lying liars

Lies, damn lies and the Mail on Sunday

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The other weekend, that paragon of middle class values the Mail on Sunday decided to continue its sister daily’s campaign to divide every substance and contrivance in the world into a cause of or cure for cancer.

That day’s target: wind turbines. The Mail hates them and the middle classes fear having one in view of the stately home they dream they will one day own. The MoS got that useless idiot James Delingpole to quickly run off a factual-sounding piece of crap straight from the top of his own head, announcing the dangers to life and limb that living really near a wind turbine are bound to cause, despite the total lack of evidence (that’s never stopped Delingpole before, of course).

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What the story needed to really terrify the suburban masses over their lattes was a nice big picture of a huge wind turbine blotting the landscape. Here the MoS hit a snag: there aren’t any. But just like the Mail never lets the facts get in the way of a good scare story, they also don’t let the lack of a picture get in the way of printing a picture.

Some poor lowly art editor was drafted in to take an innocuous agency photo of a turbine and make it dark and broody and scary and cancerous. And then, for the online version, badly comp in a second turbine, presumably to double the fear and loathing and make readers clutch their pearls/BMWs/ponies all the more tightly as they fear the War of the Worlds-style march of the turbines over the horizon and into their very front gardens.

The problem with this is that the UK newspaper industry’s own code of practice says that it’s wrong. It must not be done. It is lying to readers and faking news. Do not do it, the code directs. Long story short: that’s why we’ve just had the big Leveson inquiry and why we might now be getting some real regulation in future (although I suspect that we won’t). So I complained to the Press Complaints Commission.

The last time this happened was a few years ago, when the Daily Mail wanted to bash the BBC but for once couldn’t find a target. They settled on the old “Question Time is biased” crap, proving their point by printing the QT’s audience handout… badly photoshopped to change the whole tone and direction. I complained to the PCC and the Mail removed the image but left the story in place (thus making the story make no sense) online, although the damage was mostly done in print. The PCC, in those pre-Leveson days, saw itself as a defender of newspapers against their readers and turned down my complaint out of hand: the Mail, they said, had printed the image in error so the case was closed. As I pointed out in my reply, the Mail took a document, paid somebody to crudely alter it, paid someone else to write a false story based on the forgery, then printed both together. All. By. Mistake. Yeah.

This time, post-Leveson, the PCC have been a bit more on my side than the Mail’s. But only just. They have actually investigated the matter, the Mail have denied the charge but apologised weakly for using the image, and the PCC would now like me to accept the non-apology apology and move on. The other choice, they darkly hint, is for it to be stalemate and for the useless ‘clarification’ not to appear at all. Heads the Mail wins, tails I lose. Nice.

So, the next time you pick up a newspaper and see them making a big point, as they’re all doing, that regulation as it stands works and anything else is just censorship, remember that they’re lying to you. Also, the next time you pick up a newspaper, please don’t let it be the Mail.

With thanks to Jude Gibbons and David Trussler.

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A victory of sorts

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I case you don't remember, a couple of months ago I took issue with the BBC over something very minor – the way they were displaying the telephone number for people wanting to take part in John Barrowman's godawful variety show. I know it sounds petty, but why show numbers wrongly when it's so easy to show them correctly?

The BBC replied to me with an out-and-out lie. They said that they displayed numbers in an easy-to-remember format, even though this meant the numbers were actually wrong. If that were true, there would've been research to prove it: hand it over. They ignored me, so I submitted a freedom of information request to get the research. After much searching, the BBC came back: there is no research (surprise!). So I complained to the BBC Trust.

At last I feel the BBC has listened to me. The reply shows that, for once, the BBC read my complaint rather than scanning it and assuming the contents. They admit that BBC Complaints isn't up to the job at the moment and needs reform. I suspect the problem is that most complaints are from out-and-our ranting nutjobs with an agenda to push or an axe to grind. Actual complaints from the relatively sane are getting buried under these mad ones and BBC Complaints is treating all comments like they're coming from Scientologists, internet conspiracy theorists and members of the Tory right. So reform is due and it probably needs them to step back from giving personalised but wrong replies and instead go back to the old system they used in the 1970s — pre-printed cards reading "Dear ______ Thank you for your comment, which the Director General was pleased to receive. Yours sincerely, <BBC manager>" — for the nutters, since no reply will satisfy a nutter, and personal responses for those asking serious questions or for general information.

My faith in the BBC is thus restored to a degree. I still don't like that the knee-jerk, gut reaction was to tell a lie. But I'm willing to trust the Trust to work on that. I'll still keep an eye open for the BBC telling lies in its editorial output — these things don't happen in isolation, they get into the culture — but I'm pleased that a bit of the BBC, of my??BBC, our BBC, the best broadcaster in the world, is on the case.

I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you

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A fortnight ago, I??escalated??a complaint from BBC Complaints to the BBC Trust??when BBC Complaints appeared to have told me a bare-faced lie. So far, no reply from them. But evidence has emerged that BBC Complaints do indeed, as I feared, lie to people who complain as a matter of routine.

During the recent riots, the BBC helped themselves to images and videos they found online. These were then credited on-screen to a website, not the original cameraperson. Andy Mabbett challenged BBC??Complaints??about this — rightly believing that broadcasters should credit the person behind the lens rather than the method of hosting the file. After all, if you show someone a photo and they ask you who took it, you don't reply "The Family Album volume 7" or "the photo belongs to iPhone 4", do you? (And if you do, seek help).

