04 March 2011

Malware at the Heart of the BBC's Decline

Anyone who has been following me on Twitter or identi.ca will have noticed that I have a bee in my bonnet - actually, make that a Beeb in my bonnet - about the BBC.

In fact, I have several - including the fact that I really want it to be the best broadcasting organisation in the world, as it once was. But my other bee/Beeb is that its journalistic standards in the few areas where I can claim some knowledge are pretty woeful.

This is seen nowhere more clearly than in its coverage of malware.

To read the reports on the BBC website (I don't watch UK television, so I've no idea what happens there, but suspect it's just as bad), you'd think that malware were some universal affliction, an unavoidable ill like death and taxes. Rarely does the BBC trouble its readers' pretty little heads with the tiresome fact that the overwhelming majority of viruses and trojans affect one operating system, and one operating system only: Microsoft Windows.

To see this, try the following experiment. Search on the BBC news site for "microsoft windows virus" or "microsoft windows trojan" or "microsoft windows malware", and you'll get a few dozen hits, not all of which refer to Microsoft malware.

But try the same searches without the words "microsoft windows", and you will get many more hits every year (try "computer malware", for example), very few of which mention that such malware is almost exclusively for Microsoft's platform.

That sin of omission has now been matched by an equally telling sin of commission. For hot on the heels of the first serious Android viruses, we have a report on BBC news spelling out the terrible facts:

More than 50 applications available via the official Android Marketplace have been found to contain a virus.

Analysis suggests that the booby-trapped apps may have been downloaded up to 200,000 times.

The malicious apps were copies of existing applications, such as games, that had been repackaged to include the virus code.

Fifty applications, can you believe it? Terrifying stuff. And downloaded no less than 200,000 times...shocking.

Of course, the fact that back in 2007

Symantec detected more than 711,912 novel threats which brings the total number of malicious [Microsoft Windows] programs that the security firm's anti-virus programs detect to 1,122,311.

as reported by the BBC in one of its rare balanced pieces on the subject, rather puts those 50 Android programs in context. Similarly, if you consider how many *billions* of times all those Windows viruses have been downloaded over the years, the 200,000 Android downloads pale into insignificance. And yet the BBC chooses not to provide any of that background information.

And it hasn't finished there. Not content with reporting on the Android virus without providing any context, the BBC article then goes on to trash - guess what? - yes, Android's open approach, via this quotation:

"This greater openness of the developer environment has been argued to foster an atmosphere of creativity," he wrote, "but as Facebook have already discovered it is also a very attractive criminal playground."

Again, the missing context is that the *closed* world of Windows has not only provided a rather larger and more attractive "criminal playground", but has caused tens of billions of dollars of economic damage every year according to one estimate. Rather more than just a playground for criminals, one might say - an entire global industry.

All-in-all, this is extraordinarily poor journalism from the BBC, and something that would never have been tolerated when it was at the height of its reputation. What's really sad is that the latest one-sided reporting of the Android viruses suggests that far from getting better, things are getting even worse in this particular area. That is truly a great loss for not just the BBC but for all of its long-time supporters (like me) who would like to see it flourish in the digital age, not shrivel into irrelevance.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.


James MacAonghus said...

I would venture that the BBC has incredibly (for supposedly one of the world's finest news organisations) poor journalism in a lot of areas - you just notice this area because you know it so well.

And not just the BBC. I remember the first time I realised The Economist was not an all-knowing font of wisdom, when I read an article about the internet and realised it was written at just above layman level.

Glyn Moody said...

@James: yes, this was my suspicion, but I didn't feel competent to make that judgement in other areas.

And don't get me started on The Economist....


Jeremy Bennett said...

Hi Glyn,

I'm sure you know some of the BBC's key players (Rory Cellan-Jones for example) well enough to call them. What do they have to say about your views. What about their semi-independent contributors like Bill Thompson?

Like you, I find the reporting in this speciality skewed, just as I find the comparative difficulty of using iPlayer download under Linux deeply frustrating.

However I've seen nothing to suggest the individual reporters are not men and women of integrity, which suggests the problem is institutional. If that is the case, then what is the underlying cause? Too many ex-Microsoft employees in senior management? The downgrading of the status of BBC's Engineering division?

Glyn Moody said...

@Jeremy: I know Bill - whose coverage on these matters is impeccable - but not Rory. Maybe that's part of the problem: the BBC journos (Bill is a freelancer) don't real mix with us plebs...

guy said...

I agree that you only really become aware of the true quality of reporting when it covers a subject that you know well. Yes, IT related news output from the BBC is patchy, and yes, the same goes for other areas (I also notice it when anything related to certain classic cars gets reported). But I guess it's caused by the same 'time to market' pressure that commercial software also suffers from --- it doesn't have to be good, just good enough. Some of the output that takes longer to create like, say, the 'In Business' programmes on Radio4 that have covered open source and 'free' content, have been reasonable summaries of their subjects, though you still have to put up with the "look, these crazy guys are giving it away!" tone.

Glyn Moody said...

@guy: yes, I'm sure you're right that pressure is an issue. But journalists are supposed work well under pressure...