Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 640 - 659)


Professor Fabian Monds, Ms Anna Carragher, Mr Pat Loughrey and Reverend Rick Hill

  Q640  Lord Peston: Could you give us—apart from Jerry Springer, which I beg you not to take us into—an example or two of the sort of complaint?

  Professor Monds: A huge diversity from excessive reference to Londonderry or `Derry, the way the city is referred to. I think that Northern Ireland viewers and listeners are quite alert that to perceived or real offence. We had an example at the Broadcasting Council where a presenter referred to a Catholic church as a chapel and this precipitated a complaint. Some of them can range from the absolute trivial to very serious complaints.

  Reverend Hill: Not from me!

  Q641  Chairman: Say it is a more serious complaint and one of your programmes has done an injustice to one of the participants? Take us through the process. What would then happen? You would attempt to reconcile that at Northern Ireland level?

  Professor Monds: Are you taking an example of a political concern?

  Q642  Chairman: Yes.

  Professor Monds: It may be that a politician would choose to write to me or to the Controller. Anna, you are better equipped to explain what has happened in our experience in that category.

  Ms Carragher: Occasionally politicians will ring or write to us and complain about their treatment on particular programmes and obviously the first thing I will do in that case is show them that I will investigate the complaint. I will then talk to the programme's producers and find out the circumstances. If we have made a factual inaccuracy, which has happened, but I am happy to say has very rarely happened, we will apologise and rectify it.

  Q643  Chairman: On the air?

  Mr Loughrey: Yes.

  Ms Carragher: Usually, yes. I say usually, because occasionally the individual concerned may think it is too trivial to then be recognised on air, so we will take a judgment in each individual case. If, as is more often the case, it is a matter of opinion we will consider it very, very carefully indeed and look at it from all angles and come back to the individual again either with an acceptance that we have made an error, in which case we will apologise, or a robust defence of our position. The individual then has the opportunity, if he or she so wishes, to take that further, either to the Editorial Complaints Unit, or the Governor's Programme Complaints Committee and in specified circumstances to Ofcom. I think we have had only one instance in the last year of a complaint being taken to Ofcom by a politician, which was not upheld.

  Q644  Chairman: But you could not take a complaint to Ofcom in terms of accuracy, could you, I do not think?

  Mr Loughrey: Very often, Chairman, in my experience, in those negotiations that Anna has described, there is a fair opportunity to reply. It is very often the perception of an accusation made without the right of reply, or at least not the right of reply at the same time within the same programme. Very often we can reconcile those concerns by providing time for that right of reply. Fair enough, not always, and that is when it goes to the formal complaints procedure.

  Q645  Chairman: Then what happens there?

  Professor Monds: The Editorial Complaints Unit, if it has not been reconciled informally, will deal with it—if it is a question of accuracy or impartiality or fairness—will attempt to have a dialogue with the complainant to try to reach an understanding. And this may involve the producer of the programme giving a view or the researcher on the programme who uncovered the particular point giving a response. So there may be an exchange of letters between the Editorial Complaints Unit and the individual. If that fails to reach agreement—and the majority of cases are dealt with in that way, an explanation is given and an acceptance of that explanation follows—the complainant is advised that their next recourse is to the Governors' Programme Complaints Committee, and we deal with probably four or five complaints which have reached that level a month.

  Q646  Chairman: Four or five a month?

  Professor Monds: Yes, it is a very, very small proportion of the literally thousands of inputs that come in.

  Q647  Chairman: It is not just a Northern Ireland question.

  Professor Monds: I am talking about the UK.

  Q648  Chairman: But you have to be pretty determined to get it up there, have you not? You must almost be forgetting what the complaint is by the time it has got to you.

  Professor Monds: Not in my experience!

  Q649  Chairman: Okay, in your experience by the time that four or five complaints a month have got up there, they are people who feel very strongly.

  Professor Monds: Indeed they do.

  Q650  Chairman: Do they say, "That is great; this BBC Committee has looked at these complaints against the BBC and has found against me as the complainant, that is the end of the matter, I regard that as an entirely fair and sensible process"?

  Professor Monds: We uphold complaints from time to time and we partially uphold complaints.

  Chairman: From time to time?

  Q651  Lord Maxton: What is from time to time? Once a year, twice a year?

