Tuesday, 25 September 2007

The BBC's Cat-astrophe

The basic commandment of journalism is Thou shalt not make stuff up. It isn't Thou shalt usually not make stuff up, or Thou shalt not make up important stuff, but it's okay to make up the unimportant stuff.

No, not much room for interpretation. Yet it's amazing--and troubling--how often this commandment is broken. There are a lot of sinners out there. One must ask: WWJD? What would a journalist do?

The latest making-stuff-up episode to take place on this scepter'd isle involves the BBC and a drip-drip-drip of revelations, each one arguably minor, most of them almost laughable. The poster child--or poster pet--is a kitten that either is or isn't named Socks. The kitten is the mascot of a venerable children's TV show called "Blue Peter."

I remember watching "Blue Peter" when I was a teenager in Britain in 1977/78. The show's hosts would come and go, but all were characterized by a hale and hearty chipperness: "Hullo!" they'd exhort. "Today we're going to make a chronometer out of ice lolly sticks!" They'd glue a few wooden popsicle sticks together--while viewers at home desperately did the same--and then they'd recite the magical incantation--"Here's one I made earlier"--and pull from underneath the table a breathtaking example of the watchmaker's art. Meanwhile, you were left with sticky fingers, a ruined carpet and something resembling a matchbox that had been dropped in a blender.

And then there were the animals. My English mate Richard tells me the onscreen quadrupeds--cat, dog, tortoise, each with a compelling back story and plenty of screen time--were designed to comfort children who weren't allowed to have pets of their own. A kid living in a cramped flat or council house could have some sense of ownership of the "Blue Peter" cat--a 1/1,237,900th share in it, if you like.

I can't remember if the viewing audience always chose the name, but that's what happened with the most recent kitten. "Socks" had been in the lead for a while, but was overtaken towards the end of voting by "Cookie," the eventual winner. But "Blue Peter's" producers went with "Socks." (Why? Theories abound. They may have suspected voter fraud [a hanging chad?]. "Cookie" supposedly is slang for something rude, though I haven't been able to figure out what. My favorite explanation, though, is that "Cookie" was too American. They don't have "cookies" in the U.K. They have "biscuits.")

Socksgate was the latest in unsettling revelations. Earlier a "Blue Peter" audience member was press-ganged into posing as the winner of a phone-in contest. (The English are mad for contests.) Through the magic of editing, a BBC executive on another program was inserted--doing the prototypical ruminative nod--into interviews he himself did not conduct.

None of these things are as bad as what a reporter for my employer, The Washington Post, did 27 years ago, when she created an 8-year-old heroin addict. But, need I remind you, Thou shalt not make stuff up.

Trust and believability are all we journalists have going for us. We hold mirrors--and microscopes and telescopes--up to reality. We don't hold kaleidoscopes; we don't play with the truth. Sometimes reality means the cat gets a name you don't like.

5 comments:

suburbancorrespondent said...

A slippery slope, indeed....

Henrik said...

In the ten-odd years I've studied journalism (I've never really actually _done_ any journalism, but the Thou shalt not make stuff up-rule I recognize from academia) I've come to realize that an important corollary to that basic rule is "Thou can publish stuff that is made up, provided someone else hast published it first" (cf http://news.stepforth.com/blog/2006/03/google-news-credibility-foiled-by-15.php) - i.e., if someone else hast made stuff up, thou can still publish it, because then thou hast not broken the rule!

John Kelly said...

Right, just like the "serious" press can't cover tawdry scandals until the gutter press does. THEN we can write about it because there's a peg.

Marc Naimark said...

"Earlier a "Blue Peter" audience member was press-ganged into posing as the winner of a phone-in contest. (The English are mad for contests.)"

I think it's more a case that the broadcasters, including the BBC, are mad for the money that premium phone and SMS contests bring in.

Anonymous said...

"Trust and believability are all we journalists have going for us. We hold mirrors--and microscopes and telescopes--up to reality. We don't hold kaleidoscopes; we don't play with the truth. "

Ha!!! But what do journalists know about mirrors, microscopes telescopes? They still have to go on someone else's expertise on a given subject which can be coloured by their own agenda thus colouring the coverage of the story...