Guidance: Removal of BBC online content

BBC guidance on removal of BBC online content

Editorial Guidelines issues

This guidance note sets out the considerations around the removal or amendment of our online content in response to complaints, errors, legal issues or possible breaches of Editorial Guidelines. It applies to text, audio-visual content and UGC material, both short and long-form, published on a BBC site or syndicated elsewhere, which is intended to form part of a journal of record or online archive. It does not apply to online content with shorter lifecycles which will naturally be replaced by more up to date content or archive that is subsequently republished online.

The considerations outlined in this note may weigh in favour of removing or amending online content even when there is no legal obligation to do so. Under UK law, a requirement to amend or remove online content arises only in limited circumstances and the guidance in this note extends beyond the BBC’s legal responsibilities as a publisher.

The guidance note relates to the following Editorial Guidelines:

  • The Public Interest

See Editorial Guidelines Section 1 The BBC’s Editorial Standards 1.3

  • Accuracy

See Editorial Guidelines Section 3 Accuracy

  • Harm and Offence

See Editorial Guidelines Section 5. In particular Labelling On-Demand and Digital Content and Language

  • Fairness to Contributors and Consent

See Editorial Guidelines Section 6 Fairness, Contributors and Consent

  • Re-use, Reversioning and Permanent Availability

See Editorial Guidelines Section 13 Re-use, Reversioning and Permanent Availability. In particular Managing Online Content

Key points

  • The Editorial Guidelines state, “The archive of the BBC’s online content is a permanent public record and its existence is in the public interest. The online archive particularly news reports, should not normally be removed or amended.” To do so risks erasing the past and altering history.
  • BBC iPlayer should also be considered as a record of broadcast history and programmes in it should not normally be removed or altered during the catch-up period.
  • The Editorial Guidelines also state, “Where there is an expectation that content, from a name to a whole programme, is made available permanently, it should only be removed in exceptional circumstances.”
  • Where information about the complainant is available in public records or was put in the public domain by authorities such as the police, we should normally refuse requests to remove. Furthermore, the BBC should be very reluctant to change an accurate report of a court case for any reason.
  • We should consider alternatives to permanent removal of text or audio-visual content to preserve the archive or catch-up service, such as temporary revocation, while we amend the material before re-instating it; an offer of anonymity if, for example, a contributor is endangered by the continuing presence of the content or the publication of an online correction.
  • Inadvertent strong language should not be cut out as though it never happened, but disguised. Programmes containing mild language usually don’t need to be revoked.
  • On-demand programmes which have been altered since linear transmission should not be presented as though they’re the same as the original.
  • We should be transparent at the point a user accesses content, if it has been removed, edited or amended since first publication or is subject to a correction or upheld finding, unless there are legal or editorial reasons not to – otherwise we risk losing the trust of our users.
  • Divisions need detailed protocols, which include a system of referrals and record keeping for the removal of online content.

Guidance in full

Introduction

The Editorial Guidelines state, “The archive of the BBC’s online content is a permanent public record and its existence is in the public interest. The online archive, particularly news reports, should not normally be removed or amended.”

(See Editorial Guidelines Section 13 Re-use and Reversioning and Permanent Availability: 13.3.25-13.3.28 and Section 1 The BBC’s Editorial Standards, 1.3 The Public Interest)

The archive should be maintained in as complete a state as possible as any removal risks the accusation that we are erasing the past or altering history.

There is also a risk, with removal, that we create suspicion about what else is missing, and fuel conspiracy theories about its absence.  Without the original content, it will be harder to refute inaccurate accounts of our content.

BBC iPlayer should also be considered as a record of broadcast history and programmes in it should not normally be removed or altered during the catch-up period.

While an online archive is accessible, it may be perceived as being one that is easily changed, however, it is no different, in principle, from newspaper archives that have always existed and remain intact.

Removal in Exceptional Circumstances Only

The Editorial Guidelines state, “Where there is an expectation that content, from a name to a whole programme, is made available permanently, it should only be removed in exceptional circumstances.” These may include legal reasons such as uncleared rights, defamation or contempt; genuine safety risks to individuals; significant harm or distress to a contributor to whom we have a duty of care; a serious breach of editorial standards that cannot be rectified except by removal of material; issues of child-protection or where tragic events during the catch-up period make a programme containing similar content unsuitable for continued publication.  

