This series is coming to an end and will be re-edited into a formal letter of complaint to be sent to the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit to meet a deadline by Thursday next week. I have listed all the unique factual errors, misleading claims, statements and signposting I found in my transcript of the programme. Repeated viewing of the programme from a disc sent to be by the BBC Trust has confirmed to me that my criticisms are fair and accurate and they stand at fifty-five in number. For the sake of clarity and to reduce the amount of unnecessary reading, I have not counted(though some are mentioned) every instance where the same false claims are repeated, nor have I included the citations to original sources for the factual corrections which demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that the programme in each instance was misleading. This means that the series and the letter of complaint the ECU will receive do not amount to a full rebuttal of the programme. When those are included the number of factual problems with the programme increase to over seventy and the volume of text more than doubles to elaborate on context and compare Britain's social security benefits with other countries, particularly Poland and the United States. John Humphrys gave the impression that government reforms were trying to make our benefits and conditionality more like theirs. I contend that ours for the most part already is like theirs and the real truth is that government reforms will make it even worse.
I have received assurances from a representative of the BBC Trust that the ECU is thorough and a full rebuttal will therefore not be necessary. Since the Trust upheld my appeal I've been panicking about this because my experience with the ECU so far told me they tried everything they could to avoid properly investigating my complaint. Seeing as the BBC Trust were clearly contrite about how difficult things were made for me, I expect that they are putting pressure on the ECU to do what they were supposed to do in the first place. The BBC editorial guidelines in the first section outlines their editorial values, starting with the most important parts.
Trust is the foundation of the BBC: we are independent, impartial and honest. We are committed to achieving the highest standards of due accuracy and impartiality and strive to avoid knowingly and materially misleading our audiences.
Truth and Accuracy
We seek to establish the truth of what has happened and are committed to achieving due accuracy in all our output. Accuracy is not simply a matter of getting facts right; when necessary, we will weigh relevant facts and information to get at the truth. Our output, as appropriate to its subject and nature, will be well sourced, based on sound evidence, thoroughly tested and presented in clear, precise language. We will strive to be honest and open about what we don't know and avoid unfounded speculation.
ImpartialityThe Future State Of Welfare With John Humphrys failed to uphold any of these values.
Impartiality lies at the core of the BBC's commitment to its audiences. We will apply due impartiality to all our subject matter and will reflect a breadth and diversity of opinion across our output as a whole, over an appropriate period, so that no significant strand of thought is knowingly unreflected or under-represented. We will be fair and open-minded when examining evidence and weighing material facts.
This is unacceptable. Those who produce content for the BBC are required to be familiar with the guidelines and to follow them. So too are those within the BBC who review a production in order to determine where in the schedule it is suitable for, if it is even suitable at all. I do not believe that according to the editorial guidelines there was any editorial justification for the programme to be broadcast- there is no legitimate output purpose that can outweigh the impact the programme would have had on the audience, such was the extent to which it misled. When I re-edit this series into the complaint letter(hopefully the final complaint letter) I will be including accompanying notes pointing out exactly which parts of the BBC guidelines are being breached. These range from failure to test claims, failure to use reliable sources, failure to hold standards appropriate to the seriousness of the topic, unattributed claims, not having a source, taking the audience expectation for granted and unduly influencing that expectation. Outside of the programme, the guidelines insist that serious factual errors must be acknowledged and corrected quickly. Nine months on, it hasn't happened. The programme, its producers and the complaints system have collaborated to bend and break the guidelines.
Let's look again at the response I was given in stage 1 when those dealing with my complaint put the eleven examples I gave to the producers. That post is here. The justifications they gave failed and fell short of the guidelines in this respect:
We understand you were unhappy with our initial response, and we have forwarded your concerns with the production team for this programme.In the introduction to the guidelines on accuracy, the BBC says that in news and current affairs content, achieving due accuracy is more important than speed. If the producers lacked the time to put the claims in context, then they should have left those claims out completely. They go on to say that they believe the programme gave a comprehensive overview of the welfare reforms. I had to go double-check what 'comprehensive' meant in the dictionary because I got the strong impression that they didn't know, because the programme is far from comprehensive when it actually comes to examining what the government is doing. John Humphrys doesn't even look at or reference the Welfare Reform Bill.
They explain that it is difficult to respond to feedback which makes criticism of a programme on the basis of material not included or potential alternative contributors not interviewed. While we could, undoubtedly, have spoken with others every programme has a fixed production period and is transmitted within a slot of fixed duration.
With stunning ignorance of what the guidelines require, they then openly admitted that their source for the figure on how much benefit expenditure has risen in the last ten years came from a David Cameron speech. They go on as if there is nothing wrong with this, stating that it refers to the cost of the benefits rather than the number of claimants. That is in response to my accusation that the context and signposting meant the audience would be misled into believing it was caused by a rise in working-age claimants. They do not actually address that. The programme only ever looks at working-age benefit claimants, which account for the minority of the expenditure rise over the last decade. The guidelines on accuracy say that they should gather first hand material where possible, check and cross-heck facts. They should also take special care when information comes from a special interest or lobby group or organisation with a vested interest rather than a disinterested bystander.
Some fuzzy logic is given on how it was perfectly fine for John Humphrys to 'use his personal experience' to illustrate a shift in attitudes and expectations over the last forty years. The issue of attitudes in society in regards to social security is difficult to authoritatively report on because there is actually not much accurate data. The correct way to approach it is to admit what you do not know and that is what the guidelines on accuracy require. The programme instead fills in the blank with anecdote and the producers try glossing over this by pretending the requirement isn't there.
