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BBC Complaint on Student Complaints!

October 24th, 2014 · No Comments

Also see:
BBC Served with Freedom of Information request
BBC Refuses FOI Request!
BBC Trust Rejects Appeals
BBC Trust – Review of Appeals

Complaint to BBC regarding reporting of student complaints on BBC Breakfast Programme Stage 1 to Audience Services.

Initial Complaint to the BBC 7th June 2014

Regarding ‘Breakfast’ which was broadcast on the BBC News Channel on 3 June.

Complaint Summary: Issue of student complaints factually incorrect

Full Complaint: The independent http://www.oiahe.org.uk/downloads/Final-Report-of-the-OIA-Student-Survey-with-Appendices_4.pdf gives a factual reflection of student complaints and in that respect the story broadcast on BBC Breakfast News contravened editorial guidelines as follows.

Contributors from the UCU a trade union which serves its members and the Student Hut which relies upon goodwill from universities to attract visitor numbers to their website to sell advertising, apart from sanitised reviews the main contribution from students is on funny stories and jokes.

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. Moreover, it was not made clear that these contributors have no experience or expertise on the subject and that they were expressing personal views in their own self interests with no reference to factual accuracy, but were presented as being unbiased.

The student interviewed again focussed on administrative issues. 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, a matter that the BBC needs to address.

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Initial response from the BBC Audience Services 21st June 2014

Dear Mr Mayes

Reference CAS-2745110-M7W12H

Thank you for contacting us regarding ‘Breakfast’ which was broadcast on the BBC News Channel on 3 June.

I understand you were unhappy with the report on the rise in complaints about universities and that you felt a wider range of views and perspectives should have been included in the item.

I was sorry to read of your disappointment with the piece. We are naturally very sorry when we hear that members of our audience do not like one of our reports. We try very hard to produce a wide range of high quality news and current affairs shows which we hope will appeal to our audiences.

Unfortunately it is not always possible or practical to reflect all the different opinions on a subject within individual reports of this nature. Editors are charged to ensure that over a reasonable period they reflect the range of significant views, opinions and trends in their subject area. The BBC does not seek to denigrate any view, nor to promote any view. It seeks rather to identify all significant views, and to test them rigorously and fairly on behalf of the audience. Among other evidence, audience research indicates widespread confidence in the impartiality of the BBC’s reporting.

I would like to assure you that we value your feedback. All complaints are sent to senior management and the makers of ‘Breakfast’ every morning and we included your points in this overnight report. These reports are among the most widely read sources of feedback in the BBC and ensures that your complaint has been seen by the right people quickly. This helps inform their decisions about current and future output.

Thank you once again for getting in touch.

BBC Complaints

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Complaint Stage 2 to the Editorial Complaints Unit

Complaint to the Editorial Complaints Unit BBC 28 July 2014

Complaint Reference Stage 1b: CAS-2745110-M7W12H Sent: 07 July 2014

Reply Reference: CAS-2801626-JXGY34 Dated: 23 July 2014

Re: ‘Breakfast’ BBC News Channel on 3 June report on the rise in complaints about universities.

I am dissatisfied by the response from Audience Services as they have not addressed the issues that I have raised, moreover, the answers that I have been given are out of context with my complaint and are simply a contradiction with no substance or foundation.

My complaint is that the story failed to tell the full and impartial truth on a controversial issue, there was a biased emphasis on ‘administrative’ issues which failed to include the major reason why anyone complains and that it is the way in which any organisation treats is consumers and particularly those who complain. Moreover an integral part of such a report is the effectiveness and impartiality of any complaints adjudicator. In the interests of fairness I must point out that this aspect has been the main focus in preceding and following broadcasts concerning organisations such as banks and utility service providers; however, with regard to university complaints this is how the BBC started off then seemingly acted against the public interest by excluding it along with associated experiences, opinions or challenges. The views and opinions expressed in the report were limited to a very narrow aspect of the full story and were therefore misleading.

I referred to a survey as ‘hard evidence’ in support of the points that I am raising, I have not suggested that this should have been the main focus of the story but 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. The rise in tuition fees has made universities more like ‘commercial service providers’ and students more ‘consumer’ aware with regard to value for money and has exacerbated the situation described by the research and is therefore still relevant in the absence of any other ‘evidence’ being available. Moreover, the BBC had access to a number of students who could testify to these issues as still being current; however, for reasons that it has not explained it decided to exclude them from the story.

