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BBC Trust Rejects Appeals

November 6th, 2014 · No Comments

Also see:
BBC Complaint on Student Complaints!
BBC Served with Freedom of Information request
BBC Refuses FOI Request!
BBC Trust – Review of Appeals

BBC Breakfast – 3 June 2014 and BBC News Online article: University complaints by students top 20,000

Thank you for writing to the BBC Trust about BBC News Channel’s Breakfast, and also about the decision by Audience Services not to respond further to your complaint about a BBC News Online article on the same issue. I am very sorry that you were unhappy about these elements of BBC output and I’m sorry too that you feel the BBC has not given you a proper response to your complaints.

I think you already have a good idea of how the complaints system works, but if you want to find out more – and in particular about how the BBC Trust fits in – this is the web link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/governance/complaints_framework/

The Trust is the last stage of the complaints process and everyone who works within the Trust Unit is outside the day-to-day operations of the BBC. We review the complaints that come to us to assess whether they should be put before the BBC’s Trustees for them to reach a final decision.

I should explain that the Trust does not take every appeal that comes to it. In deciding which ones should be considered by the Trustees, we look at the merits of the complaint and only ones that stand a reasonable chance of success are passed to Trustees. The Trust acts in the interests of all licence fee payers and it would not be proportionate to spend a good deal of time and money on cases that raise relatively minor issues and do not stand a realistic prospect of success. The link that I have given above gives more information about this.

I am sorry to send a disappointing response, but I do not believe that either of your appeals should be put in front of Trustees. The BBC’s journalists and programme-makers are expected to work to a high standard; those standards are set out in the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines1 which underpin all BBC output. I have looked at your appeals in relation to those Guidelines. This means I have assessed if the points you have raised can be judged against the standards set down in the Guidelines. I have attached a summary of your appeals as well as the reasons behind my decision with this letter. As this Annex may be drawn on when the Committee minutes are written, the writing style is formal. While I regret the impersonal feel of this, I hope you will appreciate it allows the Trust to work efficiently.

1 http://www.bbc.co.uk/guidelines/editorialguidelines/guidelines/

If you disagree with my decision and would like the Trustees to review it, please reply with your reasons by 18 November 2014 to the Complaints Advisor, at the above address or trust.editorial@bbc.co.uk. Please send your reasons by this deadline in one document if possible.

Correspondence that is received after this date may not be considered as part of your request for a review of the decision. If, exceptionally, you need more time please write giving your reasons as soon as possible.

If you do ask the Trustees to review this decision, I will place that letter as well as your original letters of appeal and this letter before Trustees. Your previous correspondence will also be available to them. They will look at that request in their December meeting. Their decision is likely to be finalised at the following meeting and will be given to you shortly afterwards.

If the Trustees agree that your case has no reasonable prospect of success then it will close. If the Trustees disagree with my decision, then your case will be given to an Independent Editorial Adviser to investigate and we will contact you with an updated time line.

Yours sincerely

Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser

Annex

BBC Breakfast – 3 June 2014 and BBC News Online article: University complaints by students top 20,000

The Trust’s Editorial Appeals procedure states that:

The Trust will only consider an appeal if it raises “a matter of substance”.2 This will ordinarily mean that in the opinion of the Trust there is a reasonable prospect that the appeal will be upheld as amounting to a breach of the Editorial Guidelines. In deciding whether an appeal raises a matter of substance, the Trust may consider (in fairness to the interests of all licence fee payers in general) whether it is appropriate, proportionate and cost-effective to consider the appeal.3

2 Under the Charter and Agreement, the Trust has a role as final arbiter in appropriate cases, and must provide a right of appeal in cases that raise a matter of substance.

3 For example, if an appeal raises a relatively minor issue that would be complicated, time-consuming or expensive to resolve, the Trust may decide that the appeal does not raise a matter of substance, and decline to consider it.

Complaint 1:

The complainant raised his concerns about a news report on BBC Breakfast on 3 June 2014 which he believed was misleading. The report focused on a steep rise in the number of student complaints following the introduction of higher fees. The report related to data obtained by the BBC under a Freedom of Information request and reported that, of the institutions that responded, students had lodged more than 20,000 complaints and appeals in the previous year.

In particular, the complainant considered the two interviewees who took part in a live discussion were inappropriate guests. The two contributors were Simon Renton, the outgoing president of the University and College Union and Dan Lever, the founder of Student Hut – an online site which carries reviews of university modules as well as other information including student offers, information about jobs and jokes.

