When good bloggers go bad

Stephen Glover’s article at Mail Online today  almost makes an interesting point.  Almost.

He’s talking about Robert Peston and the old ‘when does the reporter become the story’ chestnut. It’s a complaint about the recent Panorama, which pledged to investigate whether Peston had too much power where the Northern Rock/banking crisis was concerned, but was  in reality a program about Peston himself.

He then goes on to complain about the increasing number of BBC correspondents who double up as pundits, telling us what we – and everyone from the government to the tax payer – should be thinking about the story they’ve just told us.

Now here, I agree wholeheartedly. I hate the way BBC bulletins don’t just tell me the facts any more. I hate the way reporters editorialise from almost the first word. I hate being told that the government thinks this or that tax payers should be angry because of this.

It’s not that I object to reporters writing or broadcasting their opinions. I think well-thought out, well-versed opinion can be a great complement to a factual story. I just want the choice about whether I read/hear that opinion. I don’t want it – ever – as part of the story itself. And if you want opinion about the stories, why must it always be from the correspondents? Why not give us an alternative voice every once in a while?

That’s why I don’t watch BBC bulletins anymore.(radio bulletins, by their very brevity, tend to be confined to the facts.)

This tweet here sort of illustrates the point. As does this blog post by Amy Gahran about not taking the reporter’s word for it when they’ve quoted something factual.

Editorialise too much, and people stop trusting you to give them the news. They assume you have an agenda, and that your stories will be influenced or driven by that.

Where I do take issue with Mr Glover though, is here:

“This [punditry]increasingly takes place on the blogs which he and a bevy of other reporters write on the BBC’s website. The point about these blogs is that they are not simply opinionated. The opinions they offer are often Leftist or bien pensant.

In recent years BBC reporters have been giving us the news on screen or on the radio, and then regularly providing their own ‘take’.

When they come to writing their own blogs, which generally are subjected to the most cursory editing, if any at all, they become freer still in disclosing what they believe.

A couple of months ago, for example, Mr Peston announced in his blog that Thatcherism was dead. He may he right, or he may be wrong, but in either event the BBC business editor should not be making contentious judgments of this sort. It is the type of opinion one expects from a newspaper columnist, which Mr Peston quite recently was, not a reporter on the BBC. In a recent blog, he handed out bossy advice to Lord Mandelson about Land Rover and Jaguar.

The old distinction between reporters and pundits has widely broken down. Nowhere is this more regrettable than at the BBC, which is enjoined by its charter to provide objective and neutral coverage.

The danger of blogs is that they encourage reporters to let down their hair. Indeed, it is impossible to write a half-readable blog without peppering it with opinions.

I think it’s perfectly reasonable for a reporter to supplement factual news reporting with a blog that contains some opinion. I think it develops conversations and I think it helps readers connect with a writer. It lets them ask questions. It lets a reporter respond to criticism.

I don’t really like Robert Peston’s blog; like his news reports it’s a bit self-important for my liking. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him writing it – or there wouldn’t be if he kept his opinions to the blog didn’t add them to every story he produces.

My friend and former colleague David Ottewell, chief reporter at the MEN, is very good at this. When I first read his blog, a post that outlined his opinion about a major news story, I wondered if it would undermine his impartiality. But – and this is especially true where the congestion charge debate was concerned –  David is very good at making it clear that his opinion doesn’t influence his writing.

It’s possible to do both. What Stephen Glover has failed to realise is that the problem at the BBC is not with blogs but with the news reporting.

I don’t think blogging encourages reporters to be freer with their opinions. It my experience it makes them more careful about how they express them, when and why.

It makes them more accountable for their opinions and so work harder to separate those opinions from their reporting.  And it’s the separation that makes them valuable.

Like a comment or sketch piece in paper, a blog can give an added perspective on a story – but it’s a clearly labelled perspective. Everyone knows what they’re getting; it’s what they’re there for. It’s when you can’t tell the opinion from the news that there’s trouble.

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One thought on “When good bloggers go bad

  1. David Ottewell says:

    Thanks, Sam.

    I completely agree, obviously. The important thing is that people know what they are getting – the ‘clear labelling’ you talk about. Some of my blog posts are comment, some are ‘straight’ news. I am clear to differentiate between the two – just as in the paper it is clear whether I am writing a news or opinion piece.

    It’s very important to try to build trust between news writers and readers. Blogs can actually help in that regard – they can make readers understand that, as reporters, we are trying to do a professional job and working to a non-partisan agenda where our criteria in selecting stories are simply newsworthiness, public interest, etc. And they can make reporters up their game by subjecting themselves and their work to direct scrutiny.

    All the best.

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