With regard to the contributors, the University and College Union represents its members some of whom have a case to answer for the abuse of people, position and power in how they relate to students who complain, and in my opinion their overriding self interest is to help such people avoid any form of accountability for their actions. The contribution was only relevant to the concealment of what really goes on and in that respect only referred to administrative and performance issues which for the same reasons were also biased. The Student Hut website has no relevance to the rise in student complaints moreover; their representative had no authority to continually refer to the transparency and endorsement of the student complaints process.

I have to question the editorial judgement of including an organisation that represents abusers on a story concerning a rise in its victims’ complaints and the founder of a website that seems to have no expertise, knowledge or experience of what they are talking about. Under the circumstances their opinions should not have been broadcast as irrespective of the context or challenges, comments made were at best misleading and at worse offensive and damaging.

The student interviewed from Anglia Riskin University again focussed on administrative issues, the story did not include issues of intimidation, that some have been so traumatised by their experiences that they are unable to make any complaint, others were obstructed, that complaining is a perceived waste of time, evidence is concealed, they have been threatened with legal action or subject to a ‘required gagging’. In this respect the conduct of a lecturer is bad enough but further harm is done when they learn that the institution condones and conceals such behaviour to preserve their reputation, tragically in keeping with typical abuser behaviour the brightest and more mature students seem to be more of a ‘target’.

What does the real damage is the treatment students receive from the OIA which is well documented in my complaint to Audience Services. There is also the issue of the limitations of the OIA remit which needs to be addressed, if any professional makes a misjudgement then they can be held to account usually by the courts or a professional body, unfortunately this is not the case with academics and so called ‘academic judgement’ in a culture of impunity. Were any other ‘service provider’ to behave in this way then in keeping with broadcasting norms it would have been the main focus of the story instead of being excluded.

The statistics for the rise in student complaints were collected under the Freedom of Information Act. The presentation of numbers alone was misleading and do not tell the full story or how many were threatened if they complained; faced with £53,000 of debt with nothing to show for it most people would back down. However, as with the reporting of crime in a culture of openness and accessibility to a due process then there will be more complaints.

I must reiterate the point that it was irresponsible to give such misleading impressions that can only do harm by reinforcing a sense of hopelessness to those who have already suffered at the hands of their university and the OIA. Given the 50% rise in student suicides over the last five years it is a matter that the BBC needs to address with a sense of urgency and take appropriate action to put things right, by that I mean to act in the public interest and purpose in broadcasting the full and impartial truth whereby the public can make their own judgements on the need for reform.

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Provisional outcome of the Editorial Complaints Unit’s investigation 26th August 2014

Dear Mr Mayes

Breakfast, BBC News Channel, 3 June 2014

I am writing to let you know the provisional outcome of the Editorial Complaints Unit’s investigation into your complaint about a debate on the above programme. I have watched the relevant sections of the output, reviewed the relevant data which prompted the report, carried out some additional research and considered your complaint against the relevant sections of the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines1 (as set out in my letter of 4 August).

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

I do not believe there are grounds to uphold your complaint but I hope I can explain the reasons why I have reached this decision.

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 subsequent discussion between Simon Renton, the outgoing president of the University and College Union, and Dan Lever, the founder of Student Hut, considered some of the areas which had prompted students to complain and both contributors gave their view as to why they thought there had been an increase. There was no sense in which the debate purported to offer a comprehensive assessment of all types of complaints which are made or to assess which were the most significant.

The BBC’s Editorial Guidelines refer to the concept of due accuracy and due impartiality, where the word “due” means the accuracy and 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”. The scope of the discussion was limited to considering why more complaints were being lodged and so I think the content has to be judged on that basis. As I have indicated, the debate could have been widened to cover other aspects (such as those you have mentioned) but the programme-makers were entitled to limit the scope of the discussion so long as it was duly accurate and appropriately balanced.

The programme included a contribution from someone representing the view of students and someone representing university staff. That seems to me to reflect an appropriate range of views. Of course, each contributor will have their own perspective but I think it is reasonable to assume that viewers understand that those who take part in such a debate are expressing a personal view based on their own knowledge and experience and the audience will judge their contribution accordingly. There was no sense in which the contributors were presented as providing a complete or definitive range of views and it was implicit that other experts or interested parties might offer a different perspective.

