On the 22nd of July 2021, a medical registrar at the Mater Hospital in Belfast, Dr Emma Keelan, would put out a scaremongering tweet that was picked up and amplified by two BBC-Northern Ireland talk shows, namely Good Morning Ulster and The Stephen Nolan show.
Rather than attempt to verify the claims made by Dr Keelan, BBC-NI would deem her job description verification enough and felt that a person in her position would not lie. Yet just a few hours after she made her claims, CitizenJournos would learn that those claims were disputed by a senior source at the Mater hospital.
Rather than address our tweet Dr Keelan proceeded to block us on Twitter. It would later transpire via Freedom of Information Requests made by CJS to the Belfast Trust that not just were Dr Keelan’s claims wrong, but they were flat out lies. You can read about our findings here, here and here.
BBC-NI Amplifies Disinformation
The following morning, the 23rd July 2021, after Dr Keelan had posted her tweet the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme would air her claims twice during their programme. One of these times was direct to the medical director of the Belfast Trust, Chris Hagan, who didn’t take the opportunity to inform the public that Dr Keelan’s claims were incorrect.
Later that same morning Stephen Nolan of The Nolan Show would also take Dr Keelan’s claims at face value as he read them out emotively to a 25-year-old who had yet to be vaccinated.
Stunned at how easily the BBC-NI were willing to repeat and amplify, as facts, what was to them unverified claims, we decided to lodge complaints against both shows on the 28th of July which would not be concluded until today, 14th April 2022, some 9 months later. You can read about our attempts to complain to the BBC-NI here.
From the 28th of July to the 29th of October we would attempt to have the BBC-NI progress our complaints but without success. This was after being told on the 17th of August by the complaints handler that she only needed “several days” to complete her investigation. To help her along we offered to forward our FOI responses that confirmed Dr Keelan’s claims were lies which we did on the 1st of September 2021 and from that date we received no further communications from either her or the BBC-NI regarding this matter. They would ignore all of our subsequent attempts at communication. By ignoring us they were therefore preventing us from taking the complaints to their ECU as to do so you MUST complete stages 1a and 1b of their complaints procedure. We were left hanging at Stage 1b with no conclusion.
However, with the assistance of a helpful source we were advised our complaints were being deliberately “stonewalled” by the BBC-NI and we were then directed to circumvent them and go straight to the ECU. Following the advice and guidance given, this is what we did.
BBC ECU – The Struggle
On the 29th of November we would make contact with a very helpful gentleman at the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit who agreed to take over our complaints and permit us to circumvent the BBC in Northern Ireland, as they had clearly decided to breach their own procedures in their quest to stonewall us.
It would then take a further 5 months of us chasing the ECU up before we would receive a formal response as we had continuously been told we would have it in ‘a few weeks’. That said, our point of contact at the ECU always responded to our requests for updates and is to be commended for that alone. He seemingly shared our concerns that BBC-NI had deliberately tried to stall the progress of our complaints and did all that he could to help get us a resolution. However, it did still take numerous emails from us to him to bring the matter to a close.
- 29th November 2021 – Complaint raised with the ECU
- 14th January 2022 – Follow-up No.1
- 4th February 2022 – Follow-up No. 2
- 4th March 2022 – Follow-up No.3
- 11th March 2022 – Follow-up No.4
- 6th April 2022 – Follow-up No.5
BBC ECU – The response
BBC Northern Ireland have advised me that they believe Dr Keelan’s tweet was intended to convey two separate observations, a) that the Mater was full with young people who were critically unwell, b) that unvaccinated patients on ventilators at the hospital were now regretting their decision not to accept the vaccine. They point to a comma in the text after “unwell”. Whatever Dr Keelan’s intended meaning, however, this distinction was not apparent when the tweet was quoted on air, and I believe that, on each occasion, it would have given listeners the impression that ventilators at the hospital were fully occupied with young unvaccinated patients. (emphasis added)Fraser Steel, Head of the BBC Executive Complaints Unit
Fraser informs us that the BBC-NI felt the comma between “unwell” and “UNvaccinated” conveyed two separate claims, which is not true.
It is clear that Dr Keelan was claiming that “the Mater is full with young (in 20/30s) critically unwell UNvaccinated COVID patients on ventilators…” How can we be sure? Well, Dr Keelan has never made any attempt to rebut our interpretation and also when challenged by someone else about her claims she used the opportunity to further entrench herself in her lies rather than to use it to say the comma meant she was relaying two differing claims.
That said, why did the BBC-NI refuse to supply this reasoning to us directly as a response to our complaints? And why did it take us nine months for the ECU to eventually drag this excuse from them? Clearly, because the idea was to frustrate our efforts, stonewall us and hope we’d go away. They didn’t half get that wrong!
