The following complaint relates to BBC Scotland coverage of the NHS Tayside ‘payoff’ accusation leveled by Jenny Marra. The Labour MSP had [falsely] claimed that the Health Board had paid its former chief executive over £300,000.
Complaint submitted on August 16th
On the afternoon of Monday August 6th, a story appeared across BBC Scotland platforms. The story was based on comments given to BBC Scotland by Scottish Labour MSP, Jenny Marra. Ms Marra told the BBC she understood a payment of over £300,000 had been made to the former Chief Executive of NHS Tayside.
Shortly afterwards, a BBC Scotland film crew confronted Nicola Sturgeon with the claim. The FM’s response was heard on news bulletins.
An article appeared online with the following headline ‘Former NHS Tayside chief executive ‘received £300,000 pay-off‘.
Despite a strongly worded statement from NHS Tayside calling the claim “categorically untrue”, the story led Reporting Scotland that evening. Viewers saw the FM being confronted.
By the time Reporting Scotland aired, NHS Tayside’s statement, calling Jenny Marra’s claim “categorically untrue”, had been known about for at least three hours.
BBC Scotland made no attempt to ascertain the source of Jenny Marra’s ‘undertanding’. There was literally no corroboration sought. Was it an un-named whistleblower or a leaked document? We still don’t know. Jenny Marra was not the source, she claimed only to “understand” £300,000 had been paid. How she came to this understanding was never explored.
BBC guidelines on accuracy make it clear that the BBC “should not distort known facts” or “present invented material as fact”. The £300,000 figure was both a distortion and it was invented. The £300,000 figure was belatedly accepted as false by BBC Scotland.
The only verifiable information came from the Board itself. That should have alerted BBC Scotland to the inherent weakness in the claim it was headlining. It should have contacted Jenny Marra to ask the MSP to verify her claim. It didn’t.
People were misled as a result. Those misled include opposition MSP Miles Briggs who issued a statement attacking “SNP Ministers” using a link to the BBC article as his own ‘source’.
At least one BBC guideline was broken, add in misleading the public and we have two.
Generic response from the BBC received August 20th
We were contacted by a number of audience members regarding our coverage of NHS Tayside severance deal with its chief executive. To allow us to reply promptly and use the licence fee efficiently, we’re sending this response to everyone. We’re sorry we can’t reply individually, but we hope this will address most of the points raised.
It might help to set out the chronology of events in this developing story. At the weekend there were media reports about NHS Tayside, and on Monday morning our reporter emailed the health board’s communications team asking for confirmation that Ms Lesley McLay was no longer employed by NHS Tayside; and for information on whether she was resigning or having her employment terminated and whether or not she was receiving a financial package.
They quickly responded with this statement: “A spokesperson for NHS Tayside said ‘Lesley McLay, former Chief Executive, left the Board on 31 July, 2018”. They prefaced this with these words: “We cannot add any further detail to this statement.” We published that story, using that response, a little after 10.30 on Monday morning.
About an hour later, after an on-camera allegation by Jenny Marra, the BBC went back to them with a second request for comment on any financial package. This time, NHS Tayside did not respond, nor did they indicate that they were considering a further response.
We also sought comment from the Scottish government and the First Minister. The First Minister agreed to give an on camera interview and answer questions at a public event and was not “doorstepped”. Following Ms Marra’s claim, we updated our stories over all platforms accordingly, including information previously provided by NHS Tayside, the latest that they had given us. In the case of the online story, the headline is: “Former NHS Tayside Chief Executive ‘received £300,000’ pay off.”
The headline is quite clearly a report of the allegation made by Ms Marra. The presence of quote marks in the headline is standard journalistic practice and denotes that this comment is taken from a quote. Immediately after that headline, the opening paragraph of the story reads: “NHS Tayside’s former chief executive received a final financial package of more than £300,000, an MSP has claimed.”
