BBC to review its complaints system again

The July 24th edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Feedback’ (available here) included an item in which presenter Roger Bolton discussed the topic of BBC impartiality with the corporation’s Director of Editorial Policy and Standards, David Jordan.BBC R4 Feedback

Towards the end of that discussion (from 11:43), the conversation turned to another subject.

RB: “David Jordan; just before you leave us can I ask you about the BBC complaints procedure because we’ve just heard that it’s being overhauled and you indeed the man who is going to overhaul it. Why?”

DJ: “I think overhaul might be over-egging the pudding but…ahm….we are having a look at our complaints system in the light of the fact that…err…under the new charter which will be introduced in the New Year, we will be regulated for the first time by OFCOM – the office of communications: an outside regulator – and they will be responsible for all the third stage appeals against our complaints that are currently handled by the BBC Trust.”

After explaining the terms first, second and third stages, Jordan went on to say:

“We’re just having a look at the first two stages in the whole process to make sure it’s as simple as possible, as transparent as possible and that we’re as accountable as possible under the new system and that’s what I’ve been asked to do.”

Whether or not members of the corporation’s funding public whom the BBC complaints procedure is supposed to serve will be consulted on the topic of the current system’s ‘simplicity’ and ‘transparency’ is unclear. At the moment, no such consultation appears on the BBC Trust’s website

BBC Trust: ‘it ain’t what we say; it’s what we meant to say that matters’

h/t Dr CL

The BBC Trust Editorial Standards Committee’s latest publication includes a section which will be of interest to anyone contemplating allocating some of their precious time to making a complaint to the BBC.

On page 75 of that document we learn that the BBC dismissed a complaint concerning an inaccurate statement made by a BBC reporter on the grounds that it wasn’t what she meant to say.

“The complaint concerned the accuracy of a sentence in a news item about an upsurge in violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Speaking about Jerusalem’s Old City and over general pictures from the Old City showing Muslims and Jews going about their day, the correspondent said:

 “It’s home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, sacred to Muslims and Jews.””

That report by Orla Guerin from October 9th 2015 can be found here.Guerin filmed 9 10

The statement is obviously inaccurate but the BBC’s response to the complaint was as follows:

“BBC Audience Services raised the complainant’s concern with BBC News:

“They note your points and accept that [the reporter] shouldn’t have said that the Al-Aqsa Mosque was sacred to both Jews and Muslims. She meant to say the compound (which includes the Mosque and the Dome of the Rock).” Audience Services said they had nothing further to add and that they did not believe the complaint had raised an issue that justified further investigation.”

Apparently BBC Audience Services also did not see the need for a correction to be made. Unhappy with that response, the complainant pursued the issue.

“The complainant appealed to the BBC Trust reiterating the points he had made. He rejected the explanation given by BBC News, asserting that even as amended it was wrong:

“The … response that [the correspondent] intended to say Al Aqsa Compound is unacceptable. Accuracy demands the description/name used should have been that historically used for many hundreds of years which is extensively documented, as Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary (al-Haram al-Sharif).”

He said the description the correspondent used was the one favoured by the PLO and was evidence of bias.”

Readers will no doubt recall that in November 2014 the PLO put out a ‘media advisory’ document (since removed from its website) instructing foreign journalists to use the term “Al Aqsa Mosque compound” instead of what was described as the “inaccurate term” Temple Mount. 

The BBC Trust Adviser advised against the complainant’s request for a review on the following grounds:

“The Adviser took the following factors into account:

  • the BBC said that the reporter had used the wrong wording: it was a slip of the tongue and not intentional
  • this was a passing reference to one of the flashpoints in the ongoing conflict
  • the majority of the report concentrated on a number of incidents – which had occurred elsewhere in Jerusalem and the occupied territories – and speculated that “lone wolf” stabbings of Jewish civilians might be the beginning of a third intifada

The Adviser reached her decision for the following reasons:

  • whilst the statement, that the Al-Aqsa Mosque is sacred to Jews, was incorrect, the audience would not have taken the statement literally and would have been unlikely to conclude that a mosque was sacred to Jews
  • the main point of the reporter’s reference here was to communicate to the audience that the area was sacred to both Judaism and Islam
  • this was achieved using unambiguous language which stated simply that it was considered sacred to both religions: neither view was favoured over the other, they were both given equal weight
  • the Al-Aqsa Mosque is situated very close to, and on the same raised platform as, the Dome of the Rock (under which the ruins of the two Jewish temples are assumed to be buried – although there was ongoing debate about this) [emphasis added]
  • the audience would not have expected nor needed more details on this point in order to reach an informed understanding about the main focus of the programme
  • the audience were not therefore likely to have been misled on a material fact.”

