Ho, ho, ho ... Have you heard the one about the BBC?
Funny, no? How about some more funny BBC jokes:
- What do you call the BBC?
- A corporation entrusted with license-payers' money to broadcast honest, reliable information which "should not distort known facts" or "present invented material as fact" (BBC policy guidelines 3.2.3).
- How many people are needed to get a programme complaint to the stage where it is supposedly attended to properly?
- 16 (4 Audience services representatives, 1 Correspondence Assistant, 4 BBC Complaints Department advisors, 2 BBC Complaints Department Managers, 1 Head of Communications and Complaints, 1 Progamme Producer, 1 Head of Science, 1 Member of Parliament and 1 Chairman of the BBC).
Now that has to be funny, surely? At least the BBC will think so, since they find hilarity where none exists. To give them their due, BBC output is often superb, especially when their programmes are scripted by trusted reporters and broadcasters of the calibre of David Attenborough. When they get it wrong, the goof inevitably involves some mind-boggling editorial decision to broadcast uninformed, loutish remarks, where the reporters are deliberately extreme, intolerant, juvenile or needlessly divisive and aggressive in the scorn they pour on others. This style of reporting is habitually defended by the BBC as flippant humour which ought to be taken by its victims as nothing more than light-hearted banter.
- What do the BBC do when they deal with a complaint regarding inaccuracy?
- Admit that the broadcast information was inaccurate, then deny that this constitutes inaccuracy, and then report the details of the complaint inaccurately.
A current example. Yesterday Ofcom reported that it is to investigate deliberately offensive remarks broadcast by the BBC from one of its favourite "sock-it-to-em-with-a-chorus-of-guffaws" reporters, Jeremy Clarkson. This follows the receipt of over 31,000 complaints concerning another of those "rip-roaringly funny" situations where something outrageous is said with a sniggering reference to the BBC's reputation for "balanced reporting". Oh how very droll for Clarkson to declare that he must bring balance to the situation "because this is the BBC" before pronouncing on the day of an emotive public sector strike:
"Frankly, I'd have them all shot! I would take them outside and execute them in front of their families. I mean, how dare they go on strike when they've got these gilt-edged pensions that are going to be guaranteed while the rest of us have to work for a living?"
The transcript cannot portray the truly offensive nature of Clarkson's sneering attitude towards public sector workers, which has to be viewed in video footage to be properly understood. Considering the flood of complaints about this, and other crass remarks Clarkson made on the same show about suicide victims (described as "extraordinarily tasteless") one might expect the BBC to be keen to demonstrate acknowledgement of public concern. Apparently not. It was reported that the corporation had promised "no formal inquisitions," since "There's only so much you can do on live TV".
Ahh. This is the problem. The same problem we had with the oafish remarks that were broadcast about astrology on Stargazing Live. And yet, the Daily Mail has reported a more self-preservational reason for the BBC's reticence. The offensive comments were not spontaneously originated by Clarkson but had been pre-planned and discussed with producers beforehand - "it has emerged producers thought it would be amusing if the Top Gear host offered an extreme view of the strike".
Clarkson himself likened the situation to that in which 40,000+ complaints were received by the BBC in response to the uncouth remarks of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand in 2008, which were supposed to be light-hearted and funny, but were actually so vile and disgusting that the BBC now precedes its online transcript of the broadcast with a warning about its potential to cause offense. In Clarkson's view this is just a similar knee-jerk reaction to a light-hearted situation involving him "making a joke about the BBC's need to be impartial" for which he believes "there isn't a case to answer". Of course, those who argue that others should be shot, cannot really complain about an avalanche of mild requests that they are merely fired. But hopefully the criticism will fall back to where it really belongs: the BBC's neglect of its duty to act responsibly, and the editorial team who encouraged Clarkson to be offensive and created the soundtrack of cackling laughter as he duly obliged in delivering the BBC's misjudged notion of light-hearted banter.
Meanwhile, in the little world of concern about the BBC's misrepresentation of astrology, I have today received confirmation of the decision made by the BBC's Editorial Standards Committee, which is to not question their own flawed judgement, and therefore not allow my complaint regarding offensively inaccurate remarks made about astrology to be forwarded for the consideration of the BBC Trust. The notification of the decision is described as "final" and a formal account of the complaint and its consequences can be found on p.89 of this official BBC report which was published online today.
From the summary it can be seen that the BBC accept that their broadcast remarks were not accurate, yet deny there is a basis for a complaint of inaccuracy. To hedge their bets they produce two conflicting justifications, the first of which is that despite the total inaccuracy of what was reported, "this was not likely to have materially misled the audience with regard to the general attitude of the scientific community towards astrology".
Now this is quite a significant remark, since the content of the descriptive comment was this:
"... only the Earth goes round in one year and comes back to the same spot. Horoscopes: that's all nonsense. We're happy to say this now, once and for all, that's all rubbish, right, astrology - because the planets are in different places at different times." (My italics)
I had asked the BBC to justify how this patently ridiculous remark could represent the general view of anyone, let alone the scientific community. In response the BBC could only produce the rather lame excuse that the comments were (wait for it ...) merely light-hearted banter, and not designed to be authoritative and reputable. The latter remark is good to hear. This was not a reputable comment but just another of those non-funny, deliberately offensive BBC "jokes" which fall flat on the ground, being devoid of genuine wit or humour, and only intended to fill their air-time with ignorant, boorish provocation.
