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The Ministry of Truth

Glenn Reynolds posted a quote from the BBC and later discovered they edit the past.

As you know, I am not a skeptic of the science on this issue, something you never really see outside of journals… but I am utterly disgusted by the politics of it and the loathsome people purveying it for totalitarian purposes. This is not to say I will claim the writer was one of them, but that person may well have been pounced upon and forced to recant.

Perhaps I should note my own standards on this issue. I often ‘publish’ a late draft because my preview mode is not the best and do spelling, punctuation, link checks, syntax and such live. Sometimes in that interval I will make significant changes if I feel I did not make my point clearly. But once I am done, usually within 5-10 minutes of first publication, the article is forever frozen and any corrections (other than spelling or commas) is placed underneath the article in italics.

Making changes in the first few minutes after publication in this fast paced world is necessary. Going back hours or days later and making wholesale rewrites to the public record is not.

One might also note an exception: if one finds they have issued a libellous statement or accidentally published proprietary information or totally false information that is of course grounds for pulling the whole article… or striking out the offending phrase and placing a note like this one underneath. This is what the BBC should have done if they believed they had published incorrect data.

Note that I have been ‘playing’ with this article to explore with you the range of changes and time periods I feel comfortable with. There are some difficult issues here and I am not sure where the precise line is… although I am sure the BBC was well over it in this case.

27 comments to The Ministry of Truth

  • Pa Annoyed

    I thought this would be old news. It’s generally known as “stealth editing” and the BBC used to do a lot more of it in the past before change detection engines like Revisionista were set up.

    But yes, the Ministry of Truth connection has been noted before, along with the fact that George Orwell worked for the BBC for a time. It has long been suspected the one was based partly on the other.

  • But once I am done, usually within 5-10 minutes of first publication, the article is forever frozen and any corrections (other than spelling or commas) is placed underneath the article in italics.

    Sure, but I occasionally correct typos and grammatical cockups any time I notice them, including for very old articles. Material changes to content is a no-no however (and face it, we’re all done a few articles that on reflection might not have been such a great idea).

  • The BBC, Climate Change & Ideological Correctness


  • Doug

    I sent a correction to a BBC article covering American gun crime last year. An entire paragraph was rewritten without any note; this doesn’t seem to be a new practice.

    In the article, they had invented the office of “State Republican” for Representative Edward Casso (who is in fact a Democrat). In the corrected version, they didn’t capitalize the name of his office, and in the e-mail reply to me they misspelled my name. I don’t trust them to get anything right.

  • WalterBowsell

    Some allowances must be made for the medium itself and the ability it provides for editing and also the temptation it offers up.

    However as with everything in the media arena they will be those who distort and lie in order to protect their own agenda, the important thing is that everyone keeps watching everyone.

  • Laird

    I don’t have a serious problem with editing for spelling, grammar or punctuation, although once the article is published I’m a little skittish about even such innocuous changes. However, editing for substantive content, even to correct factual error, is reprehensible and violates every standard of journalistic ethics (not that that seems to matter to anyone these days). Responsible publications (such as The Wall Street Journal) routinely contain a “corrections” section, in which they describe their error and provide the correction. That’s the proper route to take.

    Clearly the re-write of the BBC piece was for purely editorial purposes, not to correct error. Disgusting.

  • Thanks for catching/sharing.

    I am now very concerned about this trend, which is symptomatic of either, at best, incompetence or, if one is of a more ‘leap of imagination’ bent, something more sinister.

    I have been drawn to sites like this having had something I wrote to the BBC selectively edited to effectively reverse its meaning upon broadcast.

    The eventual reply/apology I got wasn’t worth the temeplate it was copied from.

  • Bugger. I linked to the original article because of its sceptic overtones, which have been watered down a bit.

  • Sam Duncan

    The problem with the BBC’s editing is not that it’s done, but that it’s hidden – the “stealth editing” Pa Annoyed mentions. Edits take place without the “last updated” line being altered. Regardless of the reasons, that’s simply dishonest.

  • Kevin B

    I feel sorry for the poor guy who wrote the original article.

    You do realise he’s got a cage full of rats in his face at the moment.

    Actually, what happens is this. The Beeb recieve a PR piece from some source and hack out and publish an article based on that.

    The article is later perused for idealogical purity and suitably amended. The person who did the original hack is then chastised and everything is forgiven and forgotten.

    If it hadn’t been for those pesky kids and their wayback machine they’d have got away with it too!

  • Jacob

    Clearly the re-write of the BBC piece was for purely editorial purposes, not to correct error. Disgusting.

    Sorry guys, I’ll have to be the devil’s advocate on this.

    This is a new medium (blogs, even the BBC blog). It has new rules. You are free to say anything. You are free to say one thing now, and change your mind later. You are free to modify your blog anytime you wish. You are free to notify your readers of changes to published entries, and free not to.
    Unlike the printed media – blogs are not hardcopies. They are malleable. Nothing wrong with it.

    Anyone is free to capture and cache changed entries and use them in any way he wishes (such as denouncing the BBC).
    I, too, wouldn’t applaud this practice, it seems a little weaselly, but not fundamentally wrong.

    And the BBC isn’t the ministry of truth. It’s just a broadcasting company, one of many, which everyone is perfectly free to ignore.

  • It wasn’t a blog, it was a news article.

  • WalterBowsell

    Has the BBC deleted the google cache version of the original article?

  • On my patent pending ‘Scale of Evilness Calculator’ the BBC currently ranks 34th – in the world. Which is pretty evil let me tell you.

