Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the BBC


  This is the BBC's submission to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee inquiry into privacy and media intrusion, to take place in February and March 2003.

Remit of the inquiry

  The Committee's priority is the treatment by the press and the Press Complaints Commission of people not generally "in public life" who nonetheless have found themselves to be the focus of media attention for one reason or another.

  It is suggested that submissions are structured to address the following themes:

    —  the constitution and performance of the various media's systems for complaints, including within the BBC, the Broadcasting Standards Commission and the Press Complaints Commission;

    —  the relationship between media freedom and media responsibility and the balance between self-regulation and independence from the industry being regulated;

    —  the behaviour and record of the media over the last 10 years, and especially the press since the establishment of the Press Complaints Commission;

    —  the adequacy of the various codes of practice in operation;

    —  from the industry as manifested in the Commission, Appointments Committee, the Codes and the Code Committee;

    —  the mechanics of the various complaints procedures including provision for independent, or third party, complaints and/or proactive monitoring by the complaints bodies themselves; and

    —  the sanctions available.

  The Committee is also interested in comment on the impact of the Human Rights Act 1998.

The BBC submission

  As the Committee has given priority to press treatment, this submission focuses on issues of editorial standards which apply across the media, rather than on issues which relate to broadcasting more specifically (such as surreptitious recording in public places).

  In particular, this submission:

    —  sets out the BBC complaints and appeals procedure;

    —  sets out the BBC's editorial standards on privacy issues with comments on compliance; and

    —  comments on the relationship between BBC News coverage and press-initiated stories.


2.1  BBC complaints procedures

  The Programme Complaints Unit (PCU) plays a central role in the impartial consideration of serious programme complaints. This includes complaints about the unwarranted infringement of privacy from both the individual concerned and third parties.

  The PCU is situated within the BBC's Public Policy Division, and operates independently of the management of programme-making or output divisions. The PCU takes complaints concerning the infringement of privacy in writing directly from the complainant, or by referral from senior management or, where appropriate, other areas of the BBC.

  The PCU undertakes the rigorous and impartial investigation of complaints which suggest a serious and specific breach of the BBC's editorial standards (see Section 3). The findings on upheld complaints, and remedial action, are reported in the PCU's quarterly complaints bulletin, published as a booklet and on the internet on BBCi (

  Complaints are also taken by:

    —  BBC Information, which takes both first and third-party complaints in relation to the infringement of privacy by telephone, email and letter and is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It consults with the programme-making department and provides an initial response. Complainants who are not satisfied with the initial finding, and whose complaint falls within the remit of the Programme Complaints Unit (PCU), are advised that they can escalate the complaint in writing to the Head of Programme Complaints.

    —  Divisional BBC management and programme departments. In this case, an initial response is provided in consultation with the programme maker. Complainants who are not satisfied with the initial finding, and whose complaint falls within the remit of the Programme Complaints Unit (PCU), can escalate the complaint in writing to the Head of Programme Complaints.

Remedial action following a PCU upheld complaint

  Where a complaint is upheld by the PCU, it is the responsibility of the divisional management to inform the Head of Programme Complaints of the remedial action taken to guard against a similar breach occuring again and/or to discipline the individual(s) responsible for the breach. The remedial action taken may include:

    —  changes to procedures to ensure more rigorous editorial oversight of the programme-making department concerned;

    —  a formal reminder by senior management to the programme-makers, presenter or correspondent of required programme standards; and

    —  an undertaking not to repeat the programme or to edit the programme appropriately for any further repeat.

  The Head of Programme Complaints may also recommend an on-air correction, although this is not normally a suitable remedy for breaches of privacy.

  The complainant is informed of the action taken.

The right of appeal

  Complainants who are not satisfied with the decisions or actions of the PCU or divisional management have the right of appeal to the Governors' Programme Complaints Committee (GPCC).

  The GPCC is independently supported in its consideration of appeals by an Editorial Adviser. He is responsible for advising the Committee about the concerns and/or considerations raised by the complainant, and the range of editorial issues relating to the complaint.

Remedial action following a GPCC upheld appeal

  If the GPCC upholds an appeal it notifies the programme executives and the Divisional management of its findings, and requires that the complaint and the finding of the GPCC are taken into account in the framing of future programming.

  Where appropriate, the GPCC may require an on-air apology or correction, or direct BBC management to advise it of the remedial action taken to guard against similar breaches of programme standards and/or to discipline the individual(s) responsible for the breach.

  If the GPCC considers the remedial action taken to be inappropriate or insufficient, it can inform the Director-General who will review the issues raised and report back to the GPCC.

2.2  Comment on privacy complaints

  In the reporting period 2000-02, complaints about the unwarranted infringement of privacy by the BBC formed less than 1% of complaints to the PCU, and no complaints have gone on appeal to the GPCC. Privacy complaints also represent a small proportion of complaints to the Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC).

