I saw something on the BBC News Channel yesterday afternoon (Tuesday 22 July 2015) that made me think I was losing my marbles.
Perching on the arm of the sofa, enjoying a few moments of shade after spending a glorious summer afternoon sweltering in the scorching heat of the garden, I was absent mindedly flicking through the TV channels, when I came across an interview on the BBC News Channel between BBC Business Correspondent, Ben Thompson, and a lady from some City brokerage firm giving the usual market updates. At the end of the interview Thompson 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.”
To which the City brokerage lady said something like:
Well, I don’t think it’s boring. In fact it’s quite ironic that public sector borrowing last month was 50 percent higher than last year. When you consider that the financial crash of 2008 was caused by too much government borrowing, and total government borrowing since then has risen by another 25 percent, then when they finally decide we have to balance the books, some future generation is really going to feel the pinch.”
YOU WHAAAAT??? I was so shocked I nearly fell off my chair. Some FUTURE generation is really going to feel the pinch? Isn’t THIS generation feeling the pinch NOW! Isn’t lowering government debt what austerity was supposed to be all about?
But the BBC interviewer gave no such reaction. Instead he laughed, like they do at the end of most news bulletins these days, before handing back to the BBC anchor lady who joined in with the jollity, as if we’d just been watching a news item of Prince George talking goo-goo with a butterfly.
I couldn’t believe it. I needed some way of confirming what had actually happened to know whether I was going crazy or not.
If we had Sky Plus or some other gadget for replaying live TV it would have been easy, but we don’t. So I had to think of something else. We do have one of those Smart TVs connected to the internet, so the BBC iPlayer is only a couple of clicks away. So I tried that and discovered you can get almost anything on iPlayer EXCEPT the BBC News Channel!
You CAN get the News at Six and News at Ten, but only for 24 hours after they were transmitted. After that they disappear down the Memory Hole forever.
Which is kind of strange when you remember that the reason we have to pay the BBC licence fee is because the BBC is supposed to supply us with radio and TV news in the same way as the water company supplies us with water – as a public service. So if they were going to supply anything on BBC iPlayer you’d think their 24 hour News Channel ought to be top of the list.
My last hope was to try typing government borrowing or deficit into the search box on the BBC News website where I discovered one article, Public borrowing at £11.4bn in June, along with a picture of George Osborne, but no video clips of anything BBC TV News actually broadcast on the subject during the day.
Without access to the BBC news archives I have no way of checking what I saw and no way of knowing whether I’m going crazy or not. The only option left I can think of it to put out an appeal here for anybody who either saw or, better still, recorded what happened to either confirm or deny my own eye-witness account in the comment section below.
Update: 6 June 2015
After I’d posted this piece on Wednesday morning (23 July 2014) I spent the rest of the day enjoying the sunshine in the garden and didn’t give it another thought, until I happened to be watching the BBC News at Six at tea time the following day (Thursday 24 July), and heard Fiona Bruce announce that the IMF had raised its UK growth forecast “by almost half a percentage point“.
When I heard that several light bulbs went off in my head at the same time. First, I remembered the flippant and dismissive way Ben Thompson had treated the ONS announcement that the June deficit was fifty percent higher than last year. Then I compared that with Fiona Bruce’s weighty tone when announcing that the IMF had raised its UK growth forecast by almost half a percent.
Less than a half percent rise in an IMF forecast (i.e. an estimate or guess) deserves a weighty tone, yet a fifty percent rise in an ONS historical fact deserves to be treated as a joke? Surely there’s something wrong here! Could the BBC be displaying lack of due impartiality here by portraying news which supports Tory austerity policy in a good light, and dismissing news which suggests austerity isn’t working as some kind of sick joke?
Then it struck me. If the BBC had failed to give the same prominence to the ONS deficit figures on Tuesday’s News at Six as they had given to the IMF forecast on Thursday’s, then that would prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that they were deliberately burying news that was bad for the Tory government. Which would demonstrate bias in favour of the Tories in the year leading up to a General Election, which would be in direct contravention of the BBC’s own Editorial Guidelines.
For a brief moment I was enthused by the idea of being able to prove, simply and scientifically, what many people have been suspecting for some time now – that the BBC aren’t the honest injuns they claim to be – simply by comparing two News at Six items on the economy transmitted in the same week.
Then I remembered that I hadn’t seen the News at Six on Tuesday so I had no idea how they had treated the news of the fifty percent deficit increase. Worse still, as more than 24 hours had passed and the BBC had already disappeared Tuesday’s News at Six down the Memory Hole, I had no way of finding out!
So I began to hatch a cunning plan to get the BBC to give me the information I needed. If I submitted a complaint through the BBC’s Complaints Framework they would have to supply the necessary information.
