BBC BLOGS - The Editors

The harassment of BBC Persian journalists

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Mark Thompson Mark Thompson | 12:05 UK time, Friday, 3 February 2012

For those working for the BBC Persian service, interference and harassment from the Iranian authorities has become a challenging fact of life.

I am hugely proud of how they deal with that relentless pressure, and their unswerving commitment to delivering high quality, impartial journalism.

They arguably have the most difficult jobs in the BBC. They carry them out with unstinting dedication and in the knowledge that their work makes a critical difference to the lives of millions who crave access to free and accurate information, in a part of the world where it is scarce and extremely precious.

In recent months, we have witnessed increased levels of intimidation alongside disturbing new tactics. This includes an attempt to put pressure on those who work for BBC Persian outside Iran, by targeting family members who still live inside the country.

We remain extremely concerned about these actions by the Iranian authorities and the latest case only serves to underline this.

Last week the sister of a BBC Persian member of staff was arrested. She was detained and held in solitary confinement on unspecified charges at Evin Prison in Tehran. Although she has now been released on bail, her treatment was utterly deplorable and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms.

It is just the latest in a campaign of bullying and harrassment by the Iranian authorities, putting pressure on the BBC for the impartial and balanced coverage of events in Iran and the wider region.

It follows the repeated jamming of international TV stations such as BBC Persian TV, preventing the Iranian people from accessing a vital source of free information.

In recent months a number of relatives of members of BBC Persian staff have been detained for short periods of time by the Iranian authorities and urged to get their relatives in London to either stop working for the BBC, or to "co-operate" with Iranian intelligence officials.

In other instances, passports of family members have been confiscated, preventing them from leaving Iran. This has left many BBC Persian staff too afraid to return to the country, even to visit sick or elderly relatives. Some have had their Facebook and email accounts hacked.

In addition, there has been a consistent stream of false and slanderous accusations against BBC Persian staff in the official Iranian media, ranging from allegations of serious sexual assault, drug trafficking, and criminal financial behaviour.

It has also included claims that staff have converted from Islam to Christianity or Baha'ism - potentially a capital offence in Iran as it is considered to be apostasy. This has put our staff, who in most cases left their families behind to come to London and work for the BBC, under immense pressure.

This issue is wider than the BBC - other international media face similar challenges. But it is behaviour that all people who believe in free and independent media should be deeply concerned about.

The BBC calls on the Iranian government to repudiate the actions of its officials.

We also ask governments and international regulatory bodies to put maximum pressure on Iran to desist in this campaign of intimidation, persistent censorship and a disturbing abuse of power.

Mark Thompson is BBC director general.

Investigative journalism and breaking the rules

Mark Thompson Mark Thompson | 10:15 UK time, Friday, 22 July 2011

The phone-hacking scandal has put investigative journalism in the dock. Yet without investigative journalism - and in particular the meticulous work of one investigative journalist, Nick Davies, of the Guardian - it's a scandal that would have never seen the light of day.

Right now it's the journalistic and moral failures, and the human consequences of those failures, that loom large. But don't lose sight of the second half of the paradox when you consider how British journalism should respond to the events at the News of the World.

A few days ago John Witherow, the editor of the Sunday Times, launched what was, under the circumstances, a brave defence of investigative journalism. He claimed that, at its best and when directed in the public interest, investigative journalism and its ability to uncover wrongdoing and deceit can be a powerful force for good. He acknowledged that achieving that good can sometimes mean breaking the rules. And he worried that the understandable political and public backlash against phone hacking at the News of the World might make the best kind of investigative journalism more difficult to conduct.

I believe he's right. Had it not been for the Sunday Times and the separate series of investigations by Panorama, we simply wouldn't know about the scale of wrongdoing inside Fifa. He's right also to point to the realities of investigative techniques. One recent Panorama uncovered appalling abuse of patients at the Winterbourne View in Bristol. The programme led to arrests and an immediate stop to the abuse, as well as to an overdue national debate about standards and oversight of all care homes. It was a serious piece of work, manifestly undertaken in the public interest. Yet it necessarily involved secret filming and someone posing as a care worker.

