From Rebekka Campbell, BBC Schools

Dear Professor McDonald,

Thank you for your letter dated 5 August 2014 which raises a number of issues relating to School Radio’s content on Mary Seacole. We appreciate you taking the time to contact us and for your detailed comments: we of course take the question of accuracy very seriously. I trust you received our email dated 18 August explaining that we were investigating your complaint. Please accept my apologies for the short delay in sending on this full response.

We note that the bulk of your complaint is related to the teacher’s notes and the extension activity. Clause 2.3 of the BBC’s complaints framework clearly states that complaints about content currently published on a BBC website should be made within 30 working days of the date when it first appeared online:
The notes and activity you refer to have been online continuously since 2010. Therefore we do not feel that it is practicable and cost-effective to investigate this part of your complaint.

The clips were also first made available online in 2010, but were re-broadcast on 25 June 2014 as part of School Radio’s series on the Victorians. We can therefore consider the audio part of your complaint as your letter was dated within 30 working days of this re-broadcast.

I will preface all my comments by saying that the clips are clearly presented as an audio drama for primary school children. As such, factual events may have been simplified and scenes/characters/dialogue created to allow the drama to unfold in a way that young children can follow. That said, the clips do intend overall to present a historically accurate picture of Mary Seacole’s life.

Firstly, you state that ‘On the clips, a segment shows Mary Seacole running a hospital, called the British Hotel…’ It’s true that at the beginning of the clip Seacole’s character does twice refer to the British Hotel as a hospital. However in the drama, when asked by WH Russell whether the establishment is a hospital, Seacole draws a firm and very clear distinction between the British Hotel and Florence Nightingale’s ‘proper hospital’:

Russell: Why do you call this place the British Hotel? It’s a hospital isn’t it?
Seacole: Florence Nightingale has a hospital Mr Russell. You go and see her if you want to see a proper hospital.

Thereafter in the drama the establishment is always referred to as ‘the British Hotel’. We hear of a man (it’s not stated whether he is an officer or not) being comforted and provided with soup and blankets, and this is consistent with the description Seacole gives in her memoir of providing ‘…a mess table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers’.

While I acknowledge that there is no evidence that Mary Seacole or others referred to the British Hotel as a hospital and accept that it was first and foremost a commercial enterprise, I believe that two uses of the word ‘hospital’ would not materially mislead the young audience. It was used at the outset to indicate to them in a simple way that it was a place where injured men might be treated. As you may be aware, Florence Nightingale is given clear credit for running the ‘proper’ hospitals. The BBC Editorial Guidelines allow for such ‘due’ accuracy, and we believe that the fictional audio clip was duly accurate in using the word hospital in the way it did, before then going on to contextualise this.

Next, you raise concerns about the fictionalised visit of WH Russell and the story of the injured man ‘tucked up in the warm, drinking soup’. The dialogue and the specifics of events are of course fictional but that is in keeping with the nature of the content which is, as I’ve stated above, clearly presented as a dramatised account of history.

We know that Russell did in fact visit the British Hotel – as you say elsewhere in your letter, ‘he is listed as having left (a small) unpaid bill’. We also know from Seacole’s memoir that the two saw each other on the battlefield. While the actual dialogue between the two is fictional, it is based in historical fact and created as a way to enable the drama to unfold.

You describe part of their dialogue, the comment that Florence Nightingale’s hospital is ‘too far from the action’, as being a ‘jibe’ at Nightingale. I don’t agree with this, particularly given that Seacole has already been heard to praise Nightingale’s ‘proper hospital’ and to say, as you comment, that the British Hotel is also ‘just not close enough’. She is simply explaining her reason for going down to the battlefield to help the men.

As with the dialogue between Seacole and Russell, the story of the injured man, while it may not be literally true, is also based on Seacole and others’ accounts. For example in her memoir Seacole describes how:

‘…during the day, if any accident occurred in the neighbourhood or on the road near the British Hotel, the men generally brought the sufferer there, whence, if the hurt was serious, he would be transferred to the hospital of the Land Transport opposite.’

Russell in his description of the British Hotel says that:

‘…here she doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success. She is always in attendance near the battle-field to aid the wounded, and has earned many a poor fellow’s blessings…’

John Hall, Inspector-General of Hospitals is quoted by Seacole as saying that:

‘She not only, from the knowledge she had acquired in the West Indies, was enabled to administer appropriate remedies for their ailments, but, what was of as much or more importance, she charitably furnished them with proper nourishment…’

These parts of the drama never purported to represent actual dialogue or events, but serve to tell a story that is clearly based in historical fact: at the British Hotel Mary Seacole provided food, shelter and basic treatment of injuries and ailments.

Next you raise a point about Mary Seacole’s treatment of wounded Russian soldiers. You feel that while this did happen in the drama it has been ‘grossly exaggerated’. In fact it forms only a small part of the drama – in (again imagined) dialogue between Russell and Seacole, Russell asks whether it’s true that she helps injured Russians, Seacole states that she does and asks ‘Do you think that’s wrong?’ This dialogue lasts barely 15 seconds and no claim of extensive help is made, so I don’t agree that this amounts to gross exaggeration.

Finally in your comments about the clip you refer to the section where Seacole and Sally enter Sebastopol. They manage to gain entry to the city because of a letter Sally describes from ‘the General’ which says they should be allowed in with ‘medical supplies’. A soldier realises he’s speaking to Mary Seacole and immediately lets them pass. You rightly point out in your letter that, in her memoir, Seacole describes a letter from General Garrett which refers only to ‘refreshments’.

However it’s clear that she did pass through blockades on the strength of her reputation and did carry medical supplies with her. In her memoir she tells us: ‘A line of sentries forbade all strangers passing through without orders, even to Cathcart’s Hill; but once more I found that my reputation served as a permit, and the officers relaxed the rule in my favour everywhere. So, early in the day, I was in my old spot, with my old appliances for the wounded and fatigued…’

WH Russell reports seeing Seacole with her supplies, including bandages: ‘I saw her at the assault on the Redan, at the Tchernay, at the fall of Sebastopol, laden, not with plunder, good old soul! but with wine, bandages, and food for the wounded or the prisoners.’

Here, while the drama may conflate events, as I said, we are charged with being ‘duly’ accurate, and the supporting evidence for this was that she clearly used Garrett’s letter, or one like it, to pass the guards, and arrived with refreshments and medical supplies (bandages) for the wounded. The intention was to show that Seacole was respected, determined to enter the city and that her assistance and services were welcomed and valued. We do not believe that the audience would be materially misled on this point.

I hope I’ve been able to address your concerns here and once again, thank you for taking the time to contact us. We welcome feedback about our content and always strive to ensure it’s of the highest possible quality.

Best wishes,

Rebekka Campbell
Editor, BBC Schools