Media Distortion: Case Studies


Most people don't expect distortion when the BBC quotes figures from official studies. Yet such distortion appears with surprising frequency. Here are two recent examples – misrepresentation of a National Audit Office (NAO) report on the UK welfare system, and misreporting of official Home Office figures for violent crime. In both cases we complained (and to their credit, the BBC did finally act on our complaints – although in the second case their action left a lot to be desired):

BBC misrepresents National Audit Office report

This is about the BBC exaggerating the problem of "benefits fraud". Presented with a report primarily about administrative complexity/error in the welfare system, the BBC turned it into a story about fraud (a BBC Radio 4 presenter used the term "scroungers").

The story: The National Audit Office (NAO) published a report in November 2005, titled: Dealing with the complexity of the benefits system. It found an over-complex system, but no direct link between complexity and fraud.

BBC Online's headline was: "Benefit system is 'open to fraud'". BBC Radio 4 (Today news, 18/11/05) announced that "nearly £3 billion is lost due to fraud and error". But the NAO report doesn't include the phrase "open to fraud", and the "£3 billion" figure seems to be a figment of a BBC reporter's imagination.

The NAO report is clear:
"In 2004-05, the Department [for Work and Pensions] estimated that [fraud] amounted to around £900 million. There is no evidence to establish to what extent this was due to the complex system." [p10]

We complained about this. The Director of BBC News responded to us as follows:

Thank you for your email about our coverage on Friday of the NAO report. The home editor of our news website had some sympathy with your concerns and [has] modified the focus of the online report to emphasise the complexity of the [benefits] system rather than the issue of fraud. [Helen Boaden, BBC Director of News, in email to us, 21/11/05]

As a result of our complaint, the BBC changed their report as follows –
Original headline: "Benefit system is 'open to fraud'"
Amended headline: "UK benefits system 'too complex'"

Incidentally, it's worth comparing the cost of benefits fraud (£0.9 billion at the time of the NAO report) to other things:
• Corporate tax avoidance: £85 billion (Guardian, 12/4/02)
• Business fraud: £14 billion (BBC Radio 4, 'Today', 23/8/01)
• Government fraud in Whitehall: £5 billion (BBC Radio 4 News, 1996)

References: > (Amended BBC report) >
(NAO report, pdf)

BBC's treatment of our complaint on crime coverage

Elsewhere on Media Hell we've detailed our complaint about a fundamental error made by BBC1 Ten O'Clock News in reporting the official violent crime figures. The BBC upheld our complaint (after a long investigation), but they then misreported our complaint.

We'd complained about an incorrect (and scaremongering) claim that violent crime had "significantly" increased (when statistics showed otherwise). Following their investigation, the BBC's Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) ruled that BBC1 news had "breached editorial guidelines" on "truth and accuracy", and that there was "no basis" for claiming a significant rise in violent crime. But the opening to the published summary of their ruling was worded (incorrectly) as follows:

"A listener complained that the introduction to a report about measures about gang culture in the Ten O'Clock News (BBC One, 20 October 2005) made the erroneous claim that violent crime had increased significantly."

Our complaint had nothing to do with an item on "gang culture" (which was a completely separate item that followed the report on crime figures). We pointed this out, and the Head of ECU, Fraser Steel, replied that he agreed the wording was in error to the extent that it shouldn't have included the words "about measures" (which he subsequently removed), but disagreed on the "gang culture" point. See if you can make any sense of what he wrote:

" would be wrong to give readers the impression that [our ruling] also related to the report which followed [on gang culture]. I included the information that the report was "about gang culture" to guard against that impression, by making clear that the topic of the report was entirely distinct from the theme of your complaint." (Letter from Head of ECU to us, 10/3/2006)

We couldn't make any sense of this. We'd complained about an error in a headline report about official crime figures – not about the separate report on gang culture which followed it. It seemed to us that the BBC was playing down the seriousness of the error, so we wrote back as follows:

Dear Mr Steel,

BBC1 Ten O’Clock News, 20/10/05

Thanks for your letter of 10 March. Forgive me for pursuing this, but I find it important. In your letter, you state: "We are agreed that the finding relates to the introduction". I’ve never accepted that Fiona Bruce’s report on the latest official crime statistics can legitimately be described as an "introduction" to the entirely separate report on "gang culture".

The report of the official crime figures served as a stand-alone report – the following piece added nothing whatsoever concerning the crime figures. The only “introduction” to it (a few brief words) was made by Fiona Bruce after she had concluded reporting the crime figures.

Your current wording is as follows: “A listener complained that the introduction to a report about gang culture...”

Can I ask why you aren’t more direct (and accurate)? For example: “A listener complained that the report of the official crime figures...”

It seems clear to me that there are two separate reports, and that your finding is incorrectly identifying which report I complained about. Not only is this misleading, it potentially gives the impression that the BBC is trying to play down the importance of the original error. I don’t believe this is intentional on your part, but it must be admitted that a fundamental error in reporting the official crime figures would seem more serious (to most people) than an error in an “introduction to a report on gang culture”...

[Letter sent by Media Hell to Fraser Steel, Head of BBC's Editorial Complaints Unit, on 11/3/2006]

The Head of ECU responded by letter (16/3/2006), declining to change the wording of their ruling. (He said the existing wording was justified in terms of "broadcasting terminology" which labels the report on crime figures as a "news peg" for the separate report on gang culture).

For more details, see:
BBC's ruling on our complaint >
Our original complaint to the BBC, and further details >