Were hecklers at a British conservative party rally part of a BBC plan to disrupt a political event days before an election? News reports seemed to indicate so, but then newspapers doing the reporting soon came under criticism themselves. Who was telling the truth?
On May 2 the Telegraph reported on the story that the BBC admitted it had equipped three hecklers with wireless microphones and sent them into a campaign meeting addressed by conservative leader Michael Howard. The Tories protested to the BBC, saying that the hecklers began shouting distracting slogans like “Michael Howard is a liar,” “You can’t trust the Tories,” and “You can only trust Tony Blair.” The Telegraph reported that the conservative letter sent to the BBC accused the news agency of staging the event “to generate a false news story and dramatize coverage?intended to embarrass or ridicule the leader of the Conservative Party.” The BBC staffers were guilty of “serious misconduct.”
A BBC spokesman responded by saying it was all part of a legitimate program about the history and art of political heckling, an odd statement that seemed awfully skimpy on details. The spokesman, quoted at the end of the dramatic Telegraph piece, also said, “The hecklers were not under the direction of the BBC and their activities did not disrupt the meeting in any way.” An investigation is underway and the BBC said they would be replying in due course. In a curious comment, the spokesman also said that the hecklers had not been paid by the BBC, but he could not say whether they “received expenses.” This raises the very nasty specter of political hecklers paid per diem by a major news agency.
Adding to the confusion, the Telegraph account was soon under scrutiny by other members of the British press, including The Guardian’s David McKie, who reported that Peter Horrocks, head of current affairs at the BBC, denounced the “fictitious accounts” of his program and said the offensive slogans “were never shouted” and had not been mentioned in the Conservative’s letter of protest. Did Horrocks mean the slogans were not uttered at all, or just that they weren’t “shouted?” We don’t know, but his word was good enough for McKie. Unfortunately for the Telegraph, the McKie article went on to mention embarrassing instances of sensationalism and erroneous reporting of late in the Telegraph.
While some in mainstream media continue to lament the grassroots attacks on them, and the rise of citizen journalists and blogs, this is just another example of the news media themselves being responsible for leaving the populace wondering exactly what distinguishes journalism from other forms of communication, like gossip. Which newspaper was telling the truth, and which was engaging in speculation or repeating falsehoods? Why should a newspaper just rest its case with whatever an interviewee tells it? With so much contradictory information published in the media about the BBC action and that just days before a national election, most of the citizenry were left to guess or follow their gut instinct to deduce what really happened. What are the multi-dollar news operations for if they can’t get a simple, accurate and irrefutable story out about such an event?
Meanwhile McKie has a suggestion for the British press, in the person of the medieval character “Meilyr.” Meilyr, he explains was an illiterate famed for being able to look at a book and immediately point out false statements in it. “As the election campaign has so richly demonstrated, almost every newspaper nowadays needs a Meilyr,” quipped McKie. It would appear the British press of late may have the illiteracy of Meilyr working in its favor, with none of the magic.