The complainant considered that UCU was: “…a trade union which serves its

Members” and that Student Hut relied on the “goodwill from universities to attract visitor numbers to their website to sell advertising”. He considered the website contained sanitised reviews from students and that they were more concerned to submit funny stories and jokes. He stated:

“They respectively gave false impressions that concentrated on administrative issues and transparency. Serious matters of maladministration and retribution for complaining were excluded, and therefore misleading.

“Such a controversial subject should have included a wide range of significant views and perspectives and given due weight and prominence. The story should have included a warning that making a complaint can seriously damage your career and health, the false impressions given are disconnected from reality and can only do harm to those who have already suffered.

The complaint went to Stage 2 and was investigated by the Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU). The ECU did not uphold the complaint.

The ECU found that in terms of the limited scope of the report, the discussion was duly accurate and appropriately balanced. The ECU acknowledged that the debate could have been widened to cover other aspects, such as those mentioned by the complainant, but explained that the programme-makers were entitled to limit the scope of the discussion as long as it was duly accurate and appropriately balanced.

The ECU considered that the debate reflected an appropriate range of views and would have met the reasonable expectations of the audience.

Complaint 2:

The complainant made a separate Stage 1 complaint on 2 September 2014 about a BBC News Online article into the same story. It had originally been published on 3 June 2014 – the same day as the BBC News Channel report and also looked at the large rise in the number of student complaints. It stated: “More than 20,000 students complained to their universities last year, a Freedom of Information request by the BBC has shown.” The complainant was not happy with the figure of 20,000 being headlined; he said the true number of complaints was higher because the figure of 20,000 did not cover all student complaints, but only related to “issues such as changes to courses, changes to lecturers, standards of teaching etc.”

He therefore felt the online report was misleading, just as the BBC News Channel report of 3 June 2014 was misleading, because it gave the impression that it covered all complaints which was factually incorrect.

BBC Audience Services declined to investigate the complaint concerning the article:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-27640303 Headline: University complaints by students top 20,000 because it was submitted beyond the BBC Complaints Framework time limit of 30 working days from publication. The article was published online on 3 June 2014 and the complaint was submitted on 2 September.

Appeals

The complainant submitted two appeals on 16 September 2014 to the BBC Trust, both concerning the BBC’s reporting on the issue of the increased number of student complaints since tuition fees were raised:

The first appeal concerned the Stage 2 complaint which had been investigated by the ECU about the BBC News Channel broadcast of 3 June 2014. The complainant did not feel that the ECU had properly addressed his complaint. He said that he had

“…attempted to point out that the report should have been an overview of complaints to inform and educate with the use of research instead of misleading the public with a sanitised story to avoid controversy.”

He made the following points:

  • The BBC failed to give ‘due weight’ to an ‘appropriate’ range of views and opinions and it followed that the contributors chosen to take part in the debate were unsuitable and unqualified to comment.
  • The broadcast put an emphasis on the number of 20,000 student complaints, but since making his Stage 2 complaint, the complainant said he had learned that the term ‘academic complaints’, which viewers would have perceived as being all complaints, only related to issues “such as changes to courses, changes to lecturers, standards of teaching etc.” These were a small part of the list of issues that students could complain about as specified by the independent adjudicator for higher education.
  • It was not made clear during the report that more serious issues were omitted and that the total number of complaints was much higher than presented in the report.
  • The BBC trivialised the seriousness of students as consumers.
  • He felt the BBC did not understand the role of the University and College Union in helping some of its members avoid accountability for their actions.
  • The Student Hut website had no relevance to the rise in student complaints; their representative had no authority to continually refer to the transparency and endorsement of the student complaints process.
  • He felt that if the BBC had presented an objective overview of complaints to the former Universities Minister David Willets he might have acknowledged the need for reform instead of welcoming the finding and depriving students of a chance to be heard.
  • It was not enough for the ECU to express sympathy; if it was not possible to give ‘due weight’ to an ‘appropriate’ range of views and opinions in one broadcast then it should have been done with a series of reports.

The second appeal concerned the BBC New online report: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-27640303 published on 3 June 2014.

