The BBC and PBS: A Contrast in Complaints Procedures

What procedural process does the BBC have in place to deal with serious complaints about one of its programmes? I recently have had the opportunity to discover this from the point of view of a complainant. The background is as follows.

In April 2008 I posted an article concerning a BBC World Service radio programme that gave a completely one-sided account of the reception in Britain of a lecture by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, in which he floated the notion of some recognition within the British legal system of certain civil applications of Sharia law that are currently practised under the auspices of the Islamic Sharia Council. (Given the characteristically convoluted expression of his views, what Dr Williams was actually proposing for consideration remains somewhat obscure; indeed, he later acknowledged some “unclarity” in his remarks.)

In my article I reported that my written complaint that the item was inaccurate (by omission) in the reporting of the responses to the Archbishop’s suggestions, and biased in the way it presented the workings of Sharia courts in Britain and of Muslim experience in Britain, was rejected by the editor of the World Service programme in question, Gavin Poncia. I subsequently went to the next stage of the BBC complaints procedures, and wrote to the Editorial Complaints Unit. The Head of Editorial Complaints, Fraser Steel, investigated the matter and concluded that he didn’t feel he had grounds for upholding my complaint.

The relevant correspondence was also passed to the Executive Editor of World Service Production, Anne Tyley, who in a thoughtful response acknowledged that the item was “flawed” in certain respects, and partially agreed with some of my criticisms. However, she nevertheless felt that my strongly negative view was not justified by the programme’s contents taken as a whole.

I then proceeded to the third stage, the Editorial Standards Committee of the BBC Trust, an independent body that adjudicates on matters pertaining to the Corporation. I have been impressed by the thoroughness with which the Committee dealt with the matter. Before it met to consider my complaint I was sent a forty page dossier giving a very detailed summary, including significant quotations and the citing of submitted supporting documents, of the basic elements of my communications at all three stages, with an equivalent summary of the responses from the relevant BBC personnel. I was also invited to submit any additional material I thought would be supportive of my case.

The BBC Trust Editorial Standards Committee has now issued its detailed report (pp. 7-8, 32-44) of the proceedings, informing me that:

The Committee upheld both elements of your complaint and found that the item had breached the BBC’s guidelines on accuracy and impartiality.

There are several observations worth making on this whole process. The first is to give credit to the BBC for the opportunity it gives for complainants to submit criticisms of its programmes to which the BBC personnel concerned are obliged to reply. Most important, given the natural propensity of programme makers to defend their productions, and of their immediate superiors to support them, is that if complainants are dissatisfied with the responses at the first two stages of the procedures they have the opportunity to submit the complaint to an adjudicating body independent of the BBC management.

Nevertheless, I have to add an important caveat to this commendation of the BBC. The fact remains that both the programme makers and the Head of Editorial Complaints rejected my complaint that the item had contravened BBC editorial guidelines on impartiality and accuracy. This was in spite of the fact that the programme gave a completely uncritical portrayal of the workings of Sharia courts in Britain, totally ignoring widely publicised concerns such as those of the Government advisor on Muslim women, Shaista Gohir, who

Although Islam gives women numerous Islamic rights, many Muslim women would fear discrimination due to patriarchal and cultural reasons. Muslims, particularly women, may be pressurised by families and communities into using Sharia courts.

It is notable that the presenter’s abnegation of his role of questioning the two Muslim interviewees on these well-known concerns about Sharia court practice in Britain was of a piece with the introductory report that also avoided all mention of them. It is unsurprising that on this section of the programme the BBC Trust Committee noted the failure to indicate that “there were other relevant viewpoints to the ones expressed in the programme”, and concluded that “the item had not met the impartiality guidelines”.

Again, the programme producers evidently saw no serious breach of editorial guidelines in the fact that the Religious Affairs Correspondent, Frances Harrison, portrayed the situation for Muslims in Britain in an unrelentingly negative light. Apart from the obligatory allusion to widespread “Islamophobia”, listeners were told that “the Muslim communities in Britain, the Muslims I’ve talked to, feel a great sense of alienation”, experience a diminution of their freedom, and are supposedly faced with a pervasive attitude of “this idea that if you’re a Muslim, if you wear a headscarf you’re a terrorist”. Given the heightened emotions among more extreme Muslims in the political climate of recent years, presenting such a one-sided view of the supposed plight of Muslims in Britain to a World Service audience verges on the irresponsible.

