Should the BBC unpublish any of its online content?
BBC's Director of Editorial Policy and Standards
This is a question we are facing increasingly, particularly in relation to the BBC News Website which gets requests every week to remove reports from the archive. In May, the European Union Court of Justice ruled that Google must erase some search results at an individual’s request if the information was "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant." The ruling applied to search engines not to the original publishers of the content, in this case a newspaper in Spain.
Since the advent of Google our news reports are now just a click away for anyone with a computer, as the Spanish man who brought the ECJ case found. Our online news is far more accessible today than the newspaper archives of libraries. But in principle there is no difference between them: both are historical records. Fundamentally it is in the public interest to retain them intact.
But sometimes the people we feature in our news reports want the news about themselves to be erased so they can obscure the events they were involved in, or the comments they made to us and stop others finding them. In many cases, these requests to remove our reports from the BBC News Website arise a number of years after the first publication. Like other media organisations, the BBC is getting an increasing number of appeals to takedown – to effectively "unpublish" our content.
Sometimes, people say our reports are inaccurate or unfair, or they regret the private information they put into the public domain about a medical condition; their marital status or financial affairs. Others are embarrassed by views they expressed which they no longer hold or are no longer compatible with their lives. Some people tell us the presence of our reports are affecting their relationships with their families or hindering their job search: that they’ve now rebuilt their lives; beaten their addiction or are no longer homeless.
While it may be relatively easy to change our online news reports, the question is whether and when we should erase the record.
These are often difficult decisions and every request is thoroughly discussed.
Today, the BBC is publishing Editorial Policy Guidance about when we remove or amend BBC online content. Essentially, this says that material on the BBC website which is not available for a limited time period will become part of a permanently accessible archive that we are reluctant to remove or change and that we will only do so in exceptional circumstances. We are also reluctant to remove or alter programmes available on BBC iPlayer during the catch-up period.
Each request is considered on its merits. There are many considerations. We need to examine the difference between embarrassment and significant harm or distress. We must balance the harm to the individual named with the potential harm to the public interest in the removal of our content – in other words we need to ask is it fair to the person we feature to keep the content andis it fair to our users to remove it? We need to consider whether the information has also been put in the public domain by others such as the courts or the police. Perhaps the information is already circulating widely on the internet - if it is, removal may be ineffective. And these are just a few of the considerations.
The Guidance Note also sets out the need for transparency and that we should normally explain what changes we have made to our online content for example, why programmes are no longer available on BBC iPlayer or have been changed since original broadcast. To this end, the BBC will be launching in July a new way of signalling this information. In future if a programme has been edited since broadcast in a way that significantly changes the editorial meaning, we will tell you at point of play. Also if there is a small editorial error in a programme we can let you know the correction before you watch it.
BBC iPlayer is a record of broadcast history and the BBC's online archive is a matter of historic public record and any changes to them may reduce transparency and trust with our users and risk altering history. Our new policy will help us to preserve the public record in as complete a state as possible.
You can read more about the BBC policy here.
David Jordan is Director Editorial Policy and Standards