I yesterday reported on the BBC mis-quoting the Paul Chambers ‘Twitter joke trial’ tweet. The organisation edited the tweet, drastically changing its context, and turning a gooky if perhaps ill-considered social media message into one that resembled whatever it is the CPS presumably thinks Chambers meant.

The BBC’s version:

Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit… otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!

The original:

Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!

The changes in bold:

Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!

As far as I can tell, the BBC article was subsequently edited at least twice, and, oddly, the tweet is still incorrect, omitting ‘and a bit’. Not good. The Guardian also messed up in a similar fashion in its latest article on the case. Along with writing my blog post, I mentioned the Guardian error on Twitter, copying in the Guardian account and that of its writer, and I filed a complaint with the BBC. The replies I got were interesting.

First, the Guardian. Writer Martin Wainwright (@mswainwright) took the time to write to many people who contacted him, apologised and said he’d simply gotten too busy. He then, amusingly, retweeted the entire tweet before the edited article went live. (Let’s hope the CPS wasn’t watching, eh?) He also sent me the following message:

Thanks ever so. I’ve had a curious day today: student bins, transit of venus, weather (twice), Ibsen’s Doll’s House, the Tweet, sheep racing in Barnsley and the poor Heathcliff actor. This is an explanation, not an excuse I hasten to add, tho’ one intrsesting thing is that the Northerner (my main love these days) gets you very used to corrections and comments in the thread and maybe I’ve eased off a bit knowing how many pleasant people there are who put me right kindly. Or it’s just age (62).  Anyway, sorry this isn’t a proper Tweet at all but thanks v much & to others who may come across this.

In short, then: writer in a hurry; makes an error; gets corrected; makes corrections; apologises. Note that the article’s headline was also amended, as was some of the copy, to make the former less accusatory and the latter more accurate. All good.

So, the BBC. My complaint stated that the edit was not in anyone’s interests, introduces bias, and changes the tweet’s meaning and context. I suggested that either the article should have stated the tweet was edited, included it in full, or included ‘censored’ profanity (i.e. Cr*p!), and noted that in the text. Here’s the reply I received from Laura Ellis, Head of New Media, BBC English Regions:

Initially we omitted the sections of Mr Chambers’ tweet that we thought may cause offence because they contain swear words.

I do not believe this fundamentally alters the sense of the tweet that he posted, however, we have since reconsidered and in the interest of absolute clarity we have included the full tweet.

Some quick points. First, if an entire case hinges on the meaning infused within 140 characters of text, it does everyone a disservice to change those 140 characters in any way, regardless of the ‘offence’ they could cause. Frankly, one might argue images of broken, battered, bloodied bodies in warzones might cause offence, but the BBC has shown plenty of those in the past, because it’s in the interests of the story. So mild profanity is no excuse, especially when it changes the context of the tweet. (Clearly, Laura disagreed, and also ignored my point about how the BBC could have gotten around the problem via cunning use of asterisks.)

This entire event also throws into light questions surrounding integrity and reporting in general. Journalists are too busy these days, which can lead to errors. And in some cases corrections will be made, despite, apparently, some organisations not initially thinking such things necessary. Even in the best-case scenario for corrections—i.e. what happened with the Guardian—there’s still the likelihood that information has been picked up by other sources and spread around the web. I’m not sure what the solution is, but I sure hope the industry finds one soon.

(Should you wish to donate to the trial fund for Paul Chambers, you can do so here.)