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The impact on BBC journalism

Martin Rosenbaum | 16:18 UK time, Tuesday, 17 October 2006

I've been asked numerous times today what the impact of the latest government proposals would be on BBC journalism, so here is the answer - they would dramatically curtail the use of FOI by the BBC.

The cost limits (£600 for government department, £450 for other public authorities) would be imposed not on one request (as at the moment) but on the total of all FOI requests from one particular organisation (eg the BBC) over three months, even if the requests are from completely different indviduals and relate to completely unconnected topics.

So effectively if one BBC journalist puts an FOI request to, say, the Ministry of Defence then it would probably prevent any other BBC journalist (of whom there are thousands) putting another FOI request on any other topic to the MoD anytime in the next three months.

I wonder if it would lead to Pythonesque discussions about whether I am just putting in FOI requests in my spare time?

By the way, I had to smile when I read this article in the Peterborough Evening Telegraph last week referring to a '£600 million limit on handling Freedom of Information queries' - now that really would punch a hole in government budgets.

Comments   Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 01:52 PM on 23 Oct 2006,
  • Ritter wrote:

Martin - interesting blog. Another interesting angle is FOI requests made to the BBC and how the BBC responds/deals with such requests. For example it appears that the BBC is attempting to prevent disclosure of information regarding a report which discusses the BBC's coverage of the middle east conflict:

BBC mounts court fight to keep 'critical' report secret
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2006/10/15/nbeeb15.xml

I'd be interested if you could shed any light on this from a FOI point of view....

  • 2.
  • At 03:14 PM on 23 Oct 2006,
  • Martin Rosenbaum wrote:

I have commented on this in the past and am happy to do so again, since it is clearly an important issue.

Information held by the BBC for the purposes of journalism is not covered by the FOI Act. The BBC's position is that this report is held for the purposes of journalism.

The Information Commissioner agreed, the Information Tribunal disagreed, and now the case is going to the High Court.

Personally speaking, I haven't read the report in question and nor am I involved in the handling of incoming FOI requests to the BBC, so I can't offer any inside knowledge of these matters.

  • 3.
  • At 06:50 PM on 30 Oct 2006,
  • Gillian wrote:

I seriously, laughed out loud, when I saw the name of this blog.

How about releasing the Balen Report which has been applied for through the Freedom of Information act.

  • 4.
  • At 12:25 AM on 02 Nov 2006,
  • Mick wrote:

Martin,
One issue in which I've a growing intrest is the BBC's operation of those parts of its site that publish contributions from the public.
The operation of the "Have your say" part of the BBC's website is quite opaque. Is there one moderator for each discussion, or a team? Who are they? What criteria are used to decide which comments to publish? Does anyone review their decisions? Is the aim to represent community feeling, or to make sure there's a plurality of ideas, or to make things interesting by having similar numbers of comments from each side of an issue?
My recent experience in testing the process has been disquieting. For example, some half-dozen colleagues and I posted a range of comments on one side of a debate that had been running for a few days. None were published, but a string of comments from the other side were added before the debate was closed.
Our confidence in the BBC as a dispassionate, highly professional organisation has been badly dented.
Suddenly, we're interested in seeing the Balen report and have prima facie, anecdotal experience to support its alleged findings.
I encourage you to take an interest in the way that editorial choices are made in these new public spaces.

  • 5.
  • At 12:52 PM on 02 Nov 2006,
  • Martin Rosenbaum wrote:

Mick - I asked Vicky Taylor, who is Editor of Interactivity for BBC News, to answer your questions and this is what she says:

"The Have Your Say debates are written and moderated by a team of journalists who work from 0700-2300. There are two levels of moderation, clearly explained on the right hand side of each debate. See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/help/4180404.stm. Usually we have around three to four new debates a day and the moderators will work across all of them rather than one in particular during their shift.

For reactive debates, if a user is registered their comment will go up automatically without a journalist seeing it first. Then the comments which break house rules (also clearly set out on the site) are removed. Registered users help us in the process of spotting comments which break the rules by using the "complain about this post" option on each comment. Subjects which are contentious, such as the Middle East, are usually fully moderated, so someone in the team sees them before publication. To publish more and at greater speed we do not change grammar or spelling or make edits.

Far from trying to engineer a debate to represent views for one side or the other, on reactive debates we publish everything we get from registered users. On fully moderated debates we publish as many as we can irrespective of viewpoint, in the time available and with the resources we have. We do get around 10,000 emails a day - and that is on a quiet day. When there is a big story, such as the Pope's remarks or the Richard Hammond crash for example, we get around 20,000 emails on each topic alone.

The recommended comments section is there to show what view or comment most people agreed with or thought particularly apt. Again this is not something we journalists play any part in - the recommendations are done entirely by the audience. I would point out too that far more people read the pages than contribute and we are finding that far more people recommend (and they must register first to do so) than send an email. On the Pope debate, there were 92,000 recommmendations - out of around 20,000 emails and around 4,000 published.

Finally in terms of who oversees this operation, ultimately I do, and on a day to day basis there are two senior journalists reviewing the debates and managing a wider team (around 20 in total) looking at interactivity and user generated content across the whole of BBC News."

  • 6.
  • At 07:48 AM on 03 Nov 2006,
  • Mick wrote:

Martin,
Thank you for following up and posting the results. I appreciate it.
I understand and sympathise with your colleague Ms Taylor in her task to manage 20,000 emails.
It is of course the more opaque fully moderated debates that will be the most contentious and no doubt people on both sides will feel aggrieved.
I had read the description of the two levels of moderation, but I had underestimated the number of contributions you were dealing with.
Trying to be more constructive : If you know the numbers of emails with any confidence, perhaps it would help guide user expectations if you were able to include a note at the top of the discussion that said something like "days of debate 4, comments submitted 16,000, comments published 1265."
If I understood I was one of 5000 today, I'd feel less as though i was being pointedly excluded.
Just a thought to store in the suggestion box.
regards
mick

  • 7.
  • At 12:51 PM on 03 Nov 2006,
  • Martin Rosenbaum wrote:

Mick - thanks for that suggestion. Vicky says this in response:
"It's a good point, and something we've done on really massive debates - for example on the Lebanon war Have Your Say we had around 160,000 over the month period and did say that on the page. We'll certainly take up his point and on busy debates give users a warning tally."

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