BBC Trust rejects complaint about NHS referendum ‘leak’ coverage


by G.A Ponsonby

As Labour-inspired claims about the Scottish NHS continue to dominate BBC news coverage in Scotland, the BBC Trust has rejected a complaint about a key intervention by its health correspondent in the last few days of the referendum campaign last September.

The move coincides with a bout of allegations made by Labour about the Scottish Government’s handling of the NHS, which included a humiliating withdrawal of some claims made by leading figure Jim Murphy MP.

Murphy released a video on Monday in which he claimed operation cancellations in Scottish hospitals were running at four times that in England.  However within 24 hours both the video and a tweet linking to the video had been deleted.  It emerged that the claim being made by Murphy was completely false.

SC_2colThe Scottish Labour leader’s embarrassment coincided with the BBC Trust’s communication with a former Newsnet member.  The email responded to a complaint which also related to another allegedly false claim about the Scottish NHS.

Here’s what we know so far…

Just two days before the independence referendum the BBC Scotland health correspondent, Eleanor Bradford,  claimed to have obtained a document – based on a meeting of senior health board managers – whose contents she said suggested that the SNP was secretly planning £400m of cuts to the Scottish NHS.

Bradford also suggested the SNP had reversed its long standing opposition to the closing of Accident & Emergency Departments. In a news broadcast on Radio Scotland that evening, she told listeners:

“It could mean the closure of things that are very dear to people, like accident and emergency departments, something that the SNP has refused to allow until now.”

The NHS had emerged as a central issue in the independence debate.  Claims that privatisation of the health service in England threatened Scotland’s NHS were gaining traction.  Bradford’s story all but killed pro-Yes momentum around the issue.

However her suggestion that the SNP was now reversing its long-standing policy against A&E closures was demonstrably false. The SNP had made no such policy U-turn.  A member of the old Newsnet team lodged an official complaint with the BBC.

The initial response was typical.  A BBC official denied the reporter had claimed, or even suggested that the SNP’s stance on closing A&E wards had changed.

Responding to the complaint, the editor of Newsdrive said: “What Eleanor simply meant was that their continuing, consistent, stated policy up till the present time has been no A&E closures.

“It really is as simple as that: there is no justification for a reading of what she said as being a unilateral declaration of change of policy on the Scottish Government’s behalf.”

No justification?  This was strange, for on the day of her radio broadcast, an article written by Bradford was published by the BBC online.  It very specifically suggested A&E closures were indeed being considered.

The complaint moved to stage two, which was to the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU).  In November 2014, both the radio broadcast and the online article were presented as evidence that the BBC Scotland reporter had misled the public.

Also presented was evidence that the phrase “until now” was meant to convey change and not, as claimed by the BBC, to denote continuity.

Anteaters, Athletes and Workers’ Rights

Three examples from the BBC’s own output were presented to the ECU.

The first was from an online summary for a BBC wildlife programme: which contained unique footage of giant anteaters, and included the sentence: “Giant anteaters have never been filmed climbing trees – until now.”

The second was from a BBC news report into the Sochi Winter Olympics after an athlete had been found to have used drugs – “Sochi 2014 had been largely free of drug scandal – until today.”

The third was from a BBC news report about workers’ rights.  It contained this segment: “Up until now, some workers who are required to do overtime have been penalised for taking the time off they are entitled to,” said Howard Beckett of the Unite union.

It was clear that the news report was informing readers that workers would no longer be penalised.

All three examples demonstrated the widely accepted interpretation and meaning of adding the term “until now” (or “until today”) to a given situation or stance.  It was meant to convey change.

Bradford’s radio broadcast, together with the examples demonstrating the contextual use of the phrase “until now”, was strong evidence.  However the online article written by the BBC Scotland correspondent herself, was the killer, the complainant believed.

The complainant added: “The key question was this:

“In reading the online article and listening to her radio broadcast, what was Eleanor Bradford trying to convey? It is clear that (she) was reporting what she believed was a change in SNP policy that now threatened Accident & Emergency departments.  If it hadn’t changed then there was no threat.”

The ECU official initially refused to consider the online article, describing it as an “additional complaint”.  However when it was pointed out that it was not an additional complaint but was in fact evidence to support the current live complaint, it was considered.

However in coming to his judgement, the ECU official wrote:

“For the avoidance of doubt I looked at the article you have cited and it did not lead me to conclude that the radio piece was misleading.”

Despite what appeared to be overwhelming evidence, on December 10th the complaint was rejected a second time.  The response from the ECU was disappointing but not surprising.  It is rare that a serious complaint against the BBC is upheld, especially one on such an important issue.  The independence referendum was certainly that.

In 2012 a complaint against a BBC Scotland reporter, which also centred on an issue central to the independence referendum, ended with BBC Scotland being found guilty of breaking editorial guidelines. The reporter, Raymond Buchanan, had left by that time to take up a senior PR role with Weir Group.

The final stage was the BBC Trust.  By now it was a carbon copy of the 2012 complaint which the Trust eventually partially upheld.  What would the decision be in this case?  The complaint was passed to the Trust last December 24.

