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How the BBC got Musked

The Musk disaster will be the first of many unless the corporation acts

Artillery Row

Last week, something at the BBC finally came crashing back down to earth. Since Musk took over Twitter, there’s been hit job after hit job against the world’s richest man at the hands of a formidable mob of journalists from the BBC Disinformation Team and Technology desk.

You can laugh all you want, but I don’t want to end up like America

In principle there was nothing wrong with this. I’m no Musk fan, and at times his dodgy takes and erratic behaviour seem to fundamentally misunderstand the platform he’s inherited. 

The problem was that the BBC set out to catch Musk via a narrative that exposed all their naivety and amateurishness in one fell swoop: the good people had been fired, and now Twitter 2.0 had become that unholy trinity of “hate speech”, “trolling” and “disinformation” — an evil farce wreaking havoc on the lives of everyone from a disabled man to a rape victim.

In reality, there was a debate going on about these very concepts and what they actually meant, indeed the very viability of a privately owned “digital town square”. Musk had taken over the reins of a failing company with internal disputes, which over the past decade had come to outsource the increasingly difficult task of “content moderating” to a number of completely unaccountable NGOs and government agencies that may well have abused this relationship. 

Amidst all this, last Wednesday, BBC technology reporter James Clayton finally got the showdown Auntie had been waiting for. 

What could possibly go wrong?

Within 24 hours, Clayton had become one of the most famous BBC journalists on the planet — for all the wrong reasons. Much of it hinged on the hit job question that had been brewing for months about whether “hate speech” and “misinformation” had risen on the platform. 

Musk gave the most predictable answer imaginable: “No.”

Except Clayton just couldn’t follow up. He didn’t even seem able to define the terms. Post interview excuses flowed. “He didn’t have time to do the prep.” That’s no excuse. This is the question he and his team had lived and breathed for months. They’d even done an investigative Panorama on it, which he had praised but in the heat of the moment either forgot or didn’t mention because deep down he knew the ridicule it would induce. 

Crap interviews happen all the time, but Clayton’s car crash with Musk was iconic. With his dithering, half baked responses and sixth form debate club energy, this was the new BBC on display. 

The online news desk runs endless stories on trivial nonsense, fails to do basic journalistic due diligence, castigates itself with dumbing down strategies for an audience it doesn’t reach or understand. In the last half decade, it has haemorrhaged authority to the point where the public broadcaster is now trusted by less than half the population.

I’m a Reithian. I still believe in the BBC. You can laugh all you want, but I don’t want to end up like America where news media is consumed on purely partisan lines. I took no pleasure in watching Clayton humiliated, nor the pile on from the Twitter Blue yanks or Dan Wootton (of all people) mocking what was once a great British institution. 

Where to start? I’m not just blaming Clayton. That would be ridiculous. It’s clear he’s become a victim of a certain mindset at the corporation. You aren’t there to do journalism anymore; you’re there to find your way through the corporation’s labyrinth of strategies and visions: digital first (which is a cute way of saying we’ll do more whilst sacking people), clicks and engagement, appeal to a poorer audience — a more diverse audience.

No amount of strategising or vision can touch on that ineffable resource of reputational authority. The Reithian principle is to inform. As with all good journalism, this is done through the subtle art of not telling an audience what they should think, but trusting them with enough information that allows them to determine what they should think for themselves.

Through a desire to regain authority over the narrative in the digital age, the relentless pursuit of staying relevant has led to the naïve spectacle of incompetence we saw with Clayton. A branded worldview, designed to simplify stories and steer a vulnerable flock into the reliable hands of Auntie, usually ends up getting found out. 

Musk and Wendling are two sides of the same coin in the disinformation wars

Who the hell am I to say this, you might ask? Probably no one. Since writing critically of BBC’s Disinformation Unit, I’ve become a sort of email therapist for a curious trickle of current and former employees who have got in touch with the idea that something is clearly up. 

As with all big news organisations, there are good people and bad people at the BBC. The problem is increasingly it’s the latter category that seems to be shaping its future. Maybe it’s a generational thing — a vibe shift as they say. If the BBC wants to withstand the present storm of mistrust, then it needs to start thinking seriously about the style of journalism it’s projecting to the world. Put simply, it’s starting to seriously damage its rep. 

The manner in which Musk was pursued was a prime example of this. It was a deliberate, eye grabbing spectacle that tried to beat him at his own game via Tweets, Twitter polls and an appeal to the emotional hive of Twitter. It was pushed by Spring, who increasingly seems to be the poster girl of the corporation’s future. The archetypal post journalist who deals in attention and engagement, she dabbles mainly in modern day morality tales about what happens when you stray from the flock.

I’ve written long screeds on Spring’s increasingly influential disinformation style of journalism. I’ve also read one of the country’s leading writers do the same, but what’s the point?

Call it what it is. It’s branding, journalism marketed with an emotional edge. Spring now appears committed to this approach. To tackle “disinformation”, you need to “‘weaponise the same tactics”, she recently told a parliamentary committee. This something that might explain the entirely unprofessional pursuit of Musk via Twitter, the crying on Tik Tok, the strange narcissism of her investigative documentary. This is journalism in the age of the influencer, and it is as temporal and reputationally sound as the digital hive of clicks, attention and emotion upon which it feeds. 

Then there’s her former boss, Mike Wendling. Post Clayton’s interview he rushed to his defence, still banging wildly on the hate speech door. Most of Wendling’s piece was lifted from a thread from IDS, a controversial misinformation NGO which is currently in a mucky fight with Twitter files trustee Michael Schellenberger over allegations of, you guessed it, “misinformation”.

Wendling exemplifies another problem in the organisation. He’s a graduate of BBC Trending, a Buzzfeed news calibre offshoot of BBC News proper that somehow drives hacks into positions of influence in the organisation having cut their teeth purely on “social media” stories. 

There’s nothing wrong with Wendling’s piece. There’s a barely disguised bias against Musk. Fine. He gets to deliver his analysis under the grand title of “US Disinformation Reporter” at the BBC, however, which further summarises the absurd way in which non-entities have come to levy their false authority under the dying brand of disinformation. This is the sort of thing that Musk and his acolytes love of course. They and Wendling are two sides of the same coin in the zero sum game of reputational atrophy that is the disinformation wars. 

“The billionaire loves chaos and messing with the media,” said Clayton in his post interview write up, failing to acknowledge that over the last six months they too have tried to play along this game, only to end up getting hopelessly played themselves. The sad truth is that the new BBC journalism brand that has come to the fore in recent years finally got found out on the world stage.

I still feel raw about it, as I’m sure many BBC staff do too. Unless things change, it’s going to happen again. So the slow march to reputational death begins. 

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