Trust upholds complaint against BBC News over inaccurate tweet

The BBC Trust has upheld a complaint over an inaccurate headline that appeared on the BBC News Twitter feed.

The Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee (ESC) concluded that the tweet, which was made in relation to a story in which Prime Minister David Cameron attacked Labour’s handling of the NHS in Wales, was “not sufficiently precise” and “did not reflect with due accuracy" the story to which it was linked.

The committee ordered the corporation to remove the headline from its archive, website and other platforms.

The story was published on 8 February and reported on exchanges that day at Question Time in the House of Commons concerning the Government’s Health and Social Care Bill.

The Labour MP for Cardiff South and Penarth, Alun Michael, said the UK government should abandon the Bill, to which Cameron replied: “I tell you what needs to be abandoned, that’s Labour’s approach to the NHS in Wales.”

Cameron went on to cite Welsh NHS performance statistics, contrasting them negatively with English NHS performance.

The tweet that appeared on the BBC News feed read: “David Cameron attack on Welsh NHS”

But the headline on the website to which the Tweet was directed read: “David Cameron attacks Labour’s handling of NHS Wales”.

The unnamed complainant said that, unlike the web headline, the tweet was inaccurate.  

David Cameron

After getting in touch with the BBC, the corporation said the issue was whether the headline on Twitter matched the story “and, in its view, it did: Mr Cameron had attacked the running of the Welsh NHS, which was administered by Labour”.

The director of the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit later said that “he did not accept that those who only read the headline would have been left with a materially misleading impression”, according to a report published by the ESC today.

He later appealed to the ESC, which was provided with information on how the  in its deliberations headlines for the various platforms, including Twitter, were generated.

The BBC said a sub-editor wrote two versions of a headline, a longer one for the website (up to 55 characters) and a short one (maximum 33 characters) for the index on the website home page, which then fed through to Ceefax (which is being phased out), Twitter and elsewhere, and was designed to fit all of these other platforms.

The BBC’s view was that “the short headline was an accurate summary of the report to which it had linked”.

The ESC concluded : “The BBC’s view was not accepted by the Committee, and it agreed with the complainant that to say the Prime Minister had attacked the NHS was a very different matter from saying he had attacked Labour’s performance in relation to the NHS, particularly given the fact that protection of the NHS was a politically sensitive issue.

“The Committee considered the further arguments from the BBC that the longer headline on the website story was bound to be more accurate because there was more space to tell the story, that it was always challenging to write headlines when space was restricted, and that an element of shorthand would inevitably be involved, as was the case here.

“The Committee was mindful that the Editorial Guidelines on accuracy apply to all content wherever and however it is received. It was particularly important for this to be borne in mind by the BBC as it continued in the development of new platforms for delivering its content.

“The Committee agreed with the BBC that considerable skill was needed to ensure that headlines subject to space restrictions remained duly accurate. On this occasion, the Committee decided, the short headline that was the subject of the complaint was not sufficiently precise.

“It agreed with the complainant that this meant the headline did not reflect with due accuracy the story to which it was linked.”

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