We commissioned analysis of BBC Scotland’s coverage of the claim made by Scottish Labour MSP Jenny Marra who alleged a former chief executive at NHS Tayside had received a payoff of over £300,000. The figure was subsequently proven to be false – the true figure being £90,000. Below is the result of that analysis.
The story breaks
The story appeared on BBC Scotland on Monday, August 6th. BBC Scotland reported that the former chief executive at NHS Tayside had left her job.
The story appeared online at 09:45 that day with a rather bland headline – ‘Former NHS Tayside chief leaves health board’.
The news bulletin below was broadcast at just after 12:00 on Radio Scotland that day.
The story was already a day old having been broken the previous day by the Sunday Post. What BBC Scotland appeared to find interesting, and presumably why the station ran the story albeit a day late, was the payoff angle. At this stage though there is no attempt to place an estimate on any ‘payoff’ figure.
Doorstepping the First Minister
The NHS Tayside payoff story was not repeated on Radio Scotland’s 13:00 news bulletin. Instead another NHS story was covered. This centred on a story that also broke the previous day and related to claims that nurse shortages were hitting local services in the Grampian area. The claims prompted BBC Scotland to despatch a film crew to doorstep Nicola Sturgeon. The clip below contains the response given by the First Minister.
An extended video clip of the First Minister was posted on the BBC Scotland News twitter account at around 15:00.
The video clip can be seen below.
It is likely that the BBC North East Scotland film crew were already scheduled to doorstep the First Minister on the ‘NHS staff shortage’ issue. They would also doorstep the First Minister on the ‘payoff’ story. The ‘payoff doorstepping’ would be broadcast later on Newsdrive and also shown later on that evening’s Reporting Scotland.
Jenny Marra and the £300,000 claim
The first mention of Jenny Marra’s claim that NHS Tayside had paid Lesley McLay over £300,000 appeared in the lunchtime edition of Reporting Scotland.
The programme was broadcast at 13:30. At 13:45 the 09:45 article headline – ‘Former NHS Tayside chief executive leaves health board‘ – is altered to ‘Former NHS Tayside chief executive ‘received £300,000 pay-off‘.
The article is now the lead item on the BBC Scotland online news section. It contains the following quote from Scottish Labour MSP Jenny Marra.
I understand today that the golden handshake that Lesley McLay has received is over £300,000.
The article makes no mention, nor gives any clue, as to the source of Jenny Marra’s information. Shortly afterwards a supplementary online article with the headline ‘Former NHS Tayside chief executive ‘received £300,000 pay-off‘ appeared which included footage of Jenny Marra making the claim.
The story has moved on quite dramatically, from its initial bland confirmation of the departure of NHS Tayside’s chief executive to one of the same chief executive receiving almost a third of a million pounds in a ‘golden-handshake’ package. However there is one thing missing. There is no clue given as to the source of this information.
Jenny Marra tells the BBC it is her “understanding” that Lesley McLay received over £300,000. However, why the Scottish Labour MSP understands this is not explored. Is it a whistleblower or a leaked document? Jenny Marra presumably didn’t pluck the figure out of thin air. Regardless, BBC Scotland appears to have taken Ms Marra’s comments at face value.
On or around 15:45 NHS Tayside issued the following statement:
“The claims made about any sum of money received by Ms McLay are categorically untrue. As with any NHS Tayside employee, Ms McLay received what she was contractually entitled to and nothing more upon leaving the organisation.”
The wording of this statement is significant. Although it gives no figure, the fact that the Health Board would issue such an unambiguous, and strongly worded statement, should have given cause for concern to both Jenny Marra and BBC Scotland.
The corporation didn’t alter the thrust of the story. It instead inserted the statement into the coverage. The following audio clip contains every single news bulletin broadcast by Radio Scotland on its evening news programme Newsdrive, from 16:00 that evening.
Reporting Scotland 18:30
That evening’s Reporting Scotland led with the claim that NHS Tayside had paid Lesley McLay more than £300,000. Viewers are told that NHS Tayside “denied that the payoff was on that scale”. Again the report is heavily weighted in favour of the Jenny Marra claim. The First Minister is confronted on camera. She had been doorstepped around lunchtime by a BBC North East Scotland filmcrew.
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. Rather than turning the story around and pressing Ms Marra to give an indication as to the source of her £300,000 figure [whistleblower or leaked document], Reporting Scotland has continued to lead with the claim. It is Scotland’s First Minister who is confronted and not the Scottish Labour MSP. It’s noteworthy that Jenny Marra is not identified as a Scottish Labour MSP in the Reporting Scotland item, but only as “Convenor of the Public Audit Committee” in a caption.
It’s difficult to come to any conclusion other than BBC Scotland wanted Jenny Marra’s claim to be true. There was no reason to run with a bland day-old story of a former chief executive leaving her post unless you had a development or another angle that moved the story on. That ‘development’ was provided by comments from a Scottish Labour MSP.
It could be argued that the story merited the high-profile coverage, given Jenny Marra’s role as convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s Public Audit Committee. The corporation may have considered Marra’s ‘understanding’ corroboration enough for the £300,000 claim.
However that changed the moment the Health Board issued its statement calling Ms Marra’s claim “categorically untrue”. It is at that point the BBC should have sought an explanation from Ms Marra as to the source of her understanding.
If failed to do so and people were misled as a result. Opposition politicians attacked Health Secretary Jeanne Freeman, and the First Minister herself was confronted by a BBC Scotland film-crew.
This then is the nub of the issue and the problem for BBC Scotland. No source was ever identified nor sought. Ms Marra herself is not the source and cannot be considered the source. Her only input was to tell the BBC that she understood over £300,000 had been paid to Lesley McLay. Yet no attempt is ever made to seek the source of this understanding. The possibility cannot be discounted that there never was any credible source for Ms Marra’s ‘understanding’ and that BBC Scotland knew there was no source.
This places BBC Scotland in breach of the BBC’s guidelines on accuracy. It simply didn’t apply any scrutiny to Jenny Marra’s ‘understanding’. Even when unambiguously told the £300,000 figure was false, the corporation continued its same narrative. By the time the 18:30 edition of Reporting Scotland aired, Jenny Marra’s unsourced and uncorroborated ‘understanding’ was being given more weight than an official statement from the Health Board itself.
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