A BBC Complaint – Sarah Smith A&E 100,000 patients

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.

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27 thoughts on “A BBC Complaint – Sarah Smith A&E 100,000 patients

  1. Ro Bell

    Can we please note that the term ” waited for more than four hours to be seen” as the four hour target is to admit to A&E, triage, be seen by Dr or specialist, investigated, treated, admitted or discharged. Unlike England where the clock only starts ticking ONCE a patient has been seen by a Dr.

    1. Susan Smith

      I’ve just sent a complaint about this figure and pointed out just what you’ve highlighted, Ro. The target isn’t the time spent “waiting to be seen” but waiting, being assessed, admitted to hospital or treated and sent home.

  2. Big Jock

    The problem is the BBC are answerable to noone. Complaining means you are a paranoid nationalist.

    It’s the oldest trick in the book. You lie and when someone tries to expose it you say the complainant is imagining something that isn’t there.

    Noone in the MSM will back us up. They are supporting the lies. But there is one group who can do something. The Scottish government. They are the victims of the lies.

    Why are they not taking the BBC and others to task?

    1. Judy Gauldie

      The misrepresentation by Sarah Smith was so gross it’s unbelievable that there wasn’t an explicit apology by BBC. I too believe the Scottish Government should make a statement. The BBC needs to know that every item they deliver re Scotland will be scrutinised and publically corrected if inaccurate.

  3. Gordie Fraser

    This isn’t fake news, post truth, miss remembering. This is a downright lie and an apology must be issued to the Scottish government, Scottish NHS and the Scottish people, by the reporter at the same time in the news cycle as it was broadcast, along with an enquiry on how MSM reports Scottish news

  4. Sheila McKenzie

    Any complaints made to BBC are met with a blank response with predictable nonsensical,soundbites
    However if enough people write or Tweet to BBC Newswatch there is a far greater chance of a complaint or comment being broadcast
    The more people who send a comment about this deliberately misleading report by Sarah Smith to Newswatch then there could be an even greater chance of it being highlighted on this week’s Newswatch

  5. Diane Hawkes

    This is pure propaganda Scottish NHS is not nearly in a mess like England and Theresa May has the cheek to say everything is going well wonder what she promises bbc for not telling the truth about our NHS, it should be law they are not allowed to tell us lies only the truth

  6. Robert Graham

    I doubt if the BBC in Scotland have ever ran a positive story about anything the SNP government does or what achievements they have made , if they happen to include something that eludes support for the SNP ” BUT ” is always included .

    The BBC in Scotland are running a vendetta bordering on Sedition , undermining the freely elected government of any country is classed as Sedition a criminally punishable offence in fact in some countries caries the death penalty its viewed that serious .

    I do hope someone somewhere is taking note of those who conspire to overturn our government and serious repercussions will follow our independence .

    Bugger the truth and reconciliation service used in South Africa , I want bloody justice and severe penalties for these perpetrators all staff at the BBC in Scotland should be given notice and pension benefits etc will be passed for payment to the English government because lets face it thats who they are working for let them pay them .

  7. millie

    Not sure if this will be available on iPlayer etc?

    On UK BBC 1 News broadcast at 1.00 pm today, I’m sure that the health reporter Catherine Burns reported ‘3,000 patients’ in England NHS were not seen within the 4 hour A&E waiting time period?

    The figure online is actually 300,000.

    Is it possible for someone to check this?

      1. millie

        Thanks for that link Colin H.

        On the back of the Sarah Smith misreporting debacle – I couldn’t believe my ears.

        Two ‘BBC journalists’, within two days, reporting A&E figures for two different countries – and both journalists misreporting the figures by thousands – coincidence eh?

        I don’t trust ‘the BBC’.

        Someone said Sarah Smith apologised on twitter. The problem is I don’t have twitter or facebook and rarely use the internet – many others are in the same boat – so the undermining of the Scottish Government will continue apace as long as the BBC has free rein.

  8. Dan Huil

    Sarah Smith is a British nationalist who doesn’t care about the truth. Perfect bbc material in other words.

  9. David McDonald

    If anyone wants to see it I think the BBC item can still be found on Google? There is also a strap line in the article which says “Last month, BBC analysis of NHS data showed that Scotland had constantly performed better than England over the past three years.”

    Pity it is no longer available on the current BBC page for all to see. I don’t understand why the Scottish government doesn’t make more of this when taunted with ‘getting on with the day job’. NHS performance is a real worry down here in England!

  10. Holebender

    For the 100,000 figure to be credible you have to believe that 500,000 people in Scotland visited A&E in one week. Does anyone believe that 10% of Scotland’s population piled into A&E in a single week?

    (100,000 is 20% of 500,000 and we’re told 20% waited over four hours.)

  11. grizebard

    Putting it out on Twitter, Dan, where the vast majority of ordinary TV viewers won’t ever discover it.

    Yet again, one truth for the internet where the fact-checkers lurk, another very partial “truth” broadcast for the unsuspecting masses.

    There should be a campaign: Sarah, ‘fess up for real!

  12. Iain Taylor

    Is it also the case that the casualty was posting photos of himself hiking around the hills of Glencoe at the time in question?

  13. jdman

    It is worth noting that a report on the English NHS made the same mistake in reverse when they claimed 3000 waited over 4 hours when in fact it was 300,000,
    one mistake is unfortunate, two is a clear attempt to mislead!

  14. Scott

    Thank you for your e-mail. This is to let you know that it has been received and a full response will follow in due course.

    Having emailed Donalda MacKinnon, Director, BBC Scotland regarding SS “mistake” and how she wanted our trust back that is the reply I got,still waiting for full response but it will be along the same lines as yours thousands of people don’t do twitter so a TV apology by Sarah Smith should and must be made.
    I will post the full response if and when I get one.

  15. A C Bruce

    I received the exact same response from the BBC on 15 January 2018 in reply to my complaint about this.

    Standard reply – word for word. No attempt to answer each complaint individually, just computer generated nonsense fired off to shut us up.

    I had said she should apologise on the programme she broadcast on, not on her Twitter account where the BBC news audience is unlikely to be found.

  16. Kenny

    It’s bollocks but they’ll get away with it. The sad thing is that if they actually cared about trust, they’d have taken two secs to say “on yesterday’s 6, Sarah Smith said 100k but this was an annual figure. The correct number is 5686.”

    Easy. Honest. Trustworthy. But not Auntie’s way.

  17. Ann Forbes

    Re Newswatch live transmissions this reply sent to me 23/01/18 –

    I’m sorry about this. The programme is broadcast, as mentioned, at 7.45 on Friday evenings and 03.45 Saturday mornings, both on the News Channel. It is also broadcast, as you say, at 7.45 on BBC1, but because this is shown as a segment of the Breakfast programme, rather than an individual programme, the iplayer does not recognise that transmission as a separate programme in its own right.

    I hope that’s clear!

    James Mallet
    Series Producer, Newswatch
    BBC Television

    I’m having difficulty in finding out when the above are broadcast during a seven day period .
    The only time I come across it is on a Saturday morning at 07.45 which is not mentioned below !
    Thank you .
    Ann Forbes

  18. Cubby

    I dont think the BBC has ever accepted any complaint of anti Scotgov/SNP bias and ever will. A totally corrupt organisation. I am not aware of any independence supporters working in P Quay but every Scot on current affairs programmes down south is a Britnat.
    I have submitted a number of complaints over a number of years in a number of different ways on different topics and they are all are rejected.
    A total waste of time engaging with the BBC.

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