Diary of a BBC complainant

This is a guest post by Neil Turner

When was the last time you shouted at the telly ? Over the last twenty years I have had occasion to complain to the BBC, and I guessed the reason I got fobbed off was down to my lack of preparation or perseverance. So, for twelve months – as an experiment – I have kept a diary of our dialogue, so I could learn, adapt and evolve. I’m glad I did, otherwise – as you will see – I might have started to question my own sanity.

My beef is about the BBC’s coverage of Israel. Yours might be the EU, political correctness, global warming, or some other. I read with interest Nigel Farage’s comments about the BBC’s Europhilia and its stereotypical reporting on UKIP. Well said that man. In fact, were one to take Mr Farage’s words and substitute ‘Israel’ for ‘UKIP, I wouldn’t be writing this now. So I’m not alone. You don’t have to share my particular views, but just stay with me a bit longer.

The conclusion of my twelve month experiment is that the BBC is in reality accountable to no-one but itself. It is quite simply, the largest political party in the country: immensely powerful, biased to its core, either wholly oblivious of its prejudice (or cynically aware of it) and defiantly unrepentant. It is a totally closed system, with processes engineered to repel feedback from its customers.

So, what didn’t I like about the BBC’s coverage of Israel ? Let me give you a few examples. In each case I complained. In each case, and at every level, I was rebuffed.

During 2012 Israel had been on the receiving end of months of rocket attacks from Gaza. With a (very) few token exceptions, the BBCNews Middle East website (as well as TV and radio) didn’t report either the individual incidences or dramatic escalation of these launches until Israel had responded. This well-established ’last/first’ reporting policy thus allowed the BBC to create the impression that Israel always instigated the violence, and that Gazans were always the victims. In responding to my complaint, the BBC denied this, adding ‘We do aim to lead our reports with the most interesting or significant element’, which, for the BBC of course, is apparently always when those nasty Israelis fire back.

Next, during last November’s conflict, 5LiveDrive’s Peter Allen interviewed Gil Hoffman of the Jerusalem Post, making the accusation that ‘Israel always wreaks its revenge’’ and adding ‘it does it all the time!’ When I challenged this, the BBC informed me that this was OK because Allen was playing ’devil’s advocate’. Strangely, he didn’t do the same to his Palestinian interviewee on the same programme. It is amusing to peruse Allen’s interviewing tips in the BBC’s Style Guide for conducting an interview: ‘The interviewer should be well briefed, good humoured but firm, and never bad tempered’. (unless he’s interviewing an Israeli). OK; so I added that last bit myself

Newsnight conducted an interview with Jonathan Sacerdoti last November. On the screen behind him a video was running, showing a man with beige jacket who purportedly had been injured in an IDF airstrike on Gaza. Moments later, ‘beige jacket man’ was seen running around totally (and miraculously!) healed. To all but the BBC, this was most likely the work of ‘Pallywood’: the well-oiled Palestinian propaganda machine which provides a constant stream of photoshopped ‘victim’ imagery to an acquiescent main stream media. The phenomenon is well documented through sites like HonestReporting. Again, the BBC denied this, advising it was probably an ‘innocent’ editing error, and ‘difficult to see how it might have significantly misled the audience on a material point’. So it’s OK to show fabricated video footage and this has no impact on the viewer’s perception. Why bother showing it then ?

How about the Today programme’s John Humphreys ? Last month he interviewed Jack Straw and Dore Gold about the Iranian elections. Straw made the offensive and inflammatory statement that ‘Israel is stealing Palestinian land’. According to the BBC’s own live reporting guidelines, Humphreys, as interviewer, should then have acted to ‘intervene, challenge the comments where appropriate and/or distance the BBC from the comments’. He did not, and appeared to side with Straw against Gold. By now you should be able to guess the BBC’s response to my complaint on that issue. Go to the top of the class if you thought that the BBC advised ‘it simply wouldn’t be possible for a presenter to challenge every point made by a guest’ – despite its own guidelines to the contrary.

