Unless content is specifically made available only for a limited time period, there is a presumption that material published online will become part of a permanently accessible archive and will not normally be removed or changed.
Removing online content, particularly news items, risks the accusation that we are erasing the past or altering history. The archive should be maintained in as complete a state as possible.
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.
BBC Store is a commercial service operated by BBC Worldwide which houses BBC content for sale. Unless content has been specifically made available only for a limited period of time before review is recommended, unless Rights are limited or there are commercial reasons, there is a presumption that it will not normally be removed or changed.
(See Editorial Legal and Editorial Policy Guidance on Exclusions and Revocations from BBC Store)
We do not have any obligation to, for example, avoid embarrassment to individuals or improve their job prospects, and we should not conceal information that is properly in the public domain.
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
Removal of a name, photo or link, a short audio-visual clip where there is an expectation that it is available permanently, a section of text or part of a programme, a whole page or entire programme or syndicated content should only be done 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; issues of child-protection or where tragic events during the catch-up period make a programme containing similar content unsuitable for continued publication.
Before removing any online content we must consider the potential harm to the public interest, and the integrity of the archive or catch-up service. There is a risk, with removal, that we simply create suspicion about what else is missing, and fuel conspiracy theories about its absence.
We also need to consider the risk that information we remove may take on a life of its own and become distorted in the re-telling. In the absence of the original content, it will be harder to refute inaccurate accounts of our content.
We must also consider whether any content we are considering removing is already circulating widely on the internet. If it is, removal may simply be ineffective.
As removal is a last resort, we should not normally hide or remove content while we investigate, unless there are legal or editorial reasons to do so.
Removal may result from either the BBC reviewing the material itself or as a response to requests from organisations or individuals.
Complaints Requesting Removal
However long ago our online content was first published, if it’s still available, editorial complaints may legitimately be made regarding it. To remain accountable to our users, we will need to consider each complaint or request for removal carefully, dealing openly and fairly with complainants.
We must 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. There may be issues of accuracy, impartiality or fairness, and 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 must balance the interests of the individual with the public interest in preserving the archive as a historical record.
The issues for consideration depend on the basis for the request.
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.
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 reported missing or found guilty, or indeed innocent, of criminal charges. 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 must 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.
We should assume people have a far greater understanding today of the internet and its permanence. The more recent the original contribution, the greater the reliance we can place on that understanding. So if an individual consents now to a contribution that is first published online, there is a presumption that they understand it will be available in perpetuity. Where a contribution is many years old and of a sensitive nature, we may consider anonymity, instead of complete removal.
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 relatives or friends 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, for example, have a greater duty of care to a contributor who has been interviewed only by the BBC, but 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 must 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.
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)
Claims that an item is inaccurate, biased or seriously misleading must be properly investigated by the originating content team where possible. Such complaints may, at the complainant’s discretion, be referred through the BBC’s published complaints procedure up to the BBC Trust. (See Editorial Guidelines Section 19, Accountability)
Catch-up Services and BBC Store
Once the issues raised by a complainant have been considered, programmes may require permanent revocation or temporary revocation. To avoid permanent revocation we should make our best efforts to edit and re-instate the amended content as soon as possible. The threshold for considering a temporary revocation is just as high as it is for a permanent one. (For a discussion about the options see Catch-up Services and Alternatives to Removal below.)
Review of Material by the BBC
The BBC may itself become aware of issues (see above: Removal in Exceptional Circumstances Only) that suggest material should be removed or amended.
Catch-up Services and BBC Store
Issues may arise soon after linear transmission meaning programmes may require permanent revocation or temporary revocation for editing. We should consider how we might rectify any legal problem such as uncleared rights, or a serious breach of the Editorial Guidelines or Ofcom code; protect a contributor’s safety or privacy or avoid further harm and offence which may be caused 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. The threshold for considering a temporary revocation is just as high as it is for a permanent one.
Cut shots, sequences or audio.
Blur or obscure contributors to ensure anonymity.
Bleep or reverse strong language, where technically possible – but we should not cut (see Language below)
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.
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
Small amendments or clear labelling may be sufficient to address issues raised. Such measures are greatly 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.
i Offer Anonymity
Anonymity may be achieved simply 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 should not normally consider anonymising 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.
In considering whether to offer anonymity, however, we must 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 news organisations, or if it is a matter of public record.
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.
ii Publish Online Correction
Where significant mistakes are unlikely to be considered a serious breach of editorial standards or lead to legal action, a text correction may be published online, at point of play, or on the same page for text, to avoid removal. (see discussion below: Labels and Explanations)
We should normally acknowledge serious factual errors and correct mistakes quickly, clearly and appropriately. Inaccuracy may lead to a complaint of unfairness. (See Editorial Guidelines Section 3 Accuracy)
Any changes advised by the legal department should be made as soon as practically possible.
Audio Visual Content
A text correction at the point of play should be published where significant factual errors, which change the editorial meaning, occur in recorded or live audio/visual content. The on-demand version should not be changed or revoked as though the mistake never occurred unless leaving the error uncorrected constitutes a serious editorial breach or a legal problem. The “Correction” label should be applied to the on-demand programme at point of play with an explanation of the error and the correct information. (See discussion below: Labels & Explanations.) Minor errors such as spelling mistakes in captions and graphics, or mispronunciations do not need changing or labelling.
Where factual errors which change the editorial meaning of the content occur, the actual programme should also normally be corrected if it is likely to receive a public service or commercial repeat.
