News at Six, Complaint Stage 3: Viewer Response 13

Subject: Re: Request for Appeal
Date: Tue, 10 Mar 2015 16:48:10 +0000
From: Ian McNulty
To: Trust Editorial <TrustEditorial@bbc.co.uk>

Dear Kirsty,

Thank you for you email.

Please find attached my response to the Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser.

Yours sincerely,

Ian

Ian McNulty
Viewer

____________________________________________________________________________________________________

Ms Leanne Buckle
By email: trust.editorial@bbc.co.uk

Your Ref: 3122674
9 March 2015

Dear Ms Buckle

Reporting of economic stories, 22 and 24 July 2014, Six O’Clock News, BBC1 and the News Channel

Thank you for your response of 23 February 2015. I am sorry to disagree with your decision to block this complaint from due oversight by the Trustees. My reasons are included in the Annex attached with this letter.

As a licence fee payer I support the Trust’s policy of not spending a good deal of time and money on cases that do not stand a realistic prospect of success. If such cases were not rejected along with the other 99.9% of complaints that fail to get past the second tier of the complaints process, then the entire Complaints Framework would be unfit for purpose and a hugely expensive waste of time.

I propose maximising the cost-effectiveness further by only asking the Trustees to vote on the simple question distilled out at the conclusion of the second tier of the process:

In the year leading up to a general election, when spending cuts to reduce the deficit will be central to the debate, do the Trustees consider the release of the official monthly deficit figure to be a “major matter”? Yes or No?

If the vote is a unanimous no, then the appeal has been judged by the full jury of Trustees and dismissed in less than 5 minutes. Only if any of the Trustees voted yes would they then need to consider why the Head of Editorial Standards, BBC News, does not agree.

In order to do that fairly and impartially they would need to examine the evidence presented by the respondents in their own words, not in the words of any third party intermediary, no matter how independent they may claim to be.

The key Editorial Guideline the Trustees need to refer to in this case is 4.4.26, Impartiality in Series and Over Time, which concludes:

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

To aid the Trust in keeping the costs to a minimum I am willing to compile the entire chain of correspondence in this complaint in PDF form free of charge.

Yours sincerely

Ian McNulty
Licence Fee Payer

__________________________________________________________________________

Annex – Point-By-Point Response to the Adviser’s Decision

The definition of “a matter of substance” is confounded by so many disparate factors it is impossible to determine what it means. In the absence of a clear, unambiguous and explicit definition it cannot be considered a proper standard for judging complaints against.

Complaint

The Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser (the Adviser) has cherry-picked the 12,000 words of written evidence in the first 3 stages of the complaints process to produce a 360 word summary which: a) misrepresents the complaint from the outset, and b) expunges all evidence of the key matters of substance raised.

The Complainant did not consider the BBC had given too much coverage to figures released by the IMF. To the contrary, he accepted coverage of the IMF release as the standard against which coverage of all other economic figures should be judged.

The Complainant did not consider that measurement of material facts were more significant and more accurate than predictions, the rules of science, mathematics, law and reason consider that.

The Complainant was not able to give a time for the News Channel report because Audience Services had closed down his request to make news transcripts available.

The Complainant was able to give reasons why the Audience Services statement quoted in the Adviser’s Annex was in direct breach of Editorial Guidelines 4.4.19 and 4.4.26. A key matter of substance directly related to specific Editorial Guidelines which the Adviser did not consider substantial enough to include in her summary.

The Complainant did receive a response from the Head of Editorial Standards , BBC News (HoES), which gave a detailed response in terms of how the BBC reported economic news in general and also in terms of the other stories that were on the news agenda during the time in question.

The Complainant replied with a point-by-point refutation of every single point HoES raised, none of which HoES was able to to repudiate before referring the complaint to appeal.

The Complainant was however able to secure a clear statement from HoES at the conclusion of Stage 2 that

“BBC News would not regard this single month’s borrowing figure as a ‘major matter.’”

These are just two more matters of substance the Adviser did not consider substantial enough to include in her summary.

Appeal

A simple side-by-side comparison of the original 983 word Appeal and the Adviser’s 74 word summary demonstrates just how accurate and impartial the Adviser’s summary is. The one aspect of the appeal the adviser chooses to focus on – other stories in the news at the time – was, by her own admission, first referred to by HoES in his detailed Stage 2 response. It was HoES who provided his own assessment of the relative newsworthiness of these other stories, not the Complainant. The Complainant refuted that argument by demonstrating that the relative newsworthiness of those other stories had not changed significantly during the period in question.

Decision of the Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser

If the Adviser had read the correspondence carefully she should have known that the Complainant referred to breaches of specific sections of the 10 pages of Editorial Guidelines on Impartiality, not to just one paragraph from the general introduction defining the meaning of the word “due”.

