BBC breached Ofcom rules over Alex Salmond report error by Sarah Smith

Image source, PA Media
Image caption,
The BBC said it accepted the decision and would "reflect on the findings"

Broadcast regulator Ofcom has ruled that the BBC made a "significant mistake" in a TV bulletin which was not acknowledged and corrected on air.

The breach came in a headline clip by the BBC's Scotland editor Sarah Smith, who was reporting on Alex Salmond's evidence to a Holyrood committee.

She incorrectly said the former first minister believed his successor Nicola Sturgeon should resign.

The BBC said it accepted the decision and would "reflect on the findings".

Ofcom, which launched its investigation following the broadcast on the BBC's News at Six on 26 February last year, was also critical of the corporation's complaints system.

Media caption,
Alex Salmond: "I've got no doubt Nicola Sturgeon has broken the ministerial code."

Mr Salmond's evidence to a committee of MSPs tasked with examining the Scottish government's botched handling of harassment allegations against him was the lead item on the BBC's main teatime news that night.

Sarah Smith, who is now the BBC's North America editor, told the audience: "Alex Salmond said he believes Nicola Sturgeon has misled parliament and broken the ministerial code, which he thinks means she should resign."

However, the former first minister had said he had "no doubts" that Ms Sturgeon had broken the code, but that "it was not up to me to decide what the consequences should be".

The error was not corrected in the programme but later that evening Smith tweeted she had made the mistake. She wrote: "I would like to clarify that Mr Salmond did not say that the First Minister should resign."

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

In its deliberations Ofcom examined two areas of its code of conduct. It focused on whether the headline was accurate, Rule 5.1, and whether, if there was an inaccuracy, was it corrected on air quickly, Rule 5.2.

The BBC told the regulator that it accepted the report was not "duly accurate" and had not complied with Rule 5.1.

However, it said it had taken appropriate action to mitigate the mistake by making clear in the BBC's News at Ten that Mr Salmond had stopped short of calling for Ms Sturgeon to go.

In addition:

  • Smith posted a clarification on her Twitter page which was said to have been actively viewed by more than 47,000 users and appeared in the timeline or search results of more than 1,239,000 users
  • a correction was published on the BBC's Corrections and Clarifications website on 3 March 2021
  • and a summary of the action taken was posted to the BBC Complaints website, the page which "records the BBC's public responses to significant complaints of wide audience concern"

Ofcom said it recognised that Twitter and website corrections and clarification have a place "in reaching some viewers".

But it added: "The purpose of an on-air correction is so that significant mistakes can be quickly corrected to the likely audience exposed to the original error.

"Given the significance of the mistake in this case, we considered that an on-air correction, broadcast quickly and appropriately scheduled, was required to comply with Rule 5.2. This did not take place."

'We accept the decision'

The communications watchdog has now called for the BBC to amend its editorial guidelines to "make clearer" that significant mistakes are corrected on air quickly.

It also said the case had thrown up issues with the broadcaster's complaints process which it intended to look at further.

The report said: "The issue of the BBC's transparency around the substance of the decisions reached by the ECU (Executive Complaints Unit) is a matter that we are currently considering, as part of our review of how Ofcom regulates the BBC, which will inform the UK government's own mid-charter review of the BBC.

"In our consultation launching our review we stated that we would be considering how the BBC could improve its transparency in decision-making and complaints handling, including in relation to due impartiality."

Following the ruling on Monday, the BBC said it accepted the decision.

"We are absolutely committed to transparency around complaints and we always seek to correct any issues as swiftly as possible," it said.

"We will reflect on the findings and of course if there is more we can do to explain how we make our judgements on complaints then we will look at that."