I could go on, but you probably get the point by now. Bear in mind that when one complains to the BBC, one must abide by their rules and procedure. Step 1 is a phone call or an entry via their Complaints website. Within four weeks (if they haven’t lost it) you will get a superficial response from a junior member of staff advising how the BBC cannot possibly be at fault, but will be assured that ‘we’ve registered your complaint on our audience log…(which) is available for viewing by all our staff. This includes all programme makers and presenters, along with our senior management. It ensures that your points, along with all other comments we receive, are circulated and considered across the BBC’. You can now relax, knowing that all these sincere, interested BBC people are pouring over your concerns and reflecting on their own self-justifying explanation. They will then do absolutely nothing. But never mind, the BBC has thanked you for ‘taking the time to get in touch’.

Assuming you aren’t happy with this treatment, step 2 is to call or write back via the Complaints website to explain why. Within seconds (sometimes) or not at all (often) the BBC’s computer sends you a ‘personal’ message to advise ‘we are sorry that you were not satisfied with our earlier response to your complaint and appreciate that you felt strongly enough to contact us again about the matter’. Eventually, maybe six weeks later (or longer) you’ll be told again you were mistaken, the BBC is right (as always) but never mind, because ‘we’ve registered your further comments on our audience log, made available to BBC staff across the Corporation’. Again.

By the way, should you give up after either stage, the BBC will interpret your action as being satisfied with their response. ‘Smug face’ for all concerned. Are you losing the will to live yet ?

Well done. You have just completed what is known as ‘Stage 1’. No grown-up in the BBC has yet seen your complaint, but hey, it has killed off at the very least a couple of months. They can now add you to their highly sanitised statistics of ‘satisfied’ customers which are hidden away in an obscure part of their website, and rolled out at Licence Fee Review time to gullible MPs. But, (fanfare of trumpets) you now will be given ‘permission’ to progress to Stage 2 and complain to the ‘independent’ BBC Editorial Complaints Unit, which, actually (unlike the more efficient Press Complaints Commission) is not independent. Months later, you will then receive another brush–off dressed up as a response on a formal BBC letterhead, explaining in a patronising tone how the BBC is right yet again. Finally, you are given ‘permission’ to appeal to the BBC Trust.

Back to my story though: being a good soldier, I didn’t give up, but tried another tack. The BBC’s complaints system is stacked against you, the individual. Its mix of bureaucracy, inefficiency, bias, groupthink and disdain for the Licence Fee payer creates an impenetrable barrier, and seems designed to off-put. So I thought why not bypass it and use a Freedom of Information request ? Backed by legislation, it surely couldn’t fail, particularly if I made it a generic and innocuous question on overall complaints:

●     how many complaints were made to the BBC over the last 5 years on a year by year basis

●     how many complaints were upheld (i.e. the BBC makes a correction) on a year by year basis

●     how many complaints were rejected by the BBC (i.e. no corrective action taken)

A (surprisingly) short time later, I got a six page response from the BBC’s Marketing and Audiences Business Manager, advising that as the information related to ‘information about editorial complaints … held for the purposes of journalism, art or literature’, so I could go and whistle. This, by the way, was the precise reason that Balen has never been published. ‘Journalism, art and literature’ seems a wonderfully broad brush for the BBC to paint over inconvenient truths. Next, I wrote to the head of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten, via my MP, but got the brush off again. Patten noted my ‘disappointment’, but regretted that due to his position as Chairman ‘it would not be appropriate for him to respond’. So another letter went out to the new DG, Tony Hall. A new brush sweeps clean, as they say, and I guessed that post-Savile (et al) he might be amenable. His answer (and I paraphrase) was ‘get lost, I’m not going to tell you’. ‘But you can appeal to the Information Commissioner’, so I have.

If you think I’m being hard on the BBC, that’s because I am. I have given them every chance over a wide range of examples of bias, and am tired of being blanked and taken for a fool. But it’s my Licence Fee, my BBC. It’s yours too. It does not belong to them but to the great British public. And we want it back. Now please.

A good first step would be the introduction of a truly independent and transparent complaints procedure. Not too much to ask is it ?