The BBC Trust Committee noted in regard to this part of Frances Harrison’s contribution “that additional context was needed and that the description was not sufficiently nuanced so as to present an appropriately accurate and balance picture of the position of Muslims in Britain”, concluding that “the item had breached the impartiality and accuracy guidelines”.

How does one account for the current affairs section of the BBC World Service broadcasting a programme item so deficient in the above respects? I can only hazard a guess that there is a pervasive mindset among the programme makers such that on a controversial topic relating to British Muslims, overwhelmingly comprising an ethnic minority, they feel some kind of obligation to present a viewpoint that makes no concessions to the less palatable views to be found among the general population.

Even so, this hardly explains the uncritical portrayal of the workings of current Sharia courts, and the one-sidedly bleak picture of the Muslim experience, which suggests a propensity to portray this aspect of British life in as dark a colour as they reasonably could, complemented by an unquestioning acceptance of selectively sought Muslim viewpoints. Conceivably this is perceived as their demonstrating to a World Service audience a non-partisan “objectivity” in dealing with controversial social and political affairs. It’s as if they are so intent on producing a “warts and all” portrait of the situation for Muslims in the UK that they end up bending over backwards and presenting nothing but purported warts. It’s difficult to avoid the suspicion that there are certain bien pensant viewpoints prevalent among many BBC personnel that are taken as a given so that the team involved with a programme item such as the one in question engage in what might almost be described as a wilfully partial presentation of the issues.

Unfortunately there is no obligation on the BBC to publicise successful complaints against any of their programmes on the BBC website, nor for there to be any broadcast statement of the findings of the Trust Editorial Standards Committee. This means that only a miniscule proportion of the World Service listeners who heard the item in question will learn that it contravened BBC guidelines on accuracy and impartiality.

This brings me to the US Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), and the very different way this organisation deals with serious complaints. In a previous article I reported on my complaint to the PBS Ombudsman concerning the blatant contraventions of their Editorial Standards policies in their co-produced documentary “Einstein’s Wife” and the accompanying website and school lesson plans. The three Einstein specialists who were interviewed for the film have testified
that immediately after the film was broadcast in 2003 they wrote to the writer/producer Geraldine Hilton and to PBS protesting about “the distasteful manipulation of facts” and “entirely false claims” made in the film. They report that they received no response from either party.

My detailed complaint about the film and website to the PBS Ombudsman, Michael Getler, in March 2006 was sent on by VP Oregon Public Broadcasting, David Davis, to Geraldine Hilton, who replied to the criticisms. A superbly comprehensive report of the situation at that stage was posted by Mr Getler on the Ombudsman’s webpage in December 2006. On the basis of his examination of the relevant material he concluded that there was “a factually flawed and ultimately misleading combination of film and Web presentations”, and recommended shutting down the website pending a scholarly investigation.

In the event, PBS commissioned the author and academic (journalism) Andrea Gabor to rewrite the website material. Unfortunately the book chapter on the same subject that she published in 1995 reveals
that her mode of historical research left a great deal to be desired, and this was again evident
in the revised website posted in September 2007.

I submitted my criticisms of the revised website to David Davis, who replied that he would inform me if he and his colleagues intended to take further action. I later repeated my concerns that PBS had not explicitly acknowledged its breaching editorial standards policies and had also failed to notify schoolteachers that the “Einstein’s Wife” lesson plans, available for downloading for some four years, had been withdrawn. However, Mr Davis failed to address my criticisms
of the current website
or to respond to my noting PBS’s failure to make a public acknowledgement that the film and website had contravened PBS editorial standards. Michael Getler’s final word on the matter in December 2007 was that the film and web presentation remained unsatisfactory and recommended that they should be “pulled”. PBS chose to ignore the advice of their own Ombudsman, and there the matter rests.

What is only too apparent from the above is that, unlike the BBC, PBS has no machinery for independent adjudication on complaints about its programmes. This circumstance was made more invidious in the instance in question by the fact that the senior executive dealing with the complaint, David Davis, had a conflict of interest, in that he was also an executive producer of “Einstein’s Wife”. It is surely a matter of concern that a broadcasting and educational organisation as influential as PBS should lack an adequate procedure for independent adjudication on well-documented complaints of its breaching its Editorial Standards policies on verifying the accuracy of a broadcast production and associated website material. PBS have only themselves to blame if commentators conclude that their programme makers can ignore these policies with impunity.

Allen Esterson’s website is here.

Posted February 4 2009

Comments are closed.