BBC – In Who Do We Trust?

trust

This is a response from the BBC Trust regarding a complaint I lodged in October of last year regarding the corporation’s all too frequent use of Tax Payers Alliance spokespeople to comment on matters of public policy.

This breaches their own editorial guidelines regarding the use of ‘campaign’ groups and the TPA is a self-stated ‘campaign group’ whose aim is to lower the tax ‘burden’ on big business.Essentially they are a fat cat funded ‘small government’ pressure group masquerading as a ‘grass roots’ taxation movement. They claim to have up to 27,000 supporters and boast of their access to the BBC and other media outlets to push their right wing message.

My point is that, if the BBC are happy to use the TPA (mostly unchallenged and NOT in a wider debate with alternative viewpoints from other organisations as they claim) why don’t they interview say, Unite’s Len McCluskey,who has 2.5 million members? Ah, but that would be ‘political’ and the Daily Mail would jump on these timid, establishment lackeys, fearful of a cut to the licence fee and their own cushy salaries.

After nine months of obfuscation, denial, buck passing and outright lies, the BBC Trust finally answered. As the BBC ‘celebrates’ 60 years of BBC News, 60 years of pushing the same royalist, establishment shite, here’s a typical example of how those who are ‘entrusted’ to ensure the BBC’s integrity respond to a legitimate complaint about their bias.

Our Ref: 2709782

27 June 2014

Dear Mr Thornton

Use of representatives from the Taxpayers’ Alliance on BBC output

Thank you for writing to the BBC Trust. I am responding to your appeal of 11 May

2014 about the use of representatives from the Taxpayers’ Alliance on BBC output.

I am very sorry that you were unhappy about elements of BBC output and that you

feel the BBC has not given you a proper response to your complaints.

The Trust is the last stage of the complaints process and everyone who works within

the Trust Unit is outside the day-to-day operations of the BBC. We review the

complaints that come to us to assess whether they should be put before the BBC’s

Trustees for them to reach a final decision. If you want to find out more about how

the complaints system works – and in particular about how the BBC Trust fits in –

this is the web link:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/governance/complaints_framework/

In deciding which appeals should be considered by the Trustees, we look at the

merits of the complaint and only those which stand a reasonable chance of success

are passed to Trustees. The Trust acts in the interests of all licence fee payers and it

would not be proportionate to spend a good deal of time and money on cases that

do not stand a realistic prospect of success. The link that I have given above gives

more information about this.

I am sorry to send a disappointing response, but I do not believe your appeal should

be put in front of Trustees. The BBC’s journalists and programme-makers are

expected to work to a high standard; those standards are set out in the BBC’s

Editorial Guidelines1 which underpin all BBC output. I have looked at your appeal in

relation to those Guidelines. This means I have assessed if the points you have

raised can be judged against the standards set down in the Guidelines. I have

attached with this letter a summary of your appeal as well as the reasons behind my

1

http://www.bbc.co.uk/guidelines/editorialguidelines/guidelines/

decision. As this Annex may be published, the writing style is formal: your name

does not appear, and you are described as the complainant. While I regret the

impersonal feel of this, I hope you will appreciate that it protects your own privacy

as well as helping the Trust to work efficiently.

If you disagree with my decision, you can ask the Trustees to review it by contacting

the Complaints Advisor, at trust.editorial@bbc.co.uk or at the above address, by 14

July 2014. You should state your reasons, which will need to demonstrate clearly

to Trustees why, contrary to my decision, your complaint stands a reasonable

prospect of success. Please send your reasons by this deadline in one document if

possible.

We may not consider any correspondence received after that, so if, exceptionally,

you need more time please write giving your reasons as soon as possible.

If you do ask the Trustees to review this decision, I will place that letter as well as

your original letter of appeal and this letter before Trustees. Your previous

correspondence will also be available to them. They will look at that request in their

September meeting (there is no meeting in August). Their decision is likely to be

finalised at the following meeting and will be given to you shortly afterwards.

If the Trustees agree that your case has no reasonable prospect of success then it

will close. If the Trustees disagree with my decision, then your complaint will be

passed to an Independent Editorial Adviser for investigation and we will contact you

with information about the next steps.

Yours sincerely

Leanne Buckle

Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser

Annex

Use of representatives from the Taxpayers’ Alliance on BBC output

The Trust’s Editorial Appeals procedure states that:

The Trust will only consider an appeal if it raises “a matter of substance”.

This will ordinarily mean that in the opinion of the Trust there is a reasonable

prospect that the appeal will be upheld as amounting to a breach of the

Editorial Guidelines. In deciding whether an appeal raises a matter of

substance, the Trust may consider (in fairness to the interests of all licence

fee payers in general) whether it is appropriate, proportionate and cost-
effective to consider the appeal.

