BBC defends story asking how to tell a cat that its owners have split up

Anita Singh
The BBC said the story 'opened up robust discussions about relationships, couples, families and pets' - TASS

The BBC has defended its online output after facing backlash over a news story that asked: “My boyfriend dumped me but how do I tell my cat?”

The article, prominently featured on the homepage of the website, is part of the BBC Trending strand billed as “in-depth reporting about social media and digital culture”.

In the past 12 months it has covered serious issues including social media censorship in China, the prevalence of harmful content on YouTube and revenge porn.

But it also runs stories based on viral videos and posts such as “‘Vandal grannies’ destroy noisy children’s seesaw” and “Justin Bieber challenges Tom Cruise to UFC fight”.

Journalists from the Trending unit scour the web for content that is getting tens or hundreds of thousands of hits on other sites. They then repackage it. An American woman who invited guests to wear their bridal gowns to her wedding received the BBC treatment after her post about it on the Reddit web forum gained 90,000 “up-votes”.

The BBC directed £236 million of licence fee money toward its online services in 2019-20. Critics argue that the scope of the BBC’s website is too broad, and question why it spends money on content with little or no news value.

However, stories such as these are part of the corporation’s drive to attract young audiences.

The cat story was based on a tweet by Abby Govindan, a US-based comedian, who wrote: “How do I explain to my cat, who loved my boyfriend more than anything in the world, that he is never coming over again ever?”

When the tweet received 250,000 “likes”, the BBC jumped in to write their own story about it.

Among those unimpressed by the story was Richard Sambrook, the former head of BBC News and now a professor of journalism.

He tweeted: “Why is this on the front page of the BBC News website? Presumably to get clicks and attract the ‘younger audience’ - in which case the metrics, or interpretation of them, is badly wrong.”

The author of the article, Dhruti Shah, responded that the issue “clearly affected many people” and pointed out that she had conducted interviews to flesh out her story. “That’s journalism,” she said.

James Coatsworth, who works in the audience research department for BBC News, also explained: “Yes this is journalism. The piece is inspired by a viral tweet but the BBC journalist has written a full story, including multiple interviews and expert advice from a clinical animal behaviourist. It’s not just a screengrab of a tweet with some filler.

“Not everything the BBC does is for everyone, indeed nothing the BBC does is for everyone. This might not be for you (maybe you don’t like cats) but that doesn’t stop it being valid content.”

Ofcom, the regulator, has no powers to look at the scope of the BBC’s online activities and the website has never been scrutinised by the National Audit Office to assess if it is delivering value for money.

The broadcaster believes that all of its online output meets the BBC mission to provide “impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain”.

A BBC spokesman said: “BBC Trending reports on a wide range of social media stories and some that prompt debate beyond the main news agenda.

“More typical BBC Trending stories over the last month include Iranian reaction to the downing of the Ukraine International Airlines flight, an anti-domestic abuse campaign on TikTok and the misleading maps used to illustrate the bushfires in Australia.”

But the spokesman said that the piece about cats “opened up robust discussions about relationships, couples, families and pets that reached beyond our usual news audience.”