  When individuals do complain, however, it would appear that they often prefer to address their complaint to the BSC rather than to the BBC (see Fig 1). This may be because complainants with a personal grievance prefer to address their complaint to a outside arbitrator. In comparison, complainants who are concerned about editorial standards per se may prefer to address their complaint the broadcaster responsible, so the broadcaster can "put its house in order".

  The PCU undertakes, in either case, a rigorous and independent investigation of the complaint, and the BBC considers that it is entirely appropriate for complainants to have choice in this matter.

Fig 1.  Complaints to the BSC and PCU (reporting period 2000-02)
BSC investigated BSC upheldPCU investigated PCU upheld
2000-02247* 53

*  In addition, two complaints were resolved. In both cases, the BBC apologised to the complainant, and detailed the steps that had been taken to prevent the pictures in question being used again and to prevent similar mistakes in future. As a result, the complainant informed the BSC that they considered this to be a satisfactory conclusion.

2.3  Issues raised by upheld complaints 2000-02

  The PCU upheld three complaints in the reporting period 2000-02. All three related to private individuals, and the failure by BBC programmes to ensure the anonymity of contributors, either where anonymity had been guaranteed or where it was appropriate.

  The BSC upheld five complaints in this reporting period, which raised a variety of issues. They included one complaint where an individual had been identified without appropriate permissions. A second complaint was upheld in relation to unwarranted personal details which were included in reporting on a local doctor whose employment had been terminated.

  Details of the PCU and BSC upheld complaints are given in the Annex.

2.4  Third party complaints

  The PCU investigates complaints about intrusion and infringement of privacy from third parties under matters of taste and standards, as does the BSC. In the reporting period 2000-02, the PCU investigated third-party complaints 47 complaints about intrusiveness, of which eight were upheld.

  The following two examples were upheld as complaints to the Programme Complaints Unit and illustrate the sort of issues involved:

    —  A Radio 4 documentary, What Do They Know About Us? demonstrated the ease with which personal information could be obtained through the Internet, but included some colourful details about the (unnamed) person used as an illustration, which listeners felt could have embarrassed her.

    —  Coastguard, a BBC Choice programme about the work of the Mumbles Coastguard, included film of an incident in which a woman suffered a heart attack on the beach and was taken by helicopter to hospital (where she was found to be dead). Though there were no close-ups, there was concern that the camera had intruded into what was essentially a private tragedy, even though it had occurred in a public place.


3.1  The BBC Producers' Guidelines

  The BBC's editorial standards are set out in the BBC Producers' Guidelines, as required under the Charter and Agreement. The Guidelines are designed as a working document for programme makers, to enable them to think through some of the more difficult dilemmas. While the BBC recognises that risk-taking is an essential part of the process, all programme makers (staff and freelance) are required to apply the underlying principles of the Guidelines as a contractual obligation.

  The BBC Editorial Policy Unit is responsible for drawing up and reviewing the BBC Producers' Guidelines which are available to all members of staff in print and on the BBC intranet. The Editorial Policy Unit offers advice and, where necessary, rules on specific problems and issues as to how the Guidelines apply in specific circumstances.

  Duty advisers are available for consultation 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Controller, Editorial Policy, reports directly to the Director-General on all editorial matters and provides six-monthly reporting to both the Executive Committee and Board of Governors on editorial compliance.

Basic principles on privacy

  The BBC respects the privacy of individuals, wherever in the world it is operating, and recognises that any intrusions have to be justified by serving a greater good.

  Under the Guidelines, private behaviour, correspondence and conversation are not brought into the public domain unless there is a clear public interest. Programme makers are required to operate within a framework which respects people's right to privacy and treats them fairly, yet allows the BBC to investigate and establish matters which it is in the public interest to know about.

  The right to privacy is qualified by:

    —  the public interest: people are less entitled to privacy when protection of privacy means concealing matters which are against the public interest;

    —  behaviour: people are less entitled to privacy where their behaviour is criminal or seriously anti-social;

    —  location: the right to privacy is clearly much greater in a place such as a private home than it is in a public place.

Private lives and public issues

  The Guidelines recognise that public figures are in a special position, but they retain their rights to a private life. The public have an entitlement to facts that bear upon the ability or the suitability of public figures to attain or hold office or to perform their duties. There is, however, no general entitlement to know about their private behaviour provided that it is legal and does not raise important wider issues.

  As a general principle, BBC programmes do not report the private legal behaviour of public figures unless broader public issues are raised either by the behaviour itself or by the consequences of its becoming widely known. The fact that other parts of the media have reported private behaviour is not of itself sufficient to justify the BBC reporting it too. As a result, where there are no broader public interest issues and the behaviour itself is within the law, there may be occasions where the BBC does not report stories which are being covered by the rest of the media.

