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BBC admits “statistical errors”

A major report from the BBC Trust, its supervisory body, admits that the broadcaster does not handle statistical claims anything like well enough. The report was highlighted by the “Our Beeb” website which criticised the BBC for permitting “murky statistics” to be used – frequently during news and current affairs programming, without being adequately challenged.

“The BBC must improve how it reports statistics” argued Amy Hawkins and Phoebe Arnold, in a report for ‘Our Beeb’ on August 15th.  Both the authors work for Full Fact, an independent fact-checking organisation cite numerous on-air claims which were factually wrong.

The Full Fact report quotes the recent high-profile ‘Brexit’ campaign where pro-Leave campaigners were seen daily on news reports using a specially designed big red bus with a prominent – and inaccurate – message that the UK contributed £350 million a week to the EU.  The authors say: “Misleading claims supported by murky statistics were used on both sides of the EU referendum debate. But the £350 million claim became the iconic slogan of the Leave campaign, and helped to show why the BBC needs to be braver in challenging statistical assertions if it is to be a useful public service.”

Hawkins and Arnold add: “Even though some journalists did point out that the UK Statistics Authority had shown the £350 million figure to be false, Ipsos MORI found that half of the public thought the claim was correct. If there had been a rule obliging journalists to make clear when a figure had been called out by the official independent regulator, many voters might have gone to the polls with a more accurate view of our relationship to the EU – regardless of the outcome.”

The BBC is seemingly aware that it must do better. Its BBC Trust report (“Making Sense of Statistics”) says the BBC’s editorial guidelines should include a section on use of statistics. “In this section the BBC could help journalists by obliging them to take more notice of what the UK’s statistics watchdog is saying about politicians’ use of statistics. The guidelines should include a clause saying that when the UK Statistics Authority identifies a claim as false, this should be pointed out by journalists when their interviewee attempts to make that claim on a BBC platform.”

In the past, and when errors have been clearly been pointed out, the authors say the BBC has failed to act promptly. The Full Fact authors say that one example was altered on-line by a UK nation newspaper in 4 hours. It took the BBC 50 days to correct its website.

“In March 2014, the BBC announced that Panorama would be discussing the “Great NHS Robbery”: an investigation of fraud and error across the NHS, saying that this cost £7 billion per year — a claim the NHS disputed. The research was not published until late in the afternoon on the day of the broadcast. When it was published, it became apparent that there was no £7 billion figure, but there was hardly any time to correct the analysis.”

The BBC Trust says it will hold a review in six months in order to measure progress. “The BBC has a unique position in British society, with a reputation for fairness, impartiality, and usefulness — it must be held to this standard, especially for statistics, if this reputation is to be well-founded,” says Full Fact.

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