Complaint

The complainant first contacted the BBC Trust on 8 November 2013. He considered

that the Taxpayers’ Alliance was invited onto BBC programmes far too frequently

and that this was disproportionate to any support it might have. He stated: “…you

give this self-elected campaigning group a legitimacy that it does not warrant” and

considered the BBC had breached the Editorial Guidelines on Impartiality. He

referred to the Taxpayers’ Alliance’s own website which made clear the importance

to the organization of its media profile. The complainant did not cite specific

examples of interviews which concerned him. The complainant was informed by the

Trust that:

There is a BBC complaints process in place to deal with instances where

audiences feel that there has been a breach of these [Editorial] Guidelines or

not met expected standards. This requires that complaints must be dealt with

in the first instance by the BBC’s management; the Trust’s role in this process

is to consider appeals from complainants should they be dissatisfied with the

responses that they have received from the BBC’s management.

The Adviser noted that, in subsequent correspondence, the complainant had

expressed the view this was inappropriate and he had again written to the Trust to

that effect. He had been sent a further response from the Trust which had stated:

I understand that you feel the BBC shouldn’t be investigating itself but

following this route from BBC management to the Trust means we can deal

with complaints in a logical progression and those most closely involved with

the complaint have an opportunity to respond first.

2 Under the Charter and Agreement, the Trust has a role as final arbiter in appropriate cases, and

must provide a right of appeal in cases that raise a matter of substance.

3

For example, if an appeal raises a relatively minor issue that would be complicated, time-consuming

or expensive to resolve, the Trust may decide that the appeal does not raise a matter of substance,

and decline to consider it.

3

The complainant took issue with this process, he considered that either the BBC or

the Trust ought to pro-actively assess output relating to the Tax Payers’ Alliance as

he considered it breached the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines – but did not have the BBC’s

resources to monitor output.

As the complaint had not been considered by the Executive, it was sent to BBC

Audience Services in the first instance. The complainant received a response at

stage one which included the following statement:

You have outlined a number of editorial guidelines that you believe the BBC

has breached, however you have not supplied any specific examples of when

you believe these breaches occurred. We can therefore only answer your

queries in general terms. What we can say is that we refute the suggestion

that the BBC has an inappropriate relationship with the TPA. The BBC makes

no judgement on the views or aims of the TPA. When they have appeared on

BBC programmes they do so to take part in a debate and it is the

responsibility of the presenter to chair that debate fairly and challenge the

guests accordingly. Having an organisation or individual appear on a

programme does not amount to bias. What is important is that the

organisation or individual is interviewed fairly, challenged where appropriate

and balanced by alternative opinions and arguments, either as part of the

particular programme or elsewhere in our output. We appreciate that you

may disagree with the views of the Taxpayers Alliance, but we feel that it’s

better in a debate to include the widest range of viewpoints possible.

The complainant remained dissatisfied and escalated his complaint to stage two. He

stated:

I would like you to explain to me the following :

* How many times the TPA have been invited to contribute to the BBC

across all media platforms over the past 5 years?

* What editorial criteria was followed by the producers when selecting

the TPA to comment.

* What issues the TPA were asked to comment on.

* How many times the TPA were included as part of a ‘wider debate’

with other organisations

* What criteria you use to vet ‘campaign groups’ as part of your policy

to use them for news purposes.

He received a stage two response from the Senior Editorial Adviser, BBC News, on 2

May which stated:

You state that use of the TPA is “symptomatic of the both the inherent

political bias of the BBC and the lack of public accountability when challenged.

There are many areas where I think the BBC’s news content is skewed and

constructed to tow a pre-ordained editorial narrative.”

Without a specific complaint about a particular programme, however, I am

not sure I can help you further. The research you suggest would have to

compare and contrast the use of the TPA with other organisations so it would

be very wide-ranging and costly. I am also not sure that its quantitative

approach would be of value without concomitant qualitative, and therefore

subjective, editorial conclusions. If, for example, the TPA had been invited to

appear on a hundred occasions over a certain period of time would this be

too few, too many or not enough?

The complaint was not upheld at stage two and the complainant was advised he

could appeal to the BBC Trust. However, the complainant instead replied to the

Senior Editorial Adviser, BBC News and referred to specific output that included the

Tax Payers’ Alliance which had been transmitted on 10 May 2014. He was advised

that if he wished to raise a specific complaint he would need to do so at stage one.

Appeal

The complainant appealed to the BBC Trust on 11 May 2014 and stated:

By using the TPA on ANY BBC News or other programme, you breach your

own specific editorial guidelines on using ‘campaign’ groups to comment on

matters of public policy. Whether or not I agree with the TPA (and I don’t)

isn’t the issue. The issue is why the BBC gives this organisation so much

political credence when its ‘supporters’ are faceless, impossible to identify and

its backers have a clear political agenda.

