Tuesday 19 November 2013

Complaining to the BBC

Is there any point complaining to the BBC's Complaints department? 

Well, I used to do quite a bit of complaining to the BBC in my earlier (activist) days, but rarely got anywhere beyond a mild admission from the BBC that James Naughtie could maybe, perhaps, just possibly, have phrased something a wee bit better. 

For those thinking of complaining about something, however, and who have never complained to the BBC before, I'd like to try to give you a taste of what you might expect if you do go down that path. 

I can't, unfortunately, give you any tips as to how to complain successfully, as I failed to get far beyond absolute zero with them.

The BBC Complaints page itself is quite easy to get to (or, failing that, you could just click here). Filling in the online complaint form takes a little more time and effort though.

So what happens once you've sent it?

Well, to begin with, you can expect a reply from them. They won't ignore your complaint, as they are constitutionally obliged not to ignore your complaint. 

You could get a reply quickly, or maybe get a reply after a week or so, or after two weeks, or after a month, or after three months....

It all seems to depend. On what? 

Well, perhaps, on the seriousness of the complaint.

The speed of those recent responses from Today to complainants about Sarah Montague's anti-Israel crack (during her interview with Baroness Warsi) suggests that, if they realise they've been really caught out on something extremely controversial, they can work faster than a speeding bullet to reply and try to diffuse the situation. (Not that that means you'll get anywhere, of course, merely that you've received a quicker brush-off than usual!)

However, if you send them a detailed, accurate and devastating complaint about something less sensitive but still embarrassing (to them) they can often take their own sweet time in replying to it. One of mine took all of those three months to arrive. I could barely remember what I'd originally written when it eventually came through...

...Which leads me onto another tip: Make sure you save a copy of your original complaint as, when they reply to you, they won't include your original complaint in their e-mail. You'll need to re-check your original complaint to see exactly how they've brushed you off.

The BBC will only stop replying  to you if (a) you keep endlessly complaining, or (b) if they discover that you are making your complaints public - by, say, posting them online while they're still ongoing, or if you're publishing their responses. 

Their e-mailed replies specifically ask you to keep all your correspondence with them private. (So much for transparency, perhaps). 

Well, naughtily, I used to publish my exchanges with them on my earlier blogs, as I didn't see why I should keep it our little secret.

I did always feel it right though to remove the name of whoever it was whom the BBC Complaints Department employed to try to figure out the best form of (weasel) words for help get their colleagues out of 'fessing up to the charges being made against them -  and I did that decent thing however snippy their responses (and some could be decidedly snippy).

They only stopped replying to my complaints when one of the U.S.-based reporters I was complaining about spotted that I'd posted my original complaint at Biased BBC, and spotted his own name on the blog.

Yes, I had him fully banged to rights, if I say so myself - which probably didn't help. Plus he'd already been spotted by Biased BBC's eagle-eyed D.B. bellyaching on Twitter about having to waste an entire afternoon replying to some right-wing crank (me). 

So I never did get that reply, and appear to have been blacklisted for a while after that.

The nearest I got to a proper acknowledgement of a mistake on the BBC's part came when I moved away from complaining about 'Bias' (which is the category I usually selected on the online complaints form) and moved onto 'Accuracy' instead. I took them up on something to do with opinion polls and margins of error, if I remember rightly. (It feels so long ago). 

That suggested to me that they are slightly more comfortable conceding factual errors than admitting to bias - something which in my experience they are very loathe to do.

So, if you are complaining about bias would it perhaps be better to select the 'Accuracy' option from the drop-down list provided rather than the 'Bias' one, and then bring in the issue of bias when you finally get to the section where you are able to outline your complaint (in a sharply circumscribed number of words)?

Maybe, if you want to get a somewhat fairer hearing.

However, the BBC produces monthly stats detailing the categories of claims they receive, so if you don't select 'Bias' the monthly total in the 'Bias' column will look smaller than it really should be, making it appear as if the corporation has received fewer complaints about bias than it actually has. So I'd stick to selecting 'Bias' if you really are complaining about BBC bias.

