Today I wasn’t sure what to do with the arrival of the BBC executives’ expenses data. I didn’t find it quite bang on 11.30am – new releases were tucked into various corners of the BBC Freedom of Information site. I reproduced all the PDF links here on the Journalism.co.uk Editors’ Blog. @PaulMcNally, outgoing Press Gazette news editor tweeted his finds before publishing a story, while the Guardian live-blogged the results. What could I add? The files came in inaccessible, cumbersome PDFs. We started using Adobe Acrobat to export them to an Excel spreadsheet, before I realised the Guardian’s DataBlog would do it quicker and better. They did. So I got on with some other work. What then? Well, the other story of the day, as documented on Twitter by Steve Jackson (@ourman) on Twitter. I haven’t taken screen-grabs, as the Guardian has a good reputation for transparency; let’s hope these links stay true. Here’s how it went:
- Guardian publishes its top BBC Expenses story: ‘BBC director general claimed £2,200 for flight to deal with ‘Sachsgate’ affair’
- Commenters react… E.g. AndyKeeley said (123 recommendations):
“This isn’t news. What a ridiculous story. Totally valid claim. Poor form Guardian.”
- After significant level of reaction, expressing similar views, a Guardian staff member, JudithSoal posts this (2 recommendations):
“Interesting comments, I was surprised to see so many people defending the BBC here – until I realised the story doesn’t make it clear that he flew his whole family home on our licence fee. We’re redoing the story to explain this, I hope that helps.”
- That doesn’t seem to cut much ice with the commenters. Eg. @Sverdlovsk (8 recommendations):
“@Judithsoal By the way ‘flew the whole family back on our licence fee’. That way of reporting is so unpleasantly tabloid. Sad day for standards at the Guardian.”
- A new story is posted: ‘BBC expenses: lavish meals, fancy hotels and a Cessna‘ and the original story and comments are left intact but less prominently on the MediaGuardian page (Update 1: how it was ‘hidden’ seems to be a point of contention on the comment threads eg. this comment.)
- Commenters notice. E.g: @Sverdlovsk (53 recommendations):
“Oh dear – got rid of the last story because reader comments were embarrassing? Had to make a new one to try and manufacture new outrage?
“Listen, the expenses were mostly ok. Nothing worth getting into a fury about. Certainly does not compare in any way to MPs. Most people who have commented on the last stories have made that quite clear. And yet you don’t listen.
“Stop acting like tabloid journos and report some real news.
“Like, say, Iran?”
- @ourman has followed with interest (from Cameroon) throughout – he summed it up like this to me via Twitter (condensed into one quote here).
It’s an absolute nothing story. [The] original article is there but no links to it means it’s effectively deleted. They failed to outrage so rewrote. They actually admitted it. Interesting question for online news – is it acceptable behaviour? Will it become norm? Second piece is so obviously ramped up to try and get extra outrage – not new material just increased hype. Not unfolding story. They got it wrong… thought they could just replace piece… get new comments etc. Not seen it done before.”
“‘Bet you a very small amount… comment piece tomorrow… with thinly veiled attacked at commenters – it’s Guardian style.”
Before I’ve even replied, he gleefully sends me the link to Emily Bell’s piece, ‘BBC expenses are hard to swallow,‘ with this comment: “Almost won the bet already…comment piece already telling us it *IS* shocking (so there).”
Whether it’s fair to see Bell’s piece as a reactive defence or not, I’ll leave to you (see update at end). But for anyone working as a media reporter, I think this was a very interesting tale, and one I’ll follow up tomorrow for Journalism.co.uk. If anything, a lesson in fast data journalism and maintaining that all-important perspective. Lord Carter has criticised journalists for reacting to Digital Britain before they’d read it. If he’s right (again, I’ll leave it to you), does that mean we do journalism too fast? And how should we respond to large data-sets released all at once? And how should we respond to criticism from commenters about editorial judgement?
With that in mind, please treat this post as the beginning of a story. Please let me know if I’ve misrepresented anything (I wasn’t in front of the screen the whole time) and whether you’ve got an alternative view from those pasted here to offer. I’ll leave you with Martin Cloake’s comment underneath the original Guardian story:
“Agree it’s a non-story – although the vast majority of these comments have now turned it into a story about the Guardian’s – is snidey too strong? – dig at the BBC. The expenses outrage hysteria is reaching ridiculous levels, and some perspective is desperately needed. And if ever there was a definitive illustration of the phrase “throwing petrol on the fire” it’s in Judthsoal’s posts. Oh dear. Still, it’s all getting the website plenty of traffic, and that – rather than the worth or otherwise of the actual story itself – is why the story is so prominent.”
Update 2: Emily Bell refuted some of @ourman’s suggestions here, as part of this lively comment thread in which she responded (nobly?) to a series of criticisms underneath her article. She says her comment piece was certainly not a rescue-job:
“@ourman – you have a vivid imagination. I would be AMAZED given our very short staffing today if any of the above happened – I was asked if I could write something at c. 12 o’clock today…..which I said I would – by 5 – but was of course, late. We do rewrite and reversion many many stories and if the media slant rather than general news prevails it is likely to be more featured on media front…..75 per cent of our users never see the homepage so don’t put too much emphasis on slots.”
[@ourman’s first comment appears to have been deleted; his second is here]