Archive for July, 2007

Media mea culpas – get used to it

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This is not the end of embarrassing apologies and discoveries of mistakes and deceptions at big media organisations, it’s the beginning.

I’ve spent the last few weeks researching an article about news coverage of Israel / Palestine. Or rather, I’ve been researching the coverage of the coverage – the remarkable growth of people and organisations who spend their time scrutinizing the news for signs of bias or inaccuracy. Staring at photographs to see if they’ve been manipulated. Dissecting raw TV footage for any evidence it may have been faked or staged.

I mention this because it has relevance to the situation the BBC finds itself in. Not just the BBC but all mainstream media organisations that aspire to be fair, honest and balanced. Coverage of Israel Palestine is like the canary in the mine, the testbed for what the future holds. And let me tell you now, it ain’t pretty.

If the assessment and criticism about coverage of Israel/Palestine is anything to go by, big media organisations will have to expect their output to be searched, scoured, seived, sifted, studied and generally scrutinized ad infinitum.

Although there is little substance in alot of what the media monitors and the bloggers find, occasionally they turn up real howlers. Like the Reuters’ photographs that had been deliberately photoshopped to make the Israeli bombing of Beirut look worse than it was.

But the answer is not to sink into some sort of metaphysical crisis. The answer is to become more transparent and more accountable. Pull back the curtain, show people what’s happening backstage. Give them the raw footage, tell them the standards by which programme makers expect the programme to be judged. And if it doesn’t live up to those standards, accept the consequences. Not only that but let people respond, give them the means to complain, to applaud, to critique, to vent. Hell, give them the tools to make it themselves.

The democratisation of media shouldn’t be seen as some sort of barbarians at the gate moment, after which the old media giants get torn down and over-run. But it does signify a fundamental shift in power and responsibility, and those media organisations that don’t recognise that, and react to it, will feel increasingly beseiged.

Written by Martin Moore

July 18th, 2007 at 8:46 pm

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Afghanistan, a "massive secret"

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In today’s Mirror Pte Ian McIlroy tells Chris Hughes , “I don’t think people realise what it’s like here. It’s as if Afghanistan is a massive secret. Nobody talks about it”.

He’s right, it’s weird that there has been so little coverage of Afghanistan. According to Chris Hughes’ excellent piece, ‘This is not now a counter-insurgency operation but a full-blooded war of devastating intensity’. Last Sunday Nicholas Watt and Ned Temko reported on Lord Inge’s warning that ‘the military campaign in Afghanistan is facing a catastrophic failure’ and that this will have knock effects for terrorism worldwide. Yesterday the Telegraph claimed the Afghan casualty rate had reached the same level as during the Second World War (Thomas Harding). And today we learn from MPs today that there is a desperate shortage of troops (Michael Evans).

Yet despite the dire warnings and murmurs of Vietnam-like fighting, we continue to get only a trickle of coverage – mainly from the Telegraph, plus some very good but unsung programmes on the BBC.

What’s going on? Are we all too punch drunk from Iraq? Is it too difficult to get reporters on the ground in Afghanistan.

The latter can’t be the case since David Loyn even managed to film the most remarkable footage with Taliban themselves last year. But we do seem to be so focused on the ‘war against terrorism’ within Britain that we’re ignoring a real war going on across the world.

Written by Martin Moore

July 18th, 2007 at 11:12 am

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Queengate: Outrage or storm in a royal teacup?

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The acres of newsprint devoted to discussing the misrepresentative promotional trailer of the BBC’s documentary on the Queen must have come as something of a surprise to BBC1′s Peter Fincham and the production company RDF.
There are a number of ways the reaction could be interpreted:
a) Literally – that alot of people believe that ‘if anyone should be expected to represent the Queen accurately it should be the BBC’
b) Structurally – that the trailer revealed structural factors within the television industry which mean this sort of thing happens all the time (see Janine Gibson in the Guardian)
c) Culturally (1) – that it illustrated that there is a sort of moral vacuum amongst those working in media production – especially the young (the Michael Grade argument)
d) Culturally (2) – that it is indicative of a culture of cynicism within the media to which no-one is exempt (for this look at Simon Heffer in the Telegraph)
Or you can take the ‘oh for goodness sake let’s just get this in proportion’ approach.
Whichever view you take – or if you have a different view entirely – you are welcome to come and comment this week at the Media Standards Trust (www.mediastandardstrust.org)

Written by Martin Moore

July 17th, 2007 at 4:14 pm

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The false scare about autism and the MMR jab

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Backstory: Last week’s Observer ‘broke’ a story on its front page about unpublished research by the Cambridge University Autism Research Centre. The research looked at how different methods of defining autism affected the number of people defined as autistic. One method (which involved asking parents) suggested the figure could be as high as 1 in 58 people. Other more scientific methods suggested higher ratios (e.g. 1 in 100). The research was unpublished because it was unfinished and not peer reviewed, but was published in the paper anyway. But that’s not the main issue.

The main issue is that the Observer misinterpreted the results of this unpublished research. The paper claimed the research showed an increase in the prevalence of autism. Based on this misinterpretation it then blamed the supposed increase on the MMR vaccination, saying that two of the seven authors of the report privately thought the MMR jab might be partly to blame for the alleged rise in autism. This reignited the whole debate about a possible link a week before the GMC were due to start an inquiry into Dr Andrew Wakefield.

This was bad and irresponsible journalism for three reasons:

1. It conflated a study about defining levels of autism with causes of autism. The study is not about causes, neither is it saying that autism is increasing (see letter from head of the autism centre, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen). There is no new research about causes that contradicts or calls into question previous research

2. The paper completely misrepresented one of the scientists concerned. Dr Fiona Scott has since written that: “What appeared in the article was a flagrant misrepresentation of my opinions – unsurprising given that they were published without my being spoken to. It is outrageous that the article states that I link rising prevalence figures to use of the MMR. I have never held this opinion. I do not think the MMR jab ‘might be partly to blame’.”

3. The Observer failed to mention that the other person who had apparently expressed concerns privately works for Dr Andrew Wakefield in Texas. Not only that but she left Cambridge years ago under a cloud (for more details see Bad Science) and reportedly received £100,000 for her part in arguing for a link between MMR and autism during litigation

Therefore not only did the Observer renew fears about the link without any new research about causation, one of its key sources says she was never consulted and categorically denies she thinks there is any link, and the other source is at best highly conflicted.

All of which makes the original story bad and irresponsible journalism, and makes the column by the Observer’s Readers’ Editor, Stephen Pritchard, unacceptably uninformative and uncritical.

The most bizarre postscript to the whole story is that Dr Scott – the researcher who says she was not contacted by the Observer nor did she say what they said she said – ended up having to respond to the Observer by adding her comment along with the rest below Pritchard’s column.

Written by Martin Moore

July 16th, 2007 at 1:18 pm

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