Yesterday, almost eight weeks later, the Trust revealed it had refused to even consider the complaint, claiming it had little chance of succeeding.  In the official communication, the Trust said:

“In deciding which ones should be considered by the Trustees, we look at the merits of the complaint and only those which stand a reasonable chance of success are passed to Trustees.

“The Trust acts in the interests of all licence fee payers and it would not be proportionate to spend a good deal of time and money on cases that do not stand a realistic prospect of success.

“I am sorry to send a disappointing response, but I do not believe your appeal should be put in front of Trustees.”

The communication also revealed The Trust had refused to accept the online article as evidence, claiming it had not been submitted to the BBC prior.

“As the online output had not previously been raised with the BBC, [the official] considered it was not appropriate for her to consider it at stage 3.”

This was despite the article having been presented to the Editorial Complaints Unit and considered by them.

So there we have it.  A complaint has been booted around for five months only to be deemed unworthy of even being heard by the BBC Trust, which is supposedly independent of the BBC executive.  There is a right of appeal, which will be pursued.

Eleanor Bradford meanwhile will continue reporting on the Scottish NHS for BBC Scotland.  Has the Trust saved her career?  We may never know.

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  1. Is it not the case that there are those at the Trust with rather more taxing issues to worry about than trivia like politically biased journalists dragging the BBC’s last remaining shreds of journalistic integrity through the mud.

    • When is she going to get a peerage more like? She deserves at least that for her services to the British State!

  2. Nice post GAP,

    On a polling station on the 18th, I was abused by a unionist NHS Worker demanding I explain the £400 million cut. I was not really aware of the story, as I had ignored it as I had stopped watching the BBC.

    So not happy it was dropped and never appeared again. BBC at their worst – please put a section in your new book to explain it.

    If there were any justice in this world, Eleanor Bradford would be fired. Instead she will probably get rewarded for her services to Union with a plum job down in London.

    On the positive side from the 18th, the No thanks pollster was quite shocked by this behaviour. Turns out he had voted Yes earlier in the day. Changed his mind – we just need a few more like him. A good Guy!

  3. I think the following is evidence that matters affecting Scotland, which as we all very well know is just shy of 10% of the total BBC/UK public, just don’t figure and matters not a tinker’s damn to them.

    “The Trust acts in the interests of ALL licence fee payers and it would not be proportionate……..”

    Why do we pay for such maltreatment? Is that a really stoooopid question?

    Let’s have a stinging rebuke from the Scottish Government – such abuse from Auntie Beeb could not be clearer.

  4. The BBC’s priorities are the license fee and how popular they think they are with the general which they gauge by viewing figures. The organisation cannot survive in Scotland if enough people refuse to pay and stop tuning in to their programmes.

    I used to content myself that while I was paying my license fee I was contributing to a pool of cash that provided the basis for TV and film industry in the country and all the skills and jobs that go with that despite the fact that while 8.4%(?) of the license fee was raised here a fraction of that was spent in Scotland. During the referendum I stopped paying enough was enough. I can pay for the Sport and any other channels I want to watch but the BBC and the law insist that I must pay a fee for being able to watch or record any live TV programmes (some of them I am already paying for direct). Why can’t I deselect the BBC’s channels from my suite of programmes in this digital age(BBC Alba is freeview I think)? The 2003 communications Act is a fraud on the punter. We are compelled to pay for a broadcaster that actively opposes the political cause we support.

    We can keep moaning about it and let it carry on undermining Scottish democracy and the rights of the people here or we can stop this pish. Don’t watch it, don’t pay. Don’t answer any of their letters or provide any info when they give you a knock at the door you’ll be fine and they’ll be fucked in Scotland

  5. I want to add to that I would be delighted to pay a monthly fee for the creative industries in Scotland especially if it can be organised in a fair and democratic way in fact I really want to be able to do that.

    • No, what we need, Alistair, is control over broadcasting within our own country.

      The BBC can tell the Scottish Parliament to GTF, they do not have to answer to the Scottish government.

      THAT is utterly unacceptable.

      Help protect Scotland’s interests, bin the BBC and vote SNP.

  6. If the SG were to say enough is enough then it would give the thumbs up to those who want to stop paying but are too scared of being taken to court and given a criminal record.
    I would say the BBC stole the referendum, they are hostile to our democracy and must be challenged. The SNP are the UK`s biggest threat, is it any wonder really that our so called national broadcaster is being used to protect the nations interests? But then it`s Scottish democracy that pays a heavy price in doing so!
    I have real trouble trying to convince my best friend of their dirty ways, he refuses to believe it and says how much he thinks it is the best broadcaster we have and it is in a lot of ways. Think i`ll try to get him to come along to the next demo in March.
    Surely the SNP are not so daft as to just let the BBC get away with their dark arts? Well they kind of have done and still are so lets not hold our breath here.
    Come to think of it, does anyone have the exact date of the next demo at Pacific Quay? Better get the word spread!

