Wednesday, 27 May 2009

An open letter to the BBC Complaints Department

Last week Guy Aitchison of openDemocracy and Defend Peaceful Protest and I published a letter of complaint we sent to the BBC concerning the coverage by BBC News of the policing of the G20 protests. We sent the letter on Thursday, May 21, and received a reply by Philip Boyce of the BBC's Complaints Department the following day. Philip Boyce's reply to our original letter is included at the bottom of this post.

We do not think the reply adequately addresses the complaints set out in our original letter. Some of the specific complaints we made are ignored. Therefore, we have written again to the BBC requesting answers to very specific questions about BBC News' reporting of the events. Because we think this correspondence raises important issues about the quality of BBC journalism we are, once again, publishing our letter simultaneously here at Next Left and at OurKingdom.

Open letter to the BBC Complaints Department

Dear Philip Boyce,

in our letter of Thursday May 21 we set out a number of complaints about the BBC News' coverage of the policing of the G20 protests.

We are writing again in response to your reply of Friday May 22.

In your reply, you failed to address (either at all or adequately) a number of complaints made in our original letter. We therefore feel obliged to ask you again to consider these complaints. As with our original letter, we will publish this letter on two websites, that of openDemocracy and Next Left (affiliated with the Fabian Society) so that the wider public is able to judge the adequacy and seriousness of your response.

We appreciate that you are probably busy with many complaints, so we will restate the complaints you have not addressed (or addressed adequately) as briefly as possible.

We will ask you some direct questions relating to these complaints to which we would appreciate direct answers.

(1) Grossly inaccurate article on kettling. In our original letter, we explained in detail why an article by Julian Joyce on the issues surrounding so-called kettling posted on the BBC News website on April 16 was factually incorrect on the most elementary question of what kettling is.

We pointed out that it is the duty of the BBC to get information on a debate of such basic importance to our civil liberties accurate, and to quickly correct any mistakes.

Your response of May 22 completely ignores this specific complaint.

So, we would ask you to answer the following question: Do you accept that the article in question was inaccurate and therefore misleading, and that the BBC failed in its duty to properly inform public debate by publishing this article and, in addition, by failing to publish a correction?

(2) Lack of investigative impetus. Our original letter raised a complaint specifically about the alleged initial disinterest of the BBC Newsroom in the breaking news around police involvement in the death of Ian Tomlinson.

You have ignored this complaint.

So, we would ask you: Is the allegation true? If so, do you accept that this was a grave error of judgment, reflecting a very distorted sense of priorities in the BBC Newsroom?

(3) Inaccurate and misleading reportage of the Climate Camp. In our original letter, we complained that the BBC News reporting failed sufficiently to distinguish the Climate Camp from other events at the G20 protests and, in consequence, failed to acknowledge any distinctive issues about policing which the kettling of the Climate Camp raises.

Your response of May 22 ignores this complaint.

Your response does point out that the BBC News did include one report on the Climate Camp on April 1. However, our complaint was not merely about the failure to mention the Climate Camp, but the failure to distinguish it, and the issues raised by its policing, from other events at the protests.

As we pointed out in our letter, the report on the evening of April 19 which discussed the Camp included the footage of the smashing of windows at RBS, encouraging the viewer to associate one with the other, creating a false impression that the Climate Camp was a somewhat violent event.

So, we ask: Do you accept that the BBC News failed to distinguish the Climate Camp from the other events at the G20 protests, in particular to indicate clearly its peaceful intent and character?

Do you accept that use of the window-smashing footage at RBS in the context of a report about the Climate Camp - without any explanation that one event was unrelated to the other - could have created a false impression that the Camp was not a peaceful event?

(4) Further on lack of investigative impetus. Aside from the complaints about the alleged initial treatment of breaking news about the circumstances of Ian Tomlinson's death (covered in (2) above), our original letter made a broader complaint about a lack of investigative impetus on the issues surrounding G20 policing.

We do not think that your response of May 22 adequately addresses this complaint.

