concerned about what they perceive to be its shortcomings.
But here’s why I think all this is much more important than a row over a few seconds of breakfast television. There is a growing public perception that no news can be trusted these days, that politicians and journalists alike are all liars. This is a deeply dangerous development, and it is being encouraged by political forces whose goal is to weaken the standing of a free and independent press in a free and democratic society.
One commenter on (of all places) The Times website yesterday morning wrote: ‘It is naïve to consider news as true. Much or most is fake news.’ Which is exactly what Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and autocrats everywhere want you to believe. After all, if most news is fake, why should you believe anything journalists report when they uncover a politician’s malpractice or criminal activity? It is a blueprint for impunity.
As it happens, I gave a talk earlier this week to a group of secondary school students on the subject ‘True or false: how to survive in a world of fake news.’ I told them that they should be sceptical of everything they see and read (‘sceptical = not easily convinced; having doubts or reservations’) but not cynical (‘believing that people are motivated purely be self-interest; distrustful of human sincerity or integrity’).
I do not, of course, believe that the BBC is above criticism. I do believe, however, that those who for whatever reason encourage the view that it is part of a conspiracy to prop up a Conservative government and burnish the image of the current prime minister should take a long hard look at themselves in the mirror. (Does no one remember Eddie Mair’s direct confrontation with Johnson back in 2013? ‘You’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?’)
Ponder the admirably honest words of the BBC Breakfast presenter Dan Walker: ‘We made a mistake. It’s an embarrassing error which our boss has apologised for. It’s annoying for everyone … and we have rightly been criticised for it. All I can give you is a guarantee that it was a genuine mistake.’
And the words of a friend and former BBC colleague, one of the cleverest people I know, whose blushes I shall spare by not naming him: ‘Scientists and philosophers who’ve devoted their lives to reason and empiricism are repeating the conspiracy that the BBC deliberately used incorrect footage to make Johnson look good. Get a grip, people.’