Examination of Witnesses (Questions 540-557)
TUESDAY 25 MARCH 2003
540. Has that ever happened?
(Ms Thomson) I do not know. I need to come back to
you on that.
541. On the independent production, where the
quota is about 23.5% currently, do you write into the contacts
the same code of conduct for independents?
(Ms Thomson) Yes. All independent producers have to
have signed up to the producers' guidelines, and make the programmes
542. Mr Steel, broadly speaking at present the
regime is self-regulating and the BBC effectively self-regulates
it. What, if any, steps do you take to audit your performance
on an annual basis?
(Mr Steel) It is not entirely self-regulatory in the
sense that, especially in the area of privacy, we would have the
BSC to deal with and one of my functions is to investigate the
complaints that come to us via the BSC and respond after an investigation,
and I think that is a fairly big difference between the regime
for broadcasting and the regime for press. As for audit of our
own function, the most important continuing audit is that any
of my decisions can be taken to a committee of Governors on appeal
and I have no input into that committee beyond occasions when
the secretary of the committee on the Governors' instructions
may ask for a briefing, and I have no influence over their deliberations.
This is supplemented by annual reporting through that committee
to the Governors as a whole of complaints handling issues which
comes from the heads of the various areas in the BBC which handle
all the different sorts of complaintmyself and BBC Information
(Ms Thomson) And in addition we do have a series of
guidelines for how Fraser's unit should operate on the timeliness
of the responses, the minimum time, and those are reviewed by
the Governors' Complaints Committee which oversees the work to
make sure they are being met.
543. Would it be fair to say that the Governors'
committee acts as an audit committee in that sense?
(Ms Thomson) Yes.
544. What I am driving at is whether it is reactive,
in other words, if somebody thinks you have not done your job
and complains they look at it, or is it proactive in that on an
annual or quarterly basis somebody is reviewing it to see if it
could be improved?
(Mr Steel) It started reactively but, as the BBC has
reviewed its governance and accountability functions across the
piece, it was realised that it needed to take on a more proactive
545. Do you find as the person being "proactivated
upon" that that is helpful in evolving better systems, or
is it just a nuisance that you have to go through?
(Mr Steel) Broadly it is helpful. It can sometimes
be unwelcome to be kept up to the mark by a body of rather strong-minded
and certainly independent individuals, but it is certainly salutary
and it is a great strength to the independent function of the
Programmes Complaints Unit within the BBC that programme makers
know that if they have a weak case there is no point trying to
paper over the cracks with us because they would just become unpicked
when they went before the Governors.
546. So would it be fair to characterise what
you are saying as being that it is helpful to the self-regulating
process to have a proactive and timely audit system in place?
(Mr Steel) I would say it is necessary though not
always wholly comfortable.
547. Finally, you mention that complaints come
to you through the Broadcasting Standards. Can you say how many
you get from them and how much a part of your work that is, as
opposed to that which is generated by
(Mr Steel) In terms of the amount of time we devote
to it it takes up typically about a third of our time, but most
of that is a relatively small number of cases which are only on
the fairness and privacy side because they are quite work intensive
and involve a process of one or more exchanges of statements and
possibly a hearing and a good deal of research. We perhaps have
thirty or forty such cases live at any given time. The cases on
the standards side I could give you a snapshot of but the picture
changes year by year, and the biggest change occurred when the
BSC introduced their facility for e-mail complaining and that
raised the numbers. We would certainly be expected to be dealing
with over a 1,000 standards complaints via the BSC in the course
of a year, but on only a proportion of those do they ask us for
548. You have just answered all my questions
but could I ask this: have you looked at a comparison between
how the BBC do this and, first of all, the commercial broadcasters
and maybe the print media as well? Do you think they could learn
(Ms Thomson) I perhaps have the virtue of having spent
eleven years at Channel 4 and I set up its first complaints process
for dealing with programme complaints. It is fair to say that
the BBC has a more developed system of dealing with programme
complaints probably than any other broadcaster, partly because
we have always had our separate system of regulation and therefore
the Governors have always had a role in it which has forced us
into doing things, whereas ITV and Channel 4 have always had reference
to the ITC as well as the Broadcasting Standards Council for their
complaints. Amongst newspapers the only newspaper I am very familiar
with is The Guardian which has developed, and all credit
to it, a good and interesting way of dealing with things, including
the idea of a readers' ombudsman and so on, which are interesting
models. We have been reviewing our processes in the light of Ofcom
coming on to see whether there is more we need to do to tighten
it up, but also talking to the Consumers' Association and the
National Consumers' Council to see what we can learn as their
ideas evolve and what is best practice, and we do benchmark to
make sure we live up to it.
549. As a broadcaster, if you have an ordinary
person making a complaint who has not taken legal advice, do you
give that person advice on how to do something nasty to the BBC
or do you push them away cleverly, as a commercial company, I
presume, would do as a duty to their own shareholder?
(Ms Thomson) I do not think we would quite go to the
lengths of advising them to see a lawyer because we would hope
that we were able to give them, if things were that bad, redress
ourselves. What is a very important principle of what we do and
is increasingly the case in the modern BBC is that we will admit
when we have got things wrong, we will broadcast on-air apologies,
and in a couple of cases we have had on privacy which have gone
to the BSC, by taking quick action ourselves we have managed to
make people feel more comfortable. We recognised when we made
a mistake and stopped the complaint further. So our aim would
be to seek to address it ourselves rather than encourage people
to take legal redress against us.
550. As a practical example, the last time I
phoned and complained about somebody on the BBC was during the
Afghanistan campaign. I phoned up because I felt one quite well
known broadcaster was much too enthusiastic when he was explaining
where the planes and bombs came from. What would have happened
to that complaint?
