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Handling Major Complaints by the BBC

Israeli-Palestinian Impartiality Review                                          20 November 2005
BBC Governance Unit
Room 211, 35 Marylebone High Street
London, W1U 4AA                                                                            By Air Mail and e-mail

Dear Sirs,

      Sub: Take-A-Pen's Submission II:

Handling Major Complaints by the BBC


 We, Take-A-Pen, are a volunteer international and multilingual organisation, or rather an internet network, founded in 2000. Our purpose and that of our readers around the world is to counter with truth the widespread inaccuracies, misinformation and anti-Israel propaganda about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

 This Submission II relates to the impartiality aspect of BBC procedures and practice for Handling Major Complaints. We believe that an open and fair complaint handling procedure is an essential tool for maintaining impartiality.

 We use as a case study the handling of our major complaint addressed to Director of BBC News Ms Helen Boaden on August 2005. And how by next mail I received legal threats signed by the BBC Litigation Department.  That Take-A-Pen complaint in August was an earlier version of our Submission-I to your select review Panel, regarding the BBC News' false and libellous coverage of the battle of Jenin.  However here we do not deal with the content of that complaint but focus on the complaint handling procedures of the BBC.

 1/ Take-A-Pen's general impression on the BBC's Complaints Procedure

 We have been in intensive communication for years with more than one hundred active viewers, listeners and readers of the BBC News.  The widespread view among this group during the last decade except for the last year was that there was no use submitting complaints to the BBC. Most complaints then were not answered or received flat negative responses.

 Even the extremely well-researched and most prestigious BBCWatch Reports http://www.bbcwatch.news/ received lengthy denials only as responses from the BBC, signed by News Director then, Mr Richard Sambrook. Beyond the commonplace that 'even the BBC make mistakes sometimes' he never admitted to any one mistake deserving correction. As the BBCWatch Report IV put it in 2004:  '...we are still waiting for the BBC's first formal and public acceptance and correction of any of its mistakes we have found  ...'

On a humorous note about the BBC's previous standard disregard of complaints; when I received the first legal threat to me from the BBC, my media-watch friends 'congratulated' to me as being one of the few to whom the BBC related.

  In the last year or a bit earlier however our BBC watching community noted and started to spread the news that there had been an improvement in the BBC's complaints handling. Complaints on minor technical errors have been more readily corrected - although not necessarily fully and practically still never by publicly admitting the error or apologising to those hurt by the error. Anyway, it was an improvement.

The appointment of Mr Malcolm Balen as kind of Complaints Officer seemed to be a step in the right direction. It brought to more corrections and also some fair and human responses to complaints which had been practically missing from the BBC News' complaint-handling repertoire for several years. 

 However this small step had its obvious limitations too. Mr Balen has not operated as an empowered Ombudsman but rather as a solitary watchman. In such a huge corporation one man or a small unit which is part of the operation hierarchy and not independent of it can not do very much to implementing the due results of the complaints of millions of consumers.

Errors in articles of the BBC News internet edition were now more easily corrected and acknowledged privately and politely by Mr Balen. But the mistakes were still not admitted publicly.  And admitting mistakes is an essential aspect of the transparency BBC demands from other public services.

 In summary, there has recently been an improvement in handling minor complaints on current matters, but there is still a long way to go.

 2/ Handling major complaints

 As stated, major complaints were previously totally doomed to failure.

But even after the recent improvement, the limitations of the present hierarchy-dependent complaint handling procedure became apparent very soon regarding major complaints. We consider as major complaints those which relate to BBC policy, to ethical or strategic issues; or directly or indirectly criticise senior managers, i.e. senior ones to the 'watchman'.  

 The rationale behind the BBC's refusal to deal with major complaints was as if conceptual issues can not be objectively measured and only complaints on concrete and exact single events can be objectively examined. 

Thus, from a practical point of view there has not existed a channel for major complaints!