One can only hope that the bolded statement above does not suggest that the BBC subscribes to or accommodates the narrative of ‘Temple denial’ propagated by some PA officials and others.

The complainant then appealed that decision by the Adviser and an ESC panel subsequently rejected his appeal.

“Trustees agreed that if they took this matter on appeal they were not likely to uphold a breach of the Editorial Guidelines given that:

  • the BBC had said it was the wrong wording, i.e. that it was inaccurate
  • an apology was given. The BBC had said “we’re sorry for this error”
  • the matter had been resolved. […]

Trustees decided not to take the appeal, on the basis that it would not be appropriate, proportionate or cost-effective since there was no reasonable prospect of the appeal succeeding.”

Surely the most cost-effective way of dealing this complaint would have been for the BBC to issue a prompt correction nine months ago when the clearly inaccurate statement was made.  Nevertheless, the valuable lesson we learn from this case is that what a BBC journalist later claims to have meant to have said – but didn’t – is grounds for the rejection of a straightforward complaint concerning an obviously inaccurate statement.

Is it really any wonder that members of the public find the BBC complaints system so ‘through the looking glass’ frustrating?

Related Articles:

Orla Guerin tells BBC audiences Al Aqsa Mosque ‘sacred to Jews’

Disturbing themes in BBC coverage of the wave of terror in Israel

The Temple, the Times and the BDS Supporter (CAMERA) 

BBC Trust rejects appeals on Willcox ‘Jewish hands’ complaints

Eighteen months after the original broadcast, the BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee has now published its findings concerning complaints about remarks made by Tim Willcox during a broadcast from Paris after the terror attacks at the office of Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Hypercacher supermarket in January 2015.Willcox

Readers will no doubt recall that in response to complaints, the BBC originally claimed that Willcox’s subsequent apology on Twitter sufficed. Having received a large number of complaints, the BBC then decided to consolidate them. Concurrently, additional complaints made to OFCOM were rejected.

In February 2015 the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit provisionally rejected the consolidated complaint, sparking condemnation from the Board of Deputies of British Jews. In May 2015 the ECU finalised its decision.

On June 16th 2016 the BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee published the outcome of appeals against that decision. A summary can be found on page 4 and the full decision is on page 11 here.

Unsurprisingly, the ESC rejected all the appeals and the convoluted ‘rationale’ behind that decision raises issues in itself. [all emphasis added]

“The Committee noted the response from the Editor of the BBC News Channel:

“Given the apology by [the presenter] at the time, it is clear we accept that the question itself was somewhat clumsy, and the phrase ‘Jewish hands’ might not have been chosen in a scripted context, given the specific point behind the question was about Israel’s relations with the Palestinians. We note the earlier findings that this phrase, while clumsy and insufficiently specific, was not a breach of the BBC’s guidelines given the regular conflation of Israel and Jewish by critics of Israel’s policies, and the use by some of the phrase ‘Jewish state’ to describe Israel.” […]

The Committee did not uphold the points of appeal, for the following reasons:

  • whilst some of the audience clearly found it both harmful and offensive to conflate Jewish and Israeli, the perspective was clearly attributed to critics of Israel
  • it was posited neither as the presenter’s view nor as a valid position. The presenter’s remarks were positing a reason the perpetrators might have used or others might use to try to justify or legitimise their actions in making Jews a target of the attack. The Committee did not accept the suggestion that the presenter had been seeking to hold Jews collectively responsible for the actions of the State of Israel
  • while it is abhorrent to murder Parisian Jews as a response to the actions of the State of Israel, and the actions of the State of Israel cannot be used to excuse or legitimise the events in Paris or to connect Parisian Jews to the State, it is evidently a justification used by those who perpetrate such acts of violence
  • physical attacks in Paris on Jewish people and their institutions during the war in Gaza a few months prior to the January massacres are evidence that the presenter’s observation was factually based
  • there have been comments by Jewish community leaders in France and the UK acknowledging that the war in Gaza was the motivation for anti-Semitic attacks […]
  • the conflation of Jewish and Israeli was duly accurate and editorially justified in this particular instance: it was clearly attributed, well-sourced, based on sound evidence, and was adequate and appropriate to the output.The Committee acknowledged the sensitivity of the subject matter and the genuine offence felt by some listeners. However, Trustees considered it important to note that the Editorial Guidelines permit the legitimate use of challenging material and allow reporters and presenters, where appropriate, to raise difficult issues in accordance with generally accepted standards. Trustees considered that, although the presenter had acknowledged that some viewers may have been offended by his choice of language, for which he had apologised promptly, given all the circumstances, his phraseology did not breach the Harm and Offence Guidelines.The Committee concluded that the BBC had demonstrated a clear editorial purpose in positing a connection between Jews “being the targets now” and “many critics of Israel’s policy” who would “suggest that the Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands”.”

