The BBC, complaints, corrections and accountability

Readers may recall that a BBC Radio 4 News bulletin from December 20th 2015 misled listeners with regard to the fact that Samir Kuntar’s role in the 1979 terror attack in Nahariya was proven in a court of law.R4 6pm news 20 12

“A leading figure in the Lebanese militant group Hizballah has been killed by a rocket attack in the Syrian capital Damascus. Samir Kuntar had previously spent thirty years in an Israeli prison for his alleged role in the killing of four people. Hizballah said Israel was behind the rocket attack. An Israeli minister welcomed his death but didn’t say whether his country had carried it out.” [emphasis added]

A member of the public who immediately alerted the BBC to the use of that inaccurate and misleading wording received (over two weeks later) one of BBC Complaints’ infamous template responses – which completely failed to address the issue raised.

“Thank you for contacting us about the recent escalation in violence in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. We have received a wide range of feedback about our coverage of this subject across our television and radio programmes, and the BBC News website. In order to use our TV licence fee resources efficiently, this response aims to answer the key concerns raised in complaints received by us, but we apologise in advance if it doesn’t address your specific points in the manner you would prefer.

We appreciate you believe our coverage of this story has shown bias in favour of the Palestinians and against Israelis and the state of Israel. In this response we hope to explain why we feel this has not been the case.

Across our news bulletins and programmes we have reported on the increasing number of attacks committed by Palestinians on Israeli civilians and security forces. We have broadcast reports where our reporters have spoken to the families of Israelis and Palestinians killed in the recent violence and have heard their respective stories and own specific takes on the conflict.

For example, during BBC One’s News at Ten on 9 October we heard from Odel Bennet. She and her husband were attacked by a Palestinian in the Old City the previous weekend. She was seriously injured; her husband and a rabbi who intervened were both killed. During the report we showed amateur video footage of the attack. We then heard from Mrs Bennet who, from her hospital bed, spoke of her fear and pain, and described how Palestinian passers-by mocked and verbally abused her while she lay wounded on the street.

We have tried to explain how the current situation has come to pass from the Israeli and Palestinian perspectives. This has included reporting on the tensions around the holy sites in Jerusalem. We have also reported on criticisms of the Palestinian leadership’s response to the attacks, in particular the Israeli government’s claim that President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority are guilty of inciting violence in the West Bank. We believe we have reported clearly on the threat of violence faced by Israelis on an increasingly regular basis and of the difficulties faced by security forces in stopping these attacks from taking place.

BBC News tries to report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an accurate and duly impartial manner. Sometimes this means we can’t always reflect the full extent of the complexities of the conflict during one standalone report or bulletin. We try to tell the story of the conflict as experienced by both sides, across programmes and bulletins and over time. We believe this has been the case during our coverage of this recent spike in violence.

We have raised your concerns with senior editorial staff at BBC News, who consider the range of feedback received from our audience when deciding how they approach reporting on stories.”

The receipt of such an irrelevant response naturally raises the question of whether staff at the BBC Complaints department even bothered to read the complaint to which they were ostensibly replying.

Such template responses have of course long been employed by the BBC Complaints department and their primary purpose is obviously to tick a box and reduce the department’s workload. This particular member of the BBC’s funding public did not however give up in the face of an extraneous response and the complaint was resubmitted at the next stage.

The subsequent reply – received over five weeks after the original broadcast – read as follows:

“Thanks for getting back in touch. Apologies for the delay in replying. We do very much regret that we’ve not been able to get back to you as quickly as we, and you, would have liked.

Apologies also for our previous response not addressing your concerns.

We raised your complaint with senior editorial staff at radio newsroom. They appreciate your point and accept the script should have been written more clearly. It would have been better, for example, if this bulletin mirrored Radio 4’s 0900 bulletin’s on the same date (20 December), to remove any possible ambiguity about the nature of the conviction against Samir Qantar:

“The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah say a leader of the group has been killed by an Israeli airstrike in the Syrian capital, Damascus. Samir Qantar was sentenced to life in prison in Israel in 1979 for an attack in Israel that killed four people but was released seven years ago as part of a prisoner swap. An Israeli minister welcomed his death but did not comment on who was responsible.”