According to the Complainant’s own transcription of the 24 July edition of News at Six, the report of the IMF figure started 12 min 38 sec from the head of the programme and the following item (on the murder of Jayden Parkinson) started at 13 min 04 sec, giving a total duration for the IMF item of 26 sec, which would more accurately be described as almost thirty seconds, not “less than twenty seconds.”

The Adviser’s account of the coverage of the ONS figures on the BBC News Channel in the afternoon obscures its meaning in the unfolding narrative of this complaint.

It was Ben Thompson’s characterisation of the June deficit figure as “a bit of a boring number” that first attracted the Complainant’s attention to the possibility of bias, because it was signposting that breached Editorial Guideline 4.4.13:

“Our audiences should not be able to tell from BBC output the personal prejudices of our journalists or news and current affairs presenters on matters of public policy, political or industrial controversy, or on ‘controversial subjects’ in any other area. They may provide professional judgements, rooted in evidence, but may not express personal views in BBC output, including online, on such matters.”

Whilst the BBC may not have been able to tell from the output the personal prejudices of their journalists, at least one member of the audience could.

As the Complainant made clear at the beginning of his appeal, assessing anything rationally is a matter of balancing the evidence on either side of the case. Ben Thompson’s use of the word “boring” in his introduction tipped the balance slightly in the direction of bias, but not enough to justify any complaint.

Holly Cooke’s subsequent revelation that one of the key causes of the 2008 economic meltdown, the UK’s debt to GDP ratio, was now a “much bigger problem” than it was in 2008, and future generations were “really going to feel the pinch“, might have been expected to cause some kind of heavy-hearted response in anyone who understood what it meant The fact that both Ben Thompson and the news anchor he handed back to at the end of the piece were able to dismiss it in such a light-hearted manner proved that at least 2 BBC journalists were biased against giving the release of the June deficit figures the weight and prominence it was due.

The omission of any mention of the June deficit figure on the News at Six that evening tipped the balance significantly further in the direction of institutional bias, but still not enough to motivate a complaint. It was only when the release of the IMF growth figure 2 days later provided the standard of 4th place on the News at Six that the balance of evidence had tipped past the point of reasonable doubt.

The Complainant agrees that assessing impartiality is not a stop-watch exercise. Any comparison between the length of one report on a channel with a 0.9% viewing share, and no report at all on a channel with a viewing share 27 times higher, is therefore a whole order of magnitude more meaningless and misleading at least.

The Complainant made it clear in his Stage 2 response of 12 December 2014 to BBC Complaints Director, Colin Tregear, that he he understood very well that decisions such as which stories to cover in news bulletins and how to cover them were editorial decisions which rested with the BBC:

“Indeed I cannot imagine how it would be possible to run a news programme any other way.”

The Adviser omitted this from her summary as well as Mr Tregear’s reply which acknowledged that:

“There are clearly occasions when an editorial decision could lead to a breach of the BBC’s editorial standards.”

The Adviser’s conclusion that no breaches of Editorial Standards occurred and that the Trustees would be likely to conclude that the output met the standards set out in the Editorial Guidelines is a foregone conclusion based on evidence that has been tampered with to remove all traces of any evidence suggesting the opposite.

The closing statement from the Head of Editorial Standards, BBC News, at the conclusion of Stage 2 made it clear that:

“BBC News would not regard this single month’s borrowing figure as a ‘major matter’.”

This is a clear and unambiguous statement in writing from a top authority on BBC Editorial Standards that BBC News does not regard the release of the monthly deficit figures as a ‘major matter’ worthy of due weight and prominence.

The only question remaining therefore is: Is this a professional judgement rooted in evidence? Or is it prejudice, bias and lack of due impartiality?

It is for this reason that the Complainant proposes that any oversight by the Trustees should begin with a vote on one simple question:

In the year leading up to a general election, when spending cuts to reduce the deficit will be central to the debate, do the Trustees consider the release of the official monthly deficit figure to be a “major matter”? Yes or No?

The Complainant considers that the failure of the BBC to acknowledge mistakes and learn from them is a key reason why more than 50% of the audience now want the licence fee scrapped, and a recent report on the Future of the BBC by the all-party Culture, Media & Sports Committee (CM&S) recommended that the Trust should be abolished and responsibility for handling complaints should be transferred to Ofcom.

The Complainant considers this very regrettable for the following reasons:

  1. Paragraph 337 of the CM&S report does not say that transferring responsibility for handling complaints to an independent body will make the complaints process more transparent and fair, but that it will make it “appear more transparent and fair”.
  2. BBC Director General, Lord Hall has welcomed the scrapping of the licence fee and is now campaigning for the BBC to be funded through general taxation which will effectively give taxpayers as much influence over the BBC as they have over the Ministry of Defence.

Please Note: The Complainant wishes this complaint to be fully accessible and open to public scrutiny and therefore requires all correspondence from the BBC regarding this case to be subject to that understanding.

*****

Chain of Correspondence:

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