News at Six Complaint Stage 2: Viewer Response 8

Subject: Re: News at Six, 22 & 24 July 2014
Date: Mon, 22 Dec 2014 10:25:55 +0000
To: James Harding Complaints <JamesHardingComplaints@bbc.co.uk>

Dear Mr Balen and/or Mr Harding,

Thank you for your email of 16 December. Please find below answers to the points you raised on a point-by-point basis.

I’d rather you didn’t summarise my complaint. The BBC webform already limited it to 242 words. If I had wished it to be summarised any further I would have done it myself. Please address the complaint as I presented it, not as you misrepresent it.

Your own summary begins by labelling facts I quoted as merely things I “say”, conveying the impression these are nothing more than my own personal views or opinions. This is a misrepresentation. The ONS figures themselves confirm the June deficit was 50% higher than last year (see below). The BBC’s Stage 1a response on 6 August confirmed that the ONS announcement was given no prominence or weight on the News at Six.

Misrepresenting established facts in this manner raises the suspicion that the reason you wish to summarise my complaint is to provide you with the opportunity to cherry-pick only those aspects that support the BBC’s case and either ignore or misrepresent all those that don’t. A suspicion reinforced by your reference three paragraphs later to “however passionately some observers feel”. This is insidious innuendo, implying, in a gradual and stealthy manner, that my complaint might be motivated by passions and feelings rather than facts and reason.

This is the exact opposite of the truth. My complaint rests on the calibration of current BBC news values, judgements or weights relative to the benchmark of the position of the IMF announcement on the News at Six agenda in the same week. This is a rational, impartial, factual measurement, as far removed from feelings and passions as it gets.

It’s true that in previous correspondence I was “told” (my emphasis) that news coverage “will be down to range of factors including the news agenda that day” and that “over time we take care to report trends in both the deficit and growth.

There are three significant things wrong with those statements::

  1. They are abstract generalizations that do not refer to any of the specific issues raised in my complaint. They say nothing the average viewer couldn’t have gleaned for themselves in less than five minutes on the BBC’s website.
  2. They breach Editorial Guideline 4.4.19 which states:
    “BBC output should avoid reinforcing generalisations which lack relevant evidence, especially when applying them to specific circumstances.  … These can present some of the most difficult challenges to asserting that the BBC does not hold its own opinion.”
  3. They also breach Editorial Guideline 4.4.26 on Impartiality Over Time which states:
    “When dealing with ‘major matters’, due impartiality cannot normally be achieved over time”

Unless you wish to claim that ONS deficit figures are not “major matters”, you cannot claim that impartiality can be achieved over time.

I understand very well that news judgements are relative to the material available on the day. However, the News at Six on 22nd July was not significantly busier than on the 24th. Both the War in Gaza and shooting down of the Malaysian airliner had already been topping the headlines for several days. If they took up the entire first half of the Six on the 22nd they also took up the entire first third on the 24th, which is not significantly different.

Despite being what you say was “an exceptionally busy news programme”, the Six still found space to give 4th place on its July 22nd agenda to a conference on Female Genital Mutilation, demonstrating it gave considerably more value, prominence and weight to that news than to the ONS announcement of the June deficit.

Editorial Guideline 4.4.12 on Impartiality: News, Current Affairs and Factual Output states:

“News in whatever form must be treated with due impartiality, giving due weight to events, opinion and main strands of argument.”

If the BBC has evidence to prove that a conference on FGM is due more weight than the official announcement of the June deficit then please supply it. If not then it needs to admit its mistakes and correct them, as Editorial Guideline 3.4.26 says it should:

We should normally acknowledge serious factual errors and correct such mistakes quickly, clearly and appropriately.  Inaccuracy may lead to a complaint of unfairness.  An effective way of correcting a mistake is saying what was wrong as well as putting it right.

