Watchdog ruling

BBC’s Salmond report breached Ofcom rules

Sarah Smith - BBC
Sarah Smith: apologised

BBC News has been found in breach of Ofcom regulations on impartiality in relation to a report last year by Sarah Smith about Scotland’s former First Minister Alex Salmond.

The watchdog found the report not only broke it rules but the corporation did not respond quickly enough to acknowledge and correct mistakes made on-air by its former Scotland editor.

She was found to have misrepresented comments that Mr Salmond made to a parliamentary committee investigating the government’s handling of sexual harassment claims against him.

In the live report during BBC News at Six, Ms Smith said: “Alex Salmond said he believes Nicola Sturgeon [his successor] has misled parliament and broken the ministerial code, which he thinks means she should resign”.

In fact, Mr Salmond had told the committee that it was “not for [him] to suggest what the consequences should be” for Ms Sturgeon.

Ofcom, which launched its investigation following the broadcast on 26 February last year, was also critical of the corporation’s complaints system.

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

It had told the inquiry that it accepted the report was not duly accurate but said it was “unlikely” that the wording would have had a significant effect on the audience’s understanding of Mr Salmond’s opinion of Ms Sturgeon’s actions.

Therefore, it did not consider the mistake to be “significant” enough to require a broadcast correction. Instead it took what it considered “appropriate action” by clarifying Mr Salmond’s views later in the BBC News at Ten bulletin.

Ms Smith, who was paid £185,000 a year, was encouraged to post a clarification on Twitter, as well as on the BBC’s Corrections and Clarifications website and summarising these actions on the BBC Complaints website.

Ms Smith’s apology on Twitter

Because the report was broadcast just weeks ahead of the Scottish parliamentary elections, Ofcom found that there was “significant public interest” in it.

Its report noted: “It would have been a very significant statement for Mr Salmond to make, should he have called for Ms Sturgeon’s resignation.” It therefore disagreed with the BBC’s response to the error.

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.”

Ms Smith, who was also a presenter for BBC Radio Four’s Today programme, last month left Scotland to take up a new post as the BBC News North America editor.

She expressed her dismay at the “bile and hatred” she suffered while covering Scottish politics.

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