In late January we noted that OFCOM had announced that it would conduct an investigation following the publication of the BBC ECU’s findings concerning online and televised reporting about a racist incident that took place in London in late November 2021.
As we observed at the time:
“In addition to the obvious issue of “due accuracy”, it is in the public interest for the regulator to also address the abiding topic of the BBC’s habit of publishing long-overdue corrections and clarifications in a manner which does not reach the vast majority of the public exposed to under par reporting.”
Over ten months on, OFCOM has now published its findings.
Regarding the written report, OFCOM concludes [p22]:
“In summary, our Opinion is that the BBC failed to observe its own Editorial Guidelines on both due impartiality and due accuracy by failing to acknowledge in the Online Article that there was a dispute about its interpretation of the audio recording at a much earlier stage after it received new evidence to support an alternative explanation for what was said. It was not until after the ECU Finding on 26 January 2022 that the BBC amended the Online Article to make it clear that the interpretation of the audio was disputed by Hebrew speakers and others. By this time almost eight weeks had passed since the publication of the Online Article, during which the BBC was aware that its content was causing significant distress and anxiety to the victims of the attack and to the wider Jewish community.
Therefore, while we considered the action the BBC took on 26 January 2022 was sufficient to correct the position, its failure to act sooner to remedy the breach of the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines was a significant and concerning omission. In Ofcom’s view, if the BBC had acted sooner, this could have gone some way to help resolve the issues raised by complainants and would have enabled the focus of attention to be on the antisemitic incident itself, and not the BBC’s reporting.” [emphasis added]
Of particular interest – given the BBC’s long-standing habit of failing to signpost later developments or important new information in earlier online content – is the following observation from OFCOM:
“We acknowledged the separate BBC News Online article published 8 January 2022, which the BBC pointed to in its representations to Ofcom and which, according to the BBC, “did report that the Board of Deputies had disputed that an anti-Muslim slur could be heard, but did not reflect the alternative interpretation”. However, Ofcom found no evidence that the two articles were clearly linked, for example by the inclusion of a hyperlink to alert readers of the Online Article that the article published on 8 January was available. In any event, the Online Article remained unchanged on this issue until after the ECU Finding.” [emphasis added]
Regarding the December 2nd 2021 televised report OFCOM notes [p18]:
“Where significant mistakes are made, Rule 5.2 requires broadcasters to ensure they are acknowledged and corrected on air quickly. Ofcom noted that, having found that the Broadcast was not duly accurate under the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines, the ECU observed that it “could not have been updated as an online item can”. However, for the avoidance of doubt, the temporal nature of broadcast news is not a sufficient reason under the Code for failing to issue timely, on air, corrections when necessary.” [emphasis in bold added]
OFCOM concluded that the BBC London TV report did not breach Rule 5.1 and Rule 5.2 but added:
“In all the circumstances, we considered that the BBC made a serious editorial misjudgment by not reporting on air that the claim it had made in the Broadcast was disputed, once the new evidence emerged. In Ofcom’s view, if it had done so, this could have gone some way to help resolve the issues raised by complainants and would have enabled the focus of attention to be on the antisemitic incident itself, and not the BBC’s reporting.”
The report also includes some interesting comments on the topic of BBC complaints handling and transparency [p26].
“Public confidence in the operation and effectiveness of the BBC’s complaints process depends on the BBC being sufficiently transparent in how it handles and resolves complaints. Ofcom has, on a number of occasions, raised with the BBC the issue of transparency in its complaints handling. In particular, in 2017 we set a series of requirements, by way of our BBC Complaints Determinations, for the BBC to publish detailed information regarding its complaints function. This was intended to build and maintain public confidence in the operation of the BBC First framework.”
The document concludes:
“In our view, the failure to report swiftly that the audio was disputed created an impression of defensiveness by the BBC among the Jewish community. In our view, it demonstrates that the BBC has further to go in learning how to respond when its reporting is in contention. […] We consider it deeply unfortunate that the BBC’s handling of complaints in this case and its failure to represent the views from the Jewish community became the overriding focus of this incident and detracted from the focus being on the antisemitic incident and the experiences of the victims. We expect the BBC to take account of our considerations in this case as it implements its Impartiality and Editorial Standards Action Plan. We will also review how the BBC has addressed the complaints handling and transparency issues raised by this case.”