Below is a complaint lodged with the BBC. The complaint relates to coverage on BBC Scotland of an accusation leveled against the Scottish Government by the Scottish Tory party and the subsequent failure of BBC Scotland to provide similar coverage when the accusation was shown to be false.
Complaint submitted December 17th:
On Nov 27th, the National Audit Office issued a press release in which it admitted making a mistake in a report it had released to the media thirteen days earlier. The NAO admitted that figures for basic rate income tax payers in Scotland had been overestimated in the report and that this was the reason the report had been pulled on 14th November.
This admission exposed as false, claims made by the Scottish Tory party on 14th November. Ruth Davidson’s party had claimed the NAO had withdrawn the report due to “bullying” by the Scottish Govt. The claim was reported by BBC Scotland in several radio bulletins that same day and also in a lengthy item on the evening edition of Reporting Scotland.
Viewers to Reporting Scotland heard the Scottish Govt being accused of “bullying the NAO to try to coverup the truth”. In all of the news reports the Scottish Govt was heard on the defensive. The accusation and its denial were both presented as equally possible, despite the fact there was literally no evidence to back up the ‘bullying’ claim.
Given the bullying claim was considered important enough to be covered on Reporting Scotland then it is odd that the admission from the NAO, which proved the accusation was false, was not covered at all. The press release from the NAO was arguably a *bigger* story given it both highlighted an error from a respected organisation *and* provided evidence that accusations by the Scottish Tory party had been fabricated.
Reporting Scotland had an obligation to report this development. Yet it did not do so. Those viewers to the November 14th edition who may have believed Tory accusations true, were thus denied an opportunity to have their opinion revised. The result is that a baseless accusation has received widespread coverage, whilst the truth has been all but ignored. The only reference to the NAO admission appeared on Radio Scotland at 19:30 on Nov 28th.
See here for examples of all broadcasts.
Response from the BBC received January 5th 2018
I am afraid I will have to ask you to resubmit this complaint. You have given information which we may need in the form of an URL, which will not open. We cannot accept parts of a complaint to which you wish a response other than in written form on the website or by letter, in each case not exceeding 1,000 words without due reason given for consideration of longer complaints. An exception might be if you provided a link to a BBC online story which was the cause of your complaint.
Response from BBC Scotland Deputy Head of News and Current Affairs, received January 26th
Thank you for being in touch about a National Audit Office report on the administration of the Scottish rate of income tax 2016-17 which was pulled by them before publication. You say that a Conservative charge that this was as a result of bullying by the Scottish Government was reported on radio bulletins and Reporting Scotland at teatime on 14th November. It was, as was the vigorous rebuttal by the Scottish Government in line with our policy on fair and accurate reporting.
For example, our Political Editor, Brian Taylor, was interviewed on Newsdrive on Radio Scotland just after 1600 hrs: he reported that the Tories’ Murdo Fraser was accusing the Scottish Government of bullying anyone who disagreed with them, and that the Scottish Government, in a statement released in the previous few minutes, was dismissing these remarks as “complete and utter nonsense” and accusing Mr Fraser of impugning the integrity of “hard working, impartial civil servants”, pointing out that the Scottish Government’s figures were in line with those used by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
They stressed they did not demand its withdrawal but they said it was reasonable for officials to point out that disparity. Brian Taylor also said “Officials from the Scottish Government – not, I stress, ministers – made contact with the NAO and given the sensitivity of these matters the National Audit Office withdrew it …”. He made the point that it was too late to stop it being all over many newspaper front pages that morning.
The BBC was therefore able during that day to reiterate that the disputed figures had been withdrawn, a fact that would escape those who only read certain newspapers and had no further recourse to alternative media outlets.
The essential elements of what Brian Taylor said were carried in other bulletins through the day, all satisfying our requirement to be fair, accurate and impartial in our reporting.
I cannot agree with your argument that “in all of the news reports, the Scottish Government was heard on the defensive”. As I explained above, and as you can tell from our Political Editor’s comments, the Scottish Government said the Conservatives should be apologising to impartial civil servants and that the accusations were total nonsense. I also cannot agree with your assertion that the NAO’s later explanation of why they had pulled the report “proved” that the Conservative accusation was “false” and that “accusations by the Scottish Tory party had been fabricated”.
What the NAO said on 27th November does not of itself necessarily mean that the Conservatives on 14th November were, in effect, lying; all that can be deduced is that their accusation of bullying – denied by the Scottish Government, as reported by us – has to be seen against the background of an admission two weeks later of “an overestimate of the number of Scottish taxpayers who earn above the higher rate income tax threshold and subsequently the number of people that would pay the basic rate of income tax if they were not Scottish taxpayers”.
All these factors would be taken into account by programme makers. The NAO, in the press release of 27th November, also make the point that the biggest challenge facing HMRC is “maintaining accurate address records of Scottish taxpayers”. They point out that neither taxpayers nor employers are legally required to tell HMRC of changes of address, and that around 80,000 people in the UK move into or out of Scotland each year.
Our Political Editor described this particular spat as “a proxy for a far bigger row to come which is over potential changes to tax rates and bands for the year ahead”. [Reporting Scotland, 1830, 14th November]. I hope that all these points will assure you that our reaction to this story was appropriate and proportionate, including our handling of the matter after the report was withdrawn.
Follow on complaint submitted on January 31st
My initial complaint explained clearly why I believed a press release from the NAO should have received coverage on Reporting Scotland. The response from BBC Scotland fails completely to explain why the press release, containing a crucial admission, was not covered in the same manner as the ‘bullying’ claim was.