Back in February I posted about BBC Newsnight – Warming up President Obama’s inaugural speech?  Aunty’s flagship current affairs magazine programme had taken three isolated phrases out of context from the speech and cobbled them together into what appeared to be a verbatim statement on global warming. This digitally created sound bite had then been used as an introduction to a report by Susan Watts, Newsnight’s Science Editor, which was recorded before the text of the speech became available, and evidently on the assumption that climate change would be a major feature in what the president had to say. In the event no single sentence in the speech, let alone a whole paragraph, was devoted to this subject.

I made a complaint about this and have also posted on various responses that the BBC have given me (here). The most recent one was a letter from the Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) which I discussed here. Evidently the ECU were comfortable with what Newsnight had done, but perhaps they were unaware of the reaction to what became known as ‘splicegate’ in the great wide world outside their comfortable offices.

A vast number of blogs and web sites all over the world had picked up the story, as well as some of the MSM.  Not least was a site in the US with the quaint name (to British ears) of StinkeyJournalism, which seems to be a pretty fearsome watchdog on journalistic ethics over there. North Americans have a high regard for the BBC, and are shocked when it fails to live up to expectations.

One of the founders of StinkeyJournalism, Rhonda Roland Shearer, undertook a detailed analysis of the controversy (here) in which she asked several experts on the ethics of journalism to give their option on what the BBC had done. All of them condemned the way that the BBC had spliced phrases taken out-of-context into a ‘montage’ and considered it be misleading.  I only recently discovered that StrinkyJournalism is part of the Art Science Research Laboratory (ASRL) founded by Stephen Jay Gould, and Rhonda Roland Shearer in 1996.

Then there was the Poynter Institute, a school of journalism that operates on the campus of the University of South Florida. They used the story as a teaching aid to illustrate how not to use quotations in the broadcast media (here).

The letter I received from the ECU had said that if I was not satisfied with their decision then I should write to Bruce Vander, the secretary to the BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee (ESC). This marked a rather important milestone in the progress of the complaint through the BBC’s labyrinthine complaints procedure.

The BBC is not a single organisation, but is made up of two supposedly separate entities. Up to this point I had been dealing with the BBC Executive, the part of the BBC that actually runs operations. It was aggravating that instead of investigating what had clearly been an unacceptable lapse in standards the Executive had chosen to defend Newsnights actions, although this was not altogether surprising. The BBC Trust is, in theory at least, quite separate from the executive, and it performs a very different, and very important, function. The Trust is the body responsible for ensuring that the requirements of the BBC Charter, and statutory requirements for public service broadcasting, are observed by the Executive. Above all they exist to ensure, even guarantee, that the BBC is impartial.

The Editorial Standards Committee is the highest level within the BBC’s complaints handling procedure.

I duly wrote to Mr Vander, submitting concise grounds for an appeal to the ESC, on the mistaken assumption that, having progressed from the BBC Executive to the BBC Trust I was now in a realm where objective, imperial and constructive consideration of the complaint would take place without any pressure to try and defend the programme makers. After all it is the BBC Trust’s statutory duty to regulate the activities of the broadcasting arm of the organisation; not to justify its actions.

A few days later I received an acknowledgement from someone who described herself as a ‘Team Assistant’, saying that the BBC Trust would consider, as quickly as possible, whether my appeal should be referred to the ESC, and keep me informed if ‘for any reason we meet with delays’. I reconciled myself to the likelihood  that it would be quite some time before Mr Vander himself got round to writing to me.

About six weeks later, another letter arrived from the BBC, but this was not from Mr Vander. It was from someone called Fran O’Brien who described herself as Head of Editorial Standards. I had expected to receive a straightforward decision as to whether the ESC would now bring this matter to a close by reviewing my complaint or, if they were not prepared to do so, a full response to all the issues that I had raised. My main reason for appealing to the ESC, as I had explained to Mr Vander, was that a lot of rather important aspects of my complaint had been carefully sidestepped at each stage of the complaints procedure, and particularly in the ECU’s decision letter. It seemed reasonable to expect that now I was dealing with the BBC Trust, and not the BBC Executive, things would be different. Of course I was wrong about this too.

The Head of Editorial Standards letter ran to three pages in which she first summarised my complaint, then set out the criteria for an appeal to the ESC, and then gave her reasons for not ‘proposing to progress this appeal’.

Ms O’Brien’s summary of my complaint omitted, once again, most of the issues that I had raised which were, of course, the ones that would be most difficult to excuse. Her decision seemed to be based mainly on her highly subjective interpretation of what she thought President Obama might have been trying to say about climate change in his speech if one read between the lines. Overall, the letter appeared to be yet another attempts to spare Newsnight’s blushes. As I have said, the BBC Trust is supposed to be above such considerations and it is in no way their duty to try and protect the Executive from the consequences of bad journalism.

Finally I was told that:

If you disagree with this decision, you may write giving reasons why you disagree and ask the ESC to decide on your appeal. You should do this within 10 working days by writing to Bruce Vander, Secretary of the Editorial Standards Committee, at the address above.

So that’s what I did, explaining that I still wanted the matter to be reviewed by the ESC, but that I found it somewhat bizarre to be given a time limit of 10 working days to respond when the BBC had just taken some six weeks to reply to my original request. I thought that this might receive a reply over the signature of  the illusive Mr Vander, but I was wrong yet again.