The headline is also supplemented with a summary which is visible on the computer desktop index page. It reads: “An MSP claims Lesley McLay was given the sum despite ‘presiding over financial chaos’ at NHS Tayside.”
As you can see, the quote in the headline is clearly attributed to an MSP in both the opening paragraph and the summary. The story makes it clear that this is a claim made by Ms Marra. About four and a half hours after our second request for more information, NHS Tayside issued a statement to us saying that Ms Marra’s claims were “categorically untrue”.
Within 20 minutes of that email, we had updated the online story and on-air bulletins were also being recast to accommodate NHS Tayside’s response. For example, in Reporting Scotland, the reporter said that NHS Tayside denied Ms Marra’s claims but would not say how much Ms McLay had been paid: they had added “she received what she was contractually entitled to and nothing more”, words which were shown on a graphic.
At each stage in this story, we gave NHS Tayside the right of reply and continually updated our story through the day with new information. It is important to emphasise that at no stage on any platform did we report Ms Marra’s figure as fact.
This story was, at its essence, a claim made by an MSP that the departing chief executive of a health board had received a substantial payment of public money even although her employment had been terminated: it was not a piece which focussed on the role of the Scottish Government or the SNP.
Once the BBC had managed to learn, through its own sources, the figures involved, it published a further story which set out the position as best it could. You can read a version of it here https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-45099492
This was given prominent placing on the main index of the BBC Scotland News index page throughout the evening and the following day. We also sought a further on-camera interview with Ms Marra to explain her allegation and reported that she did not make herself available.
The BBC also added links to this new story in the previously published story so that readers could see that there had been a significant update. Other platforms made changes in their own way to reflect the changing nature of this story. Every version of the story published by BBC Scotland on its news website or on air carried a response from NHS Tayside.
Ms Marra is not only an MSP representing the local area but also the Convener of the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee at Holyrood. As such, claims made by her about the use of public money are from a credible source and reporting the allegation is clearly in the public interest.
In fine, the BBC reported an allegation from a credible source; it clearly reported and attributed this as an allegation; it sought and published responses from NHS Tayside; and it continued to follow the issue with further detail and publication. We do value audience feedback and please be assured that your comments have been added to the daily log which is circulated to senior programme makers and management.
Further complaint submitted on September 2nd.
In its response the BBC says: “Ms Marra is not only an MSP representing the local area but also the Convener of the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee at Holyrood. As such, claims made by her about the use of public money are from a credible source and reporting the allegation is clearly in the public interest.”
The point of the complaint was that Jenny Marra was *not* the source. If anything, her status as Convenor places an even greater obligation on the BBC to confirm there was indeed a credible source for her claim. She very cleary stated that she *understood* a sum of over £300,000 had been paid by the Health Board. We do not know the source of Ms Marra’s understanding. That is the whole point. BBC Scotland should have asked the Labour MSP *why* she understood such a large sum had been paid. But no such question was asked. This is unacceptable.
The BBC is not allowed to “present invented material as fact”. The First Minister herself was confronted with Marra’s claim by a camera crew. The exchange was broadcast on that evening’s news. Thus, Marra’s figure was presented as genuine and credible, when it was neither.
There is every reason to believe that Jenny Marra did indeed invent the £300,000 figure. The reason a source is required is to prevent inventions of this nature becoming headline news. This does not require the source to be named. It just required Marra to confirm that she wasn’t plucking the figure out of thin air and to explain the *nature* of her source. After the Health Board issued its strongly worded statement BBC Scotland was *obliged* to confront Jenny Marra and demand she confirm that she was indeed relying on a credible source and explain the nature of her source.
Is BBC Scotland *really* arguing that a politician making allegations will be deemed *themselves* to be the source of the information *because* they are politicians?
Second response from BBC Scotland received 14th Sept.
We raised your further concerns with the teams responsible for the coverage and they have nothing to add to the response you’ve already received.
Complaint passed to the ECU on 15th September.