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BBC (sort of) sorry for Grant Shapps Wikipedia smear reportage

That must have been awful for you, smarms Beeb news chief

By Andrew Orlowski, 30 Jun 2015

The BBC has apologised to MP and former Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps for the way it reported allegations regarding Shapps and Wikipedia, which were based on a single anonymous source.

Shapps lost the position of party chairman and left the Cabinet, despite running a successful general election campaign. He is currently a junior minister.

During the campaign, the Guardian alleged that an account “run by Shapps directly or by someone else – an assistant or a PR agency – under his clear direction”, had been suspended for editing the Wikipedia entries for Shapps and others.

Shapps acknowledged editing his entry under his own name in the past to remove bogus information, such as the suggestion that he was a Jehovah's Witness, but furiously denied the Guardian story.

The Guardian's anonymous source for the allegation turned out to be Richard Symonds, a LibDem activist and employee of Wikimedia UK, the UK affiliate of the Wikimedia Foundation.

The story was curious to begin with. In a remarkable piece of journalistic clairvoyance, the account in question, Contribsx, was only suspended minutes after the Guardian story reporting the suspension was published. Editing your own entry is not forbidden on Wikipedia, meaning there was no justification for blocking Contribsx at all. Symonds' version of the story changed, with him admitting that the block was made on "behavioural" rather than technical evidence. Yet the related accounts purportedly linked to Shapps had been dormant for years. It appeared that a smear had been manufactured to cause Shapps damage.

In early June, Symonds was censured for multiple violations of Wikipedia policy. The investigation into Symonds found that he had exceeded his authority in releasing private data about Wikipedia accounts, had failed to produce evidence and "struggled to provide an accurate timeline." Symonds had his checkuser and oversight permissions revoked and was "desysopped" (see here and here).

However the Guardian story ran and ran, with 42 reports on the BBC in a 24-hour period.

Gotcha? Not quite

Shapps complained to the BBC, arguing that "insufficient care was taken to carry out even the most basic fact checks before running the original story. For example, the original claim was made by a single politically-driven administrator, rather than Wikipedia itself."

Shapps has now published a response, including a letter from the BBC's director of news and current affairs, ex-Times editor James Harding, which Shapps describes as "an apology" – although if it is, it's something of a qualified apology.

Harding maintains that: "I don't think the original story needed 'correcting'... because we reported the event accurately and fairly." However, he added that the BBC didn't do "quite enough" on the "subsequent development" of the story. For which he's sorry. A bit.

"Thank you for taking the time to raise what must have been a particularly infuriating episode," Harding sympathises.

Here's the obligatory picture of Shapps in his kitchen, where he can now spend a lot more time, thanks to Wikipedia. ®

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