News at Six Complaint Stage 2: Viewer Response 4

Subject: Request to Escalate Complaint CAS-2854164-81M5MF
Date: Thu, 11 Dec 2014 13:05:09 +0000
From: Ian McNulty

Dear Sirs,

Case number CAS-2854164-81M5MF

I wish to escalate this complaint to Stage 2 of the Complaints Process.

The essence of the complaint is:

1) On the afternoon of Tuesday 22 July 2004 the Business News segment on the BBC News Channel featured an interview between a BBC Business/Economics Correspondent and a representative of a City brokerage firm on the subject of the Royal Mail IPO. At the end of the interview the 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.

2) As reducing the deficit and debt is the primary goal of the present government’s economic policy and the primary justification for its austerity programme, the announcement that this year’s June deficit was 50% higher than last year is key to enabling the public to make an informed judgement about whether the present government’s economic policy is working or not. In the year running up to a general election, the prominence and weight given to this critical economic information could be crucial in determining the outcome.

For a BBC Business/Economics correspondent to describe any economic statistic as a rather boring number displays either that he thinks that statistics in general are ‘boring’, or that he is verbally labelling this specific statistic as ‘boring’ in order to reduce its weight, thereby knowingly and materially misleading the audience into thinking it has no value. If so, this would be in direct contravention of BBC Editorial Guideline 3.4.11 and Guideline 4.2.2.

Whatever the reason, when a news and current affairs presenter labels any piece of news as ‘boring’ the audience can clearly tell that the “public voice of the BBC” is prejudiced against giving much prominence or weight to that particular piece of information, in direct contravention of Guideline 4.4.13.

3) The question is: Was this a one-off, accidental incidence of prejudice and lack of due impartiality by just one BBC news and current affairs presenter on just one occasion, or is it institutionalized across the whole of the BBC News and Current Affairs output?

The answer can be found in the prominence given to the announcement of the ONS statistic on that evening’s BBC1 flagship news programme, News at Six.

4) The BBC refuses to allow complainants access to transcripts or running orders of previous news broadcasts (see email from Nicola Maguire, Tue, 9 Sep 2014), but, in response to the initial complaint, BBC representative Lucia Fortucci did confirm in her email of Wed 6 Aug 2014 that:

“The fourth story on 22 July’s programme was the London summit on Female Genital Mutilation. There is no report on ONS figures in this edition of the programme.”

This confirms that, in the opinion of the BBC News at Six editorial team, a conference on Female Genital Mutilation deserved 4th place on the day’s news agenda but the ONS announcement that the June deficit was 50% higher than last year deserved none.

5) The question then becomes: Was this prejudice and lack of due impartiality towards a hard fact that reflected badly on government economic policy specific to just one edition of the BBC News Channel’s Business News and just one edition of News at Six, or is it institutionalized across the whole of the BBC’s news output?

The answer can be found by comparing the news agendas of News at Six on 22 July and 24 July.

6) The fourth story on News at Six on 24 July 2014 was the announcement that the IMF had raised its UK growth forecast “by almost half a percentage point”. If BBC News editors felt the very bad news from the ONS had too little weight to deserve a place on the News at Six they clearly felt exactly the opposite about the slightly good news from the IMF.

7) There can be no doubt which statistic has the most news value or weight and therefore deserves the most prominence:

  1. In numerical terms, 50% has 100 times more weight than 0.5%.
  2. The ONS statistic is a hard physical fact about something that has happened in reality. The IMF forecast is a statistical projection, opinion or guess about something that might happen. In the calculation of both information content and news values, hard physical facts carry considerably more weight than opinion, no matter how ‘expert’ that opinion may be.

The key difference between the two statistics is that the ONS figure is hard evidence that government economic policy isn’t working, whereas the IMF statistic suggests it might be. To give the IMF statistic fourth place on the News at Six agenda and the ONS figure no place at all shows a clear bias in favour of news that supports government economic policy and against news that doesn’t, in direct contravention of both the spirit and the letter of almost every BBC Editorial Guideline there is.

8) After a delay of more than four months in replying to this complaint, the BBC’s final Stage 1b response is nothing short of risible and an insult to the intelligence of its audience:

“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.”

A comparison of News at Six running orders for 22 and 24 July would show the specious and disingenuous nature of this statement. No surprise then that the BBC’s response to a request for licence payer access to the archive of News at Six running orders was:

“We do not believe your complaint has raised a significant issue of general importance that might justify further investigation. We will not therefore correspond further in response to additional points, or further comments or questions, made about this issue or our responses to it.”

9) A judgement from the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit can never be anything more than the opinion of the BBC. The only way to reach a truly evidence-based judgement would be to gather the necessary evidence through a randomly controlled and independent trial or focus group, as proposed in the initial complaint on 25 Jul 2014.

Only if, after watching the 22 and 24 July episodes of the News at Six side-by-side, the focus group showed that the audience were left with the impression that austerity wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do and the deficit was increasing, would the BBC be justified in rejecting this complaint.

I look forward to the BBC’s invitation to witness the necessary test.

For convenience, the final Stage 1b response and chain of correspondence in this complaint to date is attached.

Please Note: I wish discussion on this matter to be open to public scrutiny and therefore require all correspondence from the BBC to be subject to that understanding.

Yours faithfully,

Ian McNulty


Chain of Correspondence:

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