The BBC, the Queen and Ethical Lapses

(Kris Morril is a former student of mine who has been a journalist and now runs her own PR/media consultancy in London. She’s a very bright woman, who, despite that, has been reading our blog. She mentioned ethical issues in journalism in the UK and I asked her to give us her thoughts — and here they are. Good stuff. Thanks, Kris. Bruce)

Recently, the venerable British Broadcasting Corporation (the BBC, or the Beeb to those who work there) has come under fire for admitting to some serious ethical lapses. The one receiving the most coverage was the admission that producers of an upcoming documentary on Queen Elizabeth II had manipulated video footage of a photo shoot that the American photographer Annie Leibovitz was doing of the Queen. The video footage shows the Queen storming out in anger after Leibovitz asks her to remove her crown. As it quickly emerged, while the Queen did take umbrage to the suggestion, she did not storm out of the room. Red faced, the BBC quickly admitted that the production company had edited the video to make it look like the Queen left in a huff — but only after the footage had been broadcast on all the BBC’s television stations for several days.

This latest lapse in ethical judgment has followed months of scandal over the admission by the BBC, and other commercial television stations here, that they manipulated and fixed winners for various phone contests tied to television shows. Although all the television stations have admitted to fiddling with these contests, to find out that the BBC was also doing it, on a children’s television show no less, outraged people more. Understand that much like PBS, the BBC is publicly funded. To own a television, we must pay an annual TV license of roughly $270 — which is used to fund the BBC. So for all intents and purposes, the BBC should not be fixing contests and looking to make money from phone-in competitions that charge a fee each time someone dials the number or sends a text message. The commercial stations, yes, but for the BBC to sink to this level has rattled the British establishment and government.

More troublesome was the explanation offered up by the BBC’s Director General Mark Thompson when he said something to the effect that younger journalists today were not as aware of ethical requirements. He said the BBC would institute new training requirements on ethics. Huh? Does this mean that ethics is no longer taught in journalism schools, at least in the UK? Or, does it mean that the line between reality and fiction has become blurred even further as a result of reality television shows and the overwhelming need to sensationalize almost every event? Can we trust any news footage viewed today?

Watching the BBC stoop to the level of tabloid journalism has been a depressing experience, as well as reminding me of why I got out of journalism in the first place.

P.S. The BBC has stopped running those phone-in competitions after an internal enquiry uncovered what it termed was “a string of fresh editorial breaches.”

— Kris Morrill

Thornton Wilder’s Bridge

The libraries and bookstores I’ve gone to have all been out of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, because Minneapolis is a pretty literate town.

Wilder wrote the book in 1927, about a bridge in Peru in colonial times that collapses, killing five people. A priest wants to know why these five people were on the bridge, what led them there, and what the collapse said about fate and faith. It’s a lovely story, as I recall. A lot of us read it in school — it would be a good read today. Several bookstores have it on order, or check the dusty parts of your own shelves.

— Benidt