On January 9th an item appeared on the BBC News at Six. The item covered Scottish NHS Accident & Emergency figures which had been published that day.
Near the start of the item the reporter, who was the BBC’s Scotland editor Sarah Smith, states: “Last week over one hundred thousand patients waited more than four hours to be seen.”
The statement was false. There were in actual fact 25,865 attendances at Emergency Departments across Scotland the previous week as the following link will show.
The number of patients not seen within four hours was not 100,000 as claimed by Sarah Smith, but 1428 [sic should be over 5000].
By the time BBC News at Ten aired, the 100,000 claim had disappeared, replaced by a more accurate and benign “In the last week of the year, over 20% waited for more than four hours to be seen.”. This implicit acknowledgment of the earlier error was not accompanied by an *explicit* acknowledgement or correction. Viewers who watched both programmes may still have believed the 100,000 figure. Viewers who watched only the earlier programme will definitely have believed the 100,000 figure. This, in my view, requires to be rectified.
This item was broadcast on the UK wide tea-time news, and will have been seen by millions of people across the UK as well as hundreds of thousands in Scotland. It was broadcast at a time when the Scottish NHS was in the headlines and the Scottish Government was being attacked by political opponents over the issue.
Those viewers who may have believed the 100,000 claim, and perhaps had their views on the Scottish NHS coloured by such a memorably high number, have been misled. The BBC has an obligation to publicly acknowledge this error. The corporation should issue a correction and an apology on the same programme.
Response from BBC received 15 Jan 2018
We appreciate you getting in touch regarding the error in Sarah Smith’s report on waiting times for NHS Scotland. We raised this directly with our Correspondent and senior editorial staff. They respond:
“Within an item on Tuesday’s News at Six, Sarah Smith mistakenly used the annual figure rather than the weekly one, for waiting times in A&E departments in Scotland. The weekly figure was 5,686. This was used in all subsequent bulletins and coverage.”
We have also published a Correction on our website:
Sarah also acknowledged the human error on social media: “This week I made a factual error in a report on the BBC 6 o’clock news. For which I apologise. I mistakenly used the annual figure for A&E waiting times in Scotland instead of the weekly one. As soon as I realised my error I changed the report for all subsequent broadcasts.”
We try to avoid errors and make amends as soon as possible, if any slip through like this. We regret any occasion where our standard of accuracy is below what the audience rightly expect.
We do appreciate the time you’ve taken to highlight your reaction to this aspect of our coverage.
Follow-up complaint to the BBC submitted on January 22nd
The BBC response says:
The weekly figure was 5,686. This was used in all subsequent bulletins and coverage.
The figure of 5,686 was not used in all subsequent bulletins. On BBC News at Ten, Sarah Smith told viewers, “In the last week of the year, over 20% waited for more than four hours to be seen.” For all viewers knew, 20% may well have been the 100,000 some had heard earlier.
The BBC response says
Sarah also acknowledged the human error on social media
How many people who heard the erroneous broadcast will have read the tweet by Sarah Smith? How many will even know there is a brief correction on an obscure BBC website?
The 100,000 figure was broadcast on the UK wide tea-time news, and will have been heard by millions of people across the UK as well as hundreds of thousands in Scotland. It was broadcast at a time when the Scottish NHS was in the headlines and the Scottish Government was being attacked by political opponents over the issue of A&E.
Those viewers who may have believed the 100,000 claim, and perhaps had their views on the Scottish NHS coloured by such a memorably high number, have been misled. The BBC has an obligation to issue a correction and an apology on the same programme in order that as many people as possible may have the opportunity to hear the true figure.
Second response from the BBC received 30th January
We note your point on the specific figure of 5,686 not being cited – in its place was the correct percentage rate for that week.
We’ve explained the issue behind the mistake and pointed to our correction online, as well as Sarah’s personal response on social media. We also highlighted the immediate steps taken after the initial transmission to ensure no further repeat of the error was made in subsequent broadcasts. We realise you feel this is not an adequate response, but we’ve offered all we can at this stage.
I’m afraid we cannot correspond with you further at this first stage of the complaints process. If however you are still dissatisfied, you can contact the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit (ECU). The ECU is stage 2 of the BBC’s complaints process.
Complaint submitted to the ECO on February 1st
If an inaccurate and highly misleading claim from a BBC reporter is aired on a national TV programme watched by millions, then a correction on social media coupled with one on an obscure website is completely inadequate. We do not pay the TV licence to see members of the public misled, however accidental. The BBC has an obligation to try to make as many of those, who viewed the erroneous broadcast, aware that it was inaccurate as it can.
Response from BBC ECU received March 26th
Thank you for your email of 16 February. I am writing to let you know the outcome of our investigation into your concerns about an incorrect statistic broadcast on an edition of the News at Six. I am sorry you remain unhappy with the responses you received so far.
I note it is common ground that a mistake was made. It appears that the figure given in Sarah Smith’s report for waiting times in A&E in Scotland was the annual rather than the weekly total. The figure used was 100,000 instead of the correct total of 5,686. Where there is a difference of opinion is over the action taken after the broadcast and whether it was sufficient to remedy the inaccuracy. I understand you believe that any retraction and correction should have been made on television, rather than through social media and online on the BBC Clarifications and Corrections page.
There are two sections of the BBC Guidelines which offer advice to programme makers in this area. The first, and perhaps of most relevance, is the one dealing with Accuracy. It states
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.
The second relates to Accountability
The BBC is accountable to its audiences. Their continuing trust in the BBC is a crucial part of our relationship with them. We will act in good faith by dealing fairly and openly with them.
We are open in acknowledging mistakes when they are made and encourage a culture of willingness to learn from them.
We will use the BBC’s online presence to provide proper reporting to the public on complaints we have received, and actions we have taken.
I think it is evident that this complaint was dealt with quickly. My understanding is that the error was corrected in subsequent broadcasts. There is also no ambiguity in the wording of the correction published online or on social media, so the requirement for clarity is also met. The question as to whether it was appropriate is more a matter of judgement but I think there is a good case for saying it too met the standards required by the Guidelines.
First, there is the nature of the error itself. Whilst regrettable, it should be seen in the context of the overall piece which emphasised not just the absolute figure for those waiting for more than four hours at A&E, but also the percentages and the extent to which NHS Scotland had failed to meet Government targets. Whilst audiences were given an incorrect total, this did not materially affect the whole piece and the likelihood of the audience understanding the message it was trying to convey. Second, the Accountability guidelines explicitly point programme makers towards BBC Online as a quick and effective method of correcting mistakes. That is what happened here. Finally, TV audiences fluctuate day by day and programme by programme. I think it is arguable whether broadcasting a correction on TV some time later, or even on the same programme on the following day, would have necessarily captured the same audience as those who watched the original.
For these reasons I am not in a position to uphold your complaint in this respect. The inaccuracy you identify was a breach of Editorial Standards but I agree with BBC News that the measures taken meant the issue was resolved at an earlier stage.