Removal may result from either the BBC reviewing the material itself or as a response to requests from organisations or individuals.

Any proposal to remove any online content from the BBC archive must be in accordance with the Editorial Guidelines.

(See Editorial Guidelines Section 13 Re-use and Reversioning and Permanent Availability: 13.3.25-13.3.28)

Complaints Requesting Removal

However long ago our online content was first published, if it is still available, editorial complaints may be made regarding it. We should take care to understand if the complainant is asking for the entire article or programme to be removed or just a small part, such as the removal of their surname or a photo. We should consider how we test the claims in the complaint. It may be necessary to verify the identity of the complainant. We should consider the consequences they might face if we remove, retain or alter the content in question. Overall, we should balance the interests of the individual with the public interest in preserving the archive as a historical record.        

Issues for Consideration

Harm and Distress

  • An assessment of the significant harm or distress continued publication is causing an individual. There is a difference between embarrassment and significant harm. Embarrassment is not sufficient on its own to justify removing a report and, thereby, altering a permanent record or programme in catch-up. We also do not have any obligation to improve an individual’s job prospects.
  • An assessment of whether the harm or distress allegedly caused by the presence of the report is qualified by either the reported behaviour or subsequent behaviour.
  • A judgement about what information has been put in the public domain other than by the BBC, perhaps by the individual themselves, or other organisations. Where information about the complainant is available in public records or was put in the public domain by authorities such as the police, we should normally refuse requests to remove. We cannot erase the past for people who, for example, have been found guilty, or indeed innocent, of criminal charges in open court.  Furthermore, the BBC should be very reluctant to change an accurate report of a court case for any reason. 
  • An assessment of all the information that would be lost by acceding to a request to remove the content. Any loss of information should be considered against the public interest in its retention. For example, while the report of a court case may distress a vulnerable victim, removal of the article would also protect the convicted criminal. 

Fairness & Straight Dealing

(See Editorial Guidelines Section 6 Fairness to Contributors and Consent)

  • If an individual consents today to a contribution that is first published online, there is a presumption that they understand it will be available in perpetuity.
  • An assessment of the duty of care the BBC owes to the complainant will vary according to the circumstances. For example, the BBC does not have a duty of care to the relatives of people featured in our reports with whom we have had no previous contact. While the content may cause them distress we should not normally accede to their requests for removal. We may, however need to consider the likely consequences of continuing to publish material and may accede to a relative’s request for removal in exceptional circumstances. There is also no duty of care to a contributor where the BBC is simply reporting events which must, in the public interest, be in the public domain, such as proceedings in court or parliament. However, we would have a greater duty of care, for example  to a contributor who has been interviewed only by the BBC, though that may be qualified by the reported behaviour or subsequent behaviour.   
  • Where a complainant argues that the BBC’s use of a contribution goes beyond the consent given at the time of first use, we should make good faith attempts to establish the details of that consent. If sufficient details of the original consent are not available, then provided the complainant’s safety is not put at risk and that there was no complaint after the original publication or broadcast, we would normally refuse a request for removal. The reporting of a complainant’s original contribution does not require further consent or an explanation that those reports may be available permanently. People should not normally be permitted to take back their published remarks be they on radio, television or online, just as they cannot go to their library to ask for their quotes to be removed from a newspaper’s archive or even a book.  When people give interviews to the BBC, their remarks become part of a public record. Anyone inside or outside the BBC could quote their comments and publish them further. To change them or erase them would change a piece of history.
  • If the request applies to user generated content, such as blog postings or other social media contributions, we should assess the published privacy notice in force at the time the posting was made. We should normally refuse requests to remove UGC comments, where people argue that they no longer want to be reminded of them or no longer agree with them, provided the published privacy policy at the time they made their remarks, explained this. It is advisable to keep a record of all published privacy notices.
  • When the consent for the contribution was properly given, but not by the contributor, we may give greater weight to the contributor’s views if they now have capacity to make their own decisions. For example, a parent may have given consent for a child contributor who is now an adult and wishes his or her views to be taken into account.
    (See Guidance: Informed Consent)

Accuracy

  • Claims that an online item is inaccurate, biased or seriously misleading should be properly investigated by the originating content team where possible and corrected where appropriate. 

