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The BBC and their G20 police coverage

Guy Aitchison
8 September 2009

Well, better late than never. Over three months after mine and Stuart White's complaint to the BBC over their coverage of the G20 protests we've finally got an email which isn't just a generic reply and actually deals with some of the substantive points we raised. Unfortunately, they're still not admitting their coverage of the G20 protests was anything other than exemplary. At points the letter is defensive and evasive and when it comes to Julian Joyce's article on kettling, it's just plain wrong.

In the three months between our complaint and receipt of this email there was of course another Climate Camp with far more restrained policing, no kettling and no violence. Two points. First, it would be naïve to think this "community policing" approach reflects a genuine change in attitude amongst the Met rather than being PR-driven following some negative reports: an organisation's culture isn't going to change overnight and the structure of intrusive surveillance was still in place with photos being taken of protesters as they entered the Camp and a camera attached to a large cherry picker looking down on them. Second, it would be just as naïve to think the media has suddenly come round to the protesters' side. At any moment they're liable to switch back to the kind of anti-protester vitriol that characterised the early reporting of the G20 protests when they informed us that police rescued Ian Tomlinson from a baying mob of anarchists throwing bottles at their medics.

It was only after the overwhelming evidence of police brutality coming from citizen journalists that the media narrative changed. Although its initial reporting was nowhere near as misleading as the vitriol coming from the likes of the Standard and the Telegraph, the BBC is rightly held to a higher standard than these. But it demonstrated a warped sense of priorities when reporting on the policing of the G20 and at times was inaccurate and misleading. You can read our letters of complaint here and here. The reply from the BBC is below and you can read my response to it in more detail below that.  

Dear Mr White and Mr Aitchison

Thank you for your further e-mail regarding BBC News coverage of the policing of the G20 protests.

Please accept my apologies for the delay in our response. I am a Divisional Advisor with responsibility for BBC News and Current Affairs and your complaint has been escalated for my attention.

I understand that you are unhappy with our first response on this issue and so have once again set out the complaints from your original e-mail that you don't feel were adequately or at all addressed.

Given that you have set out your complaints in a point-by-point fashion, I shall endeavour to address them as such, beginning with your assertion that the article on kettling that appeared on the BBC website and was written by Julian Joyce was "grossly inaccurate."

I took the opportunity to speak to Julian Joyce about the complaints you had with his article, beginning with your unhappiness that there was no mention of the kettling of the Climate Camp whatsoever, despite your view that that this was the most controversial view of the technique since it was carried out against an entirely peaceful protest.

Julian explained that: "When I wrote the feature my understanding was that the climate camp had been cleared, not kettled. In any case, the piece I wrote was about a particular police tactic, not a full account of events during G20."

You also make the suggestion that his article was factually misleading in stating that in a kettle the police allow protesters out of the cordon if they are non-violent, describing how evidence and your 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."

Julian explains: "My eyewitness (who the complainant fails to mention) was offered the chance to leave (she chose to stay). She also testified that police gave other protesters at least one opportunity to leave. All this is in the piece."

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

Julian explains: "The "in general" qualification is an important one. Historically police refused to allow protesters out of the kettle (see the Mayday protests in Oxford Street) which led to complaints and people having to go to the toilet in the streets etc. Since then, police appear to have modified their tactics."

You go on to say of the article: "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."

Julian says of this: "That was not my understanding of the ruling, and presumably not the police's either, since the tactic was adopted for G20."

Therefore to specifically address your question, we don't accept that the article was inaccurate or misleading and consequently don't accept that we failed in our duty to properly inform the public. Likewise we do not feel that a correction was necessary.

Moving on to consider the allegation, as also made in your original complaint, that there was initial disinterest in the BBC newsroom in the breaking news around police involvement in the death if Ian Tomlinson, Ben Rich, deputy editor of the News at Six and Ten, explains:

"We are as keen to break stories as any other news organisation, but I assume from the tone of the complaint that there is an implication that it was bias on our part. In truth the reason why we didn't break, for example, the footage of Ian Tomlinson being struck by a police officer was that the person who had that footage chose, as they are perfectly entitled to do, to give the footage to the Guardian. Part of what the complainant here is referring to is the misapprehension that seemed to have grown up that the Six O'Clock News declined the footage - that is utterly untrue as the reason it was not on the Six o'clock news on the day it featured heavily on the Ten was that the Guardian embargoed it until 7pm. As a journalist I would have done anything to get that footage on air as it was a great story but we were not able to do it on the night."

Turning to address your points about what you feel was inaccurate and misleading reportage of the Climate Camp, I note that you reiterate your complaint that BBC News "failed sufficiently to distinguish the climate camp from the other events at the G20 protest and in consequence, failed to acknowledge any distinctive issues about policing which the kettling of the Climate Camp raises."

I again referred your concerns on this issue to Ben Rich who explained that in fact Gavin Hewitt did a piece on the News at Ten that night which was two minutes and forty seconds in duration and broadcast some two hours after the kettling of the climate camp according to your own timing.

He also explained that BBC News editors generally imagined that the kettling of that camp did not appear to be the primary story at the time and that the main story was the struggle of the police to control the city of London in general. Furthermore and looking at the transcript for that night, we couldn't see that any connection was made between the climate camp and the violence at RBS. Indeed Gavin used the word "but" to show the contrast with the peacefulness of the climate camp. It is true that he did not explicitly say they were a different group of protesters and in one uncontroversial sense they are not any different as they were all G20 protesters, some of whom were violent, most of them not, especially considering that it was not just the climate camp that was peaceful as most of the other demonstrators were too. Gavin refers to "some groups" in the crowd causing trouble. The phrase "the mood changed" refers to the mood of the day as a whole i.e. the contrast between the peaceful climate camp and other protesters up to then and the sudden outbreak of violence.