 3/ A Case Study: Handling our complaint on the BBC's coverage of the Jenin Battle

 Our earlier Submission I to the Select Panel describes our complaint on the BBC's coverage of the Jenin battle; how the BBC spread the false and libellous story and 'data' on an Israeli 'massacre' that never was.

In August this year we tried to submit this issue to the BBC as a formal complaint.  In  the present Submission II we shall not relate at all to the content, the rightness or wrongness of that Jenin complaint. We'd like to use it as a case study only to illustrate how the BBC handles major complaints.  This may result in useful conclusions.

 Early this year I wrote to the Chairman of the BBC Board of Governors Mr Michael Grade several letters about complaints of strategic weight.  His responses convinced me that the present Board of Governors was firmly committed to the principle of impartiality.  However he did not relate to my specific complaints. He explained to me that the Board of Governors could not handle individual complaints and that formal complaints must be submitted to BBC managers directly responsible for the field in question or to the formal complaint channels.

So, as he suggested, on August 9, notwithstanding my reservations about the effectiveness of such a step, I sent our complaint about the BBC's Jenin coverage to Director of News Ms Helen Boaden and to BBC's complaints officer(?), Mr Malcolm Balen.  It  was a clearly defined complaint about the BBC's false coverage of the 'Jenin massacre' ( though I admit that I complicated it by  including another general complaint in the same letter).

The final result of my complaint was - legal threats to me personally and a wholesale denial, supported by no facts whatever.  First I received a polite reply from Ms Boaden asking me for time to prepare a proper answer. Time being duely given the 'proper' answer arrived on 30 August - signed by the BBC Litigation Department and containing legal threats.  Amongst these threats were demands that I remove a whole web article from our site, without any factual rebuttal of the facts we had presented.  A rather peculiar way of handling complaints, one may think.

 Two days later Ms Boaden's reply also arrived. She dismissed (quote) "every word you have written", praised the BBC high principles and practice, with self-confidence but without any facts and figures opposing my data. On one item she briefly echoed the litigation people. To my main complaint regarding Jenin Ms Boaden stated (quote): "The BBC did not claim there was a massacre at Jenin, and it took great care to establish casualty figures before broadcasting them".

In one single Google search with the words "Jenin", "BBC", "Israel", "massacre", "2002"  I had found 57000 items, thousands of them closely relevant to our complaint.  How is it possible that News Director Ms Boaden and the thousand professionals in BBC News did not do such a simple Google search or learn of a few of the 57000 items in any other way?

I would willingly have shown to Ms Boaden hundreds of examples of how BBC spread the false story of 'massacre', but I was not allowed to do so.  Ms Boaden's closing paragraph declared that "I see no point in continuing a correspondence with you (i.e. me) in relation to this complaint".  I had to understand that my audience was over - before it started.

 Mr Balen never responded to my letter. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that it was Ms Boaden who took over from Mr Balen the task of independent inspector of her own case.

 4. Conclusions

 (1) In the handling of minor complaints on current matters there has recently been a visible improvement in the BBC, although there is still a long way to go.  

However, complaints on major or sensitive matters like policy, or criticism of senior management, still can not be handled properly by complaint officials who are not independent of the same senior management.

 (2) The case study we presented in Chapter 3 and similar unfair ways of handling by some officials in the BBC of major complaints made by the public, as I know from first-hand experience as well as from friends, are proof that the present complaint procedure of the BBC is inadequate. 

 (3) We think the complaint procedure would deserve itself an investigation.  Such an investigation would probably justify thorough changes in the BBC News' complaint handling procedures. An open and fair complaint handling procedure is an essential tool for maintaining impartiality.

 (4) Personally I believe that major complaints - i.e. more than strictly technical ones - can only be handled in a transparent way by a properly designated body which is independent from the operational management that is being criticised. This body must report directly to the Board of Governors.


Endre Mozes
Chairman, Take-A-Pen

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