Thanks for taking the time to contact us, we hope this goes some way in addressing your concerns.”

So, whilst BBC staff “accept the script should have been written more clearly” they apparently have no intention of actually doing anything to correct the misleading and inaccurate impression given to Radio 4’s listeners. 

Once again, this case raises questions concerning the BBC’s accountability and its commitment to correcting its own mistakes in a consistent manner which serves the public interest. All the BBC had to do was to read this complaint properly and broadcast a correction in the next edition of that news programme. Instead, it wasted publicly provided resources by unnecessarily dragging out a very simple issue over a period of nearly a month and a half.

It is interesting to compare the BBC’s decidedly complacent approach to complaints and corrections to that of the US broadcaster NPR – as recently laid out in a CNN interview with NPR’s Head of News, Michael Oreskes.

“We don’t make silent corrections to our stories. We make corrections to help keep the public accurately informed – not to absolve ourselves of our mistakes.” 

 “So when you make an error of fact you have to correct it right away and you have to say you’ve corrected it.”

Keeping the public accurately informed is supposedly the mission of the BBC too but when members of the public alerting the corporation to inaccuracies and errors are shrugged off with tardy, irrelevant replies and forced to spend weeks navigating the labyrinthine complaints system in order to squeeze out a response which does nothing to repair the damage done by the error, it is very difficult to believe that mission is really at the peak of the BBC’s priorities.

Related Articles:

BBC defends its use of template replies to complaints

BBC bases rejection of complaint on word of anti-Israel NGOs

In April 2015, listeners to an item about the plight of Christians in the Middle East broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme were told by the corporation’s Middle East editor that:

“…Palestinian Christians as well feel threatened not just of course from extreme Islam, but they also feel threatened by what the Israeli government might be doing.”

Members of the public who complained to the BBC received a Stage 1 template response which claimed that “he was describing the mood of Palestinian Christians, not the policies of the government of Israel.”

One member of the public who was not satisfied by that response took his complaint to Stage 2 where it was rejected by the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU). The gentleman then appealed against that decision to the BBC Trust and when that appeal was also rejected, requested that the Trustees review the decision not to proceed with his appeal. The Editorial Standards Committee decided that the appeal did not qualify to proceed for consideration and the details of that decision and the previous ones were published by the ESC last month.

The document (pages 48 – 52 inclusive here) shows that from Stage 2 onwards, BBC staff handling this complaint relied on information sourced from three remarkable sources.

Complaint Bowen 1

Complaint Bowen 2

All three of those organisations are campaigning bodies with a clear political agenda.

Founded in 2005, the Institute for Middle East Understanding is a US-based organisation with a mission to “offer journalists and editors quick access to information about Palestine and the Palestinians, as well as expert sources — both in the U.S. and in the Middle East”. IMEU promotes the BDS campaign against Israel and produces characteristically one-sided ‘reports’ and ‘fact sheets’ which – inter alia – promote the ‘apartheid’ trope and the notion of “official and unofficial discrimination” against Christians.

Sabeel is an organisation known not only for its promotion of the ‘one-state solution’ (i.e. the elimination of Israel as the Jewish state) but also for the employment of ‘liberation theology’ and supersessionism in its anti-Israel campaigning

Kairos – or Kairos Palestine – “is an NGO that promotes the 2009 Kairos Palestine document, drafted by a small group of Palestinian Christian clergy [see here]. It calls for BDS (boycotts, divestment, and sanctions) against Israel and denies the Jewish religious and historical connection to any part of the Land of Israel.” Kairos Palestine describes terrorism against Israelis as “legal resistance”.

So as we see, the BBC’s approach to a complaint about inaccurate portrayal of Israel was to consult and adopt information from sources which are actively engaged in anti-Israel campaigning and delegitimisation.

