Is the BBC's Complaints Process Up to the Job?
Social media is full of angry moans about BBC partiality. The vast majority of them are ill-informed, ill-judged and irrational. Some are aggressive, rude or simply silly.
There is, therefore, a heightened need for the BBC's complaints processes to be operating perfectly. The BBC should be able to say: "we do our best - and our complaints process highlights accurately and fairly those rare occasions when we err". Every broadcaster will make errors, not least one with the huge volume of content the BBC originates, including much live material. As I have said to many people who use a lone upheld BBC complaint as evidence of their wild assertion, an upheld complaint shows a process is working, not the contrary.
This latest incident regarding the complaint about BBC breakfast raises real concerns, however, on process. Putting to one side the material itself, which now, rightly, has been judged in order, are there general questions to be asked. Under the BBC Charter, the Corporation must provide “transparent, accessible, effective, timely and proportionate methods” of making sure that the BBC is meeting its obligations and fixing problems.
The BBC receives around 220,000 complaints a year about all aspects of its operations (which stretch beyond editorial). As a former regulator, that figure does not surprise me (annual report 2018/2019).
The BBC Board is responsible for the oversight of the complaints framework and procedures. According to the ‘Complaints Framework and Procedures’ document, the Board “will be routinely briefed about the performance of the complaints framework and any serious editorial breaches”.
The Director General of the BBC is on the BBC Board. I deduce from the above process, therefore, that he would have been briefed about the BBC breakfast incident and verdict before publication, given the seriousness the BBC rightly attaches to impartiality matters and the self-evident sensitivity of this matter. If, per chance, he was not , then that is alarming too. There were but four upheld complaints defined as 'serious' last year, so the duty is not onerous.
Lord Hall is now reported to have said he "personally" reviewed the decision of the complaints unit some days after publication - so reversing a decision made by the BBC Executive Complaints Unit, which presumably he had already been briefed on.
Whilst I fully agree with the outcome on this occasion, is it not puzzling that Lord Hall can personally review the outcome of a complaint adjudication. Is this not thoroughly dangerous territory. There appears no provision for this within the published process.
If the DG, the executive manager of the operation being complained about, can single-handedly reverse complaint adjudications, then process integrity is undermined. I trust Lord Hall – but believe me, had I been able to reverse the outcome of upheld complaints about my commercial radio stations, I would have changed them all.
Is the broader issue the new BBC structure - now existing without the insulation of the BBC Trust. The Trust - distinct from the BBC - acted as the final stage of the BBC complaints process, hearing complaints on appeal, via the Editorial Standards Committee (ESC) or the Complaints and Appeals Board (CAB). In the absence of the Trust now, do we presume the DG just gives it the once over? Where does the Chairman sit in matters such as this?
Ofcom can offer recourse for complainants dissatisfied with BBC verdicts, but that avenue ill-suits these circumstances from Naga Munchetty’ s perspective. Whilst the original complainant can now refer the issue to Ofcom for their verdict (which could be different again), a ‘not guilty’ Ofcom adjudication would not have changed a BBC 'guilty' adjudication. The BBC rightly ices the Ofcom compliance requirements with a further tier of its particular Editorial guidelines. These reflect the demands of the BBC Charter – and the general context, nature and expectations of BBC output.
This incident has raised questions for many about who makes the decisions on complaints; and do those individuals reflect today’s society. I am sure that area will rightly be examined. The issue also raises questions about commonsense. From my perspective, I would add a real concern about the process overall– amidst the general new BBC structure.
The BBC is facing scrutiny like never before, and I have high regard for the vast majority of its staff who are trying to do the best they possibly can in the most challenging circumstances – and make the content engaging and interesting. Often, they feel alone and exposed; and the BBC could do more to explain itself and its processes. I suspect they’d like the DG to present his case more often.
The BBC needs fitting corporate governance - and deserves clear leadership and strong process. Never has this been more important.
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