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

5 thoughts on “The BBC, the Queen and Ethical Lapses

  1. Nick Reynolds (BBC) says:

    One correction – unlike the commercial broadcasters in the UK the BBC does not make money from premium rate phone lines – any profit goes to charity.

  2. EMM says:

    I’ve long heard (and witnessed myself whilst* in England for only one week) that British media are far more sensational than even our own. Kris Morrill’s post illustrates that point.

    My question: why should that be so? The British are supposed to be far more “refined” in their manners, aren’t they? Or is that a stereotype?

    Is it true they are far more class conscious than Americans, and, thus, should be more likely to honor their queen than we would, say, our president?

    And what would our citizens say if every day on page 3 of USA Today or the New York Times, photos of quite busty, topless women were featured, as they are in England?

    Hmmm..

    (*The use of “whilst” was pretty snazzy, yes? Also, I’m proud to claim Kris Morrill as my former student, as well.)

    Ellen Mrja

  3. bbenidt says:

    Ellen and Kris, as a commoner from the colonies, I haven’t seen regular BBC coverage. The half-hour BBC world report we get here is far from sensational — it makes all our TV news look like “Entertainment Tonight.”

    Does the BBC and other British media “cover” twit news as fully as mindlessly as American TV — Paris Hilton and her useless ilk? Is there anything more sensational than the 105 magazines at our grocery checkouts, all with Angelina Jolie on the cover? Bit cheeky to hold our media up as any different from British media — at least their tabloids have the honesty to have their women naked on occasion.

    Saw a Bill Moyers speech on C-SPAN last night where he reminded us an MSNBC news reader burned his script rather than start a news report with Paris Hilton.

  4. Oh my yes…the BBC1 went live during their breakfast show to cover Paris Hilton’s release from jail. Absolutely mindboggling. I don’t think this would have been the case 6 or 7 years ago, but the coverage has definitely changed over the years as the British media have drifted toward becoming more like their American counterparts. And, yes, there are dozens of celebrity, gossip magazines sharing the same inane bits about Brittany, Lindsey, et al. The world is a much smaller place and apparently many of us worship at the same altar of celebrity.

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