Ben Rich went on to add that of course some days later the footage started to emerge of violence by police officers at the demonstration and we covered those stories extensively. But on the night the general demo and the RBS violence seemed the main part of the story and we that we simply can't deal with every issue, especially given that our broadcasts are limited in duration and we have just a few hundred words to describe the whole event.

He also explained that we are not obliged to distinguish the climate camp from the rest of the demo and deal with all its issues separately. "They were part of the demonstrations, we described them accurately as being peaceful and we did not regard the kettling of the camp as such an important story that we must detail it separately in news pieces."

He further explained that this is a matter of news judgement and he disagrees that the climate camp kettling was the most important story that night or even since given that the actual police violence film, which we don't believe was taken at the climate camp, had become the main story.

Returning to your allegation regarding what you feel was a lack of BBC investigative impetus and more particularly your point about BBC reports on the ground, in fact although we may have had lots of reporters on the ground, it's true that we also have a large number of outlets to report on, including BBC1 bulletins, the News Channel, BBC World, Radios 1,2,3,4 and 5 Live, online and on demand. So the reason for numbers is usually to do the basic reporting job and does not mean we have a lot of spare people around not doing much on the day. Decisions about where to invest investigative impetus are taken in many areas in the BBC. We covered G20 stories
extensively when they arose.

By way of conclusion we completely reject the idea that BBC News reporting on the G20 protests was dictated by anything other than the desire to cover events in a full and impartial way as was dictated by their importance both on the day and subsequently.

I hope that this has gone some way towards addressing your concerns and thank you once again for taking the time to contact us.

Regards

XXXXXXXXX
Divisional Advisor
BBC Complaints

1. Julian Joyce's article was inaccurate and poorly researched and his remarks quoted in this response confirm this. In an article written on April 16th, 15 days after the protests when the internet was abuzz with pictures, footage, and accounts of the brutal kettling of the Climate Camp he was, he says, under the impression that the "climate camp had been cleared, not kettled". Of course it was both kettled and cleared and a tiny bit of research would have told him that. As astonishing as the fact he didn't know this is his defence that it was a piece "about a particular police tactic, not a full account of events during G20". The piece purported to be an examination of the pros and cons of kettling in light of its use at the G20. Surely the most controversial use of kettling at the G20, against an entirely peaceful Climate Camp, is of relevance to this? Even if, for whatever reason, it didn't feature in the article, you'd expect the author to at least know it had happened!  

Joyce also appears to think that between the May day protests of 2001 and the G20 protests the police "modified their tactics" so as to allow protesters out of kettles. In thinking this, he apparently takes a different view to Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary which, in its report published in July, commented on the use of kettling in general at the G20 that: "Whilst assistance to leave the containment was undoubtedly given to some, this was not conducted in a consistent manner." On the kettling of Climate Camp, in particular, the report records how the order was given to impose "absolute" cordons at 7pm. At 10.15pm protesters made the collective decision not to leave Bishopsgate in small groups directed by the police (ie to abandon the protest). Only at 10.45pm did the police open a cordon at Wormwood Street "to allow small groups of protesters to disperse voluntarily." It was, then, according to police records, a full three and three quarter hours following the imposition of the kettle that official permission was given for "small group" of protesters to leave.

Indeed it was because of the indiscriminate nature of kettling at the G20 that the HMIC goes on to recommend that when police use the tactic in future they have "a release plan to allow vulnerable or distressed persons or those inadvertently caught up in the police containment to exit." Clearly, were Julian Joyce right, and the police had modified their tactics between 2001 and the G20, this recommendation would not have been necessary.

Joyce also disputes our claim that "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." Again, a small amount of research would have shown that this was indeed the correct interpretation. The detention of Lois Austin during the protest in Oxford Street in 2001 was ruled to be lawful by the House of Lords who accepted that she was a peaceful and lawful protester prevented by her detention from collecting her child. It was, presumably, the legal protection that senior officers felt this ruling gave them which meant they were so keen to impose "absolute" cordons on a Climate Camp protest which was entirely peaceful.

2. On the question of whether the footage of Ian Tomlinson being assaulted was initially declined by the BBC news room, Ben Rich, deputy editor of the News at Six, issues a flat denial and calls this a "misapprehension that seemed to have grown up". Whether Rich is correct or Guardian journalist Stephen Moss was correct when he said that the BBC said "No thanks, we're not covering this, we see it as just a London story" we may never know. But it's hardly surprising if people are quick to suspect the BBC of a distorted sense of priorities given the rest of their coverage of the G20 policing and the fact they didn't even bother reporting Tomlinson's death on the evening TV news the day after it happened.  

3. The response to our claim that there was a lack of investigative impetus by the BBC is, again, evasive and weak. It deals with the BBC TV news, but not the News website which had very poor coverage which we went into in some detail in our letter. As we pointed out, none of the stories of police violence were broken by the BBC. Despite the many reporters they had on the ground they all kept to the line repeated in this response that "the general demo and the RBS violence" were "the main part of the story", rather than police tactics. The fact, pointed out in their letter, that these were reporters and not sent there by the BBC specifically to investigate isn't much of an excuse - police aggression and use of kettling were there for all to see and hardly needed much investigating! Nor does the response address the failure of the BBC to follow-up the story of police tactics by, for example, reporting on the parliamentary investigation into the G20 policing which Channel 4 covered in a 3.5 minute segment.

All things considered, the reply does nothing to persuade me we were wrong in our claim that the BBC's coverage of the G20 showed a failure to grasp the ethical and constitutional importance of the issues. Let's hope it does better in the future, especially when it comes to protests that will be less scrutinised than August's Climate Camp when the police's bad habits may just creep back into use.

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