Regular readers may recall a couple of posts back in January where we told the story of an Autonomous Mind reader who complained to the BBC about an edition of Hardtalk.
This is the one in December 2010 where President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives was allowed to state, without challenge, that due to human induced climate change sea levels around the Maldives are rising. The lack of journalistic rigour and blind acceptance of such a controversial viewpoint as fact led to the complaint being made and the BBC’s two fingered resp0nse in January which included the immortal words:
We’re committed to honest, unbiased reporting and are determined to remain free from influence by outside parties.
Following the response, our reader then filed a 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)
In publishing the story in a follow up post we shared the unsurprising news that the response from the BBC to our reader’s request was a refusal to provide the information sought. Once again the BBC was hiding behind its establishment-given provision to withhold any information the BBC considers to be held for the ‘purposes of journalism, art or literature’.
As this blog said in our commentary on the decision, the BBC seemed to have chosen to interpret the Act in a very loose way by extending it ‘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.‘ The thrust of the BBC’s response was that complaints are used to inform the creation or improvement of programming. As a result our commentary concluded:
It would seem obvious that complaints rejected by the BBC are not used to inform the creation or improvement of programmes because they are arguing the complaints are baseless. So, the only possible reason for withholding details of rejected complaints is to hide the extent of viewer and listener dissatisfaction with an editorial line the BBC is determined to pursue.
Our reader was advised that if he disagreed with the decision he could appeal to the Information Commissioner. So he did.
We now fast forward to last week when our reader received an incredibly lengthy reply from David McNeil, a Complaints Officer and the Information Commissioner’s Office, which you can read below:
This is quite a staggering communication from the ICO, if again completely unsurprising. At the heart of it is the assumption or belief that because the BBC says the complaints material informs their editorial direction they should not be bound to reveal how many complaints they receive.
However at no point is the BBC asked to provide evidence that demonstrates, on the basis of complaints received, they have ever adjusted their editorial approach. We are simply enjoined to accept it without proof.
The only way this can ever be assessed is if the complaints process was made transparent, but they continue to hide behind the Act, with establishment approval, to prevent that happening. The question of course is ‘what are they hiding and why?’ which takes us back to the Balen Report and Steven Sugar’s attempt to uncover the details of the report. It is simply that the findings would reveal the bias so many people believe the BBC possesses and that many more people reject the BBC worldview than the corporation is comfortable with revealing? If we do not know what the report held we cannot assess whether any material change in editoral approach was ever made. Likewise, when it comes to complaints such as these.
Why should the license fee payer, compelled to pay the fee under pain of fine or imprisonment, be denied information about how many people complain about the BBC’s output and be able to ascertain for themselves whether the views of the public are ever taken into account?
This is just another example of the establishment, of which the BBC is an integral part, protecting its propaganda arm and treating the public who are forced to pay their wages with utter contempt. On this basis our reader is now considering taking this complaint to the next stage. Is it worthwhile? You decide.
See also this post about a rare BBC u-turn after originally turning down a FOI request.