BBC Finally Admits Panorama did Breach Standards

The BBC has finally admitted its April “Has the Government Failed the NHSPanorama programme did breach its own editorial standards. The morning after broadcast, Guido revealed the extent to which the medical professionals interviewed were thinly-veiled political activists. By the end of April, the Beeb admitted to Guido that the organisation consulted a communist union organiser to find interviewees when producing the programme. Now, three months and 800 complaints later, they have finally apologised…

The BBC admits failing to mention interviewee Sonia Adesara’s political involvement with the Labour Party and status as a former candidate breached its guidelines:

The ECU agreed that the nature and extent of Dr Adesara’s political affiliation was such that it might have been relevant to the audience’s evaluation of her contribution insofar as it was critical of the Government, and that it was a breach of the BBC’s editorial standards not to have given viewers appropriate information about it.

The organisation, however, refuses to apologise for not labelling other left-wing campaigning contributors accurately, including ‘Docs not Cops’ member Irial Eno, Labour member of 53 years John Ashton, or Corbyn-rallying Unison steward Libby Nolan. Yeah but no but yeah…

Read the full Executive Complaints Unit statement here…

As the guideline’s reference to relevance to context suggests, the principal consideration is whether the audience’s ability to evaluate contributions to the topic of the broadcast would be materially affected by the absence of information about contributors’ affiliations.  With this in mind, the ECU considered the contributions of the six contributors named or identified by the complainants – Dr Sonia Adesara, Dr Irial Eno, Dr Asif Munaf, Dr Abhi Mantagni, Libby Nolan and Professor John Ashton. 

Professor Ashton spoke from the perspective of a former Regional Director of Public Health for the Department of Health, and his contribution was critical of the decisions made by the Government in relation to preparations for a pandemic.  As stated by some of the complainants, he had for a long time been a member of the Labour Party, and had campaigned against privatisation in the health service.  The ECU noted, however, that privatisation was not at issue in the programme, and that Professor Ashton had resigned his party membership in 2019.  It took the view that the programme’s description of him as a “public health expert and long-standing critic of the government” gave the audience the information relevant to an evaluation of his views.

The other contributors focused on the practical implications of shortages of personal protective equipment and their personal reactions to them.  Three of them – Dr Munaf, Dr Mantagni and Ms Nolan – made no direct criticism of the Government, and the ECU saw nothing in the contributions of the first two to which information about their political affiliations would been relevant in relation to the audience’s evaluation of what they said.  Ms Nolan was introduced as a senior nurse and union representative, which the ECU considered appropriate information in the relation to the particular concern she expressed about the welfare of NHS staff and the responsibility she felt to represent them (“I feel incredibly passionate that no more people should suffer, that no more health workers should come to harm or for some reason that they can’t speak out, that I will do it for them”).

Dr Eno’s contribution included the following criticism of the Government:

I feel really angry at the Government that they, they had all this time. We had the luxury of time. We saw it coming. We should have used that time to prepare and they keep saying this unprecedented thing – this is completely unprecedented – it is unprecedented but it, it wasn’t unexpected.

As to her affiliations, Dr Eno is a member of a pressure group, Docs not Cops, which lists its aims as “Fighting xenophobia, racism & borders in the NHS that restrict access” (a reference to the Home Office “hostile environment measures” as they apply to access to services in the NHS). This subject was not mentioned in the programme and, as far as the ECU could ascertain, neither the group nor Dr Eno herself has formal links to any political party.  In the ECU’s view her opinion was such as might had been expressed by any a doctor who felt inadequately protected for working in hospital with Covid-19, and her role as a campaigner on different NHS-related issues was not  relevant in the context.

Dr Adesara made this criticism of the government:

It doesn’t seem to be fair to me that healthcare professionals who feel at risk, who may be at risk, are not being given that full PPE equipment because the Government failed to prepare and failed to do the stockpiling that was needed for this equipment in advance.

Dr Adesara is not only a Labour Party member but also a former Labour candidate, and she had appeared in an election broadcast for the party in 2019. On 14 May, BBC News published a statement on the Corrections and Clarifications page of bbc.co.uk summarising the situation and saying:

We acknowledge that mentioning this would have helped viewers make their own assessment about her comments, although we do not consider it cast doubt on the validity of her concerns.

The ECU agreed that the nature and extent of Dr Adesara’s political affiliation was such that it might have been relevant to the audience’s evaluation of her contribution insofar as it was critical of the Government, and that it was a breach of the BBC’s editorial standards not to have given viewers appropriate information about it.  The ECU also judged, however, that her criticism of the Government was in keeping with what might be expected from a doctor with experience of inadequate PPE provision, and that information about her political affiliations would not have called the validity of her concerns into doubt in the minds of viewers.  It therefore concluded that the terms of the public acknowledgement by BBC News were such as to resolve the issue of editorial standards raised by the complaints.

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