Colin Savage: Does the BBC have a problem with Manchester City?

“The BBC today announced that, following a review, it had decided to merge its Sport department with the PR team at Manchester United. A BBC spokesman said ‘It seems silly to have two different teams pumping out PR for United so as the two departments are only a short distance apart, it made sense to merge them.”

So-called ‘fake news’ is apparently trendy these days there but recent actions of the supposedly impartial national broadcaster do make you wonder. On February 5th, City played Swansea at home. Had you been listening to the BBC Radio 5 Live (“The home of news and sport”) on the morning of the game however, you’d not have been aware that it was even taking place.

In the five half-hourly news & sport bulletins on the station between 8am and 10am, the game wasn’t mentioned once. Naturally the later game between a certain other Manchester club and Leicester was mentioned each time. Somewhat bizarre when you think that the outcome of the game affected both the top and bottom of the Premier League. They weren’t covering the game via a live commentary but even so, you’d think it might get a mention on the self-proclaimed home of sport. Lest we forget, when those two clubs met, in May 2016, the BBC published a graphic comparing the cost of the Leicester team with that of ours. When challenged on this, they claimed it was legitimate as our team (as picked by them) had cost more than anyone else’s.

But worse was to come, about an hour before kick-off, when the BBC MOTD Facebook page posted a picture of the distinctive and well-known City fan Pete Green, otherwise known as ‘Pete the Badge’. He’s been a fan for over 50 years, watching his beloved Blues in his familiar, badge-covered sky blue track suit, home and away. And that includes the days when you tended to hide your scarf outside many away grounds for fear of getting a kicking from home fans. The BBC had captioned the picture (and I reproduce it as it was written) “He’s been going on Manchester City over 50 years. But today he has excelled himself – Bertie we salute you”. Besides the bizarre grammar, using ‘on’ rather than ‘to’, they referred to him as Bertie, a derogatory term for us used by United fans. With it being a Facebook page, followers of that page were able to comment on it an there were some that were insulting and unsavoury.

A sharp-eyed City fan picked up on this picture and highlighted it on Twitter, which is where I saw it and posted the photo and caption on the Bluemoon forum. A number of us submitted formal complaints to the BBC about this, as it appeared that the caption had been added by someone in their social media team. The club were also aware of it and spoke to the BBC, with the offending caption being changed, then the picture withdrawn completely. Within 24 hours (which is unusual) the complaints were answered by a stock response claiming that the picture had been sourced from a third-party with the offending caption and that no one at the BBC had been aware of the significance of the name Bertie. This didn’t seem to ring true at all and that impression was heightened when I was told by a source that managers at the BBC were very unhappy with whoever had done it, which did rather suggest it was done in-house.

BBC Editorial guideline 5.4.32 includes the following: “BBC content must respect human dignity. …derogatory remarks aimed at real people must not be celebrated for the purposes of entertainment.”

It is quite common for pictures to be sourced from libraries and it didn’t take long to find out that the original picture belonged to the Press Association and that the caption for it had been “A Manchester City fan at The Etihad”. It also didn’t take long for Gary James to point out that BBC Sport had done a feature of the use of the term ‘Bertie’ barely 12 months earlier. On that evidence, it appears the BBC were lying through their teeth. As I write this, a few of us are intent on escalating this issue to the highest levels of the BBC or OFCOM. Also, the Manchester City team page on the BBC Sport website hasn’t been updated for 5 days at the time of writing, despite Pep having held the traditional press conference just the day before. So you can see why, for many of us, there appears to be very little clear blue water between the BBC and MUTV.

And to rub the point in even further, during the following week United launched a new commercial venture with a well-known Swiss Watch manufacturer. The deal involved publicising the launch of a ‘club watch’, retailing at the not inconsiderable price of £1,300. The BBC’s online sports writer Simon Stone covered the event, tweeting pictures of United players undertaking a challenge which involved kicking a ball around a huge mock-up of a watch and trying to hit the numbers on the dial. This naturally prominently featured the sponsor’s name as did a couple of other tweets posted by Stone.

The BBC’s Editorial Guidelines are quite clear, referencing product endorsement a number of times. Guideline 14.4.4 says “…we must:

  • Ensure that references to trade names, brand names and slogans are clearly editorially justified
  • Not linger on brand names or logos and use verbal references sparingly unless there are very strong editorial reasons for repeated references to a brand
  • Only use material from advertising campaigns or promotions when clearly editorially justified.
    • It’s really not clear to me how a BBC employee tweeting from a commercial jolly can be described as “clearly editorially justified”. However, after I submitted another complaint, the BBC claimed that there was huge interest in the growth of United’s commercial revenues and this clearly justified the coverage. Had Stone filed a story about the growth of such revenue, even if it did mention the name of the watch company, that explanation might have held some water but he didn’t do any such thing of course. So that complaint is going up the chain as well.

      The following day they announced their quarterly financial results and there was clear editorial justification for the BBC covering this of course. Business reporter Bill Wilson covered the figures, with Stone providing some “analysis” which seemed to be largely drawn from the club’s press release. Bizarrely, this “analysis” included this bit “The results come a day after Manchester United and its official timekeeper partner, Tag Heuer, unveiled a pair of club special-edition watches. The first of the watches, the F1, is on sale for £1,300.”

      Why were those two sentences necessary at all? It looks suspiciously like a piece of free advertising on the BBC. Stone, as mentioned above, had attended said launch along with many other mainstream media outlets and virtually all of them made similar mention of this expensive watch and the price. So was it a contractual condition of the event that the outlets attending had to mention it or did the sponsor pay them to place adverts masquerading as copy? I don’t know how these things work so can’t really say with any sort of certainty bit it’s surely not coincidental that virtually all of them did so. I could understand a commercial organisation accepting such an advert but why were the BBC seemingly so keen to do so?

      The BBC Sport department seems to have its head stuck firmly up United’s backside and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask them why. Or maybe my little bit of fake news isn’t quite as fake as I thought.

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