Worse, the BBC credited the photos to Twitter, who didn't at that time even host images. The images were hosted on sites like twitpic and yfrog — they were just found using Twitter. "Who took this photograph? Oh, it was ICI, because the plastic sheeting covering them in the album was made by them".

Broadcasters should be doing a little extra research — and it's honestly just two clicks, not a punt up the Amazon. Now: the churnalist in question is sat at a PC. They see a retweet of an interesting photo and download it, crediting Twitter. In future: the journalist in question is sat at a PC. They see a retweet of an interesting photo and download it, noting the @username of the person who posted it on twitpic or yfrog or the like. It's not brain surgery, it's basic journalism and the @username is in huge type at the top of the page. It's not like they need a giant calculator and Fred Harris on hand to interpret the results.

Now here's the rub. Mabbett complains in strident tones. BBC Complaints reply, having only skimmed what he said (they say he was calling on them to stop using Twitter as a source. He wasn't). The person replying says:

Twitter is a social network platform which is available to most people who have a computer and therefore any content on it is not subject to the same copyright laws as it is already in the public domain.

This is not true. Not one part of this is true. Not, even for a moment, is any of it true. Yes: BBC Complaints have lied to another stakeholder to try to make them go away. The BBC have been caught red-handed at a practice that all journalistic organisations have fallen into because it's cheap and quick and lazy. But we hold the BBC to a higher standard, whether they like it or not, because we all, collectively as a nation, own our BBC.

And the BBC does have some really good arguments instantly at hand for using the images with a correct credit: "fair dealing", prior publication, expectation of reuse, the host's terms and conditions… lots of arguments. But they, again, resorted to telling an out-and-out lie instead.

I know this is how society now works. Big organisations now regularly, as a default, lie to us. 'Dave' Cameron can hardly open his mouth without letting a lie slip out. Gideon Osborne runs with them from both ends. Nick Clegg sleeps with a blankie made out of lies sewn together. British Gas has just stopped door-to-door selling because of the lies their representatives spew on the doorstep. Even the Co-operative has lied to me in the last 6 months, as a reflex, without a qualm. Lying is now normal.

Nevertheless, I say again: I love the BBC and I'd happily pay double the licence fee (it'd still be great value compared to Sky). But the lying has to stop. Now.

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Previously on 'Another Damn Blog': I wrote to the BBC to complain about a minor matter??of them getting telephone numbers deliberately wrong on-screen.

I know this is a petty point, but it's one that annoys me. And, as I said at the time, "[i]f the BBC can get its own telephone number wrong, can they be trusted to make a documentary without cutting such basic corners?"

The reply came from BBC Complaints and seemed to be deliberately trying to prove my point. It said that they put numbers up on screen incorrectly because they were easier to remember that way. Bollocks. What a load of cobblers. I wrote back, saying that I didn't mind the brush-off, but did mind them actually lying to me. If they weren't lying, then they would produce the research that the BBC had done that showed people could remember telephone numbers more easily when they were wrong than when they were right. After all, they must've have done that??research??to come up with that answer.

But, I warned darkly, if they'd done no??research??and this reply was just a lie, it was time for them to 'fess up or I would prove the lie by requesting a copy of the research myself. BBC Complaints never replied. So I had to carry through with my threat and I made a formal Freedom of Information Act request to see the research — warning the FoI department that they wouldn't find any but that two could play at the timewasting game.

BBC FoI came back to me: they could find no evidence whatsoever that the BBC had commissioned or received any research on the formatting of telephone numbers on screen or elsewhere. In other words, the guy at BBC Complaints had lied his little socks off to make me go away. As I say, I wouldn't mind a brush-off, but this default that now exists in the UK of telling a lie, no matter how implausible, rather than just telling the truth has to stop.

I first had an organisation tell me an obvious and implausible lie a few years ago. After being very ill and having the NHS strangely reluctant to treat me (indeed, receiving open hostility from some staff) I sought a copy of my hospital notes. Lovely: as correspondance was passed between departments, I was referred to on multiple occasions as "this homosexual". As in "this homosexual first presented to me on…" and "I would like to refer this homosexual to you for further tests" and the like. This, clearly, would not do. So I complained to the chief executive of the hospital. Here comes the whopping great porker: he wrote back and said this was normal practice for all patients and they were all referred to that way in notes. Yeah, right. Do you even believe for a moment that your notes, assuming you're straight, say anywhere, anywhere at all, "this heterosexual presented to me on…"? Uh huh.

I went to the then-Healthcare Commission about this and they gave the hospital a mighty slapping down because of it. The chief executive had to write to apologise to me personally, the writers of "this homosexual" had to attend special courses in not writing "this homosexual" in notes, and the Trust had to employ a 'Diversity Officer' (no, me neither) to make sure this never happened again. But nobody had to apologise for the great fat lie the chief exec told me in his first reply. It was seen as entirely acceptable to try to make me go away by lying to me. It isn't.

A similar, if less outrageous in its detail, thing happened last month when a WHSmith employee told me a barefaced lie to my face rather than admit a mistake had been made. As I say, it seems to have become the default in British society, at least in larger organisations, to tell lies rather than deal with consequences.

For the BBC, this initial lie isn't going to go away. Today I've written to the BBC Trust, what was the governors, to ask them if they agree with me that trust in the BBC is important and lying to stakeholders undermines that trust. I'm expecting the BBC Trust to give me the brush-off and I won't mind that. I just hope they don't take the opportunity to lie to me at the same time.