At the BBC, such techniques have to be approved by senior editorial managers and take place within stringent controls. Even with the best of intentions and the most precise of guidelines, investigative journalism is difficult. In Panorama's case, mistakes have been very rare, but when they occur - for example, in a programme about Primark, the inclusion of a sequence of film that could not later be substantiated - they inevitably lead to a close review of our procedures. The ability of the BBC Trust to scrutinise BBC investigations and publish its findings, good or bad, means that our values and tradecraft are held constantly and openly to account.

Whatever the ultimate conclusions of the Leveson inquiry, it is important that the ability of serious investigative journalists to do their work is not blunted or unnecessarily constrained.

Nor I believe should we automatically assume that newspapers should be held to the same level of regulatory supervision and constraint as the broadcasters. Plurality of regulation is itself an important safeguard of media freedom.

The BBC is paid for by the public. Because of that, we would never have paid for the stolen information that helped the Daily Telegraph to uncover the MPs' expenses scandal. The privately owned Telegraph took a different view and was able to publish a series of stories that, taken as a whole, were clearly in the public interest. It is not obvious to me that newspapers that people can choose to buy or ignore - and which, should they break the law, can always be prosecuted after the fact - should be held to the same level of continuous supervision and accountability as broadcasters who reach out into every household in the land.

But there are still searching questions for British journalism to answer. Many newspapers with strong investigative teams and many notable journalists with an outstanding record of holding other institutions and walks of life to account showed a marked reluctance to explore the phone-hacking story until events and the public furore made it inevitable. In some cases, they not only refused to investigate the story themselves but heaped opprobrium on those that did. According to Stephen Glover, writing some months ago in the Independent, for example, "the BBC has conspired with the Guardian to heat up an old story and attack Murdoch".

Even in recent days, there's been an attempt in papers that have nothing to do with News International to suggest that our coverage of the story is far more extensive than other news providers and motivated by spite or glee rather than proper news priorities.

The Daily Mail quoted an Ipsos Mori poll misleadingly this week to suggest that public interest in the story is low. On the contrary, our tracking data suggests it is widespread, with more than 54% of adults claiming to follow the story closely. According to the BBC's critics, we are devoting much more time to the phone-hacking scandal than others. Untrue - the stopwatch reveals that the BBC's Ten O'Clock News has devoted fewer minutes to the story over the past fortnight than News at Ten on ITV1, and our BBC News channel fewer minutes in the key 1700-1800 hour than Sky News. We asked a sample of the public last week how important it was for the media to cover the story: 81% said it was important. And by a wide margin, among the broadcasters they gave the BBC the highest marks for trustworthiness and impartiality in our coverage of it. This is an awesome responsibility that we have to live up to.

Perhaps it's inevitable that newspapers and columnists who are already parti pris on the subject of the BBC find it impossible to judge our coverage except through a distorting mirror of imagined conspiracies and motives. The British public take a more straightforward view and on this, as on every other major story, they simply trust the BBC more than any other news provider to tell them the plain unvarnished truth. I also believe they will give short shrift to those brave souls who are already trying to run the argument that the "real" story revealed by events at Wapping is about the dominance of Britain's public broadcaster and that the right public policy response to phone hacking and criminality at the News of the World is - but of course! - to hobble the BBC.

I believe that what the public want, what this moment demands, is not another round of self-serving hypocrisy or internecine strife from Britain's journalists, but a serious discussion about the difference between good and bad investigative journalism and a complex but necessary debate about where the boundary of acceptable journalistic practice lies and how it should be enforced.

Mark Thompson is director general of the BBC.

This article was first published in the Times.

BBC and the Gaza appeal

Mark Thompson Mark Thompson | 18:38 UK time, Saturday, 24 January 2009

It's not often as editor-in-chief I use our 'editors' blog' to highlight a BBC issue, but with strong views about our decision not to broadcast a Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for Gaza, I wanted to write directly and explain our thinking.

When there is a major humanitarian crisis, the DEC - which is a group of major British charities - comes together and, if it believes various criteria are met and a major public appeal is justified, asks the BBC and other broadcasters to broadcast an appeal. We usually - though not always - accede to the DEC's request and as a result have broadcast many DEC appeals over the years.