  • Pa Annoyed


    In many cases you’d be right. Journalistic standards are about creating and maintaining a reputation – honesty, accuracy, impartiality, etc. – on which you sell your product. You can blow any capital you’ve built up in that area for short-term gain, but ultimately people will find you out and you’ll lose money (or will have to be selling something other than truth). The market usually keeps journalists within shouting distance of honesty.

    The reason people get so wound up about the BBC doing it is that they’re not subject to the market (being tax funded) and that because of this they have impartiality and honesty written into their charter – the one justifying their continuing state-maintained monopoly. We understand that we need accurate information, and that commercial enterprises will give us whatever sells irrespective of whether it is true. We therefore exempt the BBC from market forces so that they are free to provide the higher quality we demand.

    The BBC archive is seen by many as being recorded history. It would be difficult to find another documentary archive that served the purpose better. If people want to know what happened and what we knew when, they will assume that news reports with the original date on are the original reports. Not something silently edited five years later to remove politically inconvenient bits.

    How annoying would it be if in five years time we wanted to say “we told you so”, only to find that the BBC and all the climate experts had been sceptical all along, and could point to news items from today to prove it? That might be tolerable if everyone knew it was being done, but without any reliable written history, we are cast adrift on a sea of post-modernist relativism, where truth and fiction are freely interchangeable.

    “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.”

  • Laird

    Sorry, Jacob, I’m not buying that. There is something wrong with it. It’s pretending that you said something that you didn’t. It’s called lying, and if you don’t have a problem with that then you’re part of the post-modernist problem.

    As I said, disgusting.

  • “This is a new medium (blogs, even the BBC blog). It has new rules. You are free to say anything. You are free to say one thing now, and change your mind later. You are free to modify your blog anytime you wish. You are free to notify your readers of changes to published entries, and free not to.”

    Try that in court.

  • I agree to one thing: if a piece of writing has a time stamp on it, it has to be correct. A wrong time-stamp is a forgery. So the corrected piece has to have the time of the correction on it (if it has any time stamp at all).
    Usually time stamps are added automatically, so I guess the time on the piece corresponds to the time of the correction. So they could have two versions, slightly different, with different time-stamps. (I don’t know if that was the case in this instance). That would be ok.

    It’s called lying,

    It’s not called lying, unless they deny there was a correction, which I don’t think they do.

    The BBC archive is seen by many as being recorded history.

    That’s what they claim, maybe. Ignore them.

    Anyhow, they didn’t change history. They changed the wording of one of their reports.

  • Pa Annoyed

    Quite, Jacob. Quite.

    The article at present seems to have a ‘last updated’ date/time of 00:42 GMT, Friday, 4 April 2008. If we check Revisionista, we see that it picked up the noted change some time between midnight and 5 pm on the 5th April, and that this is in fact the third version of the article. (The previous change Friday evening was even more dramatic!)

    Although changing the date when they edit would be little comfort to all the people who linked the article in question because of what it said in the first version, assuming that yesterday’s news was no longer a ‘living document’. But so long as everybody knows that the BBC goes in for stealth edits, I guess it doesn’t matter. The problem is, they don’t. As this post proves.

  • Jacob

    Well, they know now, if they read Samizdata.

  • I’m liking the look of Revisionista! (two comments up) I’d heard of BBC stealth edits – and seen them in action – but not known of anyone monitoring them.

    I’ve often pondered the idea of pointing a ‘bot at the BBC RSS newsfeed and tracking changes to RSS title, page title, assigned timestamp and content. Revisionista isn’t tracking all that, and also the navigation is a little unclear, but its tracking content changes and thats real helpful

    I’m still looking forward to a real good MediaWiki BBC monitoring hack that will make BBC changes nearly as transparent as Wikipedia changes 🙂

  • Jacob, you’re being so disingenuous it takes the piss.

    Everyone who read this article needs to see THIS(Link). Prepare to be horrified.

  • QuestionThat, Bishop Hill says:

    Abbess doesn’t seem to be the sharpest tool in the box, because she promptly posted the correspondence up on a website.

    He doesn’t provide a link, though.

  • Pa Annoyed


    She appears to have posted at the “Campaign against Climate Change”. Google finds her very quickly.

    My favourite bit is the line at the top that Bishop Hill doesn’t quote: “Remember to challenge any piece of media that seems like it’s been subject to spin or scepticism.” In a post demanding we pay attention to scientists, too. Do you think she realises what she’s just said?!

    Anyway, it seems to have attracted some attention. I wonder if she’s ready for all the publicity talking openly about this sort of tactic is going to draw?

  • I’ve done a bit more research on Jo Abbess and she’s posted some hilarious stuff at Comment is Free.

    See here.

  • What’s to be horrified about ?
    What reporters write isn’t the gospel (though they think so), it’s just their opinion.
    Even when they report “facts” (like about a scientific paper) they write what they understand of it (which isn’t much), and what people (experts) they have talked to said to them. And they select the experts that suit them, or quote just the experts that suit them, and put in the headline what they believe is the most important or sensational phrase.

    I’m not horrified by what reporters write (though that is bad enough), I’m horrified by what scientists write, and the way they spew propaganda and ideology masquerading as science. I’m horrified by what is going on in “climate science”, by some practices of “prestigious” scientific journals, or of “inter-governmental scientific panels”, etc.

    A reporter changed a headline and some wording in one of his articles ? He’s a careless or sloppy reporter; most are. He is biased, he pushes his private beliefs ? Most do it.