How Social Media Exposed BBC’s Gujarat Related Fudged Numbers
What BBC stands for: Founded in 1927, BBC is the largest broadcaster in the world with over 23,000 staff members across the globe. They thrive on the word “impartial”. They are literally an empire, long after the demise of the British empire considering that over 3.5 billion pounds are spent across radio, online and TV outlets. This writeup is focusing on BBC’s online news service specifically, picking one key incident, in the era of alert social media.
What they tried to project: On 2nd May 2012, around mid-day India time, seasoned Delhi correspondent of BBC, Soutik Biswas put out an article with a controversial head line “Is Gujarat’s Red Hot Economy a myth?“. Those who follow Indian news scene during the 21st century, specifically after the first two years of the new century, any news article involving Gujarat is watched more closely than other 27 states. I am not going to get into the reasons here, but it is enough to say that any conversation involving Gujarat, particularly when it reflects positively or negatively upon its Chief Minister Narendra Modi, lots of eye balls are bound to assemble there. The same thing happened here. The writeup was mostly based on a writeup with data from Business Standard, a daily published in India. This daily claims to reach well over 1000 towns and cities of India, so it does have plenty of depth in its reach in India. Since this is around since 1975, it was natural for BBC to pick up what seemed like very “interesting” numbers, as is, for an article on India and its state economies.
What they missed out: What Soutik Biswas did not realize in the enthusiasm is that the Business Standard writeup from earlier in the day, was NOT the kind of writeup a reputed enterprise like BBC should have picked up. We are referring to veteran editor A.K. Bhattacharya’s “India’s breakout states?” writeup. For a layman, the article was about India’s breakout states, highlighting the top 5 that have performed well over the 7 years period ending in 2010-11 (Indian financial year ends March 31st each year, starting on April 1st the prior year). It talks about Bihar, Tamil Nadu and other states, gives numbers to back things up and does a “decent” job. But for an expert observer, it was more of a hit job aimed at showing that Gujarat, the powerhouse state, did not belong to the top 5. And it was an agenda which Soutik Biswas of BBC badly missed out, denting the enterprise’s image among social media followers now.
Let me explain.
Data… Haha, that’s where everything “lied” : Most of us would have heard of the phrase, “Lies, damned lies, and statistics”. That would have been perfectly demonstrated if someone took AK Bhattacharya’s Business Standard writeup, and measured with serious data. In the age when even a novice blogger gives sources of key data, before drawing conclusion, it was perplexing as to how a seasoned editor like AK Bhattacharya could have pulled in data which missed out Gujarat among the top states in India. And that’s where the fun started. Oh, by this time, another Indian portal, Rediff.com had also picked up the same Business Standard story to draw their own conclusions.
One of the sharpest observers on Twitter in India, centerofright or Vijay as we know him personally, started questioning. For a big part, this article is using “Social Media” in place of what should have been “Vijay, the data expert” In fact, he started questioning Business Standard data right from early morning India time. I would suggest those with further interest on step-by-step time line of the unfolding of events, to read this blog he has put up: How Business Standard and BBC had to Retract a Story on Gujarat
For those wanting a quick summary, here is what had happened. AK Bhattacharya’s numbers were terribly off the real numbers. Trying to show that Gujarat had only a 6.3% growth Annually from 2004-2005 to 2010-2011, that is 7 financial years, was a huge blunder. Even a novice writer would have checked some government sites to avoid such a blunder. Our Social network data expert shows both GSDP at current prices and GSDP at constant prices. Then he moved on to NSDP at current and constant prices to rubbish the single digit growth of Gujarat as proclaimed by Business Standard. In fact, all 4 ways of looking at the growth were pointing to double digit growth, particularly one set showing over 20% growth. All these numbers were technically on Twitter during India’s morning hours. If luck had it, Soutik who is also on Twitter as @soutik , would have caught before even publishing his writeup
But the goof-up had to happen. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, BBC ended up publishing their story using the same data, that too with a provocative head-line tossing a gauntlet at serious observers. And people started talking on the Social media. Hey, we had Business Standard goofing up data, but never expected BBC, a far more reputed media house, to blindly copy the data and put up a provocative header. Our friend Vijay even went to the extent of putting an open challenge that he would give Rs.1,00,000 to anyone who proves that Gujarat’s rate of growth over the 7 years being discussed here, to be 6.3%. Obviously, for a guy who knew the numbers well, the intellectual dishonesty of tweets, articles and discussion based on faulty data was not acceptable. And he had 1000s like us already making noise about the biggest data goof-up of BBC in 2012.
What ended up happening finally: Long story short, Business Standard was convinced by early evening India time on the same day, that AK Bhattacharya’s writeup was badly exposed on social networks. Hundreds, if not Thousands were mocking the goof-up by then. So they decided to “massage” the writeup quickly.
Look at this image which shows the before and after versions of the writeup. They also added a quiet footnote stating “This column has been modified to incorporate corrected data”.
And it didn’t take BBC much time to incorporate the “corrected” data. And to their credit, they even went on to change the provocative headline completely making an effective 180 degrees u-turn. “Is Gujarat’s red hot economy a myth?” with a question mark became “Gujarat IS a red hot economy” with a highlighted “IS”. Needless to say, for social media folks on Twitter in India, this was a HUGE statement (observe my capital highlighting).
And the rest quickly started incorporating the “correction”. The popular twitter users who had made much noise for over 12 hours trying to snub Narendra Modi’s state, were either getting into correction or disappearance mode.
What lessons BBC should learn: I am an amateur to give any solid lesson to such a giant media house. But will still muster courage to give just two (free) advices.
1) Beware of Modi bashing crowd: If you don’t know who belongs to Narendra Modi bashing crowd, ask us. The strategy on how Modi baiters work has been exposed again and again over the past decade. Some fudged numbers, then the same gets passed on to many “sources” as THE number. Then countless op-ed, articles and digital media discussions carry the number or info so far, that the fudging becomes the reality. We have seen it in human counts, economy and much more. Don’t fall into their trap, by blindly copying data from discredited sources.
2) How about issuing an apology? If not to social media for misleading people, at least to the stalwart Chief Minister, Narendra Modi? Isn’t it a bit more grace to show when such a vital growth figure fudging was blindly put on reputed BBC’s website, to mislead millions? Our expectation from BBC is different than Business Standard or others, hence raising this point. Even after all this “correction”, a careful observer can still find holes in that Business Standard writeup, just stating for your benefit.
If you are connected to BBC in any way, and read all the way till here, now go play “I will be watching you” version of Sting
Note: This writeup was first published by India Behind The Lens (http://ibtl.in)