Secret Data Sunday – BBC Edition Part 2 – Data Journalism with Data

Last week I described my initial attempt to obtain some Iraq survey data from the BBC.

You can skip the long back story that explains my interest in these data sets if you want.  In short, though, these award-winning polls played an important role in establishing the historical record for the latest Iraq war but they are very likely to be contaminated with a lot of fabricated data.  ABC news, and its pollster Gary Langer, are hiding the data.  But the BBC is a co-sponsor of the polls so I figured that I could just get the data from the BBC instead.  (This and this give more details on the back story.)

At first I thought, naively, that the BBC had to produce the data in response to a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request.  But when I put this theory to the test I discovered that the BBC is, essentially, immune to FOIA.

So I wrote to the Chairman of the BBC Trust (at the time, Rona Fairhead).  She quickly replied, saying that the Trust can’t intervene unless there is a complaint.  So she passed my letter on to the newsroom and eventually I heard from Nick Sutton who is an editor there.

Nick immediately plopped a bombshell into my lap.

The BBC does not have and never did have the data sets for their award-winning polls.

Studio shot of a handsome man with a confused expression

To my amazement, BBC reporting on these Iraq public opinion polls just forwarded to its trusting public whatever ABC news told the BBC to say.

Such data journalism without data is over-the-top unethical behaviour by the BBC.

However, you can’t hide data that you don’t have so the ethics issues raised here fall outside the scope of Secret Data Sunday.  Consequently, I’ll return to the data journalism issues later in a middle-of-the-week post.

Here I just finish by returning to my failed FOIA.

Why didn’t the BBC respond to my FOIA data request by simply saying that they didn’t have the data?  Is it that they wanted to hide their no-data embarrassment?   This is possible but I doubt it.  Rather, I suspect that the BBC just responds automatically to all FOIA’s by saying that whatever you want is not subject to FOIA because they might use it for journalistic or artistic purposes.  I suspect that they make this claim regardless of whether or not they have any such plans.

To British readers I suggest that you engage in the following soothing activities while you pay your £147 subscriber fee next year.  First, repeatedly recite the mantra “Data Journalism without Data, Data Journalism without Data, Data Journalism without Data,…”.  Then reflect on why the BBC is exempt from providing basic information to the public that sustains it.

 

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