You do point out that many BBC reporters were active around the G20 protests on the day. You also refer, and we are grateful for it, to the report by Daniel Boettcher on the police action to clear the Climate Camp on the night of April 1.

However, it remains the case that the major stories concerning police violence were not broken by BBC News. It is also the case that there have been many such stories. So if the BBC News had lots of reporters on the ground, they do not seem to have done a very good investigative job.

So we ask: Given that the BBC News had so many reporters on the ground, why did the BBC News play so little role in breaking any of the major revelations about police violence which emerged in the days and weeks after April 1? Does this not constitute a failure to carry out real investigative journalism?

These are straightforward questions. We expect equally straightforward answers.

We await your reply with interest, and we very much hope that given the time and effort we have put into detailing our complaints, on what is surely a serious constitutional issue, you will give our complaints more thorough consideration than the first time round.

Yours sincerely,

Guy Aitchison, openDemocracy
Stuart White, Jesus College, Oxford

Letter from Philip Boyce, BBC Complaints Department

Thank you for your e-mail regarding our coverage of police tactics at the G20 protests.

I understand you felt we didn't sufficiently cover the tactics deployed by the police on the days in question and that you feel this amounted to poor reporting.

The G20 was a challenging story to cover as there were so many issues surrounding the event. There was the conference itself, the receptions at Downing Street and Buckingham Palace, the various protests taking place in the City and of course the death of Ian Tomlinson.

Daniel Boettcher was live in Bishopsgate as police moved in to disperse the Climate Camp protestors later on in the evening. The News Channel showed live pictures and Daniel described the scenes as he witnessed them. He pointed out that the protestors had been sitting on the ground as the police dragged them away and we have reported on the criticism of the tactics used by police at the Camp on the BBC News website.

The website also had the live text and map pages featuring messages, pictures and video from BBC reporters, producers and correspondents, and from the public relaying events as they unfolded all over London.

More recently, we have reported on the wider concerns about the tactics used by police during the protests. For example, the video footage of Ian Tomlinson's contact with police prior to his death has featured heavily on BBC News, as has the footage of Nicola Fisher.

In closing, I'd like to further assure you that your comments regarding our G20 coverage have been registered on our audience log, an internal report of audience feedback which we compile daily and is available for viewing by all our staff. This includes all our journalists, news editors, commissioning executives and also their senior management. It ensures your points, along with all other comments we receive, are circulated and considered across the BBC.

Thanks again for taking the time to contact us.


Philip Boyce
BBC Complaints


Sunder Katwala said...


I suggest you might also send the correspondence to the
Newswatch programme, who might be interested in featuring a discussion on it. (I don't know how much they might have already done around g20 protests/policing, but otherwise it seems potentially a good issue for them

Wyrdtimes said...

Join the club. The BBC routinely ignore complaints and when they do address them replies nearly always fall into the category of "fob off".

The BBC has its own agenda. today's buried bad news is this story.

Stuart White said...

Thanks for the Newswatch suggestion, Sunder. We might well explore that.

While I'm here again I should point out that the letters Guy and I have sent are specifically addressed to what we see as shortcomings of BBC News, rather to the BBC as a whole. The issue of kettling has featured on one of Clive Anderson's radio programs (thanks to Rachael for the link) and I gather that Panorama are preparing a program on the issue.

AndyM12 said...

Thanks for this Stuart. The good news is that thanks in part to the pressure applied on them through public criticism some parts of the BBC (the panorama team at least!) are now much more switched on to the more sinister aspects of the G20 policing.

A BBC researcher was at the MPA meeting today. They'll be covering the issue of G20 policing on Panorama in the near future. Also good to see they are doing a three part series on the surveillance state the second part of which is being broadcast next monday I think.

With regards to the future. An interesting point was raised in a recent meeting I had for the need for both protest groups and concerned citizens such as ourselves be prepared at future demonstrations of this magnitude for both the police spin and that parts of the media who will just pick up police press releases as undisputed fact.

Without scrutiny and pressure, unfortunately it appears we can rely on neither the police nor the mainstream media to do their jobs properly...


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