Older readers will know that I've been battling BBC bias for more than 30 years.
In the Eighties I was director of the Media Monitoring Unit (1985-1990) and one of my 'achievements' was to inspire a front page headline in the London Evening Standard that screamed, in bold letters, 'YES, THE BBC IS BIASED!'.
That evening every vendor's stand in London bore the same headline. That was quite a thrill, I can tell you.
As director of Forest I've fought a regular battle with the BBC, frequently requesting that anti-smoking reports include – where appropriate – an opposing view. I don't always succeed but it's not for want of trying.
Anyway, BBC News Wales outdid itself last week. To be honest I was unaware of the report (Calls for tougher smoking and junk food rules in hospitals) until I read this blog post by Chris Snowdon, Shameless BBC bias.
I suggest you read it yourself (then pop back here) but having read and watched the reports, tweets and video it refers to I couldn't have put it better myself.
I was particularly impressed by the fact that Chris had uncovered a two-year-old tweet from the journalist responsible for the BBC Wales report. Posted in February 2015 it read:
Smoking in cars carrying children to be banned in Wales - great news, but why not all cars? Taxi drivers can't smoke can they?— Rachel Flint (@RSLFlint) February 12, 2015
Chris's post was actually an extended version of a complaint he posted via the BBC website. Interestingly it appears to have been acted upon because on Friday I received an email from ... Rachel Flint.
I’m a reporter with BBC Wales News Online looking into the issue of smoking outside hospitals.
A potential new law in Wales will ban smoking on hospital grounds – including car parks – giving health board legal backing for voluntary bans already in place.
A clause in the Public Health Wales Bill would give hospital managers discretionary powers to introduce designated smoking areas.
But the chair of BMA Cymru says smoking should be banned in all parts of hospital grounds and there should be no reason for anyone to smoke on hospital grounds.
Considering people are in a high emotional state and may have had bad news, what are your views on this? Should people be able to smoke?
I received Rachel's email at 14.05. I was about to travel across London on the Underground but as soon as I arrived at my destination (at 14.56) I sent the following comment:
"It's not just petty, it's inhumane to ban smoking everywhere on hospital grounds.
"It doesn't matter whether you're a patient, a visitor or even a member of staff. Hospitals can be stressful places.
"Smoking is a comfort to many people. To tell anyone, especially elderly, infirm or long-term patients, that they can't smoke anywhere on the grounds is an abuse of power.
"Smoking outside isn't a health risk to anyone other than the smoker.
"The cost of treating smoking-related illnesses is a fraction of the revenue smokers contribute in tobacco taxation so smokers have no reason to feel guilty about their habit.
"Designated smoking shelters are the very least smokers deserve, but what's more important is that politicians and hospital administrators demonstrate some common sense and compassion."
Yesterday there was still no sign of my comment on the BBC News website so I emailed Rachel and asked if she had received it. She thanked me, explained she had just got into work, but would "look over it".
Six hours later I'd heard nothing more so I emailed her again:
Is anything happening on this? Bit confused that you asked us to comment but haven't used the quote. We were v concerned at the one-sided nature of last week's report/s re smoking in hospital grounds on BBC Wales so I was hoping you were going to redress the balance and publish an opposing view.
So this morning I rang the BBC Wales newsdesk and asked to speak to her but she wasn't there. Instead I spoke to one of her colleagues and sent the following email:
See email correspondence below, including our views on hospital smoking bans that Rachel had (belatedly) requested.
We are extremely concerned about the one-sided nature of the coverage of this story by BBC Wales last week and we are not alone - see this blog post by Chris Snowdon, head of the Lifestyle Economics Unit at the Institute of Economic Affairs (Shameless BBC bias).
I had drafted our own letter of complaint when Rachel emailed me at 14.05 on Friday, requesting our views. My response was sent at 14.56. I then sent a further email suggesting that my comments could be prefaced by the information that Forest intends to fight any further extensions to the current smoking ban in Wales.
I now understand that Rachel left work at 3.00 on Friday but I wasn't aware of this at the time. In response to an email sent by me yesterday morning she said she would look at my comments. I have heard nothing since.
Apart from our concern at the one-sided nature of your report/s last Wednesday, I am confused why Rachel would invite us to comment and not use or even acknowledge our views.
I would be grateful if you could acknowledge and respond to this email as a matter of urgency. Thanks.
An hour later I received this response:
The comments you sent to Rachel have now been added in the article – the reason for the delay is because we are also editing the accompanying video to reflect your views.
My final email, sent a few minutes ago, read:
Thanks. I appreciate that, although updating an article six days after it was published seems rather futile to me, especially as there is no longer a link on the BBC News (Wales) home page. To say the horse has long since bolted is an understatement.
Unless someone specifically searches for articles about smoking on hospital grounds the chances of anyone reading it will be very small so I'm disappointed that our response has been marginalised like this.
We're always happy to comment on smoking-related issues so please bear us in mind in future.
The chances of more than a handful of people reading the updated report must be very small indeed, but there you go. It's better than nothing.
The lesson here is that wherever we encounter biased, one-sided reporting it must be challenged.
In my experience there are plenty of BBC journalists who understand the need for balance and impartiality. They can be reasoned with as long as you don't over-react and become abusive.
I'm not a fan of naming and shaming either and I hate the mob bullying of journalists that sometimes happens on Twitter.
Sometimes however a report is so biased that a line has been crossed. This was one of those occasions.