Examination of Witnesses (Questions 520-539)|
TUESDAY 25 MARCH 2003
520. I guess in olden times it was rather easier
to patrol the producers' guidelines because you had less output;
now you not only have vast quantities of it and 24 hour news but
also a website which is particularly difficult to patrol because
you do not write it all, and there have been some instances recently
where people on the CELEBDAQ, I think it is called, website have
been typing in all sorts of things. How do you patrol that?
(Ms Thomson) We patrol the bits we write ourselves
from the ordinary editorial systems of the BBC. As you say, what
causes us difficulty are the chatrooms and message boards. There
the policywhich did not work properly with CELEBDAQ and
we have admitted thatis we do post-moderation which is
that within about an hour of messages appearing someone goes in
and checks them, makes sure they are all right, and takes off
anything that is either libellous or contempt of court or whatever,
and that is recognised as being a standard and quite rigorous
practice. Where we have at the moment, for example, particular
sensitivity over the message boards on issues like the war in
Iraq, we moved that deadline from moderation to half an hour to
make sure we are monitoring even more carefully. In the case of
CELEBDAQ there had been an injunction which had funnily enough
never been served on the BBC so we did not know it had happened,
but equally there was a problem that our moderation systems did
not work as fast as they should and as a result of that we have
reviewed them all, done extra training and so on.
521. Do you think, given that the internet seems
to be where these issues are going to come up thick and fast quite
probably, there will be room for having a specific member of the
governors perhaps having responsibility for the BBC's internet
presence and all of these issues?
(Ms Thomson) Of course, the internet does raise enormous
problems for us all in the sense that whatever we do in the public
domain there are a whole host of names and pictures and all sorts
of stuff that everyone can get access to and which can easily
invade people's privacy, and it is very important that the standards
of the public service broadcasters are not swayed simply because
things exist somewhere else. If we still think it is wrong to
publish them, we should not be swayed by that. In terms of governors'
oversight, they are taking responsibility now for particular objectives
and looking at the BBC that way, so where the BBC has certain
objectives in relation to on-line then there would be a governor
specifically on thatnot dividing the governors up by service
but by objective.
522. But there is not a governor here today
so I wonder which governor is in charge of these issues?
(Ms Thomson) The reason there is not a governor here
today is that there is a governor, Robert Smith, in charge of
programme complaints who would hear any complaints about privacy.
As it happens, on the specific issue of privacy there has been
no complaint which has gone up to the governors' committee, which
is an appeals committee, for two years. We could, of course, arrange
for one to come if you wanted.
Chris Bryant: When we had tabloid editors
before us we were told that there was this divide between tabloid
editors and broadsheet and broadcast media, with the one being
seen as a set of scurrilous monsters and the other being seen
as high-minded, wonderful people who had the best interests of
the world at heart
Chairman: Which were which?
523. And the tabloid editors were suggesting
that there is a great deal of hypocrisy around because in actual
fact broadcasters will report that The Sun or The Mirror
or whoever has invaded somebody's privacy, and indeed you are
now doing a series of six programmes about the invasion of privacy
of various famous people with Piers Morgan. Is there not a bit
of hypocrisy around?
(Ms Thomson) We try hard not to be hypocritical and
I hope and believe that the BBC standards are exceptionally high
here, but I do not believe that all newspaper standards are completely
dreadful and I would not myself divide up the world like that
at all. Apart from anything else it is very important to say that
everyone can make mistakes, of course, as well. In terms of the
series with Piers Morgan, that is looking at a range of half a
dozen individuals in the public eye who have been the subject
of tabloid campaigns of various sorts, and is being made very
much with their participation and consent and is looking at them
and their view of it. So it is about the impacts of invasion of
privacy but very much explaining it from their point of view.
524. Finally, you say that it is perfectly legitimate
the day after Clare Short's announcement for her to be doorstepped
the next morning, but what we were told is that quite often the
BBC will not just send one person but seven, and half the pack
will be the BBC because there will be somebody from Radio 4, somebody
from Radio 5 Live, somebody from BBC Radio Wales and Radio Cymru
and then all the different television bits as well. Is there any
way in which you can, in those kind of moments, rationalise matters?
(Ms Thomson) We do seek to but we do not always succeed
and so it is the case that you do still sometimes get multiple
crews, but clearly it adds to the pressure on the individuals
in a way that is completely unacceptable and is also a terrible
waste of resources, so as far as possible our news gathering operations
are supposed to be co-ordinated.
525. I always complain to the BBC Information
Unit but I just feel it has gone into a soup. What is the telephone
number for the Programmes Complaints Unit?
(Mr Steel) We do not deal by phone but by letter,
fax or e-mail, simply on the basis that since we are dealing with
complaints the upshot of which may have severe professional consequences
for members of staff, we had better start by having the issues
526. So what is the address?
(Mr Steel) The postal address is Programmes Complaints
Unit, BBC Broadcasting House, London W1A 1AA and the e-mail address
I cannot quote you from memory
527. Would it not be something like firstname.lastname@example.org?
(Mr Steel) It is something like that, but it is easily
accessible from the BBC home page.
(Ms Thomson) If you go into bbc.co.uk you will find
it accessible via the front page.