Requesting Removal from Search Engines

Internet search engines take regular “snap-shots” of the Web and cache them, so there’s no guarantee that by removing a story from the BBC archive, the page disappears from the internet altogether. It may still be found in the cache and outdated pages may also still appear in search results for an indeterminate period of time, even though the BBC’s archive has been changed. They will only be updated when the search engine crawls those pages again, which may be some time if it is in the BBC’s online archive.

We would not normally request that BBC web pages which we either amend or remove are also updated or removed from the cache of the main internet search engines or their search results, provided that a contributor’s safety is not at risk and there are no legal or reputational reasons not to act.

In the exceptional cases where we do need to act, requests should be made to the 247 Operations Team or the relevant News Support Helpdesks for news reports. Consideration should be given to which search engines need to be targeted, what requires removal (an image, some text or a complete page) and from which platform. It should be noted that the BBC cannot instruct third party search engines to take action. We can however signal that there’s been a change to a page or that a page needs to be removed from the cache or the search index. Neither the search engines’ response, nor a time frame can be guaranteed.  

Where we have removed a detail, requested by an individual, but the original  page is still available via search engines, we should explain to the complainant the action that the BBC has taken, making it clear it will take some time before the change shows up in the search engines’ indexes and that the information may still be visible in their summaries.

Where we have completely removed the page at an individual’s request we should, likewise, explain that it may be some time before it disappears from the cache of any search engines. 

Alternatives to Removal or Permanent Revocation

Small amendments or clear labelling may be sufficient to address issues raised. Such measures are preferable where they enable the archive or catch-up service to be preserved in as full a state as possible, or do not materially affect its integrity. However, the threshold for considering small changes is as high as it is for complete or permanent removal and should only be considered in exceptional circumstances.  The options include:

Temporary Revocation

Issues may arise soon after linear transmission meaning programmes may require permanent revocation or temporary revocation for editing. The threshold for considering a temporary revocation is just as high as it is for a permanent one. We should consider how we might rectify any legal problem such as uncleared rights, or a serious breach of the Editorial Guidelines or Ofcom Broadcasting Code; protect a contributor’s safety or privacy or avoid further harm and offence which may be caused, for example, by inadvertent strong language in a live programme.

To avoid permanent revocation we should make our best efforts to edit and re-instate the amended content as soon as possible.

We may: 

  • Cut shots, sequences or audio.
  • Blur or obscure contributors to ensure anonymity (see Offer Anonymity below).
  • Bleep or reverse strong language, where technically possible – but we should not cut. 

Strong language which is not editorially justified and mistakenly used in a live  programme, before the watershed, or when children are likely to be listening or watching, or used where there is no audience expectation of such language, should not be edited out of the on-demand programme, as though it never occurred, but disguised, by bleeping or reversing. Where it is not technically possible to disguise the language immediately, action should be taken as soon as is practically possible. The same applies to the strongest language (cunt, motherfucker and fuck or its derivatives). Care should be taken to ensure that the content is thoroughly obscured and not made obvious by visible mouth movements. There is no reason then to add a ‘G for Guidance’ label. 

Mild language, such as “shit” or “piss” or stronger language such as “bollocks”, said unexpectedly, for example, on a late night show on an adult network, would not normally be a reason to revoke and edit out. In such circumstances the language should be left as it is. Nor would it be a reason to add a ‘G for Guidance’ label, unless the programme has an appeal to a younger audience or there is a significant chance that a young person may access the material online.

(See Editorial Guidelines Section 5 Harm and Offence. In particular Content Labelling On Demand, Online and Language)

Offer Anonymity

In considering whether to offer anonymity, however, we should assess what information is available elsewhere in the public domain. In practice, changing something on BBC webpages may be ineffective if their identity is revealed by other organisations, or if it is a matter of public record.

Anonymity may be achieved by the removal of a surname. However, if the first name is particularly unusual, we may also need to take further action such as changing the spelling.  

We would not normally anonymise individuals in news reports retrospectively as it may undermine our journalism. However, we may offer anonymity where an individual’s safety is at risk; where they can demonstrate that continued publication is causing significant harm or distress – provided we have a duty of care to them, or where we might have offered anonymity when the report was first published. We may also consider anonymity, for example, where we have previously identified a child with an Anti-Social Behaviour Order, provided there are indications that they are no longer offending and are reformed. The fact that an individual is embarrassed by their past behaviour is not sufficient grounds for subsequent anonymity.

