Chris Mason’s Johnson Gaffe Risks Trashing the BBC’s Reputation
Patrick Howse reveals how a false BBC News alert that 100 Conservative MPs were backing Boris Johnson’s new leadership bid spread quickly around the world
For several years now the BBC’s domestic political coverage has been posing a danger to the BBC’s reputation as a reliable and impartial provider of news. And as the Conservative Party tied itself in more knots over who would be the UK’s next prime minister, further damage was done.
On Saturday 22 October the BBC’s political editor, Chris Mason, tweeted some startling news.
NEW: I’m told Boris Johnson now has more than 100 backers and so could be on the ballot if he chooses to be
The BBC’s Breaking News alert said baldly:
Boris Johnson has more than 100 backers among MPs and could be on ballot to be new Tory leader if he chooses, c…
Four minutes after Mason’s first tweet a similar (though interestingly slightly different) post was quoted on the BBC website’s live page:
Boris Johnson now has more than 100 backers among Conservative MPs, a campaign source tells me, meaning he could be on the ballot on Monday if he chooses to be.
This is more than the number of publicly declared backers for Johnson, which stand at 49, according to BBC research.
On his own Twitter account Mason followed up shortly afterwards with a note of scepticism, but it only later that some clarifying copy from Mason appeared on the BBC’s live page:
Supporters of Rishi Sunak are deeply sceptical of Boris Johnson’s camp claiming he has the backing of more than 100 MPs.
They are demanding he publishes a list of those who are backing him.
The immediacy of the scepticism is a reminder of what a return to the fray by Johnson represents — passionate, full-throated enthusiasm from those behind him, and cynicism from those who aren’t, including on the Conservative benches.
It is also striking that Johnson’s team say their claimed amount of support means he “could” be on the ballot — they are not yet definitively committing to a desire to be so, even if they do have the numbers.
He’s only likely to want to be on the ballot if he’s reasonably confident he can win.
In that gap, the news that Johnson had enough support to stand had gone around the world. I happened to be looking at the TZ news feed in Germany, where I read that the BBC’s Chris Mason was reporting that Johnson had enough support to stand (all nuance lost, all scepticism absent). In fact, from Norway to Nigeria news websites were reporting that the BBC’s political editor was saying that Johnson had the backing of the 100 MPs he needed to enter the fray.
Actually, of course, Johnson did not have the required support at this stage, and even though his team were insisting on Sunday night that he did have the numbers, in the end, Johnson decided not to run. You can draw your own conclusions about whether he was motivated by a burning desire to act in the interests of his party and country when he did so, or if he really just didn’t have the necessary support.
But back on Saturday afternoon, even Ukraine’s Euromaidan Press fell into the Johnson team’s trap, baldly tweeting:
Former British PM and Ukraine’s Friend Boris Johnson will enter race for PM post again Johnson secured support of more than 100 MPs, which allows him to enter the race for the leadership of the Conservative Party.
A check on these international news websites the following morning showed many of them were still running the line that the BBC had said that Johnson had enough support – even though it was by then clear that as yet, he did not. Indeed, even by Saturday evening, Nick Robinson – a predecessor of Mason and currently a presenter of Radio 4’s Today programme – tweeted
Isn’t the real story about @BorisJohnson today that he still doesn’t have 100 MPs prepared to say publicly that they support him; he didn’t get the endorsement of the Conservative papers & he hasn’t got the support of old allies like Charles Moore & @DavidGHFrost?
Mason’s first tweet was based on only one (very partial and unreliable) source, which was either a schoolboy error, or something worse. It’s basic journalism to check a story, and get two sources when there’s cause for doubt (which there usually is, and in this case certainly was). There’s some real damage to the BBC’s international reputation here – which I’ll come back to.
But first I want to look at the domestic consequences.
From Wales Online to the Herald in Scotland, and from Sidmouth to Newcastle, news websites were reporting Chris Mason’s initial tweet, without his subsequent qualifications. The effect of this – as the Johnson camp intended all along – was that across the United Kingdom Tory MPs would come under a little more pressure to declare their support for Johnson, and members of the Conservative Party would get the impression there was real momentum behind his re-election bid.
I’ve written in these pages before about the impact the BBC’s political editor can have on Britain’s political discourse. Mason’s immediate predecessor Laura Kuenssberg saw her job as ringing up Downing Street to get their version of events on air before her competitors, without worrying too much about whether it was actually true or not.
Laura Kuenssberg’s Time as BBC Political Editor has been a Catastrophic, Systemic FailurePatrick Howse
Chris Mason’s coverage of the calamitous Truss premiership had given me some hope that he might have taken a different tack. But I believe his rush to tweet the “news” that Johnson had the backing he needed was a huge mistake. I should really say here that others have been quick to characterise it as something more sinister than a mistake because it certainly gave Johnson’s campaign a boost – albeit a short-lived one. Whatever happened, the clarifications Mason and the BBC subsequently issued had little effect on the narrative as the world reported that the BBC was saying Johnson had the numbers to stand.
As a BBC journalist for many years, there were some news organisations I trusted more than others. For instance, I always felt (as did the BBC as a whole) that the Press Association’s reporting could be taken as gospel. Other agencies should be treated with more caution, and some – those from repressive regimes, for example – should be taken with a massive pinch of salt, or disbelieved entirely.
Internationally, the BBC has been a trusted news brand throughout its 100-year history. Around the world, its journalists work very hard in difficult and dangerous circumstances to verify facts before broadcast or publication. Indeed, its latest promotional video – Trust is Earned – shows a number of my former colleagues in dangerous situations finding out the truth before they report it.
Personally, I remember we once resolved a dispute about the number of deaths in Iraq by going to the morgue and counting the bodies. Similar efforts are made routinely by brave and talented BBC journalists who want to inform the world about what’s really happening.
The big problem is that the BBC’s domestic political coverage has not lived up to these standards for several years now, and with Chris Mason’s mistake, this has now once again been made obvious to news providers around the world. Journalists don’t like being wrong, and the next time they see a story sourced to the BBC, they may be a bit more inclined to check it before they run with it. Things like this tar all of the BBC’s journalism with the same brush, and once a reputation’s lost, it’s gone.
Patrick Howse is a former BBC reporter and producer