Lies, damned lies and BBC statistics: Numbers that just don’t add up

BBC presenters must do more to challenge statistics, a study has found
BBC presenters must do more to challenge statistics, a study has found
Have your say

BBC presenters must do more to challenge statistics, an independent report has found.

The BBC Trust has commissioned an impartiality review into how the corporation presents facts and figures in its news stories.

It said its presenters should be in a better position to challenge numbers, especially when interviewing guests.

“We came across many examples where statistics were used erroneously or in misleading ways by guests on programmes and were not challenged by presenters,” the report said.

And it said that audiences were unsatisfied with statistical claims being pitched against one another in a “he said, she said” format “without providing any kind of ‘refereeing’ voice”.

It also said that the BBC must do more to challenge Government statistics “where necessary” before airing them, to ensure “the impartiality of the BBC’s coverage of political affairs is not affected”.

It added that content analysis pointed to the high number of statistics from political figures - especially Conservative politicians - on the BBC.

There is an “especially high number of political figures providing statistical information on the BBC ... and Conservative politicians represented nearly three quarters (73%) of these statistical references”.

Cardiff University, which analysed BBC coverage last winter, said it “shows a high dependence on the governing party”.

The report said: “It is reasonable to expect the BBC to cover statements which the UK or devolved governments make.

“However ... it does make it vital that those statements are challenged where necessary so that the impartiality of the BBC’s coverage of political affairs is not affected.”

In an echo of former prime minister Benjamin Disraeli’s reported reference to “lies, damned lies, and statistics”, the report cited examples where the BBC could have done more to challenge numbers.

Then-prime minister David Cameron’s statement that 43% of EU migrants claimed benefits in their first four years in the UK was in “many instances” ... “quoted by government sources in BBC content without challenge on any fundamental level by journalists” despite reservations about the methodology behind the figure before it was used by Mr Cameron.

Earlier this year, the BBC reported that nearly 3,000 operations had been cancelled over the junior doctors’ strike.

It was “well over an hour” into the BBC’s Breakfast programme before it provided context that 92% of operations would go ahead as normal.

Early reporting by the BBC sometimes included “scant context around this statistic”, the report said.

Former UK national statistician Dame Jil Matheson, who led the report, said BBC journalists often said they lacked confidence with numbers.

She said she was not surprised that so many statistics on the BBC came from the Government as she would “expect the BBC to be reporting on what the government of the day was up to”.

“But I think that that it does put an extra responsibility on the BBC ... to go beneath the headlines,” she said.

There was “much to be commended in the BBC’s approach to statistics” and the values of accuracy and impartiality were clear, she said.

But “we were frustrated that the same high standards weren’t consistently applied”.

She said the BBC had to do more to challenge statistics “when they’re being used in a misleading way”.

And “audiences need guidance on understanding the weight of evidence rather than being left unguided in what can seem to be confusing and conflicting statistical claims ... the BBC needs to get better and braver at doing that”.

As a result of the report, the BBC’s Reality Check - a regular analysis of competing claims which began during the last general election campaign - will be made a permanent feature and new training will be given to BBC News staff.