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September 15, 2009

BBC Complainant: Complaints Process "Unsatisfactory, Unfair"

Out of hundreds of complaints to the BBC about Jeremy Bowen's error-filled and biased article on Israel and the Six-Day War, only two saw their way through what turned out to be a year-long complaints process: CAMERA's complaint, and a separate one prepared and pursued by London barrister Jonathan Turner. Key aspects of both complaints were upheld.

In a letter to British MP John Whittingdale, chairman of the Select Committee on Culture Media and Sport, Turner raised his concerns about the BBC's handling of complaints. That letter, which charges the BBC with having a lengthy, cumbersome and unfair complaints procedure, is published in its entirety below.

You can cross check Turner's charges by tracing the steps CAMERA was required to take to see its complaint through. Those steps are laid out in detail here.

Jonathan Turner's letter reads:

Arrangements for handling complaints about the BBC

I am writing to you to draw your attention to my concerns regarding the arrangements for handling complaints about the BBC. I invite you to circulate this letter to members of the Select Committee.

In summary, my concerns are as follows:

1. The procedure is extraordinarily lengthy and bureaucratic.

2. At each stage of the procedure, BBC personnel defending the coverage are given the last word and use it to raise new points which the complainant does not get an opportunity to address.

3. Numerous BBC personnel are permitted to make submissions defending the coverage, thereby casting a large burden on an individual complainant.

4. If a complaint is appealed to the BBC Trust, an anonymous “Editorial Adviser”, selected by the BBC Trust staff, is highly influential. The Editorial Adviser may have close links with the journalist whose coverage is in issue.

5. If it appears that a complaint might succeed, BBC staff adjust the normal process to stack the odds even further against it.

6. When asked to provide information or take steps to ensure a fair procedure, BBC Trust staff respond with promises which deflect the requests, but the promises are not kept.

7. Even if a complaint succeeds, there is normally no effective remedial action.

I appreciate that it can be argued that there should be no state funding and no regulation of broadcasting, and that the provision of information should be left entirely to the free market. However, as long as we have a broadcaster funded out of taxation – and particularly one with such large public funding and therefore influence as the BBC – it is essential that complaints about that broadcaster are considered properly, fairly and independently. Viewers who are unhappy about the coverage cannot simply vote with their wallets.

Indeed this point is recognised in the BBC Charter which states:

“Complaints to the BBC have an important role to play. The BBC’s complaints handling framework (including appeals to the Trust) is intended to provide appropriate, proportionate and cost effective methods of securing that the BBC complies with its obligations and that remedies are provided which are proportionate and related to any alleged non-compliance.”

Unfortunately, the BBC’s handling of complaints leaves a lot to be desired. Although two complaints which I had made were upheld in part by the BBC Trust earlier this year, their treatment was deeply unsatisfactory, unfair and not in accordance with modern standards of good practice.

The fundamental problem is the lack of any real independence in the system for considering complaints of inaccuracy and bias in the BBC’s coverage. OFCOM does not have jurisdiction to consider such complaints in relation to the BBC (in contrast to other national broadcasters). The procedure for considering such complaints comprises a long series of stages within the BBC culminating (if the complainant is not exhausted and has not missed a deadline at any stage) in an appeal to the BBC Trust, which is not truly independent. It is as if anyone who wanted to read a newspaper had to take out a year’s subscription to (say) “The Guardian”, but any complaint about inaccuracy or bias on the part of the “The Guardian” could only be made to “The Guardian”.

I am sending you, under separate cover, copies of the full correspondence relating to my complaints which were recently considered by the BBC Trust, running to five lever-arch files, to enable you to appreciate the full horror of the procedure. I would draw particular attention to the following points:

1. The procedure is extraordinarily lengthy and bureaucratic, and appears to be designed and operated to exhaust all but the most determined and well-organised of complainants.

A complaint has to be made initially to a department of the BBC called “BBC Information”. This department is staffed with personnel who regard it as their job to deflect all complaints, at any rate in certain areas.

If the complainant is dissatisfied with the response, he is expected to write again to the person who sent the response. A further response is then made by the same people. If the complainant is dissatisfied with the further response, he is expected to write to another department called the “Editorial Complaints Unit” (“ECU”). This department is also staffed with personnel who regard it as their job to deflect complaints.

If the complainant is dissatisfied with the ECU’s response, he is expected to appeal to the BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee (“ESC”). The BBC Trust Unit normally obtains a report from an Editorial Adviser on which the complainant, the BBC journalist, the BBC Editor and the ECU are invited to comment.

At each stage, strict time limits are imposed on the complainant, and a complaint is knocked out if the complainant fails to comply with the time limit. By contrast, excessive delays by the BBC in handling complaints are invariably ignored. For example, one of my complaints was rejected by the ESC earlier this year on the ground that I had been some 3½ weeks late in submitting my appeal - even though it had taken over a year for the BBC Trust to raise this objection and another of my complaints considered by the ESC at the same time had taken nearly two years for the procedure to run its course.