If a linear repeat containing a factual error, which changes the editorial meaning of the content, is scheduled during the programme’s on-demand availability, the original version should be replaced on BBC iPlayer upon broadcast. Where technically possible and practicable, care should be taken to ensure that the uncorrected on-demand version is not available when the corrected linear repeat is broadcast.
Text on News Websites
Existing procedures should be followed whereby a brief note explains when and why live or archived stories containing factual errors, which alter the editorial meaning, were changed. In addition, consideration should also 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.
Text Elsewhere Online should adopt the News Website’s procedures as above for dealing with corrections, where appropriate.
Communicating corrections to the rest of bbc.co.uk: Any of our content may form the basis of material produced in other areas of bbc.co.uk. It is therefore important to communicate significant corrections made retrospectively to our stories, particularly if they are the result of a formal complaint. The senior editor responsible for the content should inform bbc.co.uk of any such corrections, by emailing the Editorial Management Group.
iii 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 Editorial Complaints Unit, the BBC Trust 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 with the “Upheld” label at point of play, plus a brief explanation of the finding and any changes made since broadcast, including a link to the full report. (See discussion below: Labels & Explanations.)
Transparency: Labels and Explanations
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.
On-demand long-form programmes
We should also be transparent with the user at the point they try to access a programme, if it has been removed, either permanently or temporarily; edited since transmission; subject to a correction or upheld since broadcast by the Editorial Complaints Unit, the BBC Trust or Ofcom. On-demand programmes which have been edited during the catch-up period and since linear transmission should not be passed off as though they’re the same as the original.
On catch-up services one of the following labels for Revocation, Revisions and Corrections should be applied to the programme at point of play or in the case of a revocation, where an unavailable programme is listed:
This programme has been edited since broadcast. Why?
This programme is subject to a correction. Why?
A complaint about this programme has been upheld since broadcast.Why? Or
Complaints about this programme have been upheld since broadcast. Why?
“Not Available” and “Why?" are links to a programme specific explanation for the labels, unless there are legal or editorial reasons not to provide one. In which case, a standard generic reason should be given.
Explanations of corrections should give details of the error in the programme along with the correct information.
Explanations of upheld complaints should include the relevant regulatory body, the date of the finding and a brief explanation of it, as well as linking to the full judgement.
The blurring of an image to protect a contributor’s identity does not need to be acknowledged providing it does not substantially change the editorial meaning.
Strong language which has been disguised since broadcast also does not need to be labelled providing it does not substantially change the editorial meaning and there is no public response by the BBC about the original use of the language acknowledging the error.
On BBC Store transparency requirements should be met in text accompanying the content.
Public Responses by the BBC Acknowledging an Error
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 a programme that is available on demand, an explanation linked to any of the labels should also provide a summary of that statement.
Short Audio-Visual Clips
We should be transparent with the user if a short audio-visual clip has been removed permanently or temporarily, or is subject to a correction or an upheld complaint by the Editorial Complaints Unit, the BBC Trust or Ofcom. However, it is not necessary to apply the Revocation, Revision and Correction labels to short clips as the clips have not been broadcast. Instead the following procedures should be adopted.
Removal: Add a line of text to explain the specific decision to remove unless there are legal or editorial reasons to give a more general explanation.
Correction: Where there are factual errors, the clip should be removed and corrected. A line which explains that a correction has been made, and why, should be added to the bottom of the page. Where it is essential that the user sees details about the 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, we should be transparent and indicate that the clip has been corrected and that the programme on iPlayer is subject to a correction.
Upheld Finding: Where there are upheld findings in relation to short audio-visual clips, the clip should be re-edited or removed if necessary and a short explanation about the correction or removal and/or the finding should be added to the page along with a link to the finding.
Where there is an expectation that clips will be permanently available online, the practices for news clips regarding transparency (as above) should be followed. 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.
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.
To avoid materially misleading users, it should normally be clear when the content (including audio/visual material) a visitor is accessing was first published and where relevant, when it was last significantly updated. For example, pages online, may have a date/time stamp from the moment of publication and/or be labelled as archived. (See Editorial Guidelines Section 3 Accuracy, Managing Online Content)
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.
Removal or amendment of online content should only be done with the approval of the relevant senior editorial figure. 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, which must be followed.
A clear system of referrals. No-one below Executive Producer, or relevant senior editorial figure should initiate removal, revocations or revisions. Only senior managers, as per divisional protocols, may approve such actions. Requests to remove ‘mothballed’ pages with a banner headline stating the page has not recently been updated, should be referred to the Managing Editor, BBC Online.
Senior managers may wish to consult Editorial Legal, Editorial Policy or Information Policy and Compliance.
The process for applying the Revocation, Revision and Correction labels and any explanations should mirror the divisional protocols for removal and revocation.
Heads of Editorial Standards must be consulted over the wording of programme-specific explanations for any of the Revocation, Revision or Correction labels.
The Press Office must be informed if a Revocation, Revision or Correction label and explanation is to be applied.
The number of people who have access to the tools to remove, revoke or revise or to apply the Revocation, Revision or Correction labels and explanations for on-demand programmes should be kept to a minimum.
A clear record of all removals and revocations, including the reasons, must be kept by Divisions to ensure a consistent approach. This information should be sent quarterly to Editorial Legal, which will maintain a central record.
Where a substantial change has been made to the text of a news story, a record should be kept of the original page.