In conclusion, I am sorry that you do not feel the debate gave due weight to some aspects of university complaints but I have to consider the scope of the discussion and the reasonable expectation of the audience. In my view, the debate reflected an appropriate range of views and so I do not believe there are grounds to uphold your complaint.

As I explained in my previous letter, this is a provisional finding so please let me know if there are any points you would like me to take into consideration before I finalise the outcome of my investigation. I would be grateful if you could let me have any comments by 9 September.

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Reply to Provisional outcome of the Editorial Complaints Unit’s investigation 27th August 2014

Complaints Director, Editorial Complaints Unit BBC – Ref: CT/1400297

Regarding your email dated the 26th August 2014 there are various issues that I wish you to reconsider, you state:

“The BBC’s Editorial Guidelines refer to the concept of due accuracy and due impartiality, where the word “due” means the accuracy and 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”. The scope of the discussion was limited to considering why more complaints were being lodged and so I think the content has to be judged on that basis.”

As a member of the audience my expectations are that the BBC will broadcast the full and impartial truth and limiting the scope of the discussion to “why more complaints were being lodged” is no excuse for not doing so. Moreover, the mission statement of the BBC is; to enrich people’s lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain. By failing to tell the full story the BBC failed to inform and educate to the point of the story being sanitised and in my opinion to avoid controversy which resulted in the audience being misled.

With regard to the point that you made regarding students seeing themselves as consumers, there are other BBC news reports concerning consumers that reflect accuracy and impartiality within the strict confines of a rise in the number of complaints, for example:

Payday loan middlemen complaints ‘more than double’ [1]

The Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) said it had been contacted by more than 10,000 people since January this year.

In the worst cases, consumers found hundreds of pounds ‘drained’ from their bank accounts by the websites.

“The time has come for government and the regulator to ban credit brokers from charging up-front fees,” he added.

Callers to two phone numbers previously provided by one company now hear only classical music.

However, the FOS said that the number of complaints did not reflect the real scale of the problem for consumers, as many calls to its helpline did not result in formal complaints.

Energy complaints soar, Energy Ombudsman says [2]
The government said it was unacceptable that so many people were unhappy.

“However, no one wants to see complaints rise and each complaint is taken very seriously with companies working hard and investing in resources and new systems to resolve issues as quickly as possible.

“Research has shown that this group is not shopping around for their energy, and missing out on savings of up to £200,” said Ofgem chief executive Dermot Nolan.

The comment “The government said it was unacceptable that so many people were unhappy.” contrasts with the statement “Universities Minister David Willetts welcomed the finding”[3] regarding university complaints.

This highlights the perception of students by government that has been perpetuated by the BBC where different criteria apply, universities are charity companies and subject to company law the same as any other company although there are serious differences in regulation and media reporting.

These two examples highlight elements that were absent from the report on student complaints as follows:

  • There are examples of worse cases.
  • A call to action for reform and further regulation.
  • Examples of how complainants are treated.
  • The number of complaints did not reflect the real scale of the problem.
  • That more consumers should be complaining.
  • Companies should look at the cause of complaints and put systems in place to deal with them more effectively.
  • Consumer satisfaction with regard to the way in which their complaint was dealt with.
  • There is reference to relevant research.
  • They inform and educate.
  • They tell the full story so the audience can make their own judgements.

However, none of these elements were included in the report on student complaints, they were removed and have now been designated ‘other issues’ when they are an integral part of the story.

Evidence for this is that you also state:

“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.)”

This is only a part of the remit of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education OIA[4] which was not made clear in the report or by the OIA and in any case is misleading with regard to the editorial guidelines concerning due accuracy and due impartiality as specified in your letter.

All aspects of complaints I raised come within the remit of the OIA and are an integral part of the story; moreover even with your criteria there is no mention of retribution by universities for making any sort of complaint. Therefore, I reiterate the point that in any case the contributors to the report were wholly inappropriate and offensive for the reasons I have previously described.

With regard to the research conducted by the OIA Student Satisfaction with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education[5] the audience has a right to know the immense dissatisfaction with regard to the way in which any sort of complaint is handled and the consequences of doing so could have a disastrous effect on their life prospects.

Please confirm that the questionnaire sent to universities only included the type of complaint to which you refer or is it the case that a general total of complaints were submitted in order to obtain the figures quoted? This was not clarified in the report.