    • Col,
      The next demo is supposed to be on Sunday 15th March @ 2pm.
      At the last count which i seen there were around 600 definites going and around 200 undecideds.
      That was about a week ago but the facebook link has been dead ever since then.
      I haven’t a clue what’s going on.

  7. Complaints to a self-regulating body are inevitably futile. They don’t even recognise what they do as bias, so finding themselves guilty is impossible. It’s not that they’re saying to themselves “we know this is wrong but we’ll brass neck it anyway.” They really don’t see anything wrong with the way they behave.

    Mass non-payment of the licence fee is a great idea and one that all Yes-thinkers should support, but getting the word out for that is tricky. My solution would be to sue the BBC for breach of contract. If you’ve paid your licence fee over the last few years, the BBC has failed to provide the service it promises – fair and impartial news coverage. Witnesses could include Tony Blair and John Birt to discuss their opposition to the Scottish Six (the lack of which intrinsically creates a bias against the SNP by marginalising them as a regional party and forcing us to be part of the English paradigm of Labour vs. Tory at all times); Prof. John Robertson to give some expert academic rigour to the case; every BBC Scotland journalist and editor; all the senior Labour Party figures with connections at PQ; the leaders of all the political parties (UK and Scottish) from the past 5-6 years; and no doubt many, many more that escape my memory right now.

    It could be an exhausting and difficult fight – the BBC has more money and better lawyers than most of us can ever hope to muster, but there is an army of enthusiastic researchers reading sites like this, Wings, Bella and more. Some of those would support the case financially too, and I imagine there are a few lawyers out there who would be willing to work on some kind of contigency basis because they know how much attention a case like that could get. And once the case got rolling – especially with some of those high-profile witnesses – it would be virtually impossible for the BBC itself NOT to report on it, alongside all the other media outlets across the country.

    • Kenny – ‘all of the above’ reasons to refuse to pay – plus the blind-eye – Nelson style treatment given to Jimmy Savile as he rampaged whilst the golden boy of the BBC and whilst being paid very, very well by yours and my licence fee payment.

      Don’t tell me they did not know whatever was going on at the BBC.

      They continued his employment whilst everybody and their granny knew what he was about, and they must have known he was at it, during their time and on their premises.

      If their defence is – ‘ we didn’t know – how could we be expected to know?’ The immediate response has to be – ‘…how can we be sure it’s still not going on with our licence fee being used to pay for it?’

      You’re not sure – don’t pay.

  8. Mr G.A Ponsonby,
    Why are we in Scotland treated with contempt by BBC,having just watched FMQs we were cut off before FM could answer Gray and there was still another two questions asked,PMQs often over run but no way is that cut short,it really a waste of time complaining to BBC as the answers we get is just the usual rubbish.

  9. I’ve said before that it’s always worth complaining. They have to keep records of the number of complaints they’ve received so if a serious challenge (like a legal challenge or a Scottish Government review) came along, they’d have to cough up the stats and show how little they’d done to address what must be getting to a fairly overwhelming number of complaints overall. If they get no complaints, they can always feign ignorance of the issues.

  10. Kenny,

    I think when they appeared before a committee at Holyrood, they stated that they had a total number of complaints, but didn’t allocate them to the various programmes. So out of the total, they couldn’t say how many were allocated to GMS or RS for instance.

  11. It is pointless paying attention to the BBC’s opinion on how it does it’s work. We are playing their game, giving credit to organisation that is far up its own arse. If the BBC Trust came back and said ‘Yes, on this occasion our journalist was in the wrong’ what difference would it make? We get to cry ‘Look! They ARE biased! We should not give a damn about their committee’s or their reporting. It has gone beyond that now. The BBC opposes Scottish nationhood. Big deal, one opponent among many. The BBC are obliged to be impartial and they are not on this issue. Refuse tot pay them and shun their output. If we do that then one of our opponents is diminished. We are expending energy getting annoyed at the BBC while giving them the funds and the ammunition (watching their programmes) to take the piss out of us. The more complaints the better? Gie us peace. In the hope they clean up their act a bit? I do not want the BBC, many many people want to put their money into something better.

  12. Gordie – that’s all well and good for you but there are still lots and lots of people who don’t get it and won’t believe it when we tell them. This country has 100 years of being told that the BBC is the best, most honest, most accurate, most impartial news organisation in the world and it’s a source of absolute unequivocal national pride. Without directly challenging them and breaking down that trust, they will always be able to skew people’s views. You don’t defeat your enemy by cutting off one small part of its supply lines and then ignoring it. We might not have the manpower for a frontal attack but then neither did Bruce or Wallace. 😉

  13. The BBC’s bias is plain, particularly in economic and political news, and its persistently mediocre coverage of Scotland. Prof Robertson and others expose that regularly especially on Newsnet (much improved looking site too well done!)
    But it is too easy though to say the “cure” is to close it down, refuse the licence fee etc etc. We need a much more constructive agenda for the future of broadcasting (and especially broadcast news).
    The same BBC employs a lot of talented people who do make good programmes (not news). Scotland needs that talent, jobs and the companies that make programmes for the BBC. By all means criticise BBC news, but we need to come up with constructive alternatives and press for them.


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