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Half truths and evasions of BBC News Editor taken to task over Telford


So, this week’s Newswatch with Samira Ahmed carried the BBC’s second big interview of the day with James Stephenson, News Editor, BBC News and Current Affairs, about the BBC’s coverage/lack of coverage of the Telford Muslim grooming gangs scandal.

How did this one go?

Well, I think Samira Ahmed did a decent job. I did wonder if she or someone in her Newswatch team has been reading this blog. She was right in there with that ’15-second read’ point about Tuesday night’s fleeting mention on the story on the BBC’s News at Ten, momentarily putting Mr Stephenson off his stride.

And it was interesting to hear from Samira Ahmed that the BBC has received ‘hundreds of complaints’ about the BBC’s Telford coverage – a sign, I think, of the scale of the public’s disgust at the BBC over this and why the News Editor of BBC News and Current Affairs felt the need to go on both Feedback and Newswatch on the same day to defend the Corporation’s honour.

In that light I doubt that his complacent ‘No, I think we are doing the right thing’ line will have gone down too well with viewers.

As an aside, in that complaints response from the BBC to Tabs at Biased BBC, BBC Complaints replied that:

On Monday, our paper reviews again linked to the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror’s analysis of the investigation, followed by detailed articles which were on our News website front page [my emphasis].

Given that so many people insisted that they’d never seen it on the BBC News website’s Home page on Monday, I thought that was untrue but couldn’t think how to prove it. James Stephenson has now (inadvertently) proved that it was untrue whilst trying to skate slyly over Samira’s point:

Samira Ahmed: I was wondering, when did the story appear on the front page of the website?

James Stephenson: So, there was a story on the website on Monday. That was on the England index.

In other words, it wasn’t on ‘the front page of the website’, it was only on the England page – just as the BBC’s critics said.

Also, when James Stephenson says ‘And it was widely covered in our paper review, prominently on the Sunday’, he’s seriously over-egging the pudding. That was five paragraphs near the bottom of what was originally a long paper review page (they pruned it later in the day to take out all the images of the front pages), and that was the sum total of the BBC’s online coverage of the story that day, before burying later articles (on Monday and Tuesday) in ‘Shropshire’ (or ‘England’, if we take Mr Stephenson’s word). And don’t forget, the Andrew Marr Show didn’t even put the Sunday Mirror on its table of newspapers, never mind mention or discuss it last Sunday.

Anyhow, here’s a transcript of the whole thing:

Samira Ahmed: Now, last weekend, the Sunday Mirror said it had uncovered Britain’s worst ever child grooming scandal, with claims that up to 1,000 girls had been abused since the 1980s. Over the next two days, other newspapers followed that up extensively. But there was only limited mentions on BBC News. Scores of people wondered why – with one of them, David, leaving us this phone message on Tuesday morning:

Hi, I woke up this morning to the horrific stories about the child abuse in Telford, so I thought I’d go on to the BBC app, which I use regularly. And lo and behold, there was nothing about it. Your top five stories on the website. There’s one about pork pies and one about the danger of Chinese takeaways. Are you going to cover this scandal?

The BBC was accused in the press of ignoring the story, and Adam Paulson agreed, writing:

I hope the BBC will provide a full account of their decision not to cover the latest Telford revelations. As it is, it looks like an egregious and appalling lack of editorial judgement.

Andrew Vaughton e-mailed:

It seems the BBC is no different to the local authorities and police in turning a blind eye to an extremely important issue that is clearly in the public interest. Shameful.

Well, on Tuesday, the Victoria Derbyshire show interviewed a victim of child exploitation in Telford. But it wasn’t until Wednesday that BBC One bulletins ran a report on the subject, from Sima Kotecha.

Sima Kotecha: Night-time in Telford. Recent reports say up to 1,000 girls could have been sexually abused in the town over the last four decades. The police here say at the moment they are dealing with less than 50 cases.

For many though, the BBC’s reaction was too little, too late. Trevor Bell thought:

It is an absolute disgrace how BBC News has suppressed coverage of the events in Telford. If it has been white males who had committed these acts, it would have been lead story for days.

And Robert Leather tweeted this question:

Can you explain the BBC’s lack of response?

Well, let’s put that to James Stephenson, the BBC’s News Editor, who joins me now. Can we start with . . . The story broke in the Sunday Mirror. When did the BBC national news think it worth reporting?