In our submission to the DCMS consultation on the BBC charter review we noted that:

“Whilst the BBC recognizes the fact that “some ‘experts’ may have a history of sympathising with one cause or another, even if they have no overt affiliation”, it frequently uses contributions from academics with a record of anti-Israel political campaigning and even consults with such sources when dealing with complaints. Clearly the BBC needs to ensure that all ‘experts’ consulted are neutral and impartial.” [emphasis added]

As this example shows, that problem is obviously not limited to consultation with campaigning academics but also includes campaigning political NGOs. As long as that clearly unsatisfactory practice continues, the BBC Complaints system can only maintain its dismal reputation.  

 

BBC Trust’s ESC rejects complaint about Tim Willcox’s ‘Jewish faces’ remark

A complaint concerning a BBC programme which was flagged up in the CST’s report on Antisemitic Discourse in Britain in 2014 has been rejected by the BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee.BBC Papers on website

A link to the original programme can be found below:

More BBC promotion of the ‘Jewish lobby’ trope

The BBC’s initial – and not dissimilar – response to complaints about the programme is documented here:

BBC doubles down on presenter’s ‘mansion tax’ comment

The ESC’s full decision can be found on pages 17 to 23 inclusive here with a summary appearing on pages 6 and 7. Whilst the full text of the original complaint is not available, some of the content of the decision appears – to put it politely – to have missed the point.

“The Committee concluded that:

 A reference by the presenter to ‘Jewish faces’ was not anti-Semitic in the context of a discussion about prominent Jewish people (donors to the Labour party). The presenter had been struggling for a phrase to sum up the group of people they were discussing in the heat of the live discussion, and had come up with Jewish “faces”. Trustees noted that the word “face” or “faces” was in common use as a synonym for a prominent person or people. Trustees considered it was clear that this was the meaning the presenter had intended the audience to take and that the potentially offensive meaning understood by the complainant, suggestive of a negative stereotype of Jewish facial features, would not have been intended; nor would the majority of the audience have interpreted it in that sense.”

The real significance of this ruling, however, is found in the fact that the BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee obviously considers itself to have sufficient authority, knowledge and expertise to determine what is – or in this case, what is not – antisemitism even though one of Britain’s leading expert bodies on that form of racism has classified the programme concerned as an example of antisemitic discourse.

 

 

ITV submission to the DCMS BBC Charter Review consultation

The submission made by ITV plc to the DCMS public consultation on BBC Charter Review can be found here.DCMS consultation

Of particular interest is the section concerning governance and regulation from page 42 onwards.

“ITV believes that there is a compelling case for the BBC to be subject in future to strong, effective and independent regulator which would define in detail and then secure the public interest obligations that the BBC is set in the current Charter process.”

ITV holds the opinion that “many of the BBC Trust’s current regulatory and supervisory functions should be given to Ofcom”, including:

“Final determination of editorial complaints (including in relation to accuracy and impartiality) in all areas of the BBC’s output on the basis of a pan-industry code.”

It adds:

“We recognize that Ofcom would need to change to accommodate such a new regime. So, for instance, there is a strong case for the Ofcom Content Board to be re-invented as a PSB oversight entity with a directly appointed Chair with strong accountability obligations direct to Parliament and the public.”

The BBC found it necessary to respond to ITV’s submission and that response can be found here.

The BBC’s submission to the public consultation on its charter review

On October 8th the BBC Press Office publicised the corporation’s submission to the DCMS public consultation on the subject of the BBC charter review.

Press Office tweet consultation

The press release on the topic can be found here.

The submission itself – titled “British Bold Creative” – can be found here and supplementary documents are available here.

One of the submission’s notable features is a proposed extension of the ten-year charter (section 3.19, page 101). Curiously, the rationale presented by the BBC for that proposal does not address the topic of the rapid pace of changing technology.

A section which will undoubtedly be of particular interest to many of our readers relates to the BBC’s complaints process (section 3.17, page 94). There, the BBC claims that:

“The processes we have in place are easily accessible and work well—in 2014/15 we received 260,000 editorial complaints and answered 96% on time. Fewer than 1% of complaints went to appeal by the BBC Trust.”

That portrayal is one many members of the public will have difficulty recognizing.