  Even when the personal affairs of public figures become the proper subject of enquiry they do not forfeit all rights to privacy. BBC programmes are required to confine themselves to relevant facts and avoid gossip. The public interest is not equated to "interesting" facts and, having established the relevant facts, programmes concentrate on any publicly important issues arising.


  Questions asked by reporters, as public figures come and go from buildings, are usually part of legitimate newsgathering, even if the questions are sometimes unwelcome.

  Otherwise, doorstepping is generally regarded as a last resort, and requires prior approval from the Head of Department. This is given only where the investigation concerned involves crime or serious anti-social behaviour, and where the subject of the doorstep has failed to respond to a repeated request to be interviewed, refused an interview on unreasonable grounds, or if they have a history of such failure or refusal.

Media scrums

  The Guidelines recognise that when a person suddenly features in a news event it may be proper for representatives of many media organisations to go to a private home to try to secure pictures or interviews. This can result in large numbers of media people gathered in the street outside.

  In such cases, it is important that the combined effect of legitimate newsgathering by a number of organisations does not become intimidating or unreasonably intrusive. BBC crews and reporters must not harass people unfairly with repeated telephone calls, or repeated knocks at the door, or by obstructing them as they come and go.

  Where possible, BBC teams should operate appropriate pooling arrangements, or withdraw altogether if it is clear that the subject does not intend to appear. BBC teams on the spot who are asked by the subject to leave must refer to editors for guidance.

  The decision in this case is informed by the following considerations:

    —  is the subject a private citizen or a public figure?

    —  is the subject victim, villain, or merely interested party?

    —  has the subject expressed a clear intention or wish not to appear or give interviews?

Other BBC Guidelines

  A range of guidelines also relate to specific issues for broadcasters. These include:

    —  Operating on private property and permissions required;

    —  Use of CCTV footage (Note: the law in relation to CCTV footage may be reviewed following the recent decision of the European Court of Human Rights. The court ruled that the respect for the private life of Geoffrey Peck had been violated when his local authority released CCTV footage of his suicide attempt to newspapers and TV. It considered that Mr Peck had no remedy under existing UK law);

    —  Broadcasting details of missing people;

    —  Surreptitious recording (including recording in public places, concerning grief and distress, disguising identities, social research, and comedy and entertainment).

3.2  Comment on compliance

  This section comments on key issues relating to people who are not normally in the public eye, followed by comment on issues relating to public figures and celebrities.

BBC News programming

  The BBC Producers' Guidelines apply in the treatment of private individuals who become the focus of media attention. The key considerations in the tone and approach of coverage will be:

    —  whether the individual voluntarily brought attention to themselves and their circumstances;

    —  the public interest or significance of the story;

Non-news programming

  A particular issue for other programming relates to "fly on the wall" documentary series which film those who work with members of the public. This may generate both third-party complaints, and complaints from the individual personally involved. This is illustrated by the following two examples, which occurred in the past:

    —  The documentary series Airport showed airline staff counseling a distressed woman who was attempting to board a plane. A third-party complaint was upheld by the BSC.

    —  Close up North: Dying To Get There, BBC Two, 23 September 1999 (see also the Annex): this programme was reporting on the high number of fatal road traffic accidents in Lincolnshire. It included the aftermath of an accident in which the complainant, a victim, was clearly identified, despite his clearly expressed wish not to participate in the programme. A complaint from the individual was upheld by the BSC, which found that, while the programme was justified in drawing attention to the issue of road safety, there was no overriding public interest to justify infringing the complainant's privacy.

Public figures and private lives

  One of the central dilemmas in this area is to what extent private behaviour impinges on people's ability to fulfill their public role: when does it cease to be a private story because the person involved is a public figure?

  The BBC Producers' Guidelines offer guidance on this issue and the key criteria are:

    —  criminality. For example, we would report where the story concerns a criminal offence although, if it were a minor offence, it is important that this should not be hyped either in tone or prominence.

    —  hypocrisy. For example, coverage of politician's decisions about education of his children where they are at odds with his publicly voiced views on education. But the BBC would entirely respect the privacy of the children.

Celebrities' private lives

  In general terms, the private lives of celebrities and their misdoings are not a priority for the BBC news agenda. This is reflected in a fundamentally different news agenda when compared to the tabloid press, and even broadcast news outlets such as ITN, Sky and independent radio.

  There are some BBC news programmes which do have a more direct interest in celebrity activities, such as BBC Radio 1's Newsbeat and Liquid News on BBC Choice. Nevertheless, the BBC Producers' Guidelines apply, and there must be a clear public interest before programmes either doorstep individuals or force them to be interviewed against their will. Where an individual opts to appear to discuss his/her private life, the BBC would expect a degree of rigour and distance to be maintained in that interview.


