Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who watches the watchers?)

Simon Wren-Lewis makes the following point with regard to the BBC coverage of news items – in particular a report by Patrick Minford on leaving the EU and trade.

Over the last few days the BBC has given considerable publicity to Patrick Minford’s new report published by the ‘Economists for Free Trade’. I have looked at both the BBC News website entry and listened to the Radio 4 Today programme’s discussion. They are both classic ‘2 sided controversy’ formats, with Monique Ebell from the National Institute of Social and Economic Research (NIESR) providing the main opposition.

So why was this coverage something the BBC should be deeply ashamed about? There are two main reasons, but first let me make a more general point which applies to journalism more generally. There is no quality control in most of the media when it comes to giving publicity to a report like this. There is a very simple reason for this, and that is the primacy given to immediacy. In a better world, when a report like this came out, journalists would spend a few days ringing around to see what the reaction of other experts were, or nowadays just look at reactions on twitter.

In this particular case such a strategy would have thrown up some apparently large errors, and this should have led journalists to question whether they should give the report any publicity. They might at the very least have waited until the full report was published next month.


On one level this sounds very plausible but and its a big but – who at the BBC has the capacity or authority to exercise ‘quality control’?

Let us take the issue of housing – does the BBC when they get a report saying ‘we must build more houses’ accept that as the truth and reject the idea that someone opposing that line should be allowed airtime?

Do they accept that anyone arguing for more house building must automatically be correct?

There are many instances where the BBC fails to exercise quality control, partly a result of the need for immediate reaction but also due to self-imposed time constraints and a lack of knowledge of the subject by many journalists and presenters. John Humphreys cannot know everything!

A better approach would be for journalists to point out the background of those being interviewed, to ask questions of each side and not to accept the ‘received wisdom’ of anyone – expert or otherwise.


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