It would of course have been helpful to licence fee payers reading both this document and the previously published ones aimed at the same purpose had they been informed of the expenses entailed in the production of the audience research and commissioned studies cited and provided with transparent information on the general issue of BBC expenditure relating to the topic of charter renewal.

BBC defends its use of template replies to complaints

h/t R

Here at BBC Watch we are frequently contacted by members of the public who are frustrated by the fact that a complaint they have made to the BBC has been answered with one of the BBC Complaints department’s template replies. Readers frequently note that the points they raised in their complaint were not addressed by the generic responses often seen when the BBC receives a high volume of complaints about a particular topic.Complaint pic

One reader who objected to getting a template BBC reply to his complaint received a communication from BBC Audience Services which included the following:  

“I understand you were unhappy that you’d received the same response to your complaint as had been sent to other complainants. I regret that you took offence to this, but our approach to this matter is perfectly in line with the BBC’s complaints framework.

Every year we receive over 1 million comments, appreciations or enquiries about BBC programmes, some 3,000 a day. Over 250,000 of these can be complaints – in some cases coming from external pressure groups and lobby websites. To help us report and handle these complaints efficiently, the BBC Trust set up a complaints process, based on the feedback received after a public consultation, that aimed to balance the need to fully investigate possible breaches of standards while also using the licence fee proportionately. The complaints framework (which you can read in full via the link provided below) states that for consistency and to minimise costs, if we receive multiple complaints about the same issue we may compile a summary of the points raised, consider those points together and then send the same reply to everyone.

http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/assets/files/pdf/regulatory_framework/protocols/2014/complaints_fr_work_ed_complaints.pdf

I realise you may not be happy with this approach, but I hope I have been able to explain why it was done. No offence was intended.”

Of course some licence fee payers will simply give up and move on after receiving a reply which does not address the substance of their complaint and that indeed is definitely one way of ‘minimising costs’. Whether or not it is in keeping with the BBC’s status as a publicly funded body is obviously a different question altogether.

It would however be interesting to compare the expense saved through the use of template responses with that incurred by the need to further respond to those complainants who, having received an unsatisfactory generic reply, take their complaint to the next stages of the complaints process. Perhaps such a comparison would show that it might actually be more efficient – and better for customer satisfaction – to simply respond to complaints from members of the public with a relevant reply which addresses the issues raised.  

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Baroness Deech on the BBC complaints system and OFCOM

We recently posed on these pages the question of whether or not OFCOM is up to the job of replacing the BBC Trust as the final arbiter for editorial complaints. Baroness Deech has been pondering the same issue and her conclusions are well worth studying.BBC brick wall

“Would OFCOM be any better? In their annual report 13-14 it is revealed that 12,774 complaints were made about content and standards, and 124 breaches found.  22 complaints about fairness were upheld from 241 made. OFCOM cleared Channel 4’s mockumentary on UKIP, The First 1000 Days, despite over 6000 complaints.

The BBC Annual Report for the same period reports 192,459 complaints, and 52 upheld by the Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee.  I make that .02%. I rarely see apologies made in the same forum where the offending issue was first aired. Apologies by the BBC or its reporters are reported in the press but diligent searching of the BBC website does not necessarily turn them up. The Commons report referred to the dissatisfaction expressed by complaints about the process.

I highlight this issue because the crux of the importance of the BBC’s impartiality and accountability lies in the way in which complaints about its service are responded to and handled.  Here there have undoubtedly been failings and complications. […]

Taste and decency complaints (e.g. about Russell Brand or Jeremy Clarkson) are less important to my mind, than those about accuracy and impartiality, the values by which the BBC stands or falls. They are the heart of the public service of the BBC.  The current defensive handling of complaints is harmful to the BBC, albeit recently reformed to some extent.  Its impartiality is what makes it a world influence through the World Service.  It is therefore of the utmost significance that its impartiality be guaranteed by a complaints process that matches the significance of the issues.  Issues such as: was the Iraq intelligence dossier “sexed up”?, who may be designated a “terrorist” or a “militant”; reference to ISIL or Daesh; the accuracy of Middle East reporting, the attitude towards climate change science and so on.  These are issues of exceptional national and international importance and deserve to be treated as such, not least because they form national political opinions.   If complaints were transparently and satisfactorily handled, and if more were upheld, there would be even more confidence in the BBC and more audience satisfaction.” 

Read Baroness Deech’s full post – which includes some interesting practical suggestions – here.

Is OFCOM up to the job of arbitration of complaints about BBC content?

Depending upon which British newspaper one reads, the government seems to have decided (according to the Telegraph) to hand over the BBC Trust’s role to the UK communications regulator OFCOM – or not – according to the Guardian.BBC brick wall

Were that to be the case, it would not come as much of a surprise seeing as one of the conclusions arising from the DCMS inquiry into the future of the BBC was “The BBC Trust should be abolished and new arrangements made for the governance, regulation and oversight of the BBC”.

One consequence of such a step would be that late stage complaints concerning editorial issues would no longer be handled by the BBC. That topic was also addressed in the DCMS report published in February.

“…a common theme we have noted is that members of the public who believe they have reason to complain are often dissatisfied that their complaint or point of view has not been considered independently. For many the BBC Trust is essentially part of the BBC and as such the Corporation is seen as a self-regulating body and there is great dissatisfaction that there is no option for an impartial adjudication of a complaint about the BBC by an independent body.” […]

“We recommend that Ofcom become the final arbiter of complaints over BBC content including matters concerning impartiality and accuracy, but that complaints should be considered by the BBC in the first instance. Ofcom should be given additional resources for taking on this role which are commensurate with the responsibility and estimated workload. We believe this transfer of responsibility will, if anything, strengthen the independence of the BBC, and also make the complaints process simpler, and appear more transparent and fair.”

However, OFCOM’s record to date suggests that among the “additional resources” its management will need in order to effectively take on the suggested role of “final arbiter of complaints over BBC content” is a crash course in identifying antisemitism and the difference between “freedom of expression” and the propagation of pernicious antisemitic tropes.   

BBC’s ECU upholds complaint from the UK’s pro-Hamas lobby

As readers will recall, last month the BBC rejected complaints concerning Jeremy Bowen’s interview with the head of the Hamas terrorist organisation and last week the head of the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit finalised his dismissal of complaints concerning remarks made by Tim Willcox during an interview with a member of the Parisian Jewish community in January.Complaint pic

However, those who do not make a habit of visiting propaganda outlets such as ‘Electronic Intifada’ and the Russian state-run ‘RT’ may be unaware of the fact that complaints concerning another BBC interview conducted in March 2015 have apparently been upheld by the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit.

Writing at her regular ‘Electronic Intifada’ slot, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s Amena Saleem claims that:

“A BBC investigation has found that one of its senior presenters, Sarah Montague, breached the organization’s editorial standards on impartiality in a radio interview she conducted with Israeli defense minister Moshe Yaalon in March.

The investigation was carried out following allegations of pro-Israel bias against Montague’s interview by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and a number of concerned individuals who complained to the BBC.”

According to RT, the PSC’s complaint included the following point:

“In Montague’s interview with Ya’alon, the senior BBC journalist failed to address misleading statements by the Israeli defense minister.

According to a transcript, Ya’alon said Palestinians “enjoy already political independence. They have their own political system, government, parliament, municipalities and so forth. And we are happy with it. We don’t want to govern them whatsoever.”

The PSC has challenged Ya’alon’s statement, claiming Palestinians live under occupation and, in Gaza, under siege.”

Amena Saleem informs her readers that the same BBC employee who refused to acknowledge the antisemitic nature of Tim Willcox’s “Jewish hands” remarks in Paris came up with the following ruling.

“Last week, all complainants received an email message from Fraser Steel, the BBC’s head of editorial complaints, on behalf of the ECU.

Steel, announcing that he would be upholding the complaint, wrote: “Mr. Yaalon was allowed to make several controversial statements … without any meaningful challenge, and the program-makers have accepted that the interviewer ought to have interrupted him and questioned him on his assertions.””

Yes – Fraser Steel apparently accepts that it is “controversial” to state self-evident, provable facts about the Palestinian Authority’s political system. That of course is all the more bizarre given the BBC’s frequent description of Hamas as “the democratically elected” ruling body in the Gaza Strip. 

