Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 520-539)



Mr Bryant

  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 policy—which did not work properly with CELEBDAQ and we have admitted that—is 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 that—not 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?

Mr Bryant

  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.

Mr Flook

  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 in writing.

  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
  (Mr Steel) It is something like that, but it is easily accessible from the BBC home page.
  (Ms Thomson) If you go into you will find it accessible via the front page.

Michael Fabricant

  528. Presumably you could e-mail 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.

Mr Flook

  529. Along those lines, what sort of number of complaints on a daily or weekly or monthly basis do you get in writing?
  (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 manage it.

  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.

Derek Wyatt

  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 issues—Fraser Steel deals with the post transmission issues—and 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.

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