Those of you without a life or a job (or who work shifts) may be aware that on BBC1 at 1058 or so, in between the end of ‘Homes Under the Hammer’, and the start of ‘To Buy or Not to Buy’, there’s a very brief round-up of the news. It covers only the top three or four stories, plus a brief look at the weather, and is really nothing more than the headlines. Today, one of the stories included was that Dame Stella Rimmington, a former head of MI5, had said that in recent years the government had been using the fear of terrorism as a means to increase surveillance on the whole population, and that we were now in danger of living in a police state.
I could immediately see why the editors and journalists in the BBC newsroom had decided this was a significant story. A former head of MI5, the state agency responsible for protecting the UK’s national security, saying the kind of things that usually get said by organisations like Liberty. Not only this, but also apparently insinuating that the government was using the fear of terrorism as a pretext for introducing measures it wanted to see in place for other reasons. Clearly, this was incendiary stuff, and of great concern to a lot of people like me who worry that the UK is sleepwalking into a police state.
So imagine my surprise when I looked at the BBC News website a little while ago, and couldn’t find the story. I scanned the whole front page, and I couldn’t find a mention anywhere. Not one of the picture headlines; not mentioned in the ‘Other Top Stories’ section; not appearing under any of the subsection headings (‘Around the UK’, ‘UK Politics’ etc). It wasn’t even in the list of most popular stories, meaning that this wasn’t an example of a big story moving precipitously down the food chain because of a rapidly changing news agenda. It just wasn’t anywhere on the page.
Eventually I did find the story. It was on the ‘UK Politics page‘, where it was ranked as the fifth most important political story, after the chancellor’s decision to limit bank bonuses, the conviction of Tessa Jowell’s estranged husband for accepting a bribe from the Italian PM, a Conservative proposal to increase the number of directly elected mayors (something which, as far as I can remember, has been party policy for a long time) and a comment from Peter Mandelson arguing that President Obama has to hold his nerve:
(Sorry for the low quality of the screen grab. The story is second in the ‘Other Top Stories’ section at the top right, entitled ‘Ministers “exploit terrorism fears”‘.)
Now, it strikes me that this is very odd. What exactly has happened, I found myself wondering. Is this one of those very rare occasions when the editorial team for the website and TV news take a different view on the significance of a story? It’s not as though this is a minor disagreement about significance – the TV identified the story as one of the most significant across the whole range of news, national and international. The website, on the other hand, classified it as the fifth most important story within the sub-genre of politics.
I tried to think what other reasons there might be for the discrepancy. Perhaps it’s because the story is based on an article appearing in the Daily Telegraph. The Telegraph might take a dim view of the BBC grabbing net traffic by making a big splash on a story it considered its own, but the same concern wouldn’t apply to TV news, as the Telegraph doesn’t run a rival TV news service. But, then again, I thought, once a story has been printed in a newspaper, it’s usually considered fair game by other news providers. If anything, high-profile coverage on the BBC’s site (which is, by a huge margin, the most popular news website in the UK) would help to raise the profile of the Telegraph’s website, and hence increase its advertising revenue.
Then I started to wonder if the BBC had been ‘got at’ in some way, and had been ‘persuaded’ to move the story down the agenda. It’s a matter of public record that when Alistair Campbell was the government’s Director of Communications he thought nothing of delivering messages and ultimata to BBC editors about stories he didn’t like, sometimes by several means simultaneously – phone, email, fax, and couriered letter. So I watched the headlines on the BBC News Channel at 1530, and found that they still had the story as fourth on the agenda.
In some ways, this was very reassuring. It looked as though I had been wrong to worry about the BBC being ‘nobbled’. But the fact of the huge discrepancy in the significance of the story online and on TV still bothered me. It’s such a huge difference. So now I’m wondering if the BBC is in fact coming under pressure to ‘re-assess’ the significance of the story, and its just that the duty editor on the News Channel is standing up to the pressure more effectively than the online editor. Or if the BBC has decided to give the story high-priority on TV at those points in the day when very few people will be watching in order that, if they are accused of succumbing to political pressure, they can mount a defence saying the story was treated as very significant on the News Channel throughout the day, and so brush aside that the means by which most people access BBC news during the day (the website) was massively under-playing it.
It’ll be interesting to see how prominent the story will be on the evening news programmes when people will actually be watching.
Or, on the other hand, am I just getting paranoid again?
Edit: Well, I watched the Ten O’ Clock news on BBC1 and – guess what – no mention. I’d like to say I’m surprised, but I’m not, really.