(Ms Thomson) Every morning there is a
log of all the phone complaints that come in and you can get a
detailed breakdown of them but equally there is a more general
breakdown so, for example, at my level I simply get a pie chart
which shows me and I can see whether there have been fifty complaints
about something on the news in which case I will talk to editorial
policy and say, "Was there a problem with that? Did you see
it? What went on?", so that alerts me to the individual issues,
and for individual programmes they can get a breakdown and so
on. If you ask for a response and you give a phone number then
the programme information unit will come back to you.
(Mr Steel) It is probably worth adding that if you
are not happy with that then the BBC information people, so long
as the complaint is of the kind that falls within the Programmes
Complaints Unit remit, direct you to us.
551. I am not at all keen on pre-school television
having advertising in it, so happily I like the BBC. However,
it has been brought to my attention that the BBC has recently
bought an American cartoon and has presumably bought the rights
to broadcast that. Simultaneously a major burger chain has bought
a different set of rights, so by default the BBC is linked to
a burger chain and is, in effect, co-advertisingby default,
I accept. What is your policy? How can you avoid this, and would
you seek to do so?
(Ms Thomson) I do not know the details of that case
552. I will allow that question but we are not
dealing with complaints against the BBC in general; our inquiry
is related to privacy.
(Ms Thomson) Which is partly why I do not know the
553. The reason I put it to you though is because
you are director of public policy, so I did ask specifically on
(Ms Thomson) Yes. Our policy on programmes with regard
to children is they should not have any undue promotion of commercial
Ms Shipley: It is a default situation,
and I did not give you the specifics
Chairman: I said I would allow one question,
554. I am not asking for the specifics, I am
asking for the policy behind a very major change in very major
broadcasting, and they are now linked, I can assure you, and by
default you did not mean it to happen. You are head of policy.
Do you have a policy?
(Ms Thomson) Our policy is that we do not allow undue
commercial linkage between our children's programmes and commercial
products. I just do not know in this instance of where we have
acquired a programme quite how that has happened or if it has,
but I would be happy to come back to you on that.
555.Following up something that Adrian Flook
and the Chairman were saying in relation to the very real problem
regarding the coverage of news, you were talking and gave the
example of the helicopter that crashed early on in the Iraqi war
and not being sure of the numbers and so on. In the past the BBC
has been able to some degree to take a deep breath and pause before
it gives out the information to verify precisely the details but
since the Department of Culture, Media and Sport sponsored the
report on News 24 and gave as a criticism that it does not have
breaking news like Sky News, News 24of which I am a great
fanhas very rapidly started giving out breaking news. What
I want to ask you is this: is there now not a very real problem
when one has a very rapidly moving situation, as one does in the
Iraq war, that you are going to fall into the very trap that you
say the BBC tries to avoid and, when breaking news is broadcast,
that news is not necessarily as reliable as previously would have
been the case because you would have, first of all, paused before
you had put out the news to verify whether or not it is accurate?
How is the BBC living under this new regime of breaking news which
has been imposed on them?
(Ms Thomson)You raise a very interesting problem.
First of all, in our response to the News 24 report we did say
that we did worry about always being first with the news and it
was more important to be correct so we have not changed our policy
on that at all, and our policy is still absolutely that things
have to be verified before we can broadcast them. Where we only
have one source you will hear us saying "At the moment Reuters
are reporting", or "the Jerusalem Post has reported
that"it might be a chemical dump"but that
has not been verified" rather than saying that a chemical
dump has been established. That is the guidance that the rules
people operate under and should happen all the time. If there
is only one source you say it is coming from one source; you do
not report it as accurate. There is so much swarm of speculation
around that I agree with you that sometimes you watch the 24 hour
news channels throwing amazing amounts of detail at you, and you
need to watch the standard bulletins to be able to stand back
and really understand what is going on because we are reporting
lots of things that are happening with some speculation in it,
but we do try to make sure that speculation is reported as such.
556. And your guidelines on privacy you feel
are not being weakened or attenuated by having breaking news?
(Ms Thomson) No, I think not. They are clearly tested
to their limits but the BBC does put enormous weight on privacy
and I want to stress that very strongly to the Committee, particularly
on prevention rather than cure. The fact that only 1% of the complaints
we get are about privacy whereas the Press Complaints Commission
is getting 25% perhaps shows that the prevention is working. It
is being tested but it is certainly something that at senior level
we take tremendously seriously, and will carry on making work.
557. I am going to make a rule: we are in uncharted
territory and I recognise that and I will ask some questions along
these lines myself, but clearly a war is a very public event and
the fact that the military allowed reporters, cameramen, to be
what they call "embedded" in the military units mean
it is accepted as a public event, and the servicemen and women
know that very well indeed. There are also, of course, strict
guidelines by the Ministry of Defence if anybody is a casualty,
killed, injured, captured or missing, and by the military about
maintaining the confidentiality of the names until next of kin
have been informed and obviously all broadcasters, all media,
will abide by and so far have abided by that. The repercussions
for us as a Committee in this inquiry are not related to the public
event of war but the repercussions on private individuals of the
consequences of war and I would have thought, though I am not
going to restrict questioning overly by colleagues, relate much
more to families of servicemen and women back here than what goes
on in Iraq, because what goes on in Iraq is governed by guidelines
which I would have thought would be very stringently observed
because otherwise reporters would be removed from the battlefield.
(Ms Thomson) I could not have put it better myself,
if I may say so.
Chairman: If we are going to finish with
the BBC endorsing the Select Committee I think that is a very
best way of ending your evidence, for which we are grateful.