Our complaint on BBC's scaremongering
report is upheld

We complained to the BBC in November 2005 that a BBC1 Ten O'Clock News report of a "significant rise" in violent crime was erroneous and misleading...

Later (21 February 2006), we received a letter from the head of BBC's Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU), saying that our complaint was upheld. The ECU has found that BBC1 news breached editorial guidelines on "truth and accuracy", and that there was "no basis" for claiming a significant rise in violent crime. (Full letter below)

Our Original Complaint to BBC

We sent the complaint on 4/11/05, after BBC1 TV news claimed (wrongly) that violent crime had "significantly" increased.

Dear BBC Complaints,

I wish to lodge an official complaint about a misleading news report (BBC1 news, 10.00 pm, 20/10/05). Fiona Bruce announced that violent crime had "significantly" increased (by six percent).

The Home Office Statistical Bulletin, 'Crime in England and Wales' (published 20/10/05) in fact makes it clear that the "increase" in violence was not "significant", but resulted largely from continued effects of changed recording methods [see note*, below]. To quote the Home Office Bulletin:

"... there was a six per cent increase in violence against the person but increases in recorded violence continue to reflect the improved police recording of crime and more proactive policing of violence problems. [...] evidence from the BCS on reporting and recording changes suggests that the continuing increases in the recorded violence figures is largely due to these changes in recording practices".

BBC1 news failed to mention this crucial qualification. It also failed to mention the authoritative British Crime Survey's finding that violence had decreased by 7 percent (also reported in the Home Office Bulletin).

This selective, misleading approach to reporting statistics has potentially destructive consequences. The Home Office Bulletin states that the level of worry about violent crime has increased. A responsible news organisation would not exacerbate these worries with unfounded reports about "significantly" increased violence.

(You can access the latest official crime figures in full at: http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs05/hosb1805.pdf).

Brian Dean [Media Hell]

Initial BBC Reply (dismissive)

Dear Mr Dean

Thank you for your e-mail regarding 'The Ten O'Clock News' on 20 October...

I note you found the report on violent crime "misleading" although I can assure you this was not the intention of the piece. It is worth noting that the main body of the report was on the measures being introduced to try and tackle violent crime rather than the figures themselves. These are street-level initiatives being introduced by the Government itself in an attempt to take the 'glamour' out of gangs and gun crime.

The introduction to any report is necessarily often a very short summary of the issue in question and it was not the intention to explore the figures in depth. Our wider reporting has pointed out the Home Office's belief that the increase of 6% is a result of improved crime recording and more proactive policing. In addition we have also covered the findings of the British Crime Survey.

However, I am sorry if you were concerned and can assure you that your comments have been registered and added to our daily log which is made available to programme makers and senior editorial staff.

Thank you again for contacting the BBC.

Yours sincerely

Stewart McCullough
Divisional Advisor
BBC Information

(Received 2/12/05)

Our follow-up (sent 5/12/05)

Dear Mr McCullough,

Thanks for your reply to my complaint on BBC reporting of crime figures.

One matter is left unaddressed by your response: Does the BBC acknowledge that it was incorrect to state that violent crime had "significantly" increased?

Given the importance of this issue, and the BBC's responsibility to correct mistakes, it would be useful to see a direct admission of error on this occasion.

Many thanks,

Brian Dean

Second BBC Reply (dismissive again)

Dear Mr Dean

I am sorry that you continue to have concerns with the 'Ten O'clock News' bulletin from the 20 October and the piece on violent crime. However, there is not a great deal I can add to my previous response.

If you do wish to escalate your complaint you should now contact the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU)...

Stewart McCullough
Divisional Advisor
BBC Information

(Received 7/12/05)

BBC upholds our complaint

After the above email from Stewart McCullough, we escalated our complaint to the BBC's Editorial Complaints Unit. As we mention at the top of the page, they formally upheld our complaint (after a long investigation) – the Head of Editorial Complaints, Fraser Steel, wrote to us about their ruling on 21 February 2006:

Dear Mr Dean

BBC News (10.00pm), BBC1, 20 October 2005

I'm sorry to have been so long in coming to a conclusion on the points you raised in your letter of 7 December. They gave rise to a good deal of discussion within the BBC, which I wasn't able to draw to a conclusion as quickly as I would have liked.

However, although the process has been a long one, the outcome can be fairly quickly stated. Bearing in mind the requirement of the BBC's Editorial Guidelines in relation to truth and accuracy, I believe there was a breach of editorial standards in this instance. To explain why, it may help if I quote the most relevant part of the item:

Fiona Bruce: Overall crime in England and Wales has fallen two percent, according to the latest quarterly figures from the Home Office. But the reduction masks a significant rise in violent crime, which is up six percent...

Clearly, this is true to the extent that it means the figures for violent crime in that quarter's Recorded Crime Statistics (RCS) were up by six percent. However, I think viewers would inevitably have taken Fiona Bruce's introduction to mean that this reflected a comparable increase in the actual incidence of violent crime – especially as the introduction went on to say, without qualification, "Gun crime is also up five percent". Both for the reasons you gave and for other reasons, I don't believe the RCS should be presented in terms which suggest they can be taken without qualification as a guide to the real incidence of various kinds of crime, and I accept that there are considerations relating to crimes of violence which leave no basis for saying that the increase in the quarter's RCS means there has been "a significant rise" in its actual incidence, or indeed any rise at all.

So, although I take many of the points which have been made to you in previous correspondence, I am upholding your complaint in this respect, and I hope you will accept my apologies on behalf of the BBC. A summary of my finding will be posted on the complaints pages of bbc.co.uk, together with a note of the action to be taken as a result, and I shall send you a copy when it is published. Meanwhile, thank you for giving us the opportunity of investigating your concerns, and for your patience while we did so.

Yours sincerely

Fraser Steel
Head of Editorial Complaints

[Letter sent by Fraser Steel to Brian Dean, 21/2/2006]

However the wording of their ruling seems to play down the seriousness of their error, as we show in our case studies page.

Changes to recording practices have inflated the figures for violent crime, especially with minor offences. Certain "yobbish" behaviours (eg minor scuffles) have been reclassified as crime; a violent crime with many victims is no longer recorded as a single crime – an incident with 3 victims is now recorded as 3 crimes; a higher proportion of violent crime is recorded – eg the proportion of common assaults (without injury) recorded rose from around 50% to 68% between 2002 and 2003. (Sources: Guardian, 22/4/05, Panorama BBC1, 17/4/05, quoting: Home Office, Association of Chief Police Officers, British Crime Survey)