If the BBC’s aim was to paint “an accurate and balanced picture over time” this could easily have been achieved by balancing an ONS announcement showing the government’s austerity programme wasn’t working with an IMF announcement two days later suggesting that it might be. All that was required was to give the ONS announcement equal weight to a conference on FGM. Not only did the Six fail to do that on 22 July, five months later the Head of Editorial Standards, BBC News continues to support that decision, demonstrating that the lack of impartiality is systemic and institutionalized up to the highest level.

Your statement that the details you have found are “somewhat at variance” with my statement that “this year’s June deficit was 50% higher than last year” isn’t just misrepresentation, it’s demonstrably false.

According to the statistics you quote from the ONS website:

“(PSNB ex) was £11.4 billion in June 2014. This was £3.8 billion higher than last June.” (Your emphasis)

Therefore PSNB ex for June 2013 = 11.4 – 3.8 = £7.6 billion

Therefore the increase in June 2014 over June 2013 as a percentage = 3.8/7.6 x 100 = 50% exactly. (My emphasis)

Therefore there is no variance between the ONS statement and mine.

If you doubt my calculations please refer to the interview your Business/Economics correspondent conducted with a City broker on the BBC News Channel that afternoon. In response to his labelling of the ONS deficit figure as a “rather boring number” the broker replied that she didn’t think it was boring but quite ironic, considering the financial crash of 2008 was caused by too much government borrowing, that last months public sector borrowing was 50 percent higher than last year. When they finally decide we have to balance the books “some future generation is really going to feel the pinch”.

For anyone who thought that the pinch this generation was feeling was because we needed to balance the books, the news from a City broker that we hadn’t started balancing them yet and future generations would feel the pinch much worse would have come as something of a surprise. The interviewer might have been expected to react in a number of ways: from disagreement to disbelief, confusion to curiosity or even outrage to shock. What he wouldn’t be expected to do is laugh out loud like he’d just heard a really good joke. But that’s exactly what he did.

If that correspondent was the only public face of the BBC in the studio that afternoon who thought it was a joke, then the news anchor he handed back to might have been expected to raise an eyebrow at least. Instead she joined in with the hilarity, showing the audience that all the public faces of the BBC in the studio were unanimous in thinking it was a joke.

If the Head of Editorial Standards, BBC News is “not sure” whether a BBC Economics/Business/Financial Correspondent thinks statistics in general are boring, then perhaps you ought to find out? Merely thinking the correspondent was not materially misleading the audience is not enough, no matter how emphatically that thinking may be expressed.

Imagining the correspondent was merely trying too hard to entertain in the interests of informing and educating is a stretch of the imagination too far. Since when did labelling something as “boring” encourage anybody to want to listen and learn?

If thinking, imagining and believing are to be taken as professional judgements they must be supported by evidence. If not they are personal views or opinions which, according to Guideline 4.4.13, BBC news personnel may not be express in BBC output:

[Presenters, reporters and correspondents] may provide professional judgements, rooted in evidence, but may not express personal views in BBC output, including online, on such matters.

If that applies to BBC presenters, reporters and correspondents it ought to apply equally to the Head of Editorial Standards, BBC News. Unless of course it’s BBC policy to demand their employees do as their executives say, not as they do.

The only way to establish impartially what message the correspondent actually conveyed would be to test it out on a focus group, as I requested in my original complaint of 25 July.

Your quoting of the APF transfer is a misdirection with no relevance to this case. The role of BBC News is to report economic statistics accurately and impartially as they are, not as the BBC thinks they should be. If the Six had done that then how that figure was calculated would be relevant. But it didn’t, so its not.

By quoting the BBC’s reporting of these figures in a BBC website article you have flagrantly disregarded the point I made in my complaint of 7 August 2014:

“For the avoidance of doubt, the archive of news available on the BBC website is a record of news reported on a website, NOT on broadcast television.”

You have also breached Editorial Guideline 4.4.26 on Impartiality for the second time:

“When dealing with ‘major matters’, due impartiality cannot normally be achieved over time or by a breadth of views available across our online services.” (My emphasis).