He stated in his appeal letter of 16 September 2014:

  • “I could not have known the full facts until 1st September 2014” and he considered that the 30 day deadline should not have been applied as he had presented a good reason for the delay”. He said it was not a “normal” situation and there was no fault for the delay on his part, so he was requesting the Trust to review the decision of Audience Services not to investigate his Stage 1 complaint further.
  • He said that the way the “full facts” came to light which prompted his second complaint was through the provisional Stage 2 finding by the ECU Complaints Director who had stated in his letter of 26 August 2014:“The [studio] discussion was prompted by figures obtained by the BBC which showed that the number of complaints and appeals made by university students about academic issues (such as changes to courses, changes to lecturers, standards of teaching etc.)”
  • It being the case that the figure of 20,000 only applied to complaints about “academic issues” meant that the BBC’s reporting on the issue was even more misleading. Other issues besides the academic ones should have been included in the report because they were an integral part of the story.

Decision of the Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser

The Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser (the Adviser) carefully read the correspondence that had passed between the complainant and the BBC and she viewed the broadcast in question; she also read the online report which was the subject of the complainant’s second complaint at Stage 1. She acknowledged the strength of the complainant’s feelings about this matter but decided that neither of the appeals had a reasonable prospect of success.

Complaint regarding BBC News Channel Breakfast programme:

The Adviser noted that the complainant had raised concerns that the output was misleading and did not meet the BBC’s editorial requirements for Accuracy and Impartiality. The Editorial Guidelines can be found in full at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/guidelines/editorialguidelines, but for ease of reference, the relevant sections are copied below:

Section 3: Accuracy

3.1

The BBC is committed to achieving due accuracy. This commitment is fundamental to our reputation and the trust of audiences, which is the foundation of the BBC. It is also a requirement under the Agreement accompanying the BBC Charter.

The term ‘due’ means that the accuracy must be adequate and appropriate to the output, taking account of the subject and nature of the content, the likely audience expectation and any signposting that may influence that expectation.

Section 4: Impartiality

4.1

Impartiality lies at the heart of public service and is the core of the BBC’s commitment to its audiences. It applies to all our output and services – television, radio, online, and in our international services and commercial magazines. We must be inclusive, considering the broad perspective and ensuring the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected.

The Agreement accompanying the BBC Charter requires us to do all we can to ensure controversial subjects are treated with due impartiality in our news and other output dealing with matters of public policy or political or industrial controversy. But we go further than that, applying due impartiality to all subjects. However, its requirements will vary.

The term ‘due’ means that the impartiality must be adequate and appropriate to the output, taking account of the subject and nature of the content, the likely audience expectation and any signposting that may influence that expectation.

Practices…
4.2.5

We exercise our editorial freedom to produce content about any subject, at any point on the spectrum of debate, as long as there are good editorial reasons for doing so.

The Adviser noted that the requirement for due accuracy and impartiality was that both: must be adequate and appropriate to the output, taking account of the subject and nature of the content, the likely audience expectation and any signposting that may influence that expectation.

She noted that the story had originated from BBC Radio 4’s File on Four programme, the television report included information from the documentary. She noted that BBC Breakfast was an accessible news format for a general audience.

She noted that that day’s coverage of the story had included a pre-recorded report which included the following introduction:

Figures obtained by the BBC show students lodged more than 20,000 complaints and appeals last year.

The report included interviews with two law students who had studied at Anglia Ruskin University. They had anticipated staying at the university to complete a one year course in legal practice – but, after they had paid their deposits for the course, were informed it would only be offered at a campus that was more than 45 miles away. They raised concerns at the increased costs they would face as a result.

The report stated that he complaints figures had been found through a series of Freedom of Information requests made by the BBC. The report referred to four universities who had received the highest number of complaints. It included a comment from a spokesman from the Office of the Independent Adjudicator who noted that, as it was more difficult for students to find employment, they were more determined to get everything they could from universities and would appeal in particular against the grades they had been awarded.

The report included a comment from the Government that noted that students expected to get more from universities and that it was working to make the system more transparent.

A separate, briefer, item referred to the same complaint figures and stated that a high number of students’ complaints related to appeals against the grades they had been awarded.

In terms of the live studio debate, the Adviser noted that both guests, Dan Lever, Founder of Student Hut, and Simon Renton, representing the University and College Union, were clearly identified and she considered audiences would have understood they were speaking from their own perspectives. She considered the report and debate focused on students as ‘consumers’ and questioned whether they were receiving value for money following steep increases in tuition fees.

She noted that Dan Lever had referred to complaints that had been made on the website he had set up. He noted that 20% of students complained teaching was poor, while 29% complained about low levels of contact with teaching staff.

