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
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
the mechanics of the various complaints
procedures including provision for independent, or third party,
complaints and/or proactive monitoring by the complaints bodies
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
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. BBC COMPLAINTS
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 (www.bbc.co.uk/info).
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
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
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
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
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 upheld||PCU investigated
* 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
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. EDITORIAL STANDARDS
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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;
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. BBC NEWS AND
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
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
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.
PCU UPHELD COMPLAINTS REPORTED 2000-02:
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