They quickly move on to the scene in the Jobcentre in the same paragraph. My complaint was that John Humphrys didn't know how the jobsearch machines and the database they use works, so he ends up materially misleading the audience- often reading off job titles that aren't even on-screen. No actual attempt to verify the Jobcentre information is made. It's a chore that every active jobseeker has to sift through everyday, finding out which vacancies actually exist and in the place where they say they are located. So the producers response to being accused of relying on an unreliable source is to simply state that they are relying on this source. Again the guidelines on accuracy require them to actually check and cross-check.
They respond to my criticism over their choice of interviewees in the programme. They say they reject my characterisation of them as being "either a local or national government employee, non-UK resident or a comical stereotype". No example is provided of a contributor who is not one of these. Puzzlingly, after asserting that they presented them within a balanced examination of the proposed welfare reforms and their impacts, they go crashing off-track and back to the topic of the Jobcentre visit and say that it is made clear that there are jobs available. That was out of the blue, there is literally no smooth transition to that or intermediate step establishing its relevance. In any case, nothing said by the contributors interviewed for the programme appears to have been checked and cross-checked as the guidelines require.
In another mashed paragraph they say in response to my criticism about how they portray Britain's jobs deficit that they address this in the scene with a visit to a jobs club in Middlesborough. They say that in that scene it is made clear that while jobs are advertised they often very difficult to secure with many individuals seeking the same opportunities. I looked at my transcript. I looked at the transcript the BBC Trust sent me. I went back and watched that scene. It 'makes clear' no such thing. A job club attendee is interviewed and says she has made sixty applications in the last year without a reply. She says her friends are in a similar situation. Nowhere is competition actually mentioned, nor the number of vacancies advertised in relation to the unemployment rate. It takes extraordinary mental gymnastics to think this is a factual substitute for accurate statistical information as the producers seem to. To interpret the scene as they are doing would make the earlier one with John Humphrys at the Cardiff Jobcentre and when speaking with the Middlesborough Mayor Ray Mallon make no sense. The programme sought to mislead the audience into thinking there were more vacancies in Britain than there really were and that the producers are trying to backtrack on this is prima facie evidence that it is exactly what they intended. In doing so they breached the guidelines on accuracy that state they must not distort known facts.
I contended that Dr Sharon Fisher was used in the programme to make a statistical commentary when she was not qualified or experienced in the relevant field. The response of the producers was to deny they had done so. But Fisher is never asked a medical question, nor was the conversation with her limited to just her own experience at her practice. She was asked about the two-million six-hundred-thousand claimants for Incapacity Benefit(which now includes ESA) and then she later made a statistical error in confusing correlation with causation. That was her primary contribution in the segment, the rest of her contribution was used to imply that as a doctor she had the authority to grant a patient Incapacity Benefit. Another leap of logic is made by the producers by saying that after the segment with Sharon Fisher they talked to an Professor Steve Fothergill at Sheffield Hallam University and he is a statistician. Well, so what? They didn't ask him the same question Fisher was asked, he instead spoke of how claimants were allegedly hidden on Incapacity Benefit to keep unemployment figures low. This doesn't explain let alone excuse the scene with Sharon Fisher and it reveals the producers didn't actually check Steve Fothergill's claims, which appear to be little more than unsupported tabloid myth.
They then use this opportunity to state that those claiming Disability Living Allowance were not mentioned because the sequence was about Incapacity Benefit and it's replacement Employment Support Allowance. The thing is, I never mentioned anything about DLA or those claiming it. I mentioned disabled people; pointing out the way in which the programme portrayed Incapacity Benefit as 'sickness benefit' when it is in fact the primary out-of-work benefit for anyone unable to work including on grounds of disability. DLA and Incapacity Benefit are not mutually exclusive; many who claim one also claim the other. The way in which the producers have chosen to not acknowledge this point speaks volumes about their regards to truth and accuracy; they'd even go as far as keeping the pretence up in the correspondence where they have been openly accused of it.
They come round to addressing one of the most flagrant distortions in the programme; that where John Humphrys following from the interview with Dr Fisher states that "You local GP no longer has final say", which is equal to claiming that a doctor ever did have the final say. Their justification for this is that what GPs said had greater weight under the previous system than it does under the ESA system. But that isn't what the programme said, what the programme said was basically that General Practice doctors had the final say and now they don't. The complaint here was about how they exaggerated the role of doctors and were so confident with this unsupported assertion that they could get away with the presenter misleading the audience into believing a GP is the gatekeeper. Whilst they acknowledge in their response to me that it was the DWP that decided rather than doctors, there was no hint from them that they had done anything wrong.
In the final paragraph they respond to my criticism of the use of their use of the claim that eleven-thousand claimants are assessed per week in the ESA system, by giving their source. Their source is a Hansard transcript of Chris Grayling. Assuming that when the producers responded to my criticism, they did so with the intention of resolving these matters immediately and therefore answered with the best information- then this is the furthest extent to which they sourced this claim. That falls far short of what the guidelines on accuracy require, it is also a figure which is unattributed in the programme.
I am unable to advance my original intended complaint in stage 2; that the programme lacked factual rigour and it was probably an intentional lack of factual rigour- the presenter/writer and the producers just didn't care about the truth. So I have had to break it down and summarise every problem in regards to how the audience is materially misled by the programme. I began researching and writing a full rebuttal immediately, some of which has been used in this summary.
Now the ECU will investigate each point individually, but I must emphasise that the context matters. Every factual short-coming in the programme is serious, even those that seem small, because the way the audience is manipulated by the sum of them is an appalling consequence. It is an opinion programme wearing the clothing of a factual current affairs programme, but the producers in their cavalier responses to criticism made their priorities, ethics and standards clear. The ECU will no doubt ask them questions and get similar responses to what I received. I hope the ECU believes standards should be higher than that and count such responses against them.