An apology from the BBC and why it matters

By Virginia Moffatt
December 9, 2015

In the build up to the House of Commons debate on whether to bomb Syria, there was the usual frenzied discussion in the media. 

The conversation was feverish, as it usually is at such times , with severe criticism of both David Cameron  for proposing air strikes and Jeremy Corbyn for opposing them.  However, I was completely taken aback when I read this  blogpost on  the Off Guardian website. The writer noted that  John Humphrys had stated on Radio 4's Today programme on 18 November that in 2013 the House of Commons had voted not to bomb ISIS in Syria. In fact the vote was about bombing President Assad's troops, which made Mr Humphrys' comments misleading to say the least.

I couldn't quite believe it that such an experienced broadcaster could make such an error.  So I checked the broadcast (the relevant section is at 2hrs 15 minutes) for myself and discovered the blog was right, Mr Humphrys did indeed say:

'Well it's more than two years since the Government, our Government, asked the House of Commons to approve military action against Islamic State in Syria and MPs said no. It was a devastating defeat. It seemed to prove the end of David Cameron's plans for British planes to join other Western forces in attacking them in Syria as well as Iraq'.

Now I am a fair minded person and I recognise that even the most skilful journalist can trip on their words. I might  have thought that the first sentence was a slip of the tongue. Except, the second sentence only makes sense in the context of the first, which makes the 'mistake' seem rather more calculated. If you take both statements together it sounds like the failure to vote for bombing Syria in 2013, was a failure to bomb IS.  A listener who didn't pay much attention to politics might further infer there was a link between not bombing IS and the rise of IS. And this in turn, might lead that person to conclude Mr Cameron was right to propose bombing now.

I was so infuriated that I wrote to the BBC to complain, pointing out how dangerous such a false statement was.  And I'm very pleased to say that they upheld my complaint, noting the validity of my concerns.

'John Humphrys was wrong to say the vote in Parliament has anything to do with ISIS, for the reasons you cite. The matter has been raised with senior editorial staff at Today. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.'

Whilst I am glad of the apology, I remain disappointed that Mr Humphrys made that statement in the first place. I expect that the Today editors will ensure he makes a public retraction, but nonetheless the damage has been done.  David Cameron has won his debate, and it's with the help of those in the media  not questioning his assertions about 70,000 freedom fighters till the next day or providing misleading commentary such as Humphrys did.

Nonetheless, the apology matters because it means at least someone in the BBC still cares about the importance of accurate and impartial reporting. So  I'd like to think John Humphrys will have learnt his lesson from the incident and will be more careful with his words in future. 

But I'm not holding my breath.


© Virginia Moffatt is Chief Operating Officer of Ekklesia

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.