But, before that, I took advantage of the fact that Thursday’s edition of the News at Six WAS still available on iPlayer to get my facts straight on exactly what degree of prominence the BBC had given to the IMF figures.
The running order for the first half of News at Six on Thursday 24 July 2014 was:
- 00:00 Generic Title Sequence
- 01:49 The Gaza Conflict
UN shelter in Gaza hit by an Israeli missile. 15 killed over 200 injured including women, children and UN staff.
- 07:52 MH17 Crash (happened a whole week ago!)
Two more military aircraft carrying the remains of victims of Malaysia Airline’s flight 17 have landed in the Netherlands.
- 11:06 Air Algerie AH5017 believed missing in W. Africa
A passenger jet with over 100 people on board is believed to have crashed in West Africa.
- 12:38 IMF forecast
“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 4th time in a row. The IMF forecast has been upgraded by almost half a percentage point to 3.2 percent driven by consumer spending and a tentative boost in manufacturing. The forecast this year for the United States is 1.7 percent and Germany 1.9 percent.”
- 13:04 Murder of 17 year-old Jayden Parkinson
“One of the most disturbing cases in living memory. That’s how the police described the murder of 17 year-old Jayden Parkinson. Her former boyfriend, Ben Blakely, has today been found guilty of her murder. He killed her 24 hours after she told him she was expecting his child and buried her in his Uncle’s grave. Duncan Kennedy reports…”
So, this was my benchmark reference point against which I could measure the prominence the BBC gave to the ONS report of the budget deficit. If Tuesday’s News at Six gave less prominence to a fifty percent increase in a real measurement than Thursday’s had given to a less than 0.5 percent increase in a forecast or estimate then there could be no argument the BBC was unduly biased in favour of the Tory government.
So I submitted an online complaint to the BBC on Friday 25 July 2014 and waited to see what happened.
The first big revelation came in an email from BBC Complaints on Wednesday 6 August, when they surpassed my expectations by admitting they had given no prominence at all to the increase in the deficit, preferring to give equivalent prominence they’d given to the growth forecast to a conference on FGM instead :
“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. We’d therefore seek your clarification on the date you saw the initial report you refer to. “– email from Lucia Fortucci, BBC Complaints, Wednesday 6 August
But any elation I felt at that revelation was quickly dashed by the next paragraph:
We’d add that due to the prohibitive costs of providing such a service, video, audio and transcripts for ‘BBC News at Six’ are not available.
What prohibitive costs? I’d accept there might be some cost (though nowhere near ‘prohibitive‘) to providing video or audio. But transcripts … plain text files … in the age of digital media!!!!! Are they serious? They produce all the running orders and scripts on computer anyway as part of the production process, so running off a copy couldn’t cost more than the click of a key.
I couldn’t accept that the cost of making available text files which are generated as part of the production process was ‘prohibitive‘. The BBC is supposed to be a public service organisation operating in the public interest. That’s how they justify charging a licence fee. If journalism is’ the first rough draft of history‘, as former Washington Post President and Publisher, Philip L. Graham, famously said, then transcripts of BBC News programmes are the kind of invaluable historical documents that ought to be freely available through the British Library. Withholding them isn’t just a failure to serve the public interest, it’s actively working against it.
So, on Thursday 7 August 2014, I submitted another complaint to the BBC on their refusal to make transcripts of news programmes available to the public.
On Tuesday 9 Sep 2014 I received an email from the BBC dismissing my complaint about the transcripts:
“We are sorry to tell you that we have nothing to add to our previous reply. 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.
We realise you will be disappointed to hear this but hope this explains why we are not able to take your complaint further. If you remain dissatisfied about our decision you can appeal to the BBC Trust, the body which represents licence fee payers.”– email from Nicola Maguire, BBC Complaints, 9 Sep 2014
I didn’t appeal to the Trust because I was already up to my ears pushing my initial complaint on due prominence through the labyrinthine complexities of the BBC complaints framework and couldn’t sustain a battle on two fronts.
Long story short…
My complaint on lack of due prominence went through all three stages of the complaints framework all the way up to appeal to the BBC Trust. It was an exhausting process which filled over 55 pages of correspondence, lasted over 10 months and eventually ended up with the BBC deciding the complaint was of such little substance it didn’t deserve and answer:
“Trustees did not consider that the complaint raised an issue which had a reasonable prospect of leading them to conclude that there had been a breach of Editorial Standards.
The Committee therefore decided that this appeal did not raise a matter of substance and so did not qualify to proceed for consideration.”– BBC Editorial Standards Committee Decision, Friday 22 May 2015
Anyone who is interested in discovering exactly how the BBC managed to pull that off can download the collected correspondence here: