DCMS report on the future of the BBC

On February 26th the British Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee published the findings of its inquiry into the future of the BBC.BBC building

The BBC’s own reporting on the issue focused mainly on the topic of the licence fee although the report covered many additional subjects.

The committee’s conclusions are as follows:

  • In the short-term there is currently no better alternative to the licence fee but as a minimum the licence fee must be amended to cover catch-up television as soon as possible.
  • Criminal penalties and enforcement for non-payment of the licence is anachronistic and out of proportion with responses to non-payment for other services. However, decriminalisation needs to be accompanied by measures to prevent increased evasion.
  • A broadcasting levy on all households is the preferred alternative but a degree of subscription for BBC services could be a possibility in the future.
  • The BBC has tried for too long to provide “something for everyone”: it should reduce provision in areas where others are better placed to deliver excellence and better value for money, and make bigger, braver decisions on its strategy.
  • The BBC should seek to do more in partnership with others. It should also support local media through extending the indie quota to include local news.
  • The BBC must demonstrate transparency to eliminate suspicions of cross-subsidy of its commercial work if it is to produce content for others.
  • The BBC Trust should be abolished and new arrangements made for the governance, regulation and oversight of the BBC.  
    The BBC should have a unitary board with a non-executive Chair, who would be known as the BBC Chairman.
  • A new rigorous and independent Public Service Broadcasting Commission (PSBC) should be established with the role of scrutinising the BBC’s strategic plan, assessing the BBC’s overall performance, and determining the level of public funding allocated to the BBC and others. A small amount of public funding should made available for other public service content priorities.
  • The National Audit Office (NAO) must now be given unrestricted access to the BBC to provide assurance that the Corporation is spending money wisely. 

One proposal included in the report which will no doubt be of interest to many of our readers is that OFCOM should replace the BBC Trust as “the final arbiter of complaints about BBC content, including matters of impartiality and accuracy”. The report notes that:

“Our inquiry did not examine the way complaints about BBC’s output are handled in any depth but a significant amount of correspondence that we receive as a Committee relates to the BBC and its output and also the way complaints are handled by the BBC and the Trust. Given the importance of the BBC’s impartiality, it is nearly always the case that it is inappropriate for us to intervene in individual cases. Nevertheless, 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. “

BBC Watch submitted evidence to the committee on the issue of the BBC complaints system based on the wealth of information provided by our readers over the years. 

The report states:

“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.”

Readers can find the committee’s full report here and a pdf version of the same report here.

BBC ECU rejects complaints about Tim Willcox’s ‘Jewish hands’ remarks

Many people have written in to inform us of the response they recently received from the BBC’s Head of Editorial Complaints, Fraser Steel, concerning complaints they submitted about remarks made by Tim Willcox during BBC coverage of the rally in Paris on January 11th.

As readers will recall, the BBC initially responded to complaints by informing members of the public that Willcox had apologised for what he termed a “poorly phrased question” on Twitter. Members of the public who pursued their complaint further then received another generic response from the Complaints Director at the Editorial Complaints Unit, Andrew Bell, informing them that the BBC had decided to deal with the many complaints it had received on the issue as a single unit rather than as individual complaints. The communication most recently sent to complainants by Fraser Steel (see below – click to enlarge) summarises the provisional outcome of the ECU’s consideration of the points made in all the complaints against the relevant Editorial Guidelines of accuracy, impartiality and harm and offence.

BBC reply Willcox 1

BBC reply Willcox 2

BBC Willcox reply 3

BBC reply Willcox 4Let’s take a closer look at Steel’s interpretation of the most crucial part of the interview. As he notes, the initial question raised by Willcox raised the topic of the fears of the Jewish community in France in relation to the Muslim community in the same country.

TW: Do you ever feel threatened or frightened by the Muslim community here, because if you look at the figures more Jews in France seem to be leaving France than in other European countries, and yet France has the biggest population of Jews, as it does indeed of Muslims, in Europe.  Do you feel that fear?

His interviewee’s response noted that whilst Israelis like herself living in France feel less insecure because they have alternatives more accessible than those available to the non-Israeli Jewish population in France, nevertheless she – as an Israeli Jew living in France – felt less secure in recent days.

Chava: I didn’t feel this fear until last days, I have to say.  As I’m coming from…it’s not the same for Jews being born here and Israeli coming to here.  This is two different populations.  Israelis, when they come to France, they have something already inside them, they are not, we are not afraid, we know that every moment we can go somewhere else.  We have like a back very strong.  The Jews which were born here, they are coming from another culture, so it’s completely different.  But I can tell that since a few days I feel again not secure and not…It’s something which is very, and I was talking to Aziz also, I feel that now it’s like in 1930s, we are…the situation is going back to these days of 1930 in Europe.

Willcox then turned to the topic of possible solutions to that feeling of insecurity, with his interviewee expressing the opinion that the solution must include recognition of the fact that Jews living in Europe are being targeted.

TW: But do you think it can be rescued now with the right approach, with a more inclusive society addressing the problems that people have?

Chava: I didn’t understand completely your…

TW: Do you think that can be resolved, though, now, before it’s too late?

Chava: Yes of course – we have to, we have to not to be afraid to say that the Jews are being the, they are the target now.  It’s not only the…the…er…

At that point Willcox inserted an interruption with which he did two things: firstly he quickly diverted the topic of conversation away from the limited framework of French Jewish and Muslim communities previously under discussion by introducing the issue of conflict in the Middle East. He also cut short discussion of the topic of the targeting of Jews in Europe by inserting a false equivalence – evident in his use of the words “as well” – in the form of ‘Palestinian suffering’ which he attributed to “Jewish hands”. In other words, Willcox falsely implied that – like Jews in France – Palestinians are targets because of their religion and/or ethnicity.

TW: Many critics, though, of Israel’s policy would suggest that the Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands as well.

Chava: We cannot do an amalgam…to…between…

TW: But you understand everything is seen from different perspectives…

Chava: Of course, but this is not my…er…

TW: No, I understand.

Fraser Steel’s claim that Willcox’s statement “was in effect a question put to Chava for comment” completely ignores the issue of why Willcox found it necessary to divert the conversation away from both the events in Paris and the topic of the targeting of French Jews by interrupting his interviewee.

“I think it’s clear from what I’ve quoted above that Mr Willcox’s reference to the Palestinians, though framed as a statement, was in effect a question put to Chava for comment.  I would accept that (as Mr Willcox has himself acknowledged) what he said was poorly-phrased, but what the Editorial Complaints Unit must decide is whether his words amounted to a serious breach of the BBC’s editorial standards.  That’s the question I’ll be keeping in mind as I address the particular points of complaint as summarised by my colleague.

That the question put by Tim Willcox to an interviewee was misleading in that it linked the Paris killings in a kosher supermarket with events in the Middle East;

Nothing in the day’s coverage of events in Paris suggested a direct link between events in the Middle East and those killings, and I can’t see that such a suggestion can readily be derived from what Mr Willcox said.”

But that is exactly what Willcox did and it is inconceivable that Steel’s powers of English language comprehension are so limited that he cannot see it. Willcox’s statement clearly not only introduced the subject of the Middle East into the discussion but also misled BBC audiences in that it misrepresented events in the Middle East by means of the inaccurate suggestion that “Jewish hands” cause Palestinians to “suffer” because of motives identical to those of an Islamist terrorist who carried out a pre-meditated attack on identifiably Jewish targets at the Hyper Cacher supermarket.

Steel continues:

“That the question was offensive and anti-Semitic in that it suggested that all Jews were responsible for the actions of Israel

Many complainants argue that the question must be regarded as anti-Semitic because it falls foul of a definition of anti-Semitism which includes “Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel”, and which they attribute to the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC).  That, however, seems to me an unduly harsh construction of what Mr Willcox said.  In the light of the opening reference to “Israeli policy”, it seems to me more natural to construe “Jewish hands” as referring to Israeli Jews (insofar as they might be responsible for the formulation or execution of Israeli policy), rather than to Jews collectively.  I would accept that it was inept to use a form of words which was even open to the first construction, but I would regard that as an aspect of the poor phrasing already acknowledged, rather than a manifestation of anti-Semitism.”

Steel’s obviously erroneous suggestion here is that “Israeli policy” is formulated and executed exclusively by “Israeli Jews”: he conveniently ignores the fact that among those formulating Israeli policy and those executing it are members of the non-Jewish communities in Israel making up over 20% of the country’s population. Hence, his transparent attempt to rewrite Willcox’s reference to “Jewish hands” to make it mean Israelis is obviously disingenuous. 

It is worth noting at this point that Steel’s rejection of the classification of Willcox’s statement as antisemitic is based on the following claim inserted as a footnote:

“In fact the phrase isn’t part of the EUMC definition, but is one of a number of examples provided of what might be considered anti-Semitic under the definition, subject to “taking into account the overall context”.  The EUMC definition was withdrawn in 2009 by its successor organisation, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, which has published no definition of its own.”

This of course is not the first time that the BBC has exploited the fact that the European Agency for Fundamental Rights has not put out its own definition of antisemitism because its mandate does not include such activities. Whilst the EUMC Working Definition of Antisemitism was indeed removed from the FRA’s website along with other EUMC documents in 2013, it has not been “withdrawn”.  

But beyond the technicalities, more importantly what we see here is that the BBC apparently believes itself to have both the authority and the expertise to make pronunciations on what is – or is not – antisemitism. Clearly that arrogant assumption flies in the face of the MacPherson Report which recommended that racist incidents should be defined as “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person”. Had Fraser Steel bothered to consult with expert bodies and/or representatives of the Jewish community (and there is no evidence in this document of his having done so) he might have been better placed to understand the essence of the complaints he was tasked with reviewing.

The issue of the BBC’s self-regulating complaints system is one which has been under discussion for quite some time and is likely to be raised again when the BBC’s Royal Charter comes up for renewal next year. Many people have become convinced by their experiences of navigating the system that it does not serve the interests of the corporation’s funding public and that it fails to ensure that the BBC adheres to its obligations to accuracy and impartiality.

Fraser Steel’s dismissive response to the high volume of complaints made about Tim Willcox’s statements can only further entrench the growing view that a self-regulating BBC is incompatible with the public purposes defined in its constitutional document. 

 

Update on the BBC’s response to complaints about Willcox statement

Thanks to all the many readers who have taken the time to keep us informed regarding the progress of their complaints to the BBC concerning remarks made by Tim Willcox during coverage of the march in Paris on January 11th.editorial guidelines  

To recap, complaints were initially answered with a response stating that Willcox had issued an apology on Twitter. Those who pursued their complaint further have now received a response from the Complaints Director at the Editorial Complaints Unit, Andrew Bell.

Mr Bell writes:

“As you may be aware, however, we have received a very large number of complaints on this issue, and if we were to deal with them in the normal way, investigating each complaint separately, it would be many weeks before some complainants received a finding. In order to reach a speedy determination on the essential issues, as they are reflected in the totality of the complaints we have received, we propose to deal with them in a slightly different way.” 

The response goes on to explain that the ECU has summarized the editorial issues arising from all the complaints into the points below and that those points will be considered against the relevant Editorial Guidelines of accuracy, impartiality and harm and offence.

  • That the question put by Tim Willcox to an interviewee was misleading in that it linked the Paris killings in a kosher supermarket with events in the middle east;
  • That the question was offensive and anti-Semitic in that it suggested that all Jews were responsible for the actions of Israel;
  • That the question was offensive and anti-Semitic in that it suggested that Jews were responsible for the murder of other Jews;
  • That the question was offensive because it trivialised the holocaust;
  • That the question displayed bias against Israel;
  • That Tim Willcox’s comment “But you understand everything is seen from different perspectives” suggested there was a justification for the killings;
  • That the interviewee was not treated with appropriate respect;
  • That the terms of the apology from Tim Willcox were inadequate and failed to address what was inaccurate and offensive about his remarks;
  • That posting an apology on a private Twitter account was inadequate and that it should have been published by the BBC.

Mr Bell further notes that he hopes to inform members of the public of the outcome of his unit’s investigation by February 23rd.

Obviously it does make sense for the ECU to avoid wasting public resources by streamlining the process of investigation and considering a high volume of similar complaints together. Particularly following the unsatisfactory initial replies received by members of the public, it is now good to see that Mr Bell’s department appears to be making a serious attempt to address the issue. 

The Catch 22 clause in the BBC’s complaints procedure

Several readers have brought to our attention instances of the BBC’s recent employment of what is known as the Expedited Complaints Procedure. According to that BBC protocol (introduced in June 2012 – see Annex B):

Expedited Complaints Procedure 1

Expedited Complaints Procedure 2In one case a correspondent has had his access to the BBC complaints system limited until September 2016 and in another case a reader has been informed by the BBC that the Expedited Complaints Procedure will be applied to his complaints in the coming two years on the basis of clauses (d) and (e) in the above protocol.

“(d) are shown on investigation to have no reasonable prospect of success; or

(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).”

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.

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 surely one which is worthy of public debate ahead of the renewal of the BBC’s Royal Charter in 2016.

Related Articles:

The saga of three questions the BBC did not want to answer – part one

The saga of three questions the BBC did not want to answer – part two

The saga of three questions the BBC did not want to answer – part two

In part one of this article we noted the process which led to the BBC’s eventual response to three questions regarding its complaints system which were posed by Mr Neil Turner in April 2013.

 • How many complaints were made to the BBC over the last 5 years on a year by year basis?

• How many complaints were upheld (i.e. the BBC makes a correction) on a year by year basis?

• How many complaints were rejected by the BBC (i.e. no corrective action taken)?

So what does the information provided by the BBC tell us about its three-stage complaints system?

complaints 1

Because of the general nature of some of the complaints or comments made at Stage 1, the fact that there is no way of knowing what proportion of them related to editorial issues and the additional fact that no information is kept regarding whether changes are made to BBC content as a result of those complaints or comments, it is impossible to establish how many of the members of the public complaining about editorial content at Stage 1 were satisfied with the response they received (if at all) and how many simply abandoned the process at this stage.  

We can, however, clearly conclude that only a small proportion of those complaints were actually pursued further along the process.

At Stage 2 of the complaints process, we see that whilst the actual number of complaints made at that stage has generally risen over the past five years, the percentage of those upheld has fallen.

complaints 2

complaints 3

Seeing as all complaints going on to Stage 3 would have had to pass through Stage 2, we can also look at the number of people whose complaints were not upheld at Stage 2, but dropped out of the process at that point rather than continuing to Stage 3. Hence we see that on average, 45.2% of complainants chose not to pursue further a complaint which was not upheld at Stage 2.

complaints 4

Of those complaints which were pursued to Stage 3, we see that an average of 4.28% were upheld in full.

complaints 5

The fact that a complaint is upheld at Stage 3 indicates that the process at Stage 2 was inadequate, and thus we can see how many complaints which were rejected at Stage 2 were later found to be justified at Stage 3.

complaints 6

The information provided does not include complaints which were partially upheld at Stage 3 and thus likewise indicate that the process at Stage 2 was at least inadequate in part. It is of course impossible to know how many of the 45.2% of complaints which dropped out of the system after rejection at Stage 2 would have been upheld at Stage 3 had they reached that part of the procedure.

As we have documented here in the past (see for example here and here), even the fact that a complaint – which may have spent months or even years going through the entire long and complicated BBC complaints procedure –  is upheld at Stage 3 does not guarantee that a correction will be made to the relevant report or that the public will be informed of any amendment made. Clearly there is an urgent need for reform of that part of the procedure.

As a publicly funded body, the BBC should welcome the feedback from its licence-fee payers which comes in the form of comments or complaints. That feedback is a valuable tool for the improvement of the standard of its journalism and a way for the BBC to feel the pulse of the people for whom – after all – it exists. Instead, members of the public find themselves facing a complicated, time-consuming  and – importantly – self-regulating and therefore subjective process which, as these figures provided by the BBC show, simply causes most people to abandon the process and drop out along the way. 

 

The saga of three questions the BBC did not want to answer – part one

• How many complaints were made to the BBC over the last 5 years on a year by year basis?

• How many complaints were upheld (i.e. the BBC makes a correction) on a year by year basis?

• How many complaints were rejected by the BBC (i.e. no corrective action taken)?

Whilst none of the questions above may seem particularly controversial, the BBC refused to answer them when, in April 2013, they were presented by Mr Neil Turner – as previously explained in this article – as a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. What followed over the next twelve months will be of considerable interest to the many readers whose expressions of frustration with the BBC’s labyrinthine complaints procedures drop into our inbox every day.

With the BBC having refused to answer the questions above posed by one of its licence fee payers, Mr Turner asked his Member of Parliament for help in retrieving the information from the BBC’s director general Tony Hall and chair of the BBC Trust Chris Patten. But despite the MP’s significant help, that request was also unsuccessful, as were further communications Mr Turner then made to BBC executives.

The BBC’s refusal to release the requested information under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act cited a clause with which those familiar with the decade-long story of the Balen Report will be only too familiar: it claimed that the BBC was not required under the terms of the FOIA to respond to Mr Turner’s questions, because the corporation is only subject to the FOIA  “in respect of information held for purposes other than those of journalism, art or literature.”

In other words, the same claim used for the last decade to prevent publication of the Balen Report was again employed to avoid providing the information requested by Mr Turner.

In July 2013 Mr Turner contacted the Information Commissioner with regard to the BBC’s refusal to answer his questions under the FOIA, but the Commissioner backed the BBC’s stance, again citing the “journalism, art or literature” clause – as explained in the parts of the response reproduced below.

FOIA 1

FOIA 2

FOIA 3

FOIA 4

FOIA 5

Mr Turner’s subsequent appeal to the Information Commissioner also upheld the BBC’s stance. His approach to the Information Rights Tribunal in November 2013 was followed in March 2014 by a surprising about-turn in the BBC’s position and a letter from the BBC’s Litigation Department which included the information below.

reply complaints 1

reply complaints 2

reply complaints 3

reply complaints 4

reply complaints 5

reply complaints 6

Despite this provision of previously withheld information to him personally, Mr Turner maintained that the purpose of the FOIA is to make information available to the public at large rather than just to interested individuals.  A week later, Mr Turner was informed by the BBC that should he not withdraw his appeal, he would be pursued for the corporation’s legal costs. As a private citizen without professional legal backing, Mr Turner had no choice but to comply.

This case – in particular given the BBC’s sudden change of stance – of course once again raises questions about the BBC’s use of the “journalism, art and literature” clause of the FOIA,  as indeed does the continuing Balen Report saga.

In part two of this article we will look at what the information provided by the BBC tells us about its complaints procedure.   

 

 

 

 

 

Exclusive: how a complainant convinced the BBC Trust’s ESC to uphold his appeal

As we have previously noted, the BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee recently upheld an appeal regarding a complaint about a report by the BBC Jerusalem Bureau’s Kevin Connolly which was broadcast on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme in June 2011. 

As reported by The Times in mid-March:

“The BBC Trust has upheld a complaint which alleged that a five-minute report on Radio 4’s Today programme about the Six-Day War was misleading and biased, The Times has learnt. […]

The latest complaint relates to an item which aired on the Today programme in June 2011. The report, by Kevin Connolly, one of the BBC’s Middle East correspondents, examined the legacy of the 1967 conflict between Israel and several neighbouring states.

According to the trust’s findings, which were obtained by The Times, a listener alleged that the Today report wrongly gave the impression that Israel occupied land three times its original size as a result of the war, when it had given 90 per cent of the land captured in 1967 back to Egypt. The programme also, the complainant alleged, gave a misleading impression that Israel was not willing to trade land for peace, when it had reached peace deals with Jordan and Egypt that included transfers of conquered territory.

The trust found that the Today report had been inaccurate on both points and that the complaints should be upheld.”

As previously noted here, this complaint took a shocking two and a half years to make its way through the BBC’s complaints procedure and one of the interesting features of the ESC’s report on the topic (pages 9 -23 here) is the documentation of the sudden about-turn in the BBC’s stance regarding the complaint after input from “the News Division and from the BBC correspondent [Kevin Connolly]”.

“On 3 December 2012 the complainant received an undated letter from the Head of the ECU [Editorial Complaints Unit], advising him of the Unit’s provisional finding. The ECU said that by drawing attention to the original extent of the territory occupied by Israel in 1967 without referring to the return of Sinai, the item may have created the impression that Israel remained vastly larger as a result of the war and that land for peace remained an untested option. It had therefore provisionally decided to uphold a breach of accuracy in this respect. [emphasis added]

Following an inquiry by the complainant in March 2013 about whether the decision had been finalised, the complainant was advised that the last letter he had received telling him of the provisional finding, had been sent to him in error; it had been intended as a draft for internal consultation.

As a result of representations from the News Division and from the BBC correspondent in response to the internal circulation of the provisional finding, the Head of the ECU had now altered his view and had decided not to uphold any aspect of the complaint. He said the point had been made to him that the return of Sinai to Egypt following the Camp David Accords was not an instance of “land for peace” as envisaged in those Accords. An integral part of the Accords had been a commitment to “negotiations on the resolution of the Palestinian problem in all its aspects” and a staged progression towards full autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza and a final status agreement. Because the ECU was now satisfied that the return of the Sinai did not constitute “land for peace” the significance of any incorrect impression as to the extent of territory Israel had withdrawn from was much reduced and the ECU decided it would not therefore have affected listeners’ understanding of the question under consideration in the report.” [emphasis added]

In other words, the Head of the ECU – who had previously been inclined to uphold the complaint – was persuaded to completely reverse his position by the specious claim of Kevin Connolly et al that Israel’s return of the Sinai peninsula to Egypt within the framework of the peace treaty between the two countries did not constitute ‘land for peace’.  Many of us might simply have given up in the face of such contorted logic, but the complainant did not. Instead, he persevered with a reply to Connolly’s claims.

“The complainant responded to the revised provisional finding on 13 April 2013 with a detailed rebuttal of the ECU’s conclusions, challenging the ECU’s interpretation of the contents of the Camp David Accords.”

Whilst that detailed rebuttal did not prompt the Head of the ECU to change his mind about rejecting the complaint, it was taken into consideration by the Editorial Standards Committee which eventually did uphold the complaint.

BBC Watch contacted the complainant, Sam Green, who kindly agreed to share with us details of his rebuttal of the claims produced by Connolly. Sam’s account below makes fascinating reading for anyone who has ever waded into the BBC complaints procedure and raises serious questions about the workings of that procedure as a whole.

“The lowest point in the grinding slog of my BBC complaint was probably receiving the Editorial Complaints Unit proposed final ruling. This was the final stage within the Corporation before I appealed to the BBC Trust, the semi-detached oversight body.

It was so demoralising because, on top of the delay (I was strongly suspicious they were trying to use delay as a tactic to bury the complaint), the logic in this finding was so flawed, so tortuous, so surreal that this letter made me doubt the bona fides of the organisation. The important thing was not the journalism; it was preventing a complaint succeeding.

The second response came after they had previously said they were planning to partly uphold the complaint, and then said I’d been told that by mistake.

Here is their reasoning on why my complaint didn’t hold water:

“…the return of Sinai to Egypt following the Camp David Accords was not an instance of “land for peace” envisaged in those Accords, an integral part of which was a commitment to “negotiations on the resolution of the Palestinian problem in all its aspects” and a staged progression towards full autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza and a final status agreement. Put simply, the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai could be regarded as an instance of “land for peace” if that outcome had been achieved, but it has not been.

…Kevin Connolly’s report was concerned with “land for peace” in the same sense – a peace settlement among all parties on the basis of agreed borders…”

I had a problem in how I was going to respond to this; one of the tactics the BBC used was to layer on complication; the more complication they layered on the easier it was for them to say how complicated it all was and they couldn’t possibly hope to deal with all of that. I needed to focus on the internal logic of the report rather than a history of the Middle East. However I did need to engage with their argument, so I dealt with both. It was a long letter.

I started by signposting the attempt to overcomplicate in their response:

I will not be drawn into a line-by-line dissection of the Camp David Accords; it is a diversion from the question of whether your listeners heard an inaccurate and misleading report. They are for the most part not expert in the history and politics of the Middle East, and nor am I. Nor should there be any expectation that we have such specialist knowledge.

If the BBC starts from the expectation that its listeners ought to have postgraduate level knowledge of all the topics it covers it would not benefit your listernership.

I went on to differentiate between the two treaties that made up Camp David, to outline elements of the Egypt Israel Peace Treaty, summarising;

It is called a Peace Treaty. It establishes a state of peace between Egypt and Israel. It links the establishment of that peace with the exchange of territory.

I engaged with the term “land for peace” (their inverted commas) and my efforts to find out where their singular usage they claimed for the phrase had come from. It was not in the other Camp David accord; the Framework for Peace, it was not in the Egypt Israel Peace Treaty. A Google search took me to Security Council Resolution 242 which itself did not contain the phrase, was not raised in the report or previously in the complaint and did not contain a meaning claimed in the ECU provisional ruling.

I moved on to the contradictory and ever fluid meaning of ‘peace’. In the statement from the ECU there was no peace for which land had been traded because the “staged progression  to full autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza and a final status agreement” did not come to pass, and, at the same time it meant “…a peace settlement among all parties on the basis of agreed borders…”. That’s quite an unexplained stretch for a concept. It shows just how desperate the BBC was to retrofit plausible meaning on their report.

I spent quite some words addressing this; if it was about peace with the Palestinians why talk about Syria so much?

The Camp David Accords were between Israel and Egypt. There were no other regional parties who were signatories to those accords or, as far as I understand, who accepted it.

And which parties do you mean? The states involved in the 1967 Six Day War? Syria was excluded from the Camp David accords, Jordan was not a party. And what about Iraq and the Arab League? The PLO, or Fatah, and what about Hamas? Other Arab states? Who are “all parties”? Why is there an assumption that Egypt spoke for and signed on their behalf when they explicitly rejected it?

It was at this point I mentioned the Jordan Peace Treaty of 1994 which also included territorial concessions. Land as part of a peace deal.

And the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005; more complex but still relevant in terms of willingness to withdraw from conquered territory.

In terms of the extent of territory under Israeli control, the ECU had this to say;

“…the significance of such an incorrect impression is much reduced if the resulting inference that ‘land for peace remained an untested option’ is not viewed as misleading; and, on balance, I don’t think it would have affected listeners’ understanding of the question under consideration in the report to the extent that I would regard it as a breach of editorial standards.”

To me it seemed blindingly obvious:

a listener without specialist knowledge would naturally infer that in the absence of any statement to the contrary Israel remains triple the size (or controls territory triple its original size).

After travelling much further into the complex history of the region than I wanted to, I had moved to my real point; the importance in not losing sight of what the listener heard and the natural meaning they would associate with that.

Turning to the question of land for peace. I again suggest it is appropriate for you to rely on natural meaning… the impression your listener would have been left with by the report that went out was one of intransigence and unwillingness to trade territory for peace. An impression that required context.

…on any natural meaning, as understood by a reasonable listener, trading more than 90% of the territory captured in the context of peace treaties, for peace, constitutes land for peace; land pursuant to peace. Trying to use semantics to argue otherwise smacks of casuistry.

This made no impact on the ECU which rejected the complaint. It is only because the complaint managed to reach the BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee that these points (along with later submissions) were properly considered, and the Trust ruled that the report was inaccurate and misleading; that it was bad journalism.

The question now is; why didn’t Kevin Connolly understand that? Does he get it now? Does he accept it? Why didn’t the Today programme producers and Editor understand that? Why didn’t the people dealing with the initial complaint understand that and why, for all their lengthy and reflective deliberations didn’t the ECU understand that?

And what are they all going to do about it?

They haven’t said – and I think we can all have a pretty good guess at the answers to all of those questions.” 

 

 

More on the uselessness of BBC complaints response targets

The same BBC Trust Editorial Standards Committee report referred to in this recent post also includes the ESC’s findings regarding complaints made concerning another edition of the Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme which was broadcast on November 7th 2012 – see details of that programme here.

The appeal was not upheld (see pages 24 – 29 here).  Among several interesting aspects of the committee’s decision is that fact that it seems to embrace a quaint belief that if something has been written or said by a journalist – any journalist – it must be true.

“The Committee considered that the range of submissions from the BBC demonstrated that the World Affairs Editor’s analysis was broadly representative of the media coverage at the time…”

In its findings regarding the two and a half year-long complaint concerning the ‘Today’ programme’s June 10th 2011 edition which appears before this one in the ESC report, it was noted that the stage 1A reply took over six times the acceptable defined time to reach the complainant than designated by the BBC. target

“the Stage 1A response from Audience Services took 65 working days, against the target of 10 days.” [emphasis added]

One of the people who made a complaint about the ‘Today’ programme’s  November 7th 2012 edition has informed us that:

“I made my complaint at Stage 1A on 9th November 2012 and got my first response (despite numerous phone calls and emails in the meanwhile, which were recorded and given their own BBC Complaints reference numbers) on 24th May 2013.”

In other words, the 10 day target was in that case exceeded by an incredible 186 days.

And yet the BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee is not persuaded of “any shortcoming in the procedure itself“.

 

Two and a half years a BBC complainant

Earlier this month we noted a Times report on the subject of the BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee’s upholding of a complaint against an edition of the ‘Today’ programme broadcast on June 10th 2011. 

The BBC Trust has now published its findings and they can be read on pages 9 – 23 here.

Beyond the substance of the complaint itself, the ESC also relates to the fact that it took a shocking two and a half years for the complaint to be resolved and documents the serial failures of the BBC’s complaints mechanism to adhere to its own standards. [all emphasis added]

“The Committee noted the detailed timeline of how the complaint had been handled which had been compiled by the Editorial Adviser. It noted in particular the following points:

*the Stage 1A response from Audience Services took 65 working days, against the target of 10 days.

*the Stage 1B response was not forthcoming until the complainant wrote to the Director of News to inquire why he had not received a reply to his letter.

* the Stage 1B response from Audience Services was received approximately 250 working days after the complainant’s submission (the target is 20-35 working days).

*the ECU sent an undated provisional finding to the complainant approximately 60 working days after he asked the ECU to investigate. This was about 20 working days later than he had been advised he could expect to receive a response (it later transpired that the finding was sent in error and had been intended for circulation internally; that provisional decision to uphold his complaint was subsequently reversed).

*three months later, on 5 March 2013, having received no further notification, the complainant wrote to the ECU to inquire about the final outcome of his complaint.

The Head of the ECU responded promptly stating that something had “gone badly amiss” with the handling of the complaint and he would respond fully within a week.

*on 19 March 2013 the Head of the ECU wrote to the complainant saying he should not have received the undated provisional finding he was sent in late 2012:

“What seems to have happened is that a draft of my provisional finding which was intended for internal consultation was sent to you in error. I should explain that the procedure, when we’re minded to uphold any aspect of a complaint, is to allow a period for the BBC Division responsible for the item complained of to make any representations, and I put the proposed finding to the Division – in this instance, News – in the form of a draft letter to the complainant. The reason for this part of the complaints procedure is that the programme-makers and their editorial management don’t have right of appeal to the BBC Trust, whereas complainants do. The consultation period is therefore their last opportunity to correct any errors on our part, or to make a case for altering the finding.”

*the Head of the ECU said that he had received representations from the BBC’s Jerusalem Bureau and from the BBC correspondent which had caused him to change his initial view that the item had been misleading in one respect. He was now not intending to uphold the complaint.

*this substantive Stage 2 finding was issued six months after the complainant had first written to the ECU and almost two years after he had initially lodged the complaint.

* the complainant challenged the finding within the time scale he had been provided. He heard nothing, and five months later on 17 September 2013 he wrote to the ECU inquiring what had happened.

The Head of the ECU responded on 20 September 2013:

“I must apologise profusely for my long silence. An office move in July caused some disruption, and it appears that our correspondence was one of the casualties of it. I have now retrieved the papers, and am reviewing the issues and arguments afresh. I shall aim to give you a definitive ruling by the end of the month, though if circumstances arise in which further consultation with News management is required, it may take me a little longer. In that event, I shall write again to let you know the likely extent of the delay.”  

The Head of the ECU wrote to the complainant on 15 October 2013 advising that he remained of the view that the complaint should not be upheld. He again apologised for the delays which had beset the process.

The Committee noted the reasons given by Audience Services for the Stage 1 delays and by the ECU for the delays and mismanagement at Stage 2 appear to have been the result of an unfortunate series of human errors. The Committee noted the complainant had received an apology from Audience Services. The Head of the ECU had acknowledged the chapter of accidents were inexcusable and that it was an extremely poor example of complaints handling. complaints

The Committee noted this aspect of the complaint related to 19.4 of the Editorial Guidelines which requires the BBC to observe the complaints framework, including the stipulated timelines.

The Committee noted that the relevant test related to the following clause from section 19.4.2  of the Accountability guideline:

 “Complaints should be responded to in a timely manner”

The Committee said the delays at Stages 1 and 2 and the inadvertent dispatch of the provisional finding to the complainant ahead of its circulation internally were deeply regrettable. The Committee added its apology to those already made to the complainant and recorded its dismay that a complaint could be so seriously and repeatedly mishandled.

The Committee noted the complainant’s query in his submission for this appeal as to whether it was routine that complaints were treated in this way and whether in effect the procedure was fit for purpose. The Committee advised that the errors in complaint handling on this occasion were in its view unprecedented, that the complaints procedure outlines clearly how the BBC is required to deal with complaints, along with the required time scale and that this had made it possible for the BBC Trust to speedily and transparently adjudicate on the allegation. The Committee was satisfied that the problems which had beset this complaint at each stage were not the result of any shortcoming in the procedure itself.”

Ah – so that’s alright then.

Of course the many other members of the BBC’s funding public who have written to BBC Watch to inform us of unexplained delays to replies to complaints they have made – and in some cases the complete absence of any response whatsoever – might be somewhat disconcerted by the glaring complacency which enabled that final line to be written. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BBC’s ECU publishes findings on complaint about R4 ‘Today’ programme

Back in January we noted that a listener’s complaint concerning the November 15th 2013 edition of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme had been upheld by the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit after initially being rejected by the programme’s assistant editor.

The ECU has now published its findings.

Complaint Today prog Sarah Montague

The ECU notes:

“The Editor of Today discussed the findings with the presenter who conducted the interview and underlined the need for care when making references to specific countries in the context of controversial subjects.”

However, no information is provided as to what steps, if any, will be taken to inform listeners of the fact that the impression that Christians in Israel suffer from violence – as given by Sarah Montague’s words –  is inaccurate and misleading. 

Related Articles:

BBC R4′s ‘Today’ programme implies persecution of Christians in Israel

BBC acknowledges breach of accuracy guidelines by ‘Today’ presenter Sarah Montague