528. Presumably you could e-mail email@example.com
and get personal treatment.
(Mr Steel) That does lead to problems for the management
of my personal inbox so I try and courteously suggest that people
use the facility provided.
529. Along those lines, what sort of number
of complaints on a daily or weekly or monthly basis do you get
(Mr Steel) That has changed since we introduced the
e-mail facility last summer. It levelled off between 800 and 1,000
a year before that. The indication so far is that we are probably
trading at about twice that level this year.
530. And that whole uplift is from e-mail?
(Mr Steel) Not entirely, in the sense that there has
been a bit of a replacement effect. The number of complaints received
by conventional mail has gone down but the number of complaints
received by e-mail has risen to more than compensate for that,
which suggests that some people find it more convenient to use
e-mail whereas previously they had not.
531. And their handwriting is not disturbed
by the lateness of the hour.
(Mr Steel) That is also true.
532. I am very proud to have 40 Commando in
my constituency and I am very concerned every time I hear news
of casualties from Iraq; at the moment I am obviously praying
that none of them are 40 Commando, not all of whom live in Taunton.
The thing about Commando forces is they quite often get moved
around but they will keep their home where they are, and obviously
you have allegiance to one in particular. Does the BBC realise
that when you talk about a particular unit, and for a regiment
this is particularly true, you are not talking about one person's
invasion of privacy but 600 or 700 and all their parents, wives,
kids? What is the view on that? The impact is enormous.
(Ms Thomson) We do understand that. As I said, the
position is we do not do anything to identify people specifically
as individuals until we have absolute clearance from the military
commanders of that. In terms of policy of giving which regiment
they come from, at the moment we do and perhaps that is something
we should review if you think it causes significant distress and
anxiety. It is a difficult one because it equally relieves the
stress and anxiety in some other areas, but these things are fine
balances and perhaps we do not always get them right.
533. If you say "4/2 Commando" who
are in Bickleigh in Plymouth you are narrowing it down so far
that every wife will feel "That could be my husband",
whereas if you say "A marine"and in fact there
is not always enough distinction between US marines and Royal
Marines, and that is particularly important at the moment since
there are more people in the US Marine Corps than there are in
the whole of our army.
(Ms Thomson) For example, when the first helicopter
came down, the American helicopter, there was a lot of confusion
about how many British soldiers were on board. Initially it was
12, then it was 16 and it turned out finally to be eight, and
we try and not report anything as fact until it is there. I am
not blaming them in any sense at all but the military spokesmen
themselves were saying, "It looks like these sorts of numbers".
We try to get the balance right and it may be we do not always
534. Just to go back to your point, you said,
"Until we have the say-so from the military commanders that
all the relevant families have been informed". Is that when
we have sent our MP or the policeman to see the relatives? What
happens if they are not in? Do you then not give their names out?
How does that process work?
(Ms Thomson) I do not know how the process works in
terms of the military informing the individuals but we would not
do it until we were assured that they had been contacted, and
I would assume that meant they had been successfully contacted.
535. These are, of course, particular problems
for the electronic media because whatever approaches the printed
press may take they have got time to think about it, whereas in
a sense with this first totally instant war you have to make judgments
which you may be required to make which you are physically not
in a position to know.
(Ms Thomson) As with the American prisoners of war,
if we find we are inadvertently showing close-ups which might
be identifiable and the next of kin may have not been informed
we pull away from them as quickly as possible. That is the guidance
and that is what has happened so far.
536. The Guardian has a rather neat idea
that it has somebody that campaigns for the reader, and it has
its own column and correction page. Have you ever thought about
inside the BBC having an independent person?
(Ms Thomson) We do have a tradition on radio of Feedback
where we have someone, Roger Bolton, who does exactly that and
of course we have had Points of View on BBC television
in the past doing that.
537. You cannot really take Points of View
seriously, can you?
(Ms Thomson) No, but Feedback is a serious
feedback programme. This week it called the controller of Radio
3 to account in a way that I think was entirely admirable and
does do television issues from time to time as well as radio.
538. Should there be a Points of Complaints
as opposed to a Points of View on television? Should there
be a monthly? Do you feel you are handling it correctly?
(Ms Thomson) We feel that we are handling serious
complaints absolutely correctly, that people have a right to a
really serious investigation and not something which is in any
way tempted to turn it into entertainment but which takes people's
concerns legitimately and can result in an apology at the end.
539. We heard again when we were looking at
the print media that lawyers and people do ring on Saturday nights
to try and stop stories on Sunday. How would the public do that
to the film that they got wind of about, say, a hospital or something?
How would they be able to access and see? Do you give access?
What is the process if someone feels nervous about something you
are about to put on that is not favourable to them and they want
to stop it?
(Ms Thomson) They would contact BBC information and
say, "I think I am being featured in a film which I have
just seen a trail for and is going to be shown at 8 o'clock tomorrow
evening. In those cases we have a 24 hour rota of editorial policy
people and lawyers who deal with all the pre transmission issuesFraser
Steel deals with the post transmission issuesand they would
immediately look at it and the lawyers and the policy people would
look at it, take a view and consult whoever they needed to.