  Professor Monds: There is a quarterly bulletin published both by the Editorial Complaints Unit and by the Governors' Programme Complaints Committee. The statistics are there and I can give you the actual percentages, but it is not insignificant.

  Q652  Chairman: But you would not feel that it was better from the point of view of the complainant and the public generally if the end result could be an appeal to someone who was not the BBC, like Ofcom?

  Professor Monds: In certain categories of complaints that is the case.

  Q653  Chairman: But not in impartiality and not in accuracy.

  Professor Monds: I think there are real benefits in the Board of Governors being aware of the standards that are being achieved by the BBC in that area, and I think it is an appropriate exercise of responsibilities of the Governors to deal with such complaints.

  Q654  Chairman: I was not really asking that. I agree with that, but for someone who is still dissatisfied, should he have a right of independent appeal where in other walks of life, not to mention other parts of television, he does?

  Professor Monds: My position would be that the rigour of the present process does address in a fair way that concern.

  Mr Loughrey: With external expert advice as well.

  Professor Monds: Yes. I should say that the new arrangements for complaints do include the opportunity for a hearing, if that seems appropriate. But as Pat reminded me, we do take external expert advice as well.

  Q655  Lord Peston: That is very interesting; thank you. Could I take us on to another rather important matter, which is the question of languages and the Irish language? I am never very clear, is Erse the Irish language? Erse is only the answer to a crossword clue regularly in The Times. What is the Irish language?

  Mr Loughrey: Gaelic.

  Q656  Lord Peston: So Erse is Scots then maybe?

  Mr Loughrey: Gaelic for Scots, Gaelic for Irish.

  Q657  Lord Peston: My serious question is—and it takes us back to Anna's opening statement, where she sometimes used the words "needs" and sometimes used the word "wishes", and the two of them, wearing my economics hat, are not quite the same—do you get pressure—and it is not all that far removed from the complaints business as well—for you to act as promoters of Gaelic? Secondly, that there should be always the option of having Gaelic as an available language?

  Professor Monds: Are you thinking in terms of the role of the Broadcasting Council in this?

  Q658  Lord Peston: No, I am thinking more of the role of the BBC more generally in this. I felt that the Broadcasting Council might be one of the paths into it, but I think the main BBC view is the one I would like to know.

  Mr Loughrey: I guess with the responsibility for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland one is constantly doing an endless balancing act between the needs and indeed the demands of minority languages bodies and the majority monoglot audience. Issues of parity, fairness, equity—I discussed these with you when I gave evidence in Cardiff—the relative spend per head of the population, those kinds of equations are constantly a factor in our decision-making. However, I think it is right to say that the reason the BBC provides dedicated services for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is a product of the distinctive heritage, culture and linguistics of a diverse United Kingdom. If it were not for the uniqueness of the heritage then the case for distinctive services would be less. A very large part of our brief is educational; it is cultural. We celebrate and nurture the distinctive cultural voice and identity of the different territories we represent. They provide for us a colour and texture of the United Kingdom that the digital world, for example, will never provide, the kind of pervading mid-Atlanticism of multi-channel television where there is such a lack of British-made content of any description. I think the BBC has nurtured from its inception the unique and distinctive linguistic heritage of these islands, and that is something of which we should be proud, while constantly being mindful of the equation of parity and fairness for the English speaking majority. I guess it is fair to say that in the midst of all of the debate the single most popular BBC programme in all three nations is EastEnders, which is a fact of life alongside the unique heritage, culture and identity of those countries.

  Q659  Lord Maxton: Why do you not do Urdu in Scotland? There are more Urdu speakers in Scotland than there are Gaelic speakers.

  Mr Loughrey: We provide in the Asian network a dedicated service across the United Kingdom with nations-related input for the Asian community in its entirety. We have a language learning strand called Colin and Cumberland online, on radio and on television across all three nations, because I believe that one of the particular roles of the BBC is to provide access to the minority language community for those who feel excluded from it; and, as we do from Lord Reith's vision of the BBC, allowing access for people to the broad cannon of culture, people who never go to a theatre or a recital but who, thanks to the licence fee, have access, we can provide access, learning resources for indigenous languages. We are about to provide that same resource for non-indigenous languages, for the languages you described, Lord Maxton. It is an important part of cultural awareness and a celebration of diversity to provide learning opportunities.

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