News at Six Complaint Stage 2: BBC Response 14

Subject: News at Six, 22 & 24 July 2014
Date: Tue, 16 Dec 2014 17:11:12 +0000
From: <JamesHardingComplaints@bbc.co.uk>

Dear Mr McNulty,

News at Six, 22 & 24 July 2014

Thank you for your correspondence with the Editorial Complaints Unit about the above programmes which, as I think you know, has been referred to me.

Your complaint, if I might summarise it, is that the fourth item on the News at Six on 24 July was the announcement that the IMF had raised its UK growth forecast “by almost half a percentage point” whereas, you say, two days earlier the ONS announcement that the June deficit was “50% higher than last year” “was not given equivalent due prominence and weight.”

You further state that the ONS statistic “is many times more significant than the IMF’s” and that the ONS statistic “is a statement of hard scientific fact. The IMF’s forecast is an estimate, opinion, or guess. The IMF’s forecast SUGGESTS the economy MAY BE moving marginal faster in an already predicted direction. The ONS statistic PROVES the deficit has moved significantly in the opposite direction to the one predicted” (your emphasis).

In previous correspondence, you were told by the BBC that “we very often cover ONS figures, and IMF ones, and whether they get on on a particular day will be down to a range of factors including the news agenda that day. Over time, we take care to report trends in both the deficit and in growth.”

I am not sure I can add much to this reply, but perhaps I can elaborate. News judgments are relative to the material that is available on any given day, not absolute, and not every event will find a place within a busy news agenda, however passionately some observers feel that it should have been covered. You will have seen, for example, that the Six on 22 July was an exceptionally busy news programme, with the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner and war in Gaza taking up the entire first half.

This is why it is the BBC’s aim to paint an accurate and balanced picture over time and why you have been referred to the BBC’s wider coverage. So it is not the case, as you suggest, that two sets of statistics should simply be given equivalent prominence and weight within the space of two days, but I would certainly expect the programme fairly to represent different information about the economy over a period of time.

I will turn to that issue later but let me first examine the detail that lies within these two sets of statistics that you have paired together.

You are certainly right that the ONS reported a widening deficit in June, though the details I have found are somewhat at variance with yours when you say “this year’s June deficit was 50% higher than last year.” I have checked the ONS website for 22 July and it states:

•Public sector net borrowing excluding financial interventions (PSNB ex) was £11.4 billion in June 2014. This was £3.8 billion higher than last June. There was no transfer from the Bank of England Asset Purchase Facility Fund (APF) in June 2014; however there was a £3.9 billion APF transfer in June 2013. When APF transfers are excluded from net borrowing, last June was £11.5 billion (similar to June 2014).

•For the financial year 2013/14, PSNB ex was £93.7 billion. This was £13.0 billion higher than the same period in 2012/13.

(My emphasis)

The BBC in fact reported these figures in its wider output on 22 July.

For example:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-28417128

An excerpt reads:

The government borrowed more than expected in June, and has failed to reduce public sector borrowing since the start of the fiscal year, official figures have shown. Public sector net borrowing stood at £11.4bn last month, the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The figure was above economists’ forecasts of £10.65bn. For the financial year to date, the public deficit stands at £36.1bn, up 7.3% from a year earlier.

If the current deficit trend continues, this will put public sector borrowing at about £113bn in this year, missing the government target of £95.5bn, said Howard Archer, chief UK economist for IHS Global Insight.

These are, of course, monthly figures, rather than a one-off target (and the BBC reported them again a month later) so the Six did not miss out on reporting a set of ‘once and for all’ figures. I would also point out that the deficit, while large, only marginally exceeded the anticipated figure. It is more important to compare the year-on-year figure, I think, which you have not done, rather than a single month’s figure a year apart. Indeed many economists would themselves counsel against simply looking at one month’s figures.

In terms of the IMF forecast two days later, the Six ran the following brief story. You will note that in contrast to the ONS figures, which are entirely domestic, the IMF figures place the country’s economy in a global context, and were reported as such:

The UK is on course to outpace the world’s major advanced economies this year after the International Monetary Fund raised its growth forecast for the UK for the fourth time in a row. The IMF forecast has been upgraded by almost half a percentage point to 3.2%, driven by consumer spending and a tentative boost in manufacturing. The forecast this year for the United States is 1.7% and Germany 1.9%.

I stated earlier that it is the BBC’s aim to paint an accurate and balanced picture over time, so the question I have to ask is whether the Six has subsequently and fairly reported the overall picture in the economy, and I find it has. On 21 November, for example, the programme ran a studio interview with its economics correspondent Andrew Verity about the size of the government’s public sector borrowing requirement:

Two weeks before the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, new figures on borrowing look set to give George Osborne food for thought. They show total borrowing for the financial year so far is up by 6% on the same time last year.

You will also have seen the attention paid to the deficit in the wake of the Autumn statement, and the political divisions which have again opened up over how it should be paid down after the General Election and which we have reported.

I believe that viewers of the programme’s output would as a consequence be properly in a position to gauge the impact of government policy, informed by the BBC’s reporting. For these reasons, I do not believe that the Six breached the BBC’s editorial guidelines as you have suggested.

You have separately suggested in subsequent correspondence with the ECU that on 22 July in the business news segment on the BBC News Channel a BBC correspondent “said something like: I suppose we can’t end without mentioning that rather boring number released by the Office for National Statistics today: the government deficit for June.”

I am not sure that this indicates that he thought statistics in general are ‘boring’ but I certainly do not think he was ‘knowingly and materially misleading the audience into thinking it has no value’ as you put it. I imagine he was placing rather too much emphasis on the final part of the BBC’s mission to inform, educate and entertain, while nonetheless fulfilling the first two parts.

I hope this explanation of our approach has addressed your concerns.  If you wish to pursue this complaint you can appeal to the BBC Trust, the body which represents licence fee payers. The Trust has asked that we should explain to complainants that the BBC’s Royal Charter draws a clear distinction between the role of the Trust – which determines the overall scope of the BBC’s services and sets its standards – and that of the BBC Executive – which runs the Corporation and decides what to broadcast and publish.

The Trust does not entertain every appeal submitted to it.  It will normally hear appeals about the Executive’s decisions only if a complainant can show that they involved a potential breach of the BBC’s published standards, or that an operational decision has raised significant issues of general importance.  The Trust is the final arbiter of which appeals it should consider. For the full information about the BBC Trust’s appeals procedures please visit

http://www.bbca.co.uk/bbctrust/governance/complaints_framework/

If you want to submit an appeal you must write within 20 working days from receiving this reply.  Correspondence for the Trust should be addressed to the Complaints Adviser, BBC Trust Unit, 180 Great Portland Street, London W1W 5QZ or to trust.editorial@bbc.co.uk. If you have any access issues please contact the BBC Trust for assistance on 03700 100 212.103 100 or textphone 03700.

Yours sincerely,

Malcolm Balen
Head of Editorial Standards, BBC News

*****

Chain of Correspondence:

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