Yours sincerely

Trevor Mayes

[1]  Payday loan middlemen complaints ‘more than double’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-28835558
[2]  Energy complaints soar, Energy Ombudsman says http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-28286260
[3]   University complaints by students top 20,000 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-27640303
[4]  Can the OIA look at my complaint? https://www.oiahe.org.uk/making-a-complaint-to-the-oia/can-the-oia-look-at-my-complaint-complaints-wizard.aspx
[5]  Student Satisfaction with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Educationhttp://www.oiahe.org.uk/downloads/Final-Report-of-the-OIA-Student-Survey-with-Appendices_4.pdf

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Final Outcome of the investigation by the Editorial Complaints Unit 1st September 2014

Dear Mr Mayes

Breakfast, BBC News Channel, 3 June 2014

Thank you for your letter of 27 August and your comments on my provisional finding. I am sorry that you were unhappy with the outcome of my investigation.

I have read and considered the further points you have made but I do not believe that there are grounds for me to change my finding. I accept there were other aspects of the university complaints process which could have been covered but I do not agree that the item had a duty to cover every aspect of the subject, as you appear to suggest. The BBC’s Editorial Guidelines make it clear there is a requirement to give due weight to an appropriate range of views and opinions; they do not require the representation of every argument or facet of every argument on every occasion.

I explained in my provisional finding why I believe the item achieved the appropriate due accuracy and due impartiality taking account of the subject and nature of the content and the consequent expectation of the audience. I note the comments you have made about the scope of the OIA’s remit but this item was not specifically about that organisation’s role and so there was no requirement to include the kind of analysis you have suggested.

I appreciate that you are unlikely to be persuaded by my reasoning and so I should explain that it is open to you to ask the Editorial Standards Committee of the BBC Trust to review my decision. The Trust represents the third and final stage of the BBC’s complaints process.1 Correspondence for the Committee should be addressed to Christina Roski, Complaints Advisor, BBC Trust Unit, 180 Great Portland Street, London W1W 5QZ or you can send an email to trust.editorial@bbc.co.uk. The Trust normally expects to receive an appeal within 20 working days of the date of this letter. It expects complainants to limit the details of their appeal to no more than one thousand words (although all previous correspondence in relation to the complaint will be forwarded to the Trust Unit as a matter of course). Finally, you have asked for details of the questions which were submitted to universities. It would be inappropriate for me to provide full details of the research conducted by File on Four, the programme which instigated the original Freedom of Information request to the universities, but I can confirm that the request specified the type of complaint which had been made.

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Complaint Final Stage – Appeal to BBC Trust regarding reporting of student complaints on BBC Breakfast Programme 16th September 2014

Ref:   CT/1400297 Sent 28th July 2014 received 1st September 2014

Re: ‘Breakfast’ BBC News Channel on 3 June report on the rise in complaints about universities.

Appeal to BBC Trust

Reasons for the appeal

Both BBC Audience Services and the ECU has not listened to, fully consider and hence replied to my complaint. I am NOT stating:

  • The report should have focused on one piece of research.
  • That every aspect of the student complaints process should have been considered.
  • It was specifically about the role of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education OIA.
  • Should have included the representation of every argument or facet on every occasion.

I have 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.

The broadcast put an emphasis on the headline grabbing number of 20,000 student complaints however, only after a complaint to the ECU did I discover that the term ‘academic complaints’ which viewers would perceive as being all complaints only relates to issues “such as changes to courses, changes to lecturers, standards of teaching etc” a small part of the list of issues that students are able to complain about as specified by the independent adjudicator for higher education.

The BBC failed to give ‘due weight’ to an ‘appropriate’ range of views and opinions and it follows that the contributors to the report were unsuitable and unqualified to comment.

The ECU claims “There was no sense in which the debate purported to offer a comprehensive assessment of all types of complaints which are made or to assess which were the most significant.”

So what was the debate trying to achieve, there was no sense in which the debate purported to give due weight to an appropriate range of opinions and issues in keeping with audience expectation and as required under editorial guidelines.

The BBC clearly does not comprehend or chooses not to understand that the University and College Union represents its members some of whom have a case to answer for the abuse of people, position and power in how they relate to students who complain, and in my opinion their overriding self interest is to help such people avoid any form of accountability for their actions. The Student Hut website has no relevance to the rise in student complaints moreover; their representative had no authority to continually refer to the transparency and endorsement of the student complaints process.