We would normally refuse an individual’s request to remove a comment provided there are no legal reasons not to act, nor any genuine safety risks to an individual. Normally we would offer anonymity instead, as current users of our message boards and comments pages are able to anonymise their contributions. However, we should resist anonymity if it destroys the editorial integrity of a thread of comments or where, for example, the individual’s position on a subject is well known, or likely to be the reason for subsequent posts.

Publish Online Correction

The Editorial Guidelines state, “We should normally acknowledge serious factual errors and correct such mistakes quickly, clearly and appropriately. Inaccuracy may lead to a complaint of unfairness. An effective way of correcting a serious factual error is saying what was wrong as well as putting it right.” Corrections to on-demand and online content should be made in accordance with the Editorial Guidelines.

(See Editorial Guidelines Section 3 Accuracy 3.3.28)

Consideration should be given to the prominence of a correction to an archived story. It might occasionally be more appropriate and fair to place the correction at the top of the article, rather than the bottom. For example where a guilty verdict has been over turned on appeal, but not reported at the time, it would be fairer to place the correction at the top, where it is more likely to be read along with the ‘guilty’ verdict. Changes made on legal advice may need to be given prominence, for example by putting a box around the words or by putting it at the top of the article.  

Any changes advised by the legal department should be made as soon as practically possible.

Where the BBC has made a public statement (published on the BBC Complaint’s Website) in response to an issue of significant concern acknowledging and/or apologising for an error or misjudgement in on-demand content, a summary of that statement should be made available at point of play. The statement may also be linked to.  

Publish Details of Upheld Findings

On-demand programmes available in the archive or on BBC iPlayer should not normally be permanently removed if a complaint has been upheld by the Executive Complaints Unit or Ofcom. Where an acknowledgement of the finding is sufficient to avoid re-editing, it may continue to be made available online without any changes. Where a change is directed, the programme should be temporarily removed, amended and reinstated, making clear at point of play that the programme is subject to an upheld finding. A brief explanation of the finding and any changes made since broadcast, including a link to the finding should be included.  

Transparency

We risk losing trust if we remove pages, programmes or clips, or make significant amendments to our online content, which change the editorial meaning, without telling our users.

So we should be transparent at the point a user accesses content, if it has been removed either permanently or temporarily, edited or amended since first publication or is subject to a correction or upheld finding, unless there are legal or editorial reasons not to. 

The appropriate Revocation, Revision and Correction label should be applied to on-demand long-from programmes.

Clips containing factual errors which have been removed or corrected should have a line added to the bottom of the page acknowledging the removal or correction.  Where it is essential that the user sees details about a correction before they play the clip, a line should be added to the clip’s caption inviting users to see the correction at the bottom of the page.

Where a clip with a factual error is from a programme that is available at the same time on BBC iPlayer, the clip should be corrected or replaced, even though the programme on iPlayer remains uncorrected. However to be transparent we should indicate that the clip has been corrected and that the programme on iPlayer is subject to a correction.

Where there is an expectation that syndicated clips will be permanently available online, we should be as transparent about removal or corrections as the terms and conditions of the third party sites will allow. Information about corrections or upheld findings may be indicated in the short space of text which the BBC controls as part of the syndicated content.   

Clips which come and go, such as promotional content, for example, do not normally need to be labelled if they’ve been changed or removed. 

Substantial corrections or updates to archived news stories need to be made so that the original date/time stamp does not change. Substantive changes to live news stories should be made so that the time/date stamp is updated, which indicates to the reader when the story was last changed. Minor changes to news stories, such as, punctuation, typographical or spelling corrections, should be made so that the time stamp is not altered.

We should be transparent about our removal policy and publish it openly on bbc.co.uk. Users should be made aware that published content is part of the historical record and should not normally be removed from the online archive, because to do so may reduce transparency and trust with our users and effectively erases history.

Protocols

Each division must have a detailed protocol for removal, revocation, revision and correction of online content, whether it is text or audio-visual, short form or long form, and published on a BBC site or syndicated elsewhere. A protocol should include a system of referrals and out-of-hours process. Removal or amendment should only be done with the approval of the relevant senior editorial figure.  

Divisions must also keep a record of removal and revocation requests relating to our online content intended to form part of the journal of record or archive. 

Last updated December 2019


Where next?