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Artillery Row

The wrongs of Spring

The BBC reporter has disappeared down a journalistic rabbit hole

Everywhere you look there’s disinformation. A disinformation correspondent to be precise: Marianna Spring of the BBC. Just recently she popped up in the Telegraph, now she’s in The Sunday Times, with a glossy feature accompanied by plenty of photographs of her. To get across how serious her unique role is, the piece starts with the revelation that she gets more online abuse than any of the BBC’s other journalists: 11,771 of the 14,488 cases measured between January 1st this year and late June.

Online abuse is bad but does this really pass the sniff test? Looking at the quote tweets on her pinned tweet (6th August) doesn’t reveal gallons of bile. Someone “vax injured” calls her “thick”, another criticises her for not investigating the BBC’s coverage of anti-semitism in Labour under Corbyn, while another says that Spring is always talking about herself. Just compare that to the pinned tweet (5th August) of her BBC colleague Jeremy Vine, where it doesn’t take long to find people calling him the c-word, an “idiot”, a “clown”, and so on.

Indeed, The Sunday Times’ piece admits that the BBC monitoring system classifies “physical threats, cyberbullying, violent language, negative sentiment and doxxing” as abuse. Threats or violent language are indeed nasty but cyberbullying is subjective and negative sentiment can include all manner of perfectly reasonable things. For instance, people pointing out to her that the BBC misinformed the public about Nigel Farage losing his Coutts account. 

Nobody doubts that there is a lot of disinformation out there

Indeed that cuts to the core of the matter. Nobody doubts that there is a lot of disinformation out there. Indeed it’s the stock in trade of some professions, such as the Soviet Union’s intelligence services, who spread the rumour that AIDS was a product of a US biological warfare, which was endorsed by at least one hapless head of state. Others do it for profit, such as Bell Pottinger, who ran a secret campaign to portray a key ally of South African President Jacob Zuma as a victim of “white monopoly capital” and thus deflect attention from the rampant corruption of his government and its allies.

When people get upset at disinformation correspondents like Spring it’s not just because of what they investigate but also what they don’t. There’s no sign that she’ll be looking into Jeffrey Epstein and his links. Nor is there any sign of any big investigative series on Russiagate, which the Durham Report has now clearly demonstrated emerged from the Clinton campaign as a smear campaign (and which the BBC gave regular coverage to during the Trump years). 

Although Spring defends herself in the interview by saying that one episode of one podcast was dedicated to left wing American conspiracies, a look through her back catalogue shows how limited her investigations are. Of her eight radio shows, four focused on coronavirus conspiracies, one on Ukraine, one on a man who doesn’t believe the Manchester Arena bombing happened (rather than the more interesting reality that MI6 was heavily involved in the Libyan jihadi scene which led to the terror attack), one covers general American affairs, and one a conspiratorial newspaper. 

That latter one — Marianna in Conspiracyland — is important because it was her most high profile investigation. Yet shortly after release questions began to be asked about some of the claims made. Could it really be true that a quarter of all people in Britain believe that covid is a hoax? That 19 per cent believed the British government carried out the 7/7 attacks? Had 14 per cent of people really heard of the obscure conspiracy newspaper Spring was looking into? Had 7 per cent of the public helped distribute the paper? And were a slightly smaller number subscribers? That would mean millions of people reading and distributing a paper which only seemed to print about 100,00 copies. 

Unsurprisingly it turned out that the study the show had relied on had tiny sample sizes on some questions, leading to highly distorted results, as the academics behind the polling had to subsequently admit. Far from exposing disinformation, Marianna Spring and the BBC had helped to spread it. Yet this doesn’t seem to have raised any self-doubt. 

Underlying this error is a complacently arrogant worldview

Underlying this error is a complacently arrogant worldview which emerged after 2016, when Brexit and Trump shocked the elite. Politicians from both the right and left were confronted with the reality that many people disagreed with them fundamentally. Instead of accepting this, they retreated into emotive fantasies where Trump’s election victory was masterminded by Russian trolls or Brexit was the result of dark data (also supposedly Russian linked). Aha, they thought, it wasn’t that the people disagreed with them — they’d just been misled.

This naturally led to an interest in disinformation. After all, if people were being misled then all that was required was to show them the truth and then they’d vote the right way. That’s how we ended up with lavish taxpayer funded narratives about loopy but ultimately fringe conspiracies like Qanon — but nothing about Russiagate or the less convenient facts around the January 6th “insurrection”. 

What’s more, that paternalism leads many of those involved in the media into accepting false narratives which reinforce their beliefs. That’s how you end up with the BBC apologising for falsely claiming that far-right groups were at an ULEZ protest. It’s also how you end up with the BBC repeating activist talking points — for instance falsely claiming that 300 black people were killed during the Tulsa riots (the real number was 39 people – 26 black, 13 white). By adopting a pose of moral superiority, journalists have ended up spreading more falsehoods — and their disinformation reporters seem curiously uninterested in exposing the conspiracies or lies which don’t flatter the media class.

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