4.1  Who leads who?

  The key issue is the extent to which BBC News should reflect tabloid coverage of stories of which the BBC does not have independent corroboration. It is the usual practice for BBC News to exercise restraint until either it has independent corroboration or the individual has volunteered information.

  As a result, for example, the BBC did not name the TV presenter John Leslie in relation to the allegations of rape by Ulrika Jonsson until Granada TV issued press statements about the termination of Leslie's employment and his failure to challenge the press allegations.

  BBC News is also careful to make a distinction between news gathering (ie sending crews out to film doorsteps etc) and the decision on what to report or broadcast. This means ensuring that the broadcast material is available if it is needed, but then making considered decisions on the editorial and legal requirements for reporting.

4.2  Press reviews

  In terms of the relationship between BBC News and the press, the most obvious pressure point is in press reviews or press summaries, which are a regular feature of BBC news output.

  BBC programmes observe the usual restrictions in terms of libel laws, and the BBC Guidelines on fairness and privacy. There is also an awareness that including tabloid stories in press summaries makes a statement about the status of the story. So the BBC exercises restraint in reflecting current tabloid stories, including details where there is evidence of wrongdoing and perhaps a brief synopsis.



    —  Newsnight, BBC Two, 10 January 2002: Complaint from an individual who was interviewed in relation to heroin addiction, and promised that her identity would be concealed. However the anonymising techniques used were not sufficient to conceal the complainant's identity entirely. As a result, the Editor discussed the pitfalls of anonymising techniques with Output Editors, and subsequently the whole programme team.

    —  BBC News (6pm and 9pm), BBC One, 8 November 1999: Complaint from a prosecution witness in the Shipman trial who was identified by a picture showing her name and address. To avoid a recurrence, the Social Affairs Editor drew this incident to the attention of news teams and instructed that a note about it should be put in front of everyone involved.

    —  Evening Extra, Radio Ulster & BBC Online, 1 March 2000: Complaint from a witness in a sex offences trial who had been guaranteed anonymity but who was identified by name on the transmission and in a live feed accessible on BBC Online. On investigation it was found that the promise of anonymity had not been passed on as it should have been. As a result, and independent of the PCU inquiries, the Head of News and Current Affairs, Northern Ireland, wrote a letter of apology to the complainant. The producer was disciplined, and new procedures were introduced to guard against such errors in the future.

BSC upheld complaints reported 2000-02:

    —  Spotlight, BBC One (South West), 18, 19 and 21 September 1999: Complaint in relation to reporting on a doctor's termination of employment, which made an unwarranted reference to his past mental health.

    —  Close up North: Dying To Get There, BBC Two, 23 September 1999: filming was done in reporting on the high number of fatal road traffic accidents in Lincolnshire. This included the aftermath of an accident in which the complainant, a victim, was identifiable, despite his clearly expressed wish not to participate in the programme. The Commission found that, while the programme was justified in drawing attention to the issue of road safety, there was no overriding public interest to justify infringing the complainant's privacy.

    —  Crimewatch UK and Crimewatch UK Update, BBC One, 11 October 2000: Complaint in which the individual had been identified by a photograph, was described as a "villain in action". The BSC, while accepting that it had been legitimate for the programme to feature the case, judged that, because the photograph did not show the individual in the course of committing the crime, the phrase "villain in action" was not warranted as a description of it, and its use therefore amounted to an unwarranted infringement of his privacy."

    —  The Money Programme, 22 September 2001: involved an individual implicated in allegations in the Guinness Trial. Pictures were taken of him when he answered the door on Sunday morning, when the BSC considered he had "a reasonable expectation of privacy". It judged this was an unwarranted infringement of privacy given there was no overriding public interest to justify it.

    —  Trail of Guilt, BBC One, 9 August 2001: (details withheld at the request of the complainant)

    —  Back to the Floor, BBC2, 27 November 2001: The programme, which followed the work of an ambulance crew, showed the aftermath of a road accident. One of the drivers, who had been taken to hospital by the crew, complained that he had been shown identifiably, contrary to his express wishes. Though very little was shown which might have identified him, the BBC acknowledged that he might have been identifiable to family and friend who knew of his involvement in the accident. The BSC found there was no overriding public interest which would have justified this infringement of his privacy.

    —  Ten by Ten: New Directors Photo You, BBC2, 27 July 1999: Secretly-recorded footage of the complainant using a photo booth had been included in the programme without his knowledge or permission. The BBC acknowledged that, through an oversight, the programme team had not informed him that the filming had taken place or asked his permission to use it, as they had with others featured in the programme.

10 February 2003

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