Another of Mr Vander’s minions, an Editorial Assistant this time, informed me that  they were prepared to extending the deadline; slightly. It didn’t, of course, include an apology for their own slowness in dealing with a complaint that had, by now, been ongoing for over six months.

As the Head of Editorial Standards had succeeded in misrepresenting, misinterpreting and generally obfuscating my complaint so thoroughly, there was no alternative but to prepare another this time very lengthy submission restating my complaint in terms that the ESC could not possibly misunderstand or misinterpret, and also highlighting the issues that so far had not been ignored by the BBC. Dealing with the Head of Editorial Standards’ reasons for refusing to ‘progress this appeal’ was fairly straightforward. Most of her arguments were not really arguments at all, but unwarranted assertions or restatements of what had already been said in previous correspondence and questioned by me but without providing any appropriate response in her capacity as Head of Editorial Standards.

In the end I sent a seven-page letter to Mr Vander. I desperately tried to make it shorter, but it just wasn’t possible without risking more evasion, obfuscation and what would appear to be wilful misinterpretation.

I have now received a letter from the BBC Trust, not from Mr Vander of course, but from the Editorial Assistant, saying that:

It is our aim to present the Editorial Standards Committee with the correspondence relating to your complaint when it meets on 30 September 2009.

We shall inform you of the Committee’s decision after this date.

Who knows what will happen next? I do not think that there is anything that the BBC can do now that would surprise me, which is sad. I have been accused by a commenter on this blog of running an anti-BBC campaign, but I am not anti-BBC. I want to see this venerable institution continue to maintain the kind of standards, and the integrity, that have made its brand (the BBC is a very powerful and valuable global brand) synonymous with the highest standards of journalism. In order to do this, the organization must have a complaints procedure that allows problems relating to editorial standards to be addressed, and improvements made, without undue delay or the risk that complaints will automatically be treated as an attack on the BBC that must, at all costs, be warded off.

9 Responses to “BBC Newsnight and Obama’s inaugural speech: the BBC Trust will decide”

  1. Tony, I admire your tenacity and you have my support in your efforts. I know I just don’t have the same grasp of the written word to ever succeed in one of these endeavours. My talents lie elsewhere. Your summing up of the BBC is spot on as far as I’m concerned. Absolutely everyone I talk to now thinks they are just a government mouth piece, a propaganda outlet that would make Joseph Goebbels proud. This is an extremely sad state of affairs, and despite the many complaints they just seem impervious to any criticism. It’s not just the news; its current affairs as well.

    Whats more all their science programs are now flawed, and along with most of the documentaries, they are either trying to sensationalise something or make the program so dumbed down and condescending as to render it useless and a massive waste of money. If they carry on in this manner, in the current economic climate they will be on the top of the list for massive cuts.
    If I had to sum it up with one word I would say the BBC has lost its objectivity. Everything they do is from the age old leftwing adage of “we know what’s best for you” and is agenda driven.

  2. What Peter said! As you know, I’ve written a few posts on Susan Watts’s blog, but I don’t have your determination or bloody-mindedness, and I suspect that the BBC relies on apathy (and loss of the will to live when caught up in its complaints system) to further its aims. Well done!

    I await developments with interest.

  3. It is our aim to present..

    That’s a weasel phrase, typical of modern managers. What’s wrong with “We will present..”?

  4. Peter G and James P:

    Many thanks for the encouragement.

    In a way, the BBC complaints procedure does act as a filtering system so that trivial complaints drop out before they reach the top. On the other had it would make more sense to apply the filter at a far earlier stage. I’m sure that the BBC have convinced themselves that by having such a vastly complex multi-stage system (which must be hugely expensive) they are dealing with complaints conscientiously, but I suspect that they are deluded.

    Re. James P #3.

    I wondered about that too!

  5. JamesP: Susan Watts is ex-Independent and New Scientist and was the “good girl” in the Gilligan/Kelly/dodgy dossier affair when she dumped Gilligan at the Hutton enquiry.
    I think the the current slavishness to the government line began then, when they were emasculated by Campbell and Dyke resigned.

  6. I agree entirely, Dennis. It always intrigued me that Radio 4 got it in the neck for Gilligan’s report, when he had broadcast the same thing earlier that morning on R2! (before Alistair Campbell had woken up, presumably).

    I’m try to avoid conspiracy theories, but the medical details for Dr David Kelly have never really made sense. I wonder how hard the coroner was leant on..?

  7. One place to get an independent opinion on the ethics might the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Columbia was the first, and is arguably the most prestigious, school of journalism. It also publishes the Columbia Journalism Review, which might be helpful too.

    Supportive, respected, independent opinions, if submitted to the BBC Trust, should help to pressure them.

  8. Imagine the amount of effort assorted Beeboids must make to deliberately misunderstand all of the equivalent of a 7 page letter.

    Whatever that is it is not a process designed to increase efficieny by filtering out trivial complaints.

  9. assorted Beeboids

    LOL – I shall remember that!

    FWIW, I’ve just added comment no.150 to the Susan Watts item, and snuck in a reference to Harmless Sky in the process. Anything to annoy the moderator Beeboids…

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