It was not made clear during the broadcast that more serious issues were omitted and that the total number of complaints is much higher than presented in the report. Not only is the filtering of complaints misleading but also the number of students too traumatised to be able to complain or continue their studies indicates the problem is bigger than suggested. Moreover, to have someone who represents the perpetrators as a contributor is offensive and damaging.

It has emerged during correspondence with Audience Services and the ECU that the report on student complaints with an emphasis on students as consumers has been reported differently from other consumer groups where an overview was presented and was therefore discriminatory.

The BBC trivialised the seriousness of students as consumers taking on according to the BBC an average of £53,000 worth of debt with an ineffective complaints system in place to safeguard them and their investment, more objectivity and weight has been given to stories about electricity bills.

Following on from this if the BBC had acted in the public interest and presented an objective overview of the complaints to the former Universities Minister David Willets he may have acknowledged the need for reform instead of welcoming the finding and depriving students a chance to be heard.

The BBC refuses to acknowledge the damage done to students who are victims of institutionalised abuse and have been failed by the independent adjudicator for higher education; the report instilled a sense of hopelessness. Like all victims of abuse there is a reluctance of students to come forward but then there is nowhere they can go. This sense of hopelessness was reinforced by a contributor who obviously has no knowledge or experience of student complaints talking about the transparency of a system with such a high user disapproval rating. This should have been reported together with issues of bullying and retribution for making a complaint.

All the above issues were known to the BBC it started out with an impartial portrayal of the issues involved but for reasons it has yet to explain it decided not to broadcast them and deprived students a chance to tell the full story. Expressing sympathy is not enough; 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 to comply with editorial guidelines together with a place to go for help and advice.

I am not persuaded by the reasoning of the ECU, the BBC seems unable to accept any opinion other than its own; I am left with the distinct impression that they are other issues and interests which have not been disclosed. The most important matter of substance in this appeal is that the BBC has failed to honour its Royal Charter by acting in the public interest and public purpose to tell the full and impartial truth.

Trevor Mayes

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Complaint to BBC regarding reporting of student complaints on BBC Website Stage 1 to Audience Services 2nd September 2014

Upon the discovery that the complaints questionnaire to universities was filtered a further complaint was made concerning details on the BBC’s website as follows.

Complaint to BBC via website re http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-27640303

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.

On a separate issue hence the delay in complaining the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit confirmed on 1/9/ 2014 that the figure of 20,000 student complaints only relates to issues “such as changes to courses, changes to lecturers, standards of teaching etc” from the list of issues that students are able to complain about as specified by the independent adjudicator for higher education:

“Any final decision of the university, A service provided by the university, Teaching and facilities, Student accommodation, Research supervision, Welfare, Discrimination – race, sex, disability, age, sexual orientation or religious belief, Bullying and harassment, Placements, Maladministration, Procedural irregularities, Unfair practices, Disciplinary matters, including plagiarism, Fitness to practise issues.”

The term “academic issues” does not reflect the headline and should have been clarified; it is misleading, like any other member of the public I thought it included all complaints, this should be made clear. More serious matters were excluded and that the total number is much higher which would have prompted a different response from students, the public, and government based upon being told the full story.

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Initial response from the BBC Audience Services Dated 15th September 2014

Dear Mr Mayes

Complaint reference: CAS-2903447-RGZ6F0

Thank you for your e-mail.

While I appreciate that this complaint has in part arisen from a clarification you had from the ECU in respect of another complaint on the same story, it remains the case that it falls outside the scope of our complaints process which requires that “you should normally complain within 30 working days of the transmission or publication.”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/handle-complaint/

As there was a delay of some months I will therefore be unable to comment further on the points raised within.

Complaints Adviser for BBC News website

http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/

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Appeal to BBC Trust regarding reporting of student complaints on BBC Website

Complaint reference: CAS-2903447-RGZ6F0

Appeal to BBC Trust

Reasons for the appeal

The following complaint was made on the 2nd September 2014 the day after the discovery of issues on the 1st September 2014 and the refusal to investigate was received on the 15th September 2014.

As it is appreciated that I could not have known the full facts until the 1st September 2014 then the 30 day rule should have been waived as I have presented a good reason for the delay.

While there is a link to the BBC complaints process it should have been made clear that I have a right of appeal to the Trust with regard to the decision made and the 30 day rule.

The complaints process states “you should normally complain within 30 working days of the transmission or publication.”

This is not a normal situation and I am not responsible for the delay, I therefore request the BBC Trust to review this decision and refer it back for investigation.

Tags: Complaint to BBC