James Stephenson: So, immediately we could see that it was a good and strong piece of journalism by the Sunday Mirror. And it was widely covered in our paper review, prominently on the Sunday. And we saw it was a story that we needed to follow up, and we began to do that. So as early as Monday morning, the Victoria Derbyshire Programme was leading its output on this story. And later that day, The World at One interviewed the leader of Telford Council to challenge him about what was going on.

Samira Ahmed (interrupting): Which is radio.

James Stephenson: So, we quickly saw it was a story that needed to be covered, and that it needed our original reporting effort to follow up, and that’s what we did.

Samira Ahmed: We heard from a viewer there who said he used the news app. I was wondering, when did the story appear on the front page of the website?

James Stephenson: So, there was a story on the website on Monday. That was on the England index. There were various developments in the story as the week has gone on. I’m sure you’ve seen and the viewers have seen how the story has developed. So, the initial suggestion was that possibly 1,000 victims, and that was based not on hard information, but on an extrapolation based on work with an academic. So, we pursued it. And we weighted the story. We looked at it in depth. And it’s probably worth saying, to address your point directly, that we’re in the middle of this huge spy drama and scandal, the poisoning scandal in Salisbury, and that’s consumed a huge amount of our airtime, as has the death of Ken Dodd, and then later in the week Stephen Hawking. So even in a busy news period, this has been an exceptionally busy news week, and we’ve tried to cover the Telford story in the mix amongst all of the other things that we’ve been doing.

Samira Ahmed: I suppose audiences would say, a really busy news week, this is a really important new story.

James Stephenson: That’s certainly true. And I’d like to sort of challenge an idea that I think probably viewers might be left with by the sequence they’ve just seen. This is a scandal that’s been unfolding in Telford over many years, and we have been covering it in great depth and with great prominence during that time. So, the Operation Chalice brought to life the scale of abusing in Telford. There was then the criminal prosecution, which saw seven men being sent to prison a few years ago. So, we have consistently been reporting this story as it’s gone along, and we’ve done so again this week.

Samira Ahmed: The TV bulletins are where millions of people go expecting to be told what are the big, important stories, and it wasn’t until Wednesday, three days later, that there was an actual report about Telford on the national bulletins. Why?

James Stephenson: So, it was covered in brief on the News at Ten on Tuesday night…

Samira Ahmed (interrupting): A 15-second read.

James Stephenson: Well, some stories . . . We have a relatively . . . As I’ve already explained, we’ve got a very busy news period and there’s a limited number of stories we can cover. The reason it became a network TV bulletin story on Wednesday was because of partly our journalism. So, we interviewed the police in Telford, we interviewed a social worker in Telford, it was raised at Prime Minister’s Questions, and the Prime Minister reacted to it. So, even, as I say, in this busy period, that obviously deserved the attention that it got on the main TV bulletins that day.

Samira Ahmed: You will know what BBC viewers are saying, and we’ve had hundreds of complaints into the BBC. It’s that it looked like the BBC felt awkward giving this story prominence because it was about white victims and Pakistani-heritage abuses.

James Stephenson: I know that’s a view that some people hold. I really don’t think it’s the case. We’ve done a great deal of coverage of this area of abuse, both in – and this terrible story in Telford, but also elsewhere in the country. The BBC has just won a Royal Television Society Award for the excellent documentary, incredible documentary, about abuse in the North East of England, based around Newcastle. That was the second story in the TV news three weeks ago. So we’ve done a great deal of work on Rotherham, where a lot of this stuff initially – this terrible situation came more fully to light. So we’ve certainly committed to covering what is a harrowing and terrible story, and we’ve done it consistently over time.

Samira Ahmed: You will know, because Newswatch has debated it before, that coverage of the previous grooming scandals with this racial element, viewers every time feel the BBC runs shy of reporting these stories prominently. Do you think the BBC needs to have a rethink about how it runs and reports on these stories?

James Stephenson: No, I think we are doing the right thing, and I think we are very determined to get to these terrible and dark and difficult stories, not just this one, but across the whole range. What I do think is true to say is that before the full nature and scale of what was going on in Rotherham and Rochdale and Oxford and other places came out, there was not as great an understanding of how, you know, profound a problem and how deep this ran. And I think – so if you go back a decade, I think you can definitely say that the story or the issue didn’t get the attention it probably deserved at that point, and that is something everyone has had to reflect on.

Samira Ahmed: James Stephenson, thank you

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Craig Byers
Craig Byers is a blogger about the BBC, focusing on the issue of BBC bias while living in Britain's finest traditional seaside resort: Morecambe (the one with the Eric Morecambe statue).

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