In other words, the BBC Trust appears to be claiming that because anti-Israel activists – and murderous antisemites – use the terms ‘Israel’ and ‘Jewish’ interchangeably, it is legitimate for it to adopt the same language and that the use of such language is legitimate according to its editorial guidelines. One can of course only speculate whether or not the BBC would find it similarly appropriate to adopt and amplify the language of ‘justification’ used by those perpetrating acts of violence against, for example, the gay community.

The ESC likewise rejected appeals concerning the inadequacy of Willcox’s Twitter apology and the absence of any apology broadcast on the station which aired the remarks.

“The Committee noted the response from the Editor of the BBC News Channel:

“It is important to note that far from failing to recognise the issue, action was taken soon after the interview took place with [the presenter] accepting that the question he posed had been poorly phrased. He gave a clear apology the following morning via the social media network Twitter… This apology was also provided to media organisations by the BBC Press Office.”

The Committed noted the decision of the Editorial Complaints Unit at Stage 2 that the Twitter apology was sufficient because the presenter’s comments did not constitute a serious breach of editorial standards which would require a formal public correction and apology.

The Committee concluded that as the presenter’s comments had not breached the Editorial Guidelines on Harm and Offence, the Twitter apology for the poor phrasing and its wider circulation in the media via the BBC Press Office, was adequate and appropriate.”BBC Trust

Notably, this is not the first time that the self-regulating BBC Trust has rejected appeals concerning remarks made by this reporter, despite their having been flagged up by expert bodies dealing with antisemitism: the CST and the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism.

It is of course also remarkable that the BBC Trust (along with OFCOM, as cited in this document) is apparently convinced that it possesses the authority and expertise to make judgements what is – or in this case, what is not – antisemitic discourse. And that despite the fact that both OFCOM and the BBC have yet to inform their funding public which accepted definition of antisemitism – if any – they use as the basis for such decisions. 

 

 

 

 

BBC Charter Renewal – White Paper

On May 12th the UK government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport published a White Paper relating to the upcoming renewal of the BBC Charter. The document – titled “A BBC for the future: a broadcaster of distinction” – can be found here.pic BBC

Many BBC Watch readers will find section 3 of the report to be of particular interest, including the recommendations (page 60) concerning the complaints system.

“The new Charter will introduce two changes:

 −a single complaints system with regards to the BBC in relation to editorial matters. In the first instance the BBC will handle the complaint. Where a complainant is unsatisfied with the response, or where the BBC fails to respond in a timely manner, the complainant will then be able to complain to Ofcom;

 −external regulatory oversight of editorial matters. Ofcom will be able to consider complaints about all BBC content, including accuracy and impartiality in BBC programmes. This means the BBC will continue to be held to the high editorial standards that the public expects. It will build on the expertise and experience that Ofcom already has in considering complaints about the BBC and the rest of the broadcasting sector.

This approach will require Ofcom to take on responsibility for the regulation of aspects of BBC content currently outside of the Broadcasting Code. The government will work with Ofcom and the BBC to make sure that the BBC is held to the high editorial standards that the public rightly expects.”

The Clementi Review referred to throughout the White Paper can be found here.

 

An upcoming event for UK readers

UK based readers wishing to improve their ability to make effective complaints to the media may be interested in an upcoming seminar organised by UK Lawyers for Israel.complaint pic

The seminar is entitled “Media regulation, complaints, defamation and misleading advertising” and it will be held on Tuesday, April 5th 2016 from 6-8pm in Central London.

UKLFI directors Mark Lewis and Jonathan Turner will cover complaints and other relevant areas in an interactive session, with questions and discussion being encouraged throughout.  Full materials will be provided to all participants.

The seminar is free to attend but places are limited so those interested in taking part should register at the e-mail address caroline.kendal@uklfi.com as soon as possible. 

DCMS report on BBC charter review flags up complaints system

The UK government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport published a report on the BBC charter review on February 11th. Among the findings and recommendations included in the summary of the report is the following:pic BBC

“A new complaints procedure would see all complaints handled initially by the BBC itself, with both industry and editorial issues subsequently escalated to Ofcom.”

The report itself expands on that subject in paragraph 34 of the section titled ‘Conclusions and recommendations”.

“One of the issues that most exercises the public is the BBC’s response to complaints—and, in relation to this, it has been a source of some confusion that certain appeals from the BBC have been referred on to the BBC Trust in its regulatory capacity. In the proposed new regime, all complaints should still be handled initially by the BBC. If unresolved, they should be escalated to Ofcom both for issues relating to competition and the wider industry, such as quotas and fair trading, and for content and breaches of editorial guidelines (such as impartiality, accuracy and taste).”

The full report can be found here.

Related Articles:

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

Baroness Deech on the BBC complaints system and OFCOM

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.