If only the BBC had also admitted, clearly and unequivocally, that there was no factual basis or point of accuracy, whatsoever, in the remarks broadcast about astrology, that the whole thing was just a sorry attempt at a joke, this situation might have been appropriately concluded. Instead they spoilt their defence by maintaining the patently ridiculous suggestion that the broadcast remarks present the scientific view of the subject. Additionally, in a further display of their institutionalised incompetence, the BBC's Editorial Standards Committee could not even report the basic facts of the complaint accurately, continuing to claim that Dara Ó Briain jovially concluded the exchange by remarking "It's nuts, that's enough".
The exchange was actually concluded with Brian Cox agreeing with Ó Briain "In the interests of balance, because we're on the BBC [snigger]" underlined by a final pretence of authority from Ó Briain in the emphatically repeated assertion "It's nonsense, it's absolute nonsense; right."
The BBC's Editorial Standards Committee are well aware that this report of what was broadcast is incorrect and disingeniously creates a false impression of the dialogue being less consequential than it actually was. They also reported the program to be unscripted, rather than roughly scripted as the producer admitted it to be, which of course serves the defence that "There's only so much you can do on live TV"...
I was made aware of the BBC's formal response this morning and responded to it this afternoon with the following letter concerning the innacuracies of not only the broadcast remarks, but also their published report of it. If the corporation has any sense of integrity it should move swiftly to acknowledge its mistakes and act appropriately (policy 3.2.4). However, since the whole process has been treated as an exercise in moving slowly, avoiding accuracy and evading responsibility, I doubt it will produce anything more than the unfunny joke the BBC's complaint's procedure is now known to have become.
Dear [ESC Committee Secretary]
Re: the complaint on Stargazing Live
I have now read your email, PDF notice, and the online bulletin which reports your decision on this matter at (online here
- page 89 ff).
I am quite disgusted to note that - once again - the ESC has falsely reported the dialogue that formed the basis of this complaint. This is despite the acknowledged clarification given in my letter of 20 June 2011, where I identified the mistakes in the ESC's version of the transcript, pointed out how they lead towards a false impression of a comedian jovially describing the subject as "nuts", and how this imagines a different viewer impact to that actually delivered: unequivocal dismissal of an entire body of knowledge as 'nonsense', 'rubbish' 'nonsense' and 'absolute nonsense', based on a completely untrue representation of how the subject works, and presented with the stated intention of supposedly setting the facts of the matter right "once and for all".
The ESC Complaints Director, [name ommitted], in his letter of 24 June, responded to my criticism of the inaccuracies in his version of the transcript and stated that after listening to the transcript again, he accepted that the account he had used was inaccurate, as was the representation given to the viewers concerning the technical and astronomical basis of astrology, which in actuality contains no point of "nonsense", and bears no resemblance at all to any of the details broadcast in your programme. I presented the accurate version of the transcript in my request for appeal (dated 11 August), where I asked the ESC board to independently consider the details and cause of my complaint, and ensure the BBC holds to the standards required of an honest and reliable broadcaster, by acknowledging the inaccuracy and giving reassurance that such mistakes will not be repeated in future. For the ESC to respond by reference instead to its inaccurately compiled and apparently less-offensive version of the transcript in question, creates a false impression of what was broadcast in the programme and the impact it held. To then publish this false account of the transcript in its bulletin as the supposed basis of the objection raised against this program is misleading, unfair, and further cause for complaint that the BBC ignores its own policies of ensuring accuracy in its broadcast and published information.
Please inform me of what steps will be taken to correct this circulation of misinformation. I would like to remind you that the purpose of my complaint was to draw attention to the flippant disregard the BBC appears to adopt for its policies on accuracy and impartiality when it comes to the subject of astrology, to receive an admission from the BBC that needless mistakes were made in the broadcast (and the process of complaint that followed it), so that, as a complainant, I receive the reassurance I have never been given, that lessons are learned which ensure that such false and derogatory misrepresentations of astrology are not repeated in future programmes.
I would also draw your attention to another point of misrepresentation in the decision made and the published bulletin report, where (on p.90) it was stated that "The Head of Editorial Standards noted the unscripted nature of the programme". As can be noted in the BBC's letter to me of 15 April, the programme producer explained that the programme used a "rough script", which was expected to be developed through engagement in a natural conversation style of dialogue. The bulletin report made no acknowledgement of the point made on p.3 of my letter of 6 May, where I illustrated how Dara O'Briain's statement that he was speaking on behalf of the program team "We're happy to say this now, once and for all" sufficiently demonstrates that the gist of what was broadcast was not developed spontaneously without prior discussion and editorial consent. To have that point unevenly reported is irritating. To have the details of the basis of the complaint inaccurately reported is significantly misleading in making the complaint appear to concern a more trivial and light-hearted characterisation of astrology than was actually broadcast to the programme viewers. I await your suggestions on how this matter can be sufficiently and appropriately addressed.
(21 December, 2011)