Decision on “Horrible Histories” Complaint: “Materially Inaccurate,” 30 September 2014
Judgment is on pp52-63 of the June-July report (pdf)
Successful complainant Professor Lynn McDonald welcomed the decision by the BBC Trustees on the BBC’s false accusations against Florence Nightingale–of racism no less–in its Horrible Histories series on Nightingale and Mary Seacole.
The 16-page judgment found that the depiction of Nightingale with regard to racial issues “was materially inaccurate.” It agreed that the accusation of her rejecting Seacole four times was a serious allegation, and also “materially inaccurate,” as the evidence was clear that she did not reject her once.
Horrible Histories, however, is not the only horror in the BBC’s coverage of Nightingale and Seacole (see the list below).
The BBC has a lot to make up for. It should begin by acknowledging all its faulty programmes and websites, retracting where possible, and re-labeling those too late to retract. Said McDonald, “a documentary should tell the story as it is, or be labelled as fiction. Comedy is fine, but accusations of racism are not funny, and inexcusable when false.”
She noted that the complaint was first submitted in May 2013, and the BBC fought it all the way. This material is used in U.K. schools, and thus contributes to “Lessons in Lies” (see Lynn McDonald, Daily Mail 1 August 2014).
Other BBC Sources of Misinformation
- BBC School Radio, History–The Victorians, 9. The Life of Mary Seacole, a school resource, is wrong from beginning to end, with its claim of her being a “pioneering nurse” and a Crimean War “heroine.” A portrait of her shows her proudly wearing 3 medals, none of which she won, which is never mentioned. Her business interests (her customers were officers) are turned into charitable work for ordinary soldiers.
- BBC online: Mary Seacole Famous People. Again, Seacole’s business for officers is made into charitable work nursing ordinary soldiers.
- BBC Knowledge, Mary Seacole: A Hidden History. This half-hour “documentary,” made available to schools, claims to tell how “she saved thousands of British soldiers.”
- BBC School Radio, Learning, Victorians, Audio Clip 5 is dead wrong on Seacole, who (again) is depicted wearing medals she did not win, or ever claim to. The clip even has a fake message from Queen Victoria praising her (the Queen praised Florence Nightingale).
- Simon Schama’s A History of Britain, available as a book and video after the broadcast, both praised Seacole for things she never did, and blamed Nightingale for the sanitary faults of the hospital approved by the army’s own inspector general, to which she was sent.
- BBC Press Office, Victoria and Her Sisters, 09.05.02 refers to Seacole as one of the “social health campaigners” along with Dr Elizabeth Garrett. It makes her into a sister of change who “helped forge a place for Victorian women outside the home,” work certainly done by Nightingale, who also assisted Dr Garrett in her career as Britain’s first woman doctor.
Details are provided at www.maryseacole.info
For book-length coverage see Lynn McDonald, Mary Seacole: The Making of the Myth (Iguana, 2014) and “Lessons in Lies,” Daily Mail 1 August 2014.
BBC coverage of Nightingale herself has been dismal for years. Its two hour-long features (BBC2 in 2001 and BBC1 in 2008) are both full of factual errors and absurd accusations. The 2001 programme had her nursing increasing illness in her war hospital (in fact, she analyzed the reasons for the high death rates and worked assiduously to bring them down). The 2008 programme added that her investigation showed her “shortcomings” (when she showed the failings of the War Office). Press coverage of that film demeaned her as “The Liability with a Lamp.” The 2001 programme, among its many other errors, had her oppose the vote for women and even sign a petition against it (she signed petitions in favour of the vote for women, joined the suffrage society, etc.).