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Last Updated: Monday, 28 February, 2005, 10:09 GMT
Did BBC ignore web-less viewers?
More than 40% of the population do not have home internet access. So was it right for a major news bulletin to refer people to a website - especially for as big a health scare as the Sudan I food dye problem?

Pizza
Thousands may have had affected pizza but were unable to check

The Six O'Clock News carried a report revealing that hundreds of food products had been taken off shop shelves after they were contaminated with an illegal food dye.

The report, on February 18, explained that the Sudan I dye was linked to an increased risk of cancer and anyone who wanted to check the list of affected foods should go to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) website.

The FSA was quick to point out that the risk was "very low" - but that didn't stop eight million people rushing to check the list in just 24 hours.

As a result, access to the site slowed to a snail's pace and thousands were unable to see the information. It didn't crash but the FSA admits it was "very, very slow".

Why no Ceefax?

The nature of the complaints received by BBC News had two main themes.

Firstly, for those with web access, why direct people to a "malfunctioning" site?

Ceefax front page
Ceefax carried the story but was "unable to carry" the list of foods

And, secondly, what about all the people at home without web access? Why not repeat the list on Ceefax - a service still used by millions?

Viewer Tommy Martin summed up the views of many of those without internet access when he said: "I felt [the report] would frighten elderly people listening to the news who haven't got a computer, and lots of older people haven't.

"At 6pm, how do they find out what products have been withdrawn off the shelves? I feel BBC news should have given more thought to this matter by putting details on Ceefax or giving a phone number."

And Yvonne Clayson said: "They just assume that everybody has a computer, as if we are second-rate citizens."

Meanwhile, internet user Janet Brown e-mailed in to say: "Just seen the report on the News. Have you tried to get on the FSA website recently? Impossible.

"Perhaps this information could have been scrolled across the screen during the report instead of showing the newsreader, or posted on Ceefax, so that we could have been given the opportunity of accessing it without having to go online."

Failure to check

In response, Six O'Clock News deputy editor Will Thorne told the NewsWatch programme: "I think this was a unique problem and I don't think in the 15 years I've done television news that we can think of a story where there's a widespread domestic product which has had such a huge recall.

"It seems a satisfactory, not totally satisfactory, but a satisfactory answer in part because the story broke at about four and we were on air at six, that we could give people some idea of where to go to see if they could spot the products for themselves.

"Of course, we couldn't do it ourselves, we haven't got the airtime to do a roller for 350 products, so it seemed an obvious measure; it wasn't perfect but it was at least a partial solution."

Thorne admitted that the Six failed to check "whether the website was up to 100% speed" but, since they had lined up the FSA's chief executive for a live interview, "it would have been a very smart question to ask".

But what about all those people without internet access? Why not place the list on Ceefax, which almost everyone can access?

Thorne said: "We did talk about Ceefax...but they couldn't help.

"Ceefax take very short bites of information; they take four of five line bullet points. They couldn't cope with this so Ceefax wasn't the answer."

And what about in the future? Could the BBC handle such stories in a better way?

Thorne said: "I think the BBC Online website in hindsight would have been a smart thing to have done and led people to that. We're doing an update today and we'll put, with the checks, the FSA website and the BBC website up as a two-pronged attack.

"I think that's probably as much as we can do; it's not the sort of information that local radio will cover. I think the internet...covers 52% of the population so it isn't a bad place to start."

The BBC News website posted a list of the foods to avoid - in a pdf format - that was downloaded 111,000 times in the last six hours of the day that the story broke.



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