Decision of the Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser

The Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser carefully read the correspondence that had

passed between the complainant and the BBC, and she acknowledged the strength

of the complainant’s feelings. The correspondence was also reviewed by an

independent editorial adviser.

The Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser (the Adviser) decided the complainant’s

appeal did not have a reasonable prospect of success.

She regretted that, regarding the complaints process, the complainant felt as if he

were “trapped inside a revolving door”. However she noted the Complaints

Framework made clear that the Executive should have the opportunity to respond to

complaints initially and that the Trust was only involved at the third and final stage

of the process. She noted that this had been explained to the complainant during

the correspondence and that the reasons for it were straightforward – the process

allowed the people nearest to the output to give any editorial explanation they

considered relevant; it was a point of fairness that those criticized should be able to

respond and it was more efficient – in the interests of all licence fee payers – for

complaints to be considered in this way.

The Adviser noted that the substantive point made by the complainant was that he

believed it was a breach of the Editorial Guidelines for the Tax Payers’ Alliance to

comment on matters of public policy on the BBC, because they were a campaigning

organisation.

She noted the Editorial Guidelines could be found in full at this link:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/editorialguidelines/page/guidelines-impartiality-introduction

however for ease of reference, the relevant sections regarding Impartiality are set

out below:

Introduction

Impartiality lies at the heart of public service and is the core of the BBC’s

commitment to its audiences. It applies to all our output and services –

television, radio, online, and in our international services and commercial

magazines. We must be inclusive, considering the broad perspective and

ensuring the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected.

The Agreement accompanying the BBC Charter requires us to do all we can to

ensure controversial subjects are treated with due impartiality in our news

and other output dealing with matters of public policy or political or industrial

controversy. But we go further than that, applying due impartiality to all

subjects. However, its requirements will vary.

The term ‘due’ means that the impartiality must be adequate and appropriate

to the output, taking account of the subject and nature of the content, the

likely audience expectation and any signposting that may influence that

expectation….

4.2.3

We seek to provide a broad range of subject matter and perspectives over an

appropriate timeframe across our output as a whole.

4.2.4

We are committed to reflecting a wide range of opinion across our output as

a whole and over an appropriate timeframe so that no significant strand of

thought is knowingly unreflected or under-represented….

4.4.14

We should not automatically assume that contributors from other

organisations (such as academics, journalists, researchers and representatives

of charities) are unbiased and we may need to make it clear to the audience

when contributors are associated with a particular viewpoint, if it is not

apparent from their contribution or from the context in which their

contribution is made.

The Adviser noted that the Editorial Guidelines did not stipulate that individuals from

campaigning organisations should not comment on matters of public debate or

policy – but stated that it should be clear to the audience that contributors who

spoke from a particular perspective were not impartial. She noted that audiences

would either understand this through the way a participant was introduced or

labelled, or because it was evident from the context and content of what they said.

Therefore, she considered Trustees would not be likely to uphold the central part of

the complainant’s appeal, because agree that the BBC should include the views of a

variety of individuals and interested groups because it was committed to “reflecting

a wide range of opinion across our output as a whole” and there was no indication

that this had not happend.

She considered the complainant would be interested to note, however, that the BBC

Trust had upheld a complaint concerning how the Tax Payers’ Alliance was

introduced and described on air, further information could be found through the

following link:

http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/assets/files/pdf/appeals/esc_bulletins/2013/nov

.pdf (page 20).

She noted that this complaint had related to the point set out above – that is, there

was no dispute that the Tax Payers’ Alliance was an organisation that would have an

interest in being represented on this issue, but its stance had not been made

sufficiently clear to the audience in this instance.

The Adviser noted that the above complaint had referred to a specific item which the

Trustees found to be in breach of the impartiality guidelines, however the

complainant had requested that a large number of contributions from the Taxpayers’

Alliance should be studied to see whether they met the requirements of the Editorial

Guidelines. She considered it would be neither proportionate nor cost effective for

this to be done – and she noted a similar point had been made at stage two by the

Senior Editorial Adviser, BBC News.

The Adviser also noted that the Royal Charter and the accompanying Agreement

between the Secretary of State and the BBC drew a distinction between the role of

the BBC Trust and that of the BBC Executive Board, led by the Director-General.

“The direction of the BBC’s editorial and creative output” was specifically defined in

the Charter (paragraph 38, (1) (b)) as a duty that was the responsibility of the

Executive Board, and one in which the Trust did not get involved unless, for

example, it related to a breach of the BBC’s editorial standards which did not apply

in this case. Decisions relating to which contributors should be invited onto BBC

programmes fell within the “editorial and creative output” of the BBC and were the

responsibility of the BBC Executive.

The Adviser considered this was highly significant because it was intended to protect

the BBC’s editorial independence – which was of great importance to licence fee

payers. She therefore considered the appeal did not have a reasonable prospect of

success and she did not propose to put it before Trustees.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s