There can be little doubt that Cilla Black was one of those figures rightly described by man as a “national treasure”. And her death at the weekend rightly deserved top billing in the news. But suggestions that the BBC was too slow to report her demise are somewhat wide of the mark.
Rod McKenzie, the former editor of BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat has argues that the BBC should have gone with an unconfirmed story. And with thee benefit of hindsight he might have a point. Rod’s contention is that – with the meteoric rise of social media – the audience somehow “expects” the big broadcasters to go with the flow, and re-report unconfirmed details. He goes on to say that, so long as the BBC attributes these as unconfirmed, everything will be OK. Right?
Well, no. It’s not right. Checking a story’s credentials before reporting it is a key journalistic principle that runs through the core of BBC News. And on those occasions where that principle has been cast aside, the consequences can be devastating. The result might be an embarrassing on air “where did you get your facts from?” confrontation from a guest, to a full blown Government-influenced inquiry where the Director General gets fired and the Daily Mail has a field day.
And this isn’t unique to the BBC. I’ve witnessed many behind the scenes s**t storms where a journalist – thinking they were “following their instincts” or claiming a retweet of an unconfirmed snippet was a “trusted source” – has been hauled over the coals. Another example : Nelson Mandela’s “death” was trending widely on social media on several different occasions, some months before his departure. Would Rod McKenzie have been happy for Newsbeat to run with it?
Rod correctly points out that when news breaks at off peak times, it often falls to a relatively junior editorial figure in a news organisation to make the final call when to broadcast. I know for a fact that there were frustrated and heated conversations in BBC newsrooms on Sunday. Editorial principles will always be somewhat subjective. But on this occasion the Beeb stuck to the ethical cornerstone of ensuring the story was true before going with it.
In my book, that’s why the audience trusts it.