Following on from this post about a complaint of BBC bias and lack of journalistic rigour in coverage of matters concerning climate change…
Our anonymous contributor went on to submit an interesting Freedom of Information request to the BBC asking for details of:
- how many complaints/ accusations of bias the BBC received from the public about the BBC’s coverage of climate change
- how many of the complaints received about climate change were upheld by the BBC, i.e. were accepted
- brief details / a list of all the complaints upheld, i.e. the details of the upheld complaint and the BBC’s response (excluding details of the person complaining)
The BBC has replied thus (you may want to get a coffee in for this long winded way of saying ‘piss off’):
The information you have requested is excluded from the Act because it is held for the purposes of ‘journalism, art or literature.’ The BBC is therefore not obliged to provide this information toyou and will not be doing so on this occasion. Part VI of Schedule 1 to FOIA provides that information held by the BBC and the other public service broadcasters is only covered by the Act if it is held for ‘purposes other than those of journalism, art or literature”. The BBC is not required to supply information held for the purposes of creating the BBC’s output or information that supports and is closely associated with these creative activities1, including information relating to the subject of editorial complaints. The BBC’s independence and impartiality would be at risk through disclosure of information on editorial complaints, which is discussed in detail below.
1 For more information about how the Act applies to the BBC please see the enclosure which follows this letter. Please note that this guidance is not intended to be a comprehensive legal interpretation of how the Act applies to the BBC.
The BBC has chosen not to volunteer information relating to the subject of editorial complaints for several very good reasons, chief amongst them being a desire to maintain our independence and impartiality.
You may not be aware that one of the main policy drivers behind the limited application of the Act to public service broadcasters was to protect freedom of expression and the rights of the media under Article 10 European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”). The BBC, as a media organisation, is under a duty to impart information and ideas on all matters of public interest and the importance of this function has been recognised by the European Court of Human Rights.Maintaining our editorial independence is a crucial factor in enabling the media to fulfil this function.
The Information Commissioner’s Office has recognised the importance of Schedule 1 of the Act in protecting the independence of the media, stating that:
“It is the Commissioner’s view that the ultimate purpose of the derogation (Schedule 1) is to protect journalistic, artistic and literary integrity by carving out a creative and journalistic space for programme makers to produce programmes free from the interference and scrutiny of the public.”
The BBC agrees that we have the right to protect our journalistic and editorial independence by maintaining just such a private space in which to produce our content. This extends to the sifting and review of praise and criticism from audiences, as well as the seeking of an independent view of criticism in order to undertake this review process. This is an important part of the BBC’s process of creating and improving programmes. Despite the BBC’s obligation to be independent and impartial, many bodies, groups and individuals attempt to influence our output. This pressure takes many forms and has to be resisted by programme makers across the BBC. If the content of individual criticisms were available for public scrutiny on a regular basis then programme makers would be under even greater pressure to respond to lobbies or vocal individuals than they are already. They might be reluctant to make changes that reflect the views in the complaints in that they could be accused of “caving in to pressure” and other viewers would make judgements about the apparent impartiality of the programme. Conversely, if their judgement was to ignore the complaints, as they believed them to be invalid or outweighed by other factors, they will be accused of ignoring public opinion, without the opportunity to explain the reasons for their editorial judgement. The BBC also believes that publication could lead to a tit-for-tat escalation of complaints, particularly from lobbying groups or political parties, as opponents competed with each other in terms of volume and strength of a complaint to the BBC.
I hope that this provides you with some understanding of why this is an important concern for the BBC. In addition, I can advise, outside the scope of the Act that the BBC proactively publishes public responses to recent issues of audience concern which have caused a significant number of complaints, or to any significant issue raised by complaints received. The BBC also publishes quarterly archived reports covering the main themes in all complaints received. In addition,information about second-stage complaints, i.e. those considered by the Editorial Complaints Unit, is published at the following site: http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/reports.shtml. Information about the third stage of the complaints process, i.e. those considered by the ESC, is published at the following site: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/appeals/editorial_appeal_findings.html
Finally, the BBC makes a huge range of information available about our programmes and content on bbc.co.uk. We also proactively publish information covered by the Act on our publication scheme.
The BBC does not offer an internal review when the information requested is not covered by the Act. If you disagree with our decision you can appeal to the Information Commissioner. Contact details are: Information Commissioner’s Office, Wycliffe House, Water Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire, SK9 5AF telephone 01625 545 700. http://www.ico.gov.uk Please note that should the Information Commissioner’s Office decide that the Act does cover this information, exemptions under the Act might then apply.