In response to this point, Simon Renton noted that different courses had very different methods of teaching and consequently, different levels of direct teaching time. He also noted that some students expected university to replicate the education practice of schools – when this was not the case. She noted that Mr Renton had gone on to make the further point that the data collected related to the first period when students were charged the highest fees, but that the fees had not made up the lost funding from central government and so they were receiving a university education at the time of its lowest funding level. He noted too the importance of the university sector in terms of Britain’s export market and how significant it was economically that the sector should continue to be attractive to overseas students.

The Adviser noted the comments of the ECU’s Complaints Director:

The central point of your complaint, if I have understood you correctly, was that the discussion did not address or consider aspects of complaints about universities which you believe are important. For example, you said “issues of gross misconduct and maladministration concerning student complaints should have been included as well as the failure of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) to address these matters”. I have some sympathy with your point of view and I agree that it would have given viewers a more complete understanding of the range of complaints which are made about universities and their staff if these issues had been discussed.

However, the programme did not set out to offer a comprehensive review of all complaints made about universities. The discussion was prompted by figures obtained by the BBC which showed that the number of complaints and appeals made by university students about academic issues (such as changes to courses, changes to lecturers, standards of teaching etc.) has risen significantly since the introduction of tuition fees in 2012. The programme therefore chose to debate the following question “So, a drop in standards in our universities or are students increasingly seeing themselves as consumers, making them more quick to complain?”

The Adviser considered the scope of the report would have been clear to the audience – she noted that the complainant had referred to a previous survey dating from 2009 which related to complaints about universities – however she considered it was clear that the prompt for this story was the information about the most recent level of complaints that had been made as a result of the FOI requests and which had been made by students paying the higher course fees.

She noted that both in the BBC Breakfast broadcast and the BBC News online report, the figure of 20,000 was cited as being a steep increase in the number of student complaints and that it was the large increase in complaints which was the significant starting point for both reports. Given the focus of the reporting, she did not agree with the complainant’s view that the Complaints Director’s comments that these complaints only covered “academic issues” lent weight to the complainant’s argument that the reports lacked due accuracy and due impartiality.

She noted that the Royal Charter and the accompanying Agreement between the Secretary of State and the BBC drew a distinction between the role of the BBC Trust and that of the BBC Executive Board, led by the Director-General. “The direction of the BBC’s editorial and creative output” was specifically defined in the Charter (article 38, (1) (b)) as a duty that was the responsibility of the Executive Board, and one in which the Trust did not get involved unless, for example, it related to a breach of the BBC’s editorial standards – which the Adviser did not consider was the case here.

She considered that decisions such as what to focus on in a news report and which studio guests to invite to comment on a story was a matter of “editorial and creative” judgement which rested with the BBC. She therefore did not consider this element of the appeal had a reasonable prospect of success and did not propose to put it before Trustees.

Decision of Audience Services not to respond further to the complaint about BBC News Online article: University complaints by students top 20,000

With regard to the decision by BBC Audience Services not to investigate the second complaint concerning the BBC News online article published on 3 June 2014, the Adviser noted the complainant’s comments that it was not a “normal” situation and his view that the 30 day time limit should be waived.

She noted that the Complaints Framework stated:

Stage 1a: What happens first when I make a complaint?

2.1 You should make your complaint within 30 working days of the date on which the content was broadcast or first published in a BBC owned magazine. If you write after that time, please explain why your complaint is late. Exceptionally, the BBC Executive may still decide to consider your complaint, but only if it decides there was a good reason for the delay.

She noted that the complainant regarded comments by the ECU Complaints Director in his Stage 2 finding about the BBC News Channel Breakfast complaint as supporting evidence for his second complaint about the BBC News online article.

He had stated:

The headline “University complaints by students top 20,000 – More than 20,000 students complained to their universities last year, a Freedom of Information request by the BBC has shown” gives the clear impression that it covers all complaints which is factually incorrect.

However, she noted the next paragraph of the article stated:

Responses from 120 universities across the UK revealed that total academic appeals and complaints were 10% higher in 2012-13 than in 2010-11.

She noted that Audience Services had acknowledged that the out of time complaint had “in part arisen from a clarification you had from the ECU in respect of another complaint on the same story”, but she agreed with Audience Services that it remained the case that it fell outside the scope of the complaints process which required that “you should normally complain within 30 working days of the transmission or publication.”

She did not consider that Trustees would be of the view that evidence had been presented to suggest that an exception to the time limit stipulated in the Complaints Framework should be made. She thought Trustees would therefore consider it reasonable for the BBC to say that it could not comment further on the points raised.

For these reasons the Adviser did not believe that either of the appeals had a reasonable prospect of success and she did not propose to put them before Trustees.

Tags: BBC Rejects Appeals