Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 540-557)



  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 accordingly.

John Thurso

  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 complaint—myself and BBC Information principally.
  (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 function.

  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 statements.

Alan Keen

  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 from you?
  (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.

Ms Shipley

  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-advertising—by 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 answer.

Ms Shipley

  553. The reason I put it to you though is because you are director of public policy, so I did ask specifically on policy.
  (Ms Thomson) Yes. Our policy on programmes with regard to children is they should not have any undue promotion of commercial products.

  Ms Shipley: It is a default situation, and I did not give you the specifics—

  Chairman: I said I would allow one question, Debra..

Ms Shipley

  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.

Michael Fabricant

  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 24—of which I am a great fan—has 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.

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