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An open letter to the BBC

Guy Aitchison
21 May 2009

With a few honorable exceptions, the media's coverage of the policing of the G20 protests has been pretty shoddy. As a public service broadcaster the BBC is rightly held to higher standards than the rest, but its reporting of this important issue has raised serious concerns. After a particularly complacent and misleading feature on kettling for the BBC website (which I had an exchange over with the author, Julian Joyce) myself and Stuart White, of Oxford, decided to write a formal letter of complaint to the BBC. We're making it an open letter, publishing it here and on Next Left where Stuart has been blogging the G20 policing. Here's the letter:

We are writing to complain about the BBC's coverage of the policing of the G20 protests in the City of London on April 1st. In our view the BBC's coverage has been incomplete, inaccurate, and frequently misleading, amounting to a failure on the BBC to discharge its proper obligations as a public service broadcaster. We have four principal concerns with the BBC's coverage.

Partial and incomplete reporting of events amounting to misinformation

The BBC's on-the-day reporting of the G20 protests failed to acknowledge the kettling of the Climate Camp at Bishopsgate and the aggressive police action recorded in videos and eyewitness testimony. The kettle was imposed between 7pm and 8pm which is when the police started to attack the Camp, but this was not reported on the BBC website or on BBC TV News.

At 9.16pm an article went up on the BBC website entitled Eyewitness: Climate Camp, which, under the sub-heading "Happy Campers", reported that protesters' were very pleased with the policing of the Camp. There was no other reporting on the Climate Camp that night at a time when it was being kettled and protesters were being beaten by police and it wasn't until Friday April 3rd that the BBC website reported concerns with the Camp's policing.

A feature by Julian Joyce on April 16th purporting to examine the merits and demerits of kettling in light of events at the G20 Police "kettle" tactic feels the heatcontained no mention of the kettling of Climate Camp whatsoever, despite this being the most controversial use of the technique since it was carried out against an entirely peaceful protest.

By our reckoning, it wasn't until April 19, almost 3 weeks after the events, that a report on the BBC TV News acknowledged the police action at Climate Camp - and it did so then because another media outlet, The Sunday Times, had released video footage of aggressive policing. This failure to acknowledge the Climate Camp, and the particular issues raised by its policing, was a feature of nearly all the BBC News's reportage that we have seen - and certainly all the TV News reportage.

Further, the BBC TV News coverage routinely used the pictures of people smashing windows at RBS, thereby giving an impression that a degree of violence was a basicfeature of the G20 protests as such, which was very misleading given the non-violent character of the Climate Camp.

Indeed, even when, on April 19, the BBC TV News reported on the Climate Camp, the report in question failed to explain the context/motivation of the Camp and to differentiate it from events elsewhere, e.g., outside the RBS. The repeated - and, frankly, rather lazy - showing of the smashing of a window at the RBS will have given viewers the impression that the window smashing and the Climate Camp were related (which they were not) implicitly justifying the aggressive police action.

Grossly inaccurate statements about police tactics

Julian Joyce's feature on kettling was factually misleading in stating that in a kettle the police allow protesters out of the cordon if they are non-violent. All the evidence, and our own experience, proves that this was not the case and that protesters and passers-by were indiscriminately detained with only a lucky few (mainly press) allowed to leave.

There were two problems here. One was factual: readers would have hadthe impression that the police did allow people out of the cordons at the G20 protests which we know, in general, to be untrue.

Second, there is a legal-conceptual problem. When the Law Lords considered the legality of kettling in January, they were explicitly considering whether the police could kettle on the understanding that this involves the police refusing to let non-violent individuals out of the cordon. So Julian Joyce's report did not seem to have taken into account what the legal definition of kettling is.

It is not possible to have a meaningful debate on kettling and whether or nor it is a legitimate tactic for use against peaceful demonstrations unless this basic features of kettling is understood.

Poor follow up to the story of heavy-handed policing

Follow-up of the story by BBC News has been very limited. There are now investigations by five separate official bodies into the policing of the G20 yet there has been almost no reporting on them and the important issues they raise on BBC TV News or on the BBC News website.

For example, Channel 4 News had a 3.5 minute segment on last week's Parliamentary hearings on the policing of the G20 protests. So far as we could tell, the BBC TV News the same evening - Tuesday, May 12 - had nothing. This arguably reflects a failure to appreciate the constitutional and ethical importance of the issue.

Lack of investigative impetus

More generally, the BBC's coverage has been non-investigative. Other media outlets have done excellent investigative work, including Channel 4 News. BBC TV News, to our knowledge, has not aired one single investigative report on the issue - a report that sheds new light on the issue, rather than just reporting on the light others have shed.

The investigation to uncover the truth behind Ian Tomlinson's death and expose the misinformation coming from police sources was carried out entirely by other media outlets. Not only was the BBC playing catch up, it seems that it wanted to deliberately play down the significance of a story involving a passer-by's death at police hands during a controversial policing operation and a potential police cover up.

Astonishingly, it is alleged that when the footage of the police assault on Ian Tomlison came to light BBC News's initial reaction was that the story wasn't important enough to run. According to Guardian journalist Stephen Moss: "When The Guardian offered this astonishing footage to the BBC News at 6, apparently the response was "No thanks, we're not covering this, we see it as just a London story.""

Again, this reflects a rather limited understanding of the vocation of a publicly-funded media outlet in a democratic society.

Discussion around the legitimacy of the tactics used by police at the G20 protests raises profound constitutional and ethical principles and that is why it is essential that the public be provided with full and accurate information of what actually took place. The BBC's reporting has frequently been incomplete and inaccurate thanks to an over-reliance on official sources and a lack of investigative impetus. As a public service broadcaster the BBC has a special responsibility not to distort a debate which is so vital to the health of our democracy. This it has failed to do. We hope for better from future BBC reporting.

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