Can’t get a scoop? Then create the news
Last week in the UK, the publicly-funded BBC News ran extensive live coverage of a police search of the property of singer (and national treasure) Sir Cliff Richard. Sir Cliff, who is 73, had been accused of molesting a young boy at a Billy Graham rally in Yorkshire in 1985 – an accusation he denies. South Yorkshire Police has stated that it was approached by the BBC weeks before the planned raid. Afraid that the investigation could be jeopardised if BBC News ran a story about it, the force agreed to give the BBC advance warning of the search. A summary of the furore that has arisen in the UK since then can be found here.
I was overseas at the time and missed the BBC’s coverage, but reading about it reminded me of a ridiculous incident not long ago where a coach was stopped by police on the hard shoulder of a motorway in the UK. The BBC News channel’s viewing public was subjected to around 4 hours of speculation, so-called ‘analysis’, helicopter views of people being taken off the bus and questioned, and a rapidly-assembled array of experts venturing their opinions on what the BBC was trumping up to be a major anti-terrorist operation.
You can guess what happened (or something like this): passenger on the bus sees another traveller with some sort of electronic device; passenger informs the driver; driver radios for instructions; bus company requests police assistance; passing motorist sees the bus being pulled over and tweets or directly contacts the BBC via an app. What should have been a routine check is turned into a media circus. The police, now on live TV, feel they have to be shown to be responding to the rampant speculation being broadcast on the BBC News channel. For hours the BBC run this footage, no doubt delighted that they have a ‘scoop’, not really realising (or caring) that they have – in fact – created the very incident that they are now reporting to the world.
The reality is that BBC News is known within the UK media industry for spending millions of pounds on journalism that very rarely turns up anything ‘newsworthy’ ahead of its rivals. There must be tremendous pressure within the organisation to pounce on anything that could give it an edge over its competition.
I imagine it was like that with the Cliff Richard affair. Not wishing to pass up the opportunity for a major scoop, the editorial team at the BBC took the decision to squander licence fee payers’ money on ‘bigging up’ what should really have been a low-key news item. The police in the UK have a duty to protect people from the media in the early stages of an investigation, no matter how well known they might me. I would also argue that BBC News had an obligation to protect the reputation of Sir Cliff Richard, who, being away in Portugal at the time, only found out about the police search after the live broadcast had started.
Both the BBC Director-General Lord Hall and the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police, David Crompton, have now been summoned to appear before the Home Affairs Select Committee of the UK parliament’s House of Commons, to explain their respective organisations’ roles in this sorry charade. I sincerely hope the committee also considers how media organisations like the BBC are able to manipulate events so as to create opportunities for their own aggrandisement.
Oh, and by the way: what was the result of that earlier ‘terrorist incident’ that BBC News covered live, for so long and so expensively? The suspicious device being carried by the hapless bus traveller turned out to be an electronic cigarette.