The impact of this procedure on the consideration of complaints is exemplified by one of my complaints which was partially upheld earlier this year. The BBC eventually admitted that it had received “hundreds and hundreds” of complaints about the item in question; that it had decided to send “quite a generic reply out to all” and that “many were angry that the replies weren’t tailor made”. The BBC’s replies had wrongly rejected all of the complaints. Eventually, two years later, appeals by myself and one other complainant were partially upheld by the ESC, but only after I had spent hundreds of hours dealing with the matter.

2. At each stage of the procedure, the BBC parties defending the coverage are given the last word and use the opportunity to raise new points which the complainant does not get an opportunity to address. Thus a complaint is liable to be rejected by BBC Information on ground A; the complainant (if persistent) appeals to the ECU showing that ground A is erroneous, but the complaint is then rejected on ground B; the complainant (if exceptionally persistent) appeals to the ESC showing that ground B is also erroneous; the BBC parties then resort to argument C which persuades the influential Editorial Adviser to report adversely on the complaint.

I foresaw this danger in the recent appeals and submitted that the final round of comments should be limited to responses to new points raised by other parties on which that party had not previously had an opportunity to comment. This is a standard requirement of an efficient and fair dispute resolution process. The BBC Trust Unit purported to agree with me on this point and said that they would instruct all parties accordingly. I stuck to this it on my side. However, BBC News ignored the instruction and the BBC Trust Unit omitted to mention the requirement to the ECU.

As a result, just a few working days before the long-delayed meeting of the ESC to consider my appeals, BBC News and the ECU made submissions containing a raft of new points, which the BBC Trust promptly circulated to the members of the ESC without giving me an opportunity to object in advance. Fortunately, I had some time available that weekend and was able to prepare an objection and response identifying at least some of the inaccuracies, fallacies and mistranslations on which the new BBC submissions were based. However, the BBC Trust Unit then delayed circulating these comments until the evening before the meeting, and I doubt that the members of the ESC were able to absorb it.

3. Numerous BBC parties are allowed to make submissions answering the complaint, particularly at the BBC Trust stage. In the appeals mentioned above, I had to respond to submissions made by the Head of News, the Middle East Editor, the ECU, BBC Information and the Editor of the Middle East pages of the BBC website. As mentioned below, the BBC Trust staff extended the procedure so that they were five rounds of submissions (on top of the earlier stages before BBC Information and the ECU). In the result, I had to respond to some twenty odd submissions by different BBC parties.

4. The Editorial Adviser’s report is presented to the ESC as the primary basis for consideration of the complaint and may well be the only document which is read with any care, or at all, by members of the ESC. Indeed, the BBC Trust recently decided that the Editorial Adviser’s report would henceforth be the only paperwork provided automatically to members of the ESC for their consideration of appeals, although they can ask to see other correspondence. The Editorial Adviser also attends the meeting of the ESC (in contrast to the complainant, who is not permitted to attend).

Yet the identity of the Editorial Adviser is not normally disclosed to the complainant. By accident, the identity of the Editorial Adviser was revealed recently to another appellant: the adviser turned out to be a former BBC journalist (Kerry Blackburn) who had close links with the journalist whose reporting was the subject of the complaint (Jeremy Bowen). The BBC Trust staff are thus able to steer the process by their choice of Editorial Adviser.

I intend to make a Freedom of Information request to try to identify the Editorial Advisers used in relation to complaints in a particular area. However, on past form the BBC will fight this tooth and nail, and the information will not be disclosed for at least several years, if ever.

5. If it appears that a complaint might succeed, the BBC staff adjust the process to increase the odds stacked against it. In my case, the Editorial Adviser prepared a report on the whole supporting one of my complaints. The Editorial Adviser was asked to rewrite her report.

The submissions of the BBC parties did not rebut the points I made. The BBC Trust Unit invited round after round of further submissions, thereby giving the BBC parties further opportunities to try to rebut my points and delaying the determination for many months.

6. I asked for copies of certain documents to which the BBC Executive referred, in order to check whether they said what the BBC Executive said they did, and whether quotations had been taken out of context. The BBC Trust staff refused this request on the ground that the ESC would not rely on these documents. But, in the event, the ESC did rely on them, at least according to their draft decision. And when I queried this, the decision was revised to say otherwise, but that was patently untrue.

7. Even where a complaint succeeds, there is no effective remedial action. The finding is tucked away in a voluminous report which no normal viewer reads. There is no broadcasting of a correction with similar prominence to the original report.

Posted by GI at September 15, 2009 10:00 AM

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