BBC staff rewrote Wikipedia pages to water down criticism

BBC officials repeatedly altered the Wikipedia internet encyclopaedia to water down attacks on the corporation, The Independent on Sunday can disclose.

The changes are among tens of thousands of edits made by staff in public authorities, including local councils, police forces, government departments and MPs' offices. Many more were made from computers registered to UK-based companies, charities and even the official residence of the Prince of Wales.

An investigation of "anonymous" edits on the site has revealed that the broadcaster's staff rewrote parts of a page entitled "Criticism of the BBC" to defuse press attacks on "political correctness". Also included in more than 7,000 Wikipedia edits by BBC workers are unflattering references to rival broadcasters and even the corporation's biggest names.

An entry claiming that a BBC report found the organisation was "out of touch with large swathes of the public and is guilty of self-censoring subjects that the corporation finds unpalatable" was replaced with a brief paragraph saying the document "explored issues around impartiality".

Wikipedia is visited by more than 7 per cent of internet users every day. But its "open-source" nature, meaning anyone can edit entries, has left it open to abuse. It emerged yesterday that Google is working on a rival to Wikipedia.

The official sources of some 34 million Wikipedia changes, which range from the banal and bizarre to the racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic, were exposed by an online tool developed by a US computer expert. Virgil Griffith's Wikiscanner showed that organisations including the CIA, the Vatican and the Labour Party had altered Wikipedia pages, sometimes to correct errors but often to vandalise sites or remove damaging material. It detailed how thousands of civil servants logged on to change entries. The Ministry of Defence, the Scottish Parliament and British Airways have all confirmed they are looking into the issue.

Late last December, a BBC-registered machine changed a section title from "Political Correctness" to "Impartiality Seminar" on a page called "Criticism of the BBC". There was heavy reworking of an account of newspaper reports about a meeting in September 2006 at which a senior executive admitted "there was widespread acknowledgement that we may have gone too far in the direction of political correctness. Unfortunately, much of it is so deeply embedded in the BBC's culture, that it is very hard to change it."

Elsewhere on the website, a BBC user questions the suggestion that "Channel 4 has a reputation in Britain for championing high culture", with the riposte "Big Brother etc ???". Colleagues have entered waspish comments on pages dedicated to BBC "talent", including Jonathan Ross, Adrian Chiles and Natasha Kaplinsky.

At the MoD, one member of staff altered a page on the US Air Force to criticise American pilots' record of "blue-on-blue" killings, amending the motto "No one comes close" with the addition: "(to our friendly fire bombing record)". House of Commons machines were also responsible for the addition of "seen as a rising star" to the page on shadow business minister Mark Prisk. A Westminster user is credited with writing that the Secretary of State for Communities, Hazel Blears, "has proved to be an effective performer and is tipped to rise to the top of the Labour Party".

A BBC spokesman said staff should use the internet "in a manner that's consistent with the BBC's values of accuracy and impartiality". He added: "At no time should that use bring the BBC into disrepute."

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