Your claim that the News at Six did not miss out on reporting “once and for all” figures because it reported them a month later is nonsense. The release of a key official economic statistic is as much a once-and-for-all news event as the release of a statement by the Prime Minister. Waiting a month before reporting it might be acceptable within the ivory towers of Portland Place, but it’s not what most people would call news.

You may think it is more important to compare the year-on-year figure rather than a single month’s figures a year apart, but that’s only your personal view, which Editorial Guideline 4.4.12 says must not be reflected in BBC news stories:

The approach and tone of news stories must always reflect our editorial values, including our commitment to impartiality. (My emphasis)

Many economists might counsel against simply looking at one month’s figures but there are plenty of others that don’t, including the City broker your economics correspondent interviewed on the BBC News Channel that afternoon. Even if this were not the case, Editorial Guideline 4.4.19 on Consensus states:

“our reporting should resist the temptation to use language and tone which appear to accept consensus or received wisdom as fact or self-evident.”

It is not the BBC’s aim to paint an accurate and balanced picture of major matters over time. BBC Guideline 4.4.25 specifically states that:

“when dealing with ‘major matters’, due impartiality cannot normally be achieved over time.”

It is stunning that the Head of Editorial Standards, BBC News should appear to be so completely unaware of what the BBC’s Editorial Standards actually say.

According to Guideline 4.4.25 the question you have to ask yourself is not “whether the Six has subsequently and fairly reported the overall picture in the economy”, but whether it gave due weight and prominence to the ONS figure on the day it was announced.

Your reference to a studio interview with BBC economics correspondent, Andrew Verity, four months later breaches Guideline 4.4.26 which states:

“there is an appropriate timeframe for assessing that due impartiality has been achieved. Particular care is required approaching elections”

Two days is an appropriate timeframe. A full third of the year approaching a general election is not.

Yes, I have seen the attention paid to the deficit in the wake of the Autumn Statement and the political divisions which have opened up. This goes to the very core of my complaint. Up until the time the government was finally in position to spin news of the increasing deficit and debt on its own terms, the BBC had spent the previous four months suppressing it. Thereby having a significant impact on public perception of the effectiveness of government economic policy and delaying the opening up of political divisions on the issue for the first half of the year leading up to a general election. If the BBC wishes to claim that this is a professional judgement which neither constitutes a substantial breach of the BBC’s published standards, nor raises significant issues of general importance, then it must offer evidence to support that claim.

You may believe what you like about what viewers of the Six would be “properly in a position to gauge“, but that is only your personal view. The impartial test would be to show a focus group the 22 and 24 July editions of the Six side-by-side and ask them what they gauge for themselves, as I said in my initial complaint of 25 July.

I have provided evidence to show exactly how, where and when BBC Editorial Guidelines were breached. If you have evidence to the contrary then please supply it. If not, then any beliefs, thoughts or imaginings you may have on the subject are personal views which may not be expressed in the BBC’s output.

Returning to my opening point about how your summary insidiously misrepresents my complaint, I have not “suggested” what a BBC correspondent said, I have quoted him as accurately as memory will allow. The BBC could easily prove me wrong by supplying audio, video or transcripts of what was actually said. In the absence of such evidence we must assume my eye-witness testimony is correct.

I’m sorry your explanation has not addressed any of my concerns. As a licence payer I do not appreciate the BBC wasting my money and time on this kind of bureaucratic gerrymandering. Unless you can provide evidence refuting the points I have raised in this email I will be appealing to the BBC Trust.

If the Trust chooses to dismiss that appeal on the grounds that it doesn’t show either a substantial breach of the BBC’s published standards or that an operational decision has raised significant issues of general importance, then this will tell the licence payers all they need to know.

Please Note: I wish all 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 sincerely,

Ian McNulty

*****

Chain of Correspondence:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *