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Last Updated: Friday, 26 August 2005, 11:19 GMT 12:19 UK
From the editor's desktop
Pete Clifton, editor of the BBC News website, decides it's time to take action to tackle a long-running complaint, and is haunted by a picture from the past.

A bumper postbag this week after I asked what the main challenges were for BBC journalism, and what you thought we did well and where we mucked up.

I'll come on to some of the other themes, but a common thread was irritation at the quality of the sub-editing on this site - bad grammar, poor spelling, nonsense paragraphs.

Mac Greenwood from Stockport, UK, wrote: "A perpetual - in fact, daily - fault with your website is the slovenly sub-editing".

While Dan Fruzzetti from California, US, said: "The thing the BBC needs to improve the most, however, is editing. Sometimes whole paragraphs become so grammatically mangled that they make little sense or obfuscate the reporting."

The thing the BBC needs to improve the most, however, is editing
Dan Fruzzetti

This is an age-old problem. This is the reporter whose first front page lead at a local evening newspaper had an introduction revealing "Princess Diana will perform her first pubic duty since the birth of Prince William in Wellingborough on Monday", and whose angling column (yes, honest) once had the headline "Champ lands monster crap". The Nene in Northampton was never the cleanest river, but surely not...

Anyhow, it is time to do something about all this. I've explained before that it is, in my opinion, impossible to eradicate all errors when you are publishing and republishing articles thousands of times a day. But your response shows we are falling short of the mark.

Reports that appear on the News site have already been second-checked by another journalist prior to publication, a process that ought to pick out the howlers.

From next month we will be establishing a small, additional subbing team to provide a further safety net. They will focus initially on the reports on our front pages and other main indices, polishing headlines, tightening the copy, cutting out unnecessary paragraphs, eradicating any lingering spelling mistakes, and feeding this back down the line to the writers.

It will start on a small scale, which is why we will focus on the most prominent reports in the first instance. But it is a start, and hopefully a sign that we are serious about raising our game.


The call for comments on BBC journalism prompted hundreds of e-mails, and you can see a wide selection of them here.

I've read them all, and many applied to other parts of BBC News. The majority were upbeat about the BBC and its reputation for detailed, accurate and impartial reporting, but common concerns included:

  • too left wing
  • mouthpiece of the UK government
  • too many clichés in TV news reporting
  • mindless two-ways between presenters and reporters
  • not enough context for major stories
  • assuming too much knowledge
  • dumbing down
  • too serious, not catering for the "average" person's interests
  • anti-Bush
  • not enough investigative reporting
  • too cautious, holding back information on important, breaking stories

Some interesting contrasts in the mix then. I have passed on all the comments to my colleagues looking at the future of BBC journalism and we will factor many of them into our thinking.

One that caught my eye was about being too cautious. There's a big debate to be had about this one. The BBC prides itself on accuracy, and being sure of the facts before broadcast. But in 24-hour news it finds itself up against rivals who are more willing to quote sources and then rein back if necessary.

When a big story breaks there is clearly part of our audience that is saying "tell me everything you are hearing, I'm grown up, I understand it's a fast-moving situation". And ironically, the trust we think people have in the BBC because of its reputation for accuracy is eroded if the audience thinks we are holding back information.

Chop off the arm of a BBC journalist and it ought to have accuracy written through it. But can more be reported on some of our live services, if it is properly flagged up as "information coming in, what sources are saying"? Probably, but the debate will go on.

And of course one of the delights of an exercise like this was the differing opinions. Two e-mails that arrived within a few minutes of each other illustrate this perfectly.

Boss from Memphis, US, wrote: "I must be truthful, and this critique probably won't get to air. The BBC is at best just a typical general source of news that slightly scratches the surface of important world events. The BBC is definitely state-controlled politically biased, manipulated, and spoonfed to the masses who refuse to search and gather deeper understanding from more in-depth news sources. Informed individuals understand that there are very few sources of this nature available."

Swiftly followed by Ken Morley from Pacific Grove, US: "I have a problem finding any fault with BBC online coverage. I use your site to get a feel for what is going on (both in the US and not ). You coverage is broad (I don't try to read even a small part, but it is there if I need/want it). Wonder if I should give to you for this service. I guess I would, at a low enough level. Something per year ($10 or $15 by card)."

Perish the thought, Ken, though I do need funds for my next, overdue, holiday.


Reader's before and after images of a swollen river, Switzerland

More highs and lows on the picture front this week.