A few days ago, the DEC approached us about an appeal for Gaza and, after very careful reflection and consultation inside and outside the BBC, we decided that in this case we should not broadcast the appeal. One reason was a concern about whether aid raised by the appeal could actually be delivered on the ground. You will understand that one of the factors we have to look at is the practicality of the aid, which the public are being asked to fund, getting through. In the case of the Burma cyclone, for instance, it was only when we judged that there was a good chance of the aid getting to the people who needed it most that we agreed to broadcast the appeal. Clearly, there have been considerable logistical difficulties in delivering aid into Gaza. However some progress has already been made and the situation could well improve in the coming days. If it does, this reason for declining to broadcast the appeal will no longer be relevant.

But there is a second more fundamental reason why we decided that we should not broadcast the appeal at present. This is because Gaza remains a major ongoing news story, in which humanitarian issues - the suffering and distress of civilians and combatants on both sides of the conflict, the debate about who is responsible for causing it and what should be done about it - are both at the heart of the story and contentious. We have and will continue to cover the human side of the conflict in Gaza extensively across our news services where we can place all of the issues in context in an objective and balanced way. After looking at all of the circumstances, and in particular after seeking advice from senior leaders in BBC Journalism, we concluded that we could not broadcast a free-standing appeal, no matter how carefully constructed, without running the risk of reducing public confidence in the BBC's impartiality in its wider coverage of the story. Inevitably an appeal would use pictures which are the same or similar to those we would be using in our news programmes but would do so with the objective of encouraging public donations. The danger for the BBC is that this could be interpreted as taking a political stance on an ongoing story. When we have turned down DEC appeals in the past on impartiality grounds it has been because of this risk of giving the public the impression that the BBC was taking sides in an ongoing conflict.

However, BBC News and the BBC as a whole takes its responsibility to report the human consequences of situations like Gaza very seriously and I believe our record in doing it with compassion as well as objectivity is unrivalled. Putting this decision aside, we also have a very strong track-record in supporting DEC appeals and more broadly, through BBC Children In Need, Comic Relief and our many other appeals, in using the BBC's airwaves to achieve positive humanitarian and charitable goals. This is an important part of what it is to be a public service broadcaster. It is sometimes not a comfortable place to be, but we have a duty to ensure that nothing risks undermining our impartiality. It is to protect that impartiality that we have made this difficult decision.

Finally, it is important to remember that our decision does not prevent the DEC continuing with their appeal for donations and people are able to contribute should they choose to.

Mark Thompson is director-general of the BBC.

The trouble with trust

Mark Thompson Mark Thompson | 18:15 UK time, Tuesday, 15 January 2008

In September I blogged here about the importance of trust in the BBC. Today I have given a speech in Westminster which picks up on some of the same themes but also addresses the wider impact on society of trust in institutions. The full text of my speech is below and I'd be interested to know what you think about it.

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Trust and values

Mark Thompson Mark Thompson | 16:36 UK time, Thursday, 20 September 2007

After a summer of punishing and high profile editorial problems, we're not out of the woods yet but we can definitely see daylight ahead.

The trawl I announced back in July is complete. An independent spot-check of premium phone-lines which we will be discussing with the BBC Trust in October has been completed. This piece of work covered a number of aspects of programmes using premium rate phone-lines and found no evidence of systemic failures within the BBC or any malpractice within the programme sample. Our plans not just for training, but for a discussion about editorial standards and judgement-calls which will involve every programme-maker in the BBC are well under way – we’ll launch all that in November. We also hope to begin a phased and carefully controlled re-introduction of competitions in November.

The trawl did find four more cases of serious audience deception to go with the six we disclosed in July. But, after considering more than a million hours of output, we can also confirm that, to the very best of our knowledge, the overwhelming majority of our programmes are honest. Of course we can’t rule out something else serious emerging, but we believe we’ve got to the bottom of the problems – and need to concentrate now on making sure they never happen again.

There is no evidence that there is a widespread culture of deception at the BBC. On the contrary, all the evidence points to the fact that 99.99% or more of our programmes are trustworthy and that almost all of our programme-makers take their duty to the public incredibly seriously.

The trawl also underlines some of the differences between our problems and those of other broadcasters. Over the summer, we’ve seen high-profile premium phone-line cases in the commercial sector involving money running into tens of millions of pounds. At the BBC, the trawl has not revealed a single case of fraud – or indeed anyone acting through self-interest or a desire for personal gain.

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