Complaint submitted on January 7th
On January 4th a story appeared across every platform on BBC Scotland. The story related to so-called ‘single crew ambulances’.
According to the BBC 10,000 such ambulances had been despatched between 2013/14 and 2016/17. In every single broadcast the same phrase was used: “According to figures obtained by the Scottish Conservatives.”
The story was number one online, led the morning edition of Reporting Scotland and led every bulletin on that day’s Good Morning Scotland.
The figures were presented as though a failing on behalf of the Scottish Ambulance Service and the Scottish Government. Both were presented on the defensive.
However, it later emerged that the figures were in fact based on a four month old Freedom of Information request submitted by the Scottish Conservatives.
I would therefore like to submit the following complaints:
- BBC Scotland withheld the fact that the figures were the result of a FOI request.
- BBC Scotland ran a four month old FOI request at a time of maximum benefit to the Conservative party and presented the figures as though only recently obtained.
- Every BBC Scotland headline/intro presented the figures as though a failing, despite the most recent figures being the second best on record and an improvement of over one third on the previous year.
- BBC Scotland omitted the following highly relevant part of the Scottish Ambulance Service response from all of its news bulletins. “A single crew will be sent to an incident if they are the closest resource to provide a patient with immediate care, but they will always be backed up by a double crew.”
Reply from BBC Scotland Deputy Head of News and Current Affairs, received January 23rd
“You say “Every BBC Scotland headline/intro presented the figures as though a failing despite the most recent figures being the second best on record and an improvement of over one third on the previous year.”
Our online story http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-42557798 makes clear that the “The rate has fallen from a high of 3,514 in 2015/16 but remains above the 2013/14 low of 1,644.”
Other stories on other platforms, running at around half a minute or ninety words each, reported the fact of the number of singly-crewed journeys over a period of four years, as well as the Scottish Ambulance Service’s point that this represented just 1.5% of all shifts in that period. We also reported the Scottish Government’s response that they are training an extra 1,000 paramedics in the next four years.
You say the figures were presented “as though a failing” on the part of the ambulance service and the Scottish Government. The Scottish Government has been clear that any single manned crew is a failure to follow its policy. In our online story, Nicola Sturgeon is quoted thus from a decade ago: “I have made it clear to the Scottish Ambulance Service that it must take action to eliminate rostered single-manning. The policy of the Scottish government is clear – traditional accident and emergency ambulances should be double-crewed, with at least one member being a paramedic, unless in exceptional circumstances.”
You complain that we “withheld” the fact that the figures were the result of a FOI request. I am not sure what relevance the source of official statistics is. These were figures obtained by the Scottish Conservatives as our stories make clear. They then put out a release which we followed up the same day.
The age of the request is not necessarily relevant to the value of the figures received – and it is not here. The story is about annual coverage over a number of years and the figures are therefore accurate, whether or not they were obtained earlier that year. There were not, for example, more recent figures that superseded or changed that.
You claim that words you quote from the Scottish Ambulance Service were “highly relevant”. I have read them and do not agree with you. The SAS’s general remarks about “always (…) backed up by a double crew” do not contain enough information to add to the story in a material way.
For the reasons I have outlined above I cannot agree with your complaint.
Follow on complaint submitted on January 31st
To claim that an introduction that reads: “More than 10,000 ambulances have been despatched with a single crew member on board over the last four years…” is *not* presenting the issue as a failing is bordering on ridiculous.
Given the timing of the news story, which was right in the middle of a very harsh winter which was exerting considerable pressure on the Scottish NHS, BBC Scotland should have informed viewers and listeners the figures were four months old.
Viewers and listeners should also have been informed the figures were a result of a Freedom of Information request submitted by the Scottish Conservatives. This prevents members of the public from perhaps believing the figures were leaked to the Scottish Conservatives instead of having been requested. Surely it’s better to be accurate than leave room for misunderstanding to ferment?
The following sentence is crucial to the story. “A single crew will be sent to an incident if they are the closest resource to provide a patient with immediate care, but they will always be backed up by a double crew.” To know that a double-crew is always on standy is reassuring to those people who may have been alarmed by thrust of the story.
Response to follow on complaint received on February 7th
We raised your concerns with the Deputy Head of News and Current Affairs who has little to add to the response you’ve already received.
Complaint to the Editorial Complaints Unit submitted February 8th
I wish to pursue this complaint. The initial response to my complaint was inadequate and very clearly did not take into account much of the argument I presented. My subsequent complaint has simply been ignored.
Response from the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit, received March 3rd
I have examined the BBC Scotland coverage that day, on TV, radio and online and can find no evidence this commitment, or the guidelines on which it is based, was breached.
Let me take the points you raise in turn;
Online and on air the scripts make clear that the figures were obtained by the Scottish Conservative Party. It does not seem to me material that they were obtained through a Freedom of Information request, nor that the exact date when they released to party officials is not disclosed. The dates to which the figures themselves refer are clearly indicated. This is sufficient in my view to allow viewers and readers the chance to make up their own minds on their relevance.
Equally it does not seem to me an essential fact that the latest annual figures are the second best on record, as you suggest. As previously explained more detail was provided where space allowed, but in my view it was sufficient context that each piece stated the position of the Scottish Conservatives and incorporated a response from both the Scottish Ambulance service and the Scottish Government.
Finally the suggestion that a single crew will always be backed up by a double crew does not seem to me material to the argument at hand. The claim is that the use of any single ambulance crew is unacceptable and against Government policy – and it was on those grounds that the story was written and a response sought from those in charge of the service at an administrative and political level.
For these reasons I do not believe you have identified a significant breach in BBC editorial standards and cannot uphold your complaint. This will be the BBC’s final view on your complaint unless there are reasons to modify or amend it in light of any comments you may wish to make. If you do wish to respond to this finding, I would be grateful if you could send your comments to me by 20 March 2018.