However, Mr Steel would agree with us that the impression given by both GMU and The Nolan Show in reading out Dr Keelan’s tweet was damaging and incorrect.
You have laid particular stress on the question of verification, and the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines concerning due accuracy do refer to steps which may be appropriate to verify reports by third parties. In this instance, I understand Radio Ulster relied on Dr Keelan’s standing as a senior doctor in respiratory medicine at The Mater, which I would normally consider acceptable in such cases unless they involved information which was contested at the time or counter-intuitive. In addition, they point out that (as mentioned above) the tweet, and the suggestion that it was an example of scaremongering, were put to Dr Chris Hagan who did not call it into question. All in all, therefore, I do not think I can fault the programme-makers for not taking what would have been extraordinary steps to verify the information in the tweet – but the fact remains that the impression given on air was significantly inaccurate, and I am therefore upholding your complaint in that respect.Fraser Steel, Head of the BBC Executive Complaints Unit
Whilst we disagree with Mr Steel’s view that he cannot fault the programme-makers for not verifying the claims made in the tweet we also accept that by the Trust’s medical director, Dr Chris Hagan, in failing to inform the show Dr Keelan’s claims were untrue owns a lot of responsibility here. By failing to correct the claims made he helped enable the dissemination of these lies by the BBC.
This is the clip of GMU reading out Dr Keelan’s tweet to Dr Hagan live on air.
Mr Steele ends his response letter to us with the following,
I hope you will accept my apology, on behalf of the BBC, for the breach of standards you have identified in connection with these programmes.Fraser Steel, Head of the BBC Executive Complaints Unit
We had no intention of dragging the Emma Keelan story out, for as much as we are appalled at her using her position of trust to propagate lies and scaremongering, we feel that the point has been made and her lies exposed and it’s time to move on in the hope she has learned a hard but vital lesson. However, it is also of great importance that we share the results of our BBC complaints with readers as the corporation in Northern Ireland platformed and helped amplify lies whilst also breaching their own complaints procedure in stonewalling us. Recall that we submitted our complaint to the corporation in July of 2021and they are only giving us a response today. So it is in this context that Dr Keelan’s name had to be brought up again.
This was a hard-fought response from the BBC and one that took significant time, patience, resources and effort from the whole team. Nonetheless, we felt it was worth the effort as Dr Keelan’s tweet was being used to scare people in their 20s and 30s into being vaccinated and it also had the added effect of frightening quite a number of people who informed us that they were afraid to go near the Mater hospital after hearing her tweet read out on BBC Radio Ulster.
The BBC-NI, who are often accused of being little more than a PR machine for the Department of Health, did a lot to lend support to those claims by allowing themselves to get caught up in what we believe to be a part of coordinated disinformation campaign at that time in an attempt to scare younger people into being vaccinated. The fact that we were attempting to expose that campaign and the role the BBC-NI played in it goes some way to explaining why they decided to abandon our complaints and ignore our further communications. So this response from the ECU is a victory not just for the truth and accountability but for us at CJS who refused to give up despite concerted attempts to frustrate our efforts at exposing the truth.
We are also of the firm belief that Dr Chris Hagan of the Belfast Trust was brought onto the GMU radio show the day after Dr Keelan’s tweet as part of this scaremongering campaign organised by the Michael McBride lead Department of Health (in response to a complaint from us the General Medical Counsel recently came out against Dr McBride for spreading fear on BBC-NI) We have closed-source information that confirms this which is what inspired us to continue in our pursuit of our BBC complaints. It was critical that we exposed what was really going on.
We have also exposed the BBC-NI being used by a prominent media doctor, Alan Stout, to push disinformation on the Nolan Show which resulted in Nolan removing the interview and deleting the clip, but not before we downloaded it.
What this all points to is the BBC in Northern Ireland being used, and/or allowing itself to be used, to spread lies and disinformation. As the linked to CJS investigations have shown, there is clearly, at the very least, a willingness by the corporation in Northern Ireland to allow themselves to be used to spread unverified claims and outright lies when it comes to COVID-19 scaremongering. We see the same pattern with the lesser relevant William Crawley TalkBack Show that we have documented on Twitter. Add to this us and others catching their Health Correspondent Marie-Louise Connolly also pushing for vaccinations in kids and there is no doubt that serious questions need to be asked of what is really going on behind the scenes at the BBC in Northern Ireland? We’ll certainly be playing very close attention!
Below is the outcome of our complaints.
Letter from Mr Steel to CJS…
Outcome of ECU Complaints…