Ironically, on numerous occasions in the past the BBC has failed to conform to its own editorial guidelines on impartiality when interviewing both Amena Saleem and other members of the opaquely funded anti-Israel, pro-Hamas lobbying and campaigning group with which she is associated.

For some time now the nature of the BBC’s relationship with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign has been a topic of interest and the corporation’s swift capitulation to political pressure following the publication of an article last summer about Hamas-supplied casualty figures and the subsequent ‘top-down’ dictated alterations made to that article – along with additional ‘damage control’ – brought the issue further into public view.

In addition to further highlighting that subject, the upholding of this blatantly politically motivated complaint by the head of the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit also serves to indicate yet again the inherent flaws in the BBC’s self-regulating complaints system and the urgent need for that topic to be addressed.

Related Articles:

BBC’s capitulation to political pressure on Gaza casualty figures: tip of a bigger iceberg?

Selective PSC outrage over BBC impartiality and integrity

BBC Breakfast’s Jenny Hill enables PSC antisemitism washing

Unhindered promotion of PSC speaker’s propaganda by BBC News

Why does the BBC Trust’s ESC pretend that the 1947 Partition Plan is a thing?

 

 

What connects Hamas supplied casualty figures to the BBC’s expedited complaints procedure?

Readers who have studied the BBC Trust’s latest publication of editorial appeals findings (March 2015 – published on 30/4/15) will no doubt have noticed that the first three items relate to appeals – all ultimately unsuccessful – made by members of the public affected by the application of the BBC’s expedited complaints procedure.BBC Trust

An explanation of that procedure can be found in our previous post “The Catch 22 clause in the BBC’s complaints procedure“. As noted there, one scenario under which the BBC can limit a member of the public’s access to the BBC complaints system is when the corporation deems that a complainant has a history of making complaints which “are shown on investigation to have no reasonable prospect of success”.

An additional scenario which allows for the application of the expedited complaints procedure is the failure of appeals:

“(e) after rejection of the complaint at an earlier stage (eg Stage 1), are persistently and repeatedly appealed unsuccessfully to the next stage (eg Stage 2).”

As has been noted here before:

“Of course the body which rules whether or not a complaint has a “reasonable prospect of success” and which rejects or accepts an appeal is none other than the self-regulating BBC itself.”

Another document produced by the BBC Trust’s ESC provides a summary of “Complaints closed at stage 1b and complainants subject to the Expedited Complaints Procedure” between February 2013 and September 2014.

There we see for example that among the “complaints closed at stage 1b” in July 2014 (16% of a total of 954 complaints) was one questioning the accuracy of the BBC’s “description of Hamas as militant”. In September 2014 “complaints closed at stage 1b” (10% of a total of 912 complaints) included three questioning the accuracy of Hamas casualty figures promoted by the BBC.

As readers are no doubt well aware, there is nothing to suggest that the BBC carried out any kind of independent verification of the casualty figures promoted by Hamas both directly and indirectly (via the UN) either whilst last summer’s conflict was ongoing or after it ended. The corporation has refrained from reporting on the results of investigations which show the unreliability of the civilian/combatant casualty ratio presented by Hamas at the time as part of its publicly declared strategy and has even defended its use of statistics supplied by the terrorist organization.

Whilst it is not possible to determine from this document which of the complaints “closed at stage 1b” by the BBC were made by members of the public to whom the expedited complaints procedure was applied, we can at least ascertain that in theory, a complainant who questioned the BBC’s use of Hamas provided casualty figures could have been deemed to have made a complaint which has “no reasonable prospect of success” and thus become a candidate for application of that procedure.

This example once more highlights the fact that the concept of stakeholders in an organisation they are obliged to fund by law being subjected to limitations on complaints on the basis of arbitrary decisions made by that same self-regulating organisation is one which is worthy of public debate – particularly as the renewal of the BBC’s Royal Charter in 2016 approaches.

Related Articles:

BBC Complaints defends its use of Hamas supplied casualty figures