Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 511-519)



  Chairman: Thank you very much for coming to see us and thank you for the material you have sent us. I will ask Michael Fabricant to start.

Michael Fabricant

  511. Before we get on to the subject of privacy I just want to ask you, as you are the Programme Complaints Unit, whether you can understand sometimes the frustration from people who make a complaint against the BBC which may or may not be justified when the BBC answer that complaint and say—perhaps rightly—that the complaint is not justified, and can you understand that maybe, if an external watchdog was saying that the complaint was not justified, it might just be that little bit more believable?

  (Ms Thomson) It is a great pleasure to be here, by the way, and to be talking about this—

  Mr Fabricant: I am sorry, I cannot hear you.


  512. Mr Fabricant having made that point, can I say that we moved to this room because we thought the acoustics would be better and we have found out they are not, so could you shout?
  (Ms Thomson) Yes. On the issue of people having greater confidence in the BBC system, we hope people do have confidence in the BBC system because we have set it up to be entirely separate from the programme making departments and that is why I am here as the Director of Public Policy rather than you having a head of programmes here to talk about it, and it answers to me. We do accept, however, that in this day and age you do need greater transparency and people always need the right to go somewhere else, which is why in the Communications Bill provisions we have agreed that Ofcom should have the right to hear complaints against the BBC in all circumstances, not just as at the moment where you have the Broadcasting Standards Council on taste and decency.

Michael Fabricant

  513. That is very helpful. As you know, the inquiry is on the subject of privacy and the BBC in its statement has said that you believe people would have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Could you expand on that? For example, when there are examples of football hooliganism and the director in the scanner says, "We will cut to people in the crowd" and you might cut to someone who is just standing there, it could be argued that their privacy is being invaded because there is an implication that they have been involved in football violence when merely they are standing there as a bystander. How can you control live broadcasting in such a way that that reasonable expectation is realised?
  (Ms Thomson) We seek to control it by having very clear guidelines, and the principle of one of the premises on which the BBC system works was referred to by Chris Bryant in an article in Guardian Media this week which is that prevention is better than the cure. So we have tough guidelines which should prevent instances like that happening which would not just be a question of invasion of privacy but would be defamation if you showed pictures of totally peaceful spectators and alleged they are hooligans, and these are people in a public place so by that nature know they are likely to appear on camera. But we would seek to make sure that always it is the case that references to actions fit the pictures and not the other way round.

  514. Last week we were interviewing a series of editors and one editor, whom I will not name but who is nevertheless on the record, said, "We don't doorstep people; it is the broadcast media that do". Would you like to make a comment about that, first of all? Is it true? Is it broadcast media at fault? Where does the BBC stand on this?
  (Ms Thomson) It is slightly unseemly to get engaged in a slanging match about who does what, and I would not seek to do that. The truth is in all journalism there is some element of doorstepping which is perfectly legitimate. For example, if Clare Short has been on the radio the night before announcing she is intending to resign it is perfectly legitimate to have people on her doorstep seeking to get a comment from her as she leaves the house the next morning, and I do not think anyone would ever dissent from that.

  515. How do you differentiate between a public person, if you like, and certainly a senior politician is a public person, and a private person? Where do you say, "We would not doorstep"?
  (Ms Thomson) We say if a person is already in the public domain and they have put themselves there either from the nature of the job they do or by seeking publicity in the sense of pop stars and so on, then they might legitimately expect to be able to cope with the business of having camera crews on their doorstep but we do recognise that it can be very distressing for other people. We would always seek with private individuals to withdraw people if ever the police request it. At Soham, for example, we withdrew the minute there was any suggestion that the presence was going to be intrusive and, in terms of doorstepping other people we were making programmes about, we have very strict rules about how it can only be done, for example, where there is prima facie evidence that they might have done something wrong and where all other attempts to interview them have failed. We have a set of rules in the producer's guidelines, and to doorstep someone who is not in a Clare Short situation, even if they are in the public eye, has to be referred to the head of department before it gets agreement to be done.

  516. Could I ask you about the present situation in Iraq? One of our colleagues, Linda Gilroy, the Member for Plymouth, Sutton, raised this with the Defence Secretary last week, and she has talked about reports from Plymouth suggesting—and I am reading from Hansard—that some of the members of the national press—she says "press" not "broadcast media"—are doorstepping families of people who are bereaved, families of soldiers who have been killed or lost in action. What would be the BBC's attitude towards that? What is the BBC's current policy towards this whole issue of privacy during the Iraqi crisis?
  (Ms Thomson) It is clearly absolutely key at the moment because people are losing their lives, and wives and husbands and children, their loved ones, are facing that sort of danger and the last thing we want to do is cause them any extra grief or hassle. Our policy obviously is we never name anyone or give indications about them until it is clear that the next of kin have been informed. I would hope and believe that no one from the BBC would be harassing anyone on the doorstep, and if anyone has evidence of it I would like to hear it because it would be absolutely contrary to both the spirit and the letter of our guidelines.

  517. What about agency material that you may receive not from the United Kingdom but from Iraq maybe of prisoners of war or British soldiers who have been injured or killed and are identifiable from the film? What is the BBC's policy towards showing that, possibly before relatives have been informed?
  (Ms Thomson) Our policy is we should never show it before relatives have been informed. Obviously there is a stage where we need to verify it and try to be clear that it is what the Iraqis say, as well as the problem of the relatives being informed. It is the case that with the American prisoners of war footage, which was so distressing, not only the BBC but also the American networks had the difficulty that it came in a live feed which up to then had been completely different, so we took it off the air immediately when we realised as the Americans did what it was, and we stopped it.

  518. Have you considered using a delay?
  (Ms Thomson) Since then our policy on it has been that, because it is substantially in the public domain, we do not feel we can not use it at all but we have sought to use it in a very minimal way so as to make it clear that the pictures exist but not to humiliate the guys there any more, because obviously one does not want to do anything that causes any more distress.


  519. Just following on from what Mr Fabricant has said before I call Mr Bryant, those particular circumstances that you have just been discussing everybody would agree are very difficult to sort out, instant television utterly uncontrollable, et cetera, but there is another issue and it is an issue that the old National Heritage Committee under my chairmanship looked at in the days when, very sadly, British soldiers were being killed in Northern Ireland and, sadly, already we have some British servicemen killed in Iraq and there are going to be funerals. What guidelines have you got about coverage of those funerals? Would you in every case make sure that the widow, parents, relatives, would welcome cameras there before you decided to cover funerals?
  (Ms Thomson) Yes. We have no specific guidelines just for coverage of those funerals but we would seek to govern them by our ordinary producers' guidelines. We would never cover a funeral in any degree if we were specifically asked to stay away. For example, it is a different case, but in the recent case of Milly Dowler the family had specifically requested privacy, then there was the bit in the street where the poor girl had been kidnapped or whatever it was and we covered that public bit which they were happy with and then left it, and we would adopt exactly the same policy for these.

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