Trust and values
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.
Back in May I asked the business advisers Deloitte to do a separate spot-check on six of our own premium phone-line competitions. We’ll be discussing their findings with the BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee in October. What I can say now is that this piece of work covered a number of aspects of programmes that use premium rate phone-lines and found no evidence of systemic failures or any kind of deliberate deception nor any other kind of serious malpractice.
Of course, that may make a few people wonder if we’re not making a bit of meal of all this. Isn’t the naming of a Blue Peter kitten, for instance, so much less important than some of the other issues which have arisen at other broadcasters?
Well, that’s not what the public are saying. And it’s not what I believe. Letting down the children who watch Blue Peter and who trust it implicitly is a truly terrible idea – even if all that is at stake is the difference between calling a cat ‘Cookie’ or ‘Socks’.
The simple fact is that the public expect the highest possible standards of us – understandably higher than other media players. That’s why we have comprehensive editorial guidelines, which we make available to the public as well as our staff – and why it’s so important that all our programme teams really live by those guidelines.
It’s also why, when we come across serious cases of deception, we have to investigate how they came to happen and who was responsible. All of us – especially those in more senior editorial positions – have a special duty to uphold the BBC’s values and maintain the public’s trust in us.
Through the year, we’ve also seen a much wider debate about editorial standards in broadcasting (and especially in television). Where does legitimate production technique of a particular genre or format fringe into the unacceptable and misleading?
A great deal of nonsense is being talked about on this topic. The idea that simultaneously recording two editions of Songs of Praise on the same day amounts to a sinister plot to defraud the nation is madness. Similarly the suggestion that a universal ban on the "noddy" is the right response to public anxieties about the trustworthiness of television seems to me to be completely wide of the mark.
To me there is a world of difference between deliberate, material deception and reasonable production technique. A good test is what it feels like if you were to write down the given technique or editorial decision and share it with the public. If that feels comfortable, you’re probably on safe ground. If it seems embarrassing or indefensible, don’t do it. That’s why we are going to introduce websites which explain how we make television and radio for anyone who wants an insight into the techniques and methods we use.
I don’t want to suggest, however, that the issues fall neatly into a small number of serious cases of deception on one side and a great body of entirely acceptable and normal production techniques on the other. A few examples have emerged which – though clearly not in the same league as our problems with competitions – raise legitimate questions. The Newsnight film which moved sequences out of chronological order and the celebrated Imagine noddies are both examples.
I don’t believe that either represented any kind of bad faith or conscious effort to deceive. But in my view neither should happen in the future. Many documentaries necessarily show sequences in non-chronological order but if the change is material even in a minor way it should be pointed out to viewers. And it’s my view that noddies and actuality questions should only be included if they formed part of the original interview.
Both the Newsnight and noddy examples demonstrate the need for a wider discussion – and debate – between practitioners about where the line lies. Broadcasting technique is evolving all the time – and that’s a good thing, though it clearly throws up new questions and new dilemmas. Modern audiences are more sophisticated, more aware of what we do (many of them, after all, do their own shooting and editing at home) – but they are also rightly less tolerant of anything which is genuinely misleading.
That’s why the BBC training seminars which start in November are not going to be gloomy moralistic occasions where everyone is reminded to do what almost everyone knows they should do anyway – which is to tell the truth. They’re going to be an opportunity to have a creative dialogue about what our central values should mean in the reality of contemporary media.
The debate will make us stronger. But then I believe that this whole long, tough summer will make us stronger. Public trust in us certainly took a dent, but it’s interesting that a big majority of the public (73% when we asked) believe that we have the will and the ability to put everything right. That’s what we’re going to do.