Some fantastic images from readers helped illustrate the extreme weather and natural disasters around Europe.

They included this gallery of the Alpine floods, a remarkable "before and after" shot of the River Murg (see right), and these dramatic pictures from the fires in Portugal.

However, every silver lining has a cloud wrapped round it, and a few reminders this week of how challenging it can be to find decent images to go with a run-of-the-mill story.

Dairy protests, skin cream, freak incidents are all, obviously, particularly challenging when there are no good pictures on the wires and no time to do anything about it.


Picking up the trumpet again, some great highlights on the site this week. Excellent to have Jeremy Bowen writing for us in his new capacity as Middle East editor, and our man in South Africa Justin Pearce showed courage and skill when he went undercover in Zimbabwe for a fascinating series on the reality of life on the ground there .

We had thousands of comments following the death of Mo Mowlam, and I thought this was a really interesting way to give a different, readers' perspective.

And three things to tell you about original journalism. Yes, I know I keep going on about it, but if we are not committed to this at the BBC we might as well pack our bags.

The winner of our July competition for the best original journalism on the site was Kate McGeown for her compelling pieces on Romania's orphans, 15 years after the world woke up to what was happening in the state institutions.

This week's series on unusual jobs has been a rib-tickler, and if you remember our One Day in Iraq back in June, we are planning the same for Afghanistan next month.


I had a strong response to the discussion about using the picture of Jean Charles de Menezes. About 95% supported our decision to use the image.

Chris Morgan in Munich, Germany, said: "I think it was absolutely right to show the picture of the body of Jean Charles de Menezes on the underground train carriage. I believe (living in Germany the news here is much more graphic both visually and with what is said) that the BBC does "sanitise" the news too much. It is news and I for one believe it should be shown the way it is."

John Harrison from Newbury, UK, wrote: "One thing that I find odd - the BBC rightly prides itself on accuracy in its news reporting, and yet you online folk use a strap line on the website 'updated every minute of the day' that is obviously false. I agree that 'updated three or four times an hour' lacks a certain snappiness. But can you not find an alternative that is snappy, and accurate enough not to offend pedantic types like me?"

Egg on face here, because we're inaccurate. I checked with one of our technical team, who tells me: "The number of updates just to averages around 107 files per minute." So I need to have it changed to 'updated on average more than 100 times every minute of every day', though it fails the snappiness test.

Idris Demarco from Glasgow, Scotland, raged: "I feel sorry for the poor minion that has to sift through these messages, just to satisfy that w***** Peter Clifton's ego. I don't give a f*** about your thoughts or views, just do your job and tell the news. Can someone tell me has Peter Clifton based himself on David Brent?"

Annoyingly, Phillip Shakespeare from Salt Lake City, US, has been rummaging around the web and has found this picture, looking for all the world like a slightly camp relay race.

He concludes: "I've decided that next time I am 'home' I am coming to find you to teach you how to tie a Windsor knot."

That would be very welcome Phillip. I am now the last person at the BBC who wears a tie, so I need all the help I can get.

Several wrote about my problems with a hosepipe ruining my phone. To Mary Ellen from Toronto, Canada, I can only offer the assurance that it is a true story, while I am not sure what Patrick from Mexico is getting at.

"Reading about the funny ways of losing a mobile phone, let me tell you one of mine once fell in the closed water, from my belt, when standing up and flooding the stuff... everything went through, the phone also (was found in a lower stage) and I actually was furiously decomposed."

And we can top that. Delighted to say we have an outright winner for the remarkable e-mail of the week. Step forward Gregg Barkley of Richmond, US.

On 19 August you ran a story about a wedding in Cumbria where the bride's pets were part of the ceremony. This is not unusual.

In 1998 Miss Pepper Barkley, my Miniature Schnauzer, whom I firmly consider my daughter, was the ring bearer at my wedding. It was actually my one condition for my wedding. We had a skirt made for her (which wound up being three sizes too large and she kicked it off coming down the aisle as she kept tripping on it) and a collar with two pockets to hold our rings.

Aside from barking at the dog that was across the street everything went as splendid as I knew it would and she was the star of it all. She was even in the group photographs as well as some wonderful shots before the ceremony and at the reception (where both of grandmothers fed her a piece of the wedding cake).

I only wish she would be here when we renew our vows on our 10th anniversary!"

You can send me your comment using the form below.

Don't forget, though, that if you want to point out an error or have a complaint you want dealt with, the best place to go will normally be our Feedback page.

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