It’s BBC reporting on the trial Ma Ying-jeou, once mayor of Taipei, once Chairman of the KMT, now an accused embezzler, which opened today. So we need not belabor the point that everything important to the context will be left out. The BBC reports:

Taiwan opposition leader and presidential hopeful Ma Ying-jeou has gone on trial in a corruption case which could hit his 2008 hopes.

He is accused of misappropriating T$11.2 million ($339,000) of funds while mayor of the capital, Taipei.

Mr Ma resigned from his position as head of the Kuomintang party shortly after the charges were announced, but said he would clear his name. He has denied graft charges, and is a frontrunner in the presidential race.

So far, so good. Just a short summary. So what does the report go on to say?

Mr Ma, a US-educated lawyer who is expected to defend himself, was in confident mood as he arrived at court.

Ma is not a lawyer. He has never passed the bar either in Taiwan or the US. Where did this claim come from? Everyone says it, for example, AP.

“I am confident of my innocence and I trust in the justice of the court,” he said, as a crowd of Kuomintang (KMT) supporters cheered.

Mr Ma was charged with improper use of government funds in February - and resigned as KMT chairman, protested his innocence and pledged to stand for president all at once.

He is facing four rivals from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) who are seeking nomination from their party.

The candidates are Vice President Annette Lu, Premier Su Tseng-chang, former premier Frank Hsieh, and former party chairman Yu Hsyi-kun.

More summary.

The investigation into his finances began in mid-November after allegations that he had shifted money from a special fund into a personal account during his time as mayor, from 1998 to 2006.

Note how the article does not inform the reader that the money is definitely in the account — Both Ma and his lawyer have admitted it. Their defense is that Ma never had any intention to steal the money even though he downloaded into his personal accounts and kept it. Vitally important context omitted, and the omission favors Ma. Can you imagine if the BBC report had mentioned what anyone can find on Wiki?

In addition to those incidents that give rise to public doubt on his competency, Ma has also been criticized for his involvement in several alleged scandals. His filings for the compulsory financial disclosure shows that his household net worth increased by more than NT$43 million (US$1.3 million)between 1993 and 2004, at a rate irreconcilable with his living standards, his two daughters in Ivy League schools and his identified income sources. Ma dismissed the criticism with a quotable line: “I spend less than US$10 a day and I only have an old patched suit.”

The BBC then goes on to say:

If convicted, he would face at least seven years in prison. However, prosecutors have already asked for leniency because of his co-operation with the investigation.

Here’s what I said the last time that the BBC used this exact set of sentences to describe Ma’s indictment. “Context is often impaired in the international media due to the exigencies of time and space, but the BBC’s accounts make a special habit of eliminating key context (here’s why!).” That applies here too. To understand why the prosecutor might ask for leniency, in addition to Ma’s cooperation, the reader would also have to know that the prosecutor who conducted the investigation had Ma for a witness at his wedding, that the prosecutor’s offices in Taiwan are largely pro-Blue, and that Ma has publicly threatened the bureaucrats who don’t come up with answers he wants. Not one iota of this context appears here — because it would spoil the nice clean narrative that the BBC wants to project. Sadly, this very human urge to create narrative rather than report reality in all its messiness too often favors the KMT.

UPDATE: Runsun points out below that the article has now been changed. Previously, as I quoted above, it said:

Mr Ma, a US-educated lawyer who is expected to defend himself, was in confident mood as he arrived at court.

I pointed out that Ma has never passed the Bar and is not a lawyer. The article now reads, as of April 4, 10:20 am here in Taiwan:

Mr Ma, who studied law in Taiwan and the US, is expected to defend himself. He was in confident mood as he arrived at court.

Yesterday I fired off a letter to one of the local BBC reporters commenting on this. Is there a connection? Impossible to know, but it is sure nice to see that someone in the international media has stopped spreading this error. As Darwin once pointed out, false theories are easy to shoot down, but false facts are almost impossible to get rid of. Thanks, Beeb.