News at Six Complaint Stage 3: Viewer Response 11

Subject: Request for Appeal
Date: Thu, 08 Jan 2015 09:32:47 +0000
To: trust.editorial@bbc.co.uk

Dear Sir/Madam,

Request for Appeal to the BBC Trust: News at Six, 22 & 24 July 2014. Case numbers: CAS-2832936-Y1CMD4 (Stage 1a), CAS-2854164-81M5MF (Stage 1b)

This complaint concerns the lack of due impartiality in the BBC’s reporting of two key economic indicators in the period 22 to 24 July 2014. The BBC’s Stage 1 and Stage 2 responses clearly demonstrate that this was not a one-off incident but the result of BBC editorial policy which continues to be supported by the BBC Executive up to the present time.

The two indicators in question, the ONS monthly deficit figure released on 22 July and the IMF revised UK growth forecast released two days later, are key evidence in the determination of the effectiveness of current government policy in balancing the books by increasing growth and decreasing the deficit. Lack of due impartiality on this issue is of particular significance in the year leading up to a general election, where the economy is one of the key issues, and the effectiveness of spending cuts to reduce the deficit will be a major factor in determining the outcome.

Rational judgement, as personified in the Scales of Justice, is the process of weighing evidence on either side of an issue impartially. Impartiality is the process of apportioning each piece of evidence the prominence or weight it is due. The balance can be manipulated, biased or skewed by attaching more weight to evidence on one side than the other. The degree and direction of bias can be measured by the difference in weights given to two equivalent pieces of evidence on either side of the debate.

The ONS’ announcement, that the June 2014 deficit was 50% higher than last year, is evidence suggesting government economic policy isn’t working. The IMF’s announcement, that the growth forecast had been increased by almost half a percent, is evidence suggesting it is.

An impartial judgement on the relative weights properly due to these two announcements is not difficult to make. The ONS announcement tells us what happened in reality. The IMF forecast tells us what might happen in the future. The ONS announcement is a material fact. The IMF announcement is an expert estimate or guess. The ONS figure of 50% is 100 times greater than the IMF figure of 0.5%. Therefore the ONS announcement is due significantly greater prominence and weight than the IMF’s.

The prominence of fourth item on the News at Six agenda given to the IMF announcement provides a benchmark, datum or calibration point against which the prominence given to the ONS announcement can be measured.

Stage 1a of the Complaints Framework established that, on the day of the ONS announcement, the BBC gave fourth place on the News at Six to a conference on FGM whereas the ONS announcement was given no place at all. Comparison of the placings of the ONS and IMF announcements therefore clearly demonstrates that the BBC gave significantly more prominence to evidence suggesting the government’s economic policy was working to evidence suggesting it wasn’t.

After a delay of more than three-and-a-half months, the BBC’s final Stage 1b response justified this lack of due impartiality in terms of a) the busyness of the day’s news agendas and b) the balance of reporting trends in the deficit and growth over time.

The relative busyness of the two agendas can easily be determined by comparison of the programmes, running orders or transcripts but this is something the BBC will not allow due to “prohibitive costs”. This is a nonsense on several counts (see Complaint No: CAS-2854731-7TXWGG) but will not be discussed here as it is not the subject of this complaint.

Even without access to the necessary documentation it can be shown that the busyness of the two programmes was not significantly different. The three items preceding the IMF announcement on Thursday 24 July were:

  1. Gaza Conflict (6 min)
  2. MH17 investigation (3 min 15 sec)
  3. missing Air Algerie flight AH5017 (1 min 30 sec).

By 22 July the MH17 story had already been running for five days and the Gaza Conflict for more than 2 weeks. They occupied the first half of the Six on the day of the ONS announcement and the first third on the day of the IMF announcement, which is not significantly different. And no matter how busy the agenda on the day of the ONS announcement there was enough space to include a conference on FGM at fourth place.

BBC Guideline 4.4.25 states that:

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

The defence that reporting of trends in the deficit can be balanced over time implies that BBC News does not regard monthly trends in the deficit to be a “major matter“. This was confirmed by the Head of Editorial Standards, BBC News, in his final stage 2 response of 22 December.

This complaint therefore boils down to two questions:

  1. Is the reporting of the monthly deficit in the year running up to a general election, where the effectiveness of government policy for reducing the deficit will be a major issue, a “major matter” or not?
  2. Would giving fourth place on the News at Six agenda to a report suggesting government policy was working, and no place to a report suggesting it wasn’t, be likely to unduly influence the electorate’s perceptions and decisions?

The Head of Editorial Standards’ argument, that monthly reports of the deficit weren’t necessary because it was reported when it became a major issue, is equivalent to Social Services claiming that regular reports of problem families aren’t necessary because they report them when someone gets hurt.

Any opinions the BBC or I may have on any of the above are irrelevant. If audiences are at the heart of everything the BBC does, then the effect on the audience is what matters. The only impartial test of that is to show a cross section of the audience the two editions of News at Six end-to-end and ask them what opinions they formed.

Please Note: I wish this complaint to be fully accessible and open to all public scrutiny and therefore require all correspondence from the BBC regarding this case to be subject to that understanding.

Yours faithfully

Ian McNulty

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*****

Chain of Correspondence:

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