These thoughts arise because (a) I've recently sent two complaints to the BBC (I'd better not say about what) and (b) because there was an interesting exchange at Biased BBC recently on this very subject. 

One commenter at B-BBC said "Do not complain to the BBC but tell everyone". Another replied that "doing nothing" was "NOT an option". The debate continued. 

Guest Who then joined the debate and made some points which I'd also like to echo here.

Yes, it can be very frustrating trying to make your way through the BBC's Complaint maze. I myself have often been guilty of giving up too soon. 

Others plough on though, Theseus-like (though without Ariadne's thread to help them). Even if they keep banging their hands against a brick wall or meeting a particularly bullish BBC Complaints Minotaur, on they go, doggedly. 

They can, sometimes, get somewhere.

It is, indeed, the only game in town, however rigged in the BBC's favour the process may feel (and be). 

It will also reveal to you how they tend to rely on formulaic responses,  how they skirt around the points you're making (even to the point of seeming to pretend not to have quite understood some of your strongest points), and how they frequently trot out something, anything, however feeble both they and you know it to be, especially when really caught out, simply in the hope (it seems) that you'll just sigh and give up.

You will, occasionally, get direct replies (as part of the Complaints Department response) from BBC editors or reporters. It can be interesting to hear (straight from the horse's mouth) how they try to account for themselves.

Plus your complaint will be on record, and the BBC will now be aware of what your are thinking. However small it may be you will have made a mark, which is better than not having made a mark.

Of course, there are plenty of other things you could do as well. 

You could (as I used to do) e-mail MPs and MEPs (especially the ones of the receiving end of some particular instance of bias). You could e-mail newspapers or specific journalists. You could tweet about it, put it on Facebook, sign petitions, keep commenting on BBC-related threats at lots of newspaper/magazine websites, or at all manner of blogs. You could even e-mail BBC journalists directly (and, if you're polite, some do reply). There are probably lots of other things you could do too.

Some complaints - and not just from powerful people and influential campaign groups - do succeed though, as I said earlier. 

A campaign based on this blog's earliest Sunday-related post provoked many complaints, and seems to have wrought a significant change in one aspect of Sunday - its guest selection on Catholic issues.

So it can work.

Take also BBC Watch's continued successes at getting the BBC to amend their web articles. The BBC Complaints department may not acknowledge their original error by e-mail, but the BBC website edits those offending articles nonetheless (on the sly, as it were). 

Plus, every so often, BBC Watch records a reader's success at getting a genuine concession from the Complaints department on top of that change to an article - albeit that complainant is usually one particular very dogged individual who refuses to give up. As Roy Castle used to say, dedication's all you need. Sometimes.

Well, I hope this ramble through the undergrowth of the BBC Complaints Department might give one or two of you some helpful insights. 

If you've not complained to the BBC before and you're feeling aghast at something they've done, why not give it a go?


  1. By far my most successful 'complaint' wasn't submitted via the complaints system at all. I wrote in exhaustive detail about the BBC country profile for Israel to the BBC Israeli-Palestinian Impartiality Review 2005. The submission was not acknowledged. But at some point without ever advertising it or advising me the entire profile was rewritten, essentially exactly as I had recommended.

    The moral, if there is one, is that on the rare occasions that the BBC calls for submissions take advantage of it.

    Another method for bypassing the system is to answer one of those "Are you in the area? If you are affected by the story please contact us using the form below" requests. This led to me being a participant on a World Have Your Say.

    Unfortunately the podcast is no longer available but getting my point across to presumably millions of people is surely worth more than a complaint essentially covering the same ground that one person, the employee charged with the responsibility for seeing that no complaints get through, reads.

    For some reason I can't link in my comment but BBC Israeli-Palestinian Impartiality Review 2005 and BBC World Have Your Say are available on the 5MFI.com website if you would like more detail.

  2. Today on the Saturday after Lee Rigbys murder broadcast an interview between Evan Davis and another bbc journalist who had the night before on Newsnight interviewed a friend of one of the jihadi killers. As you can imagine the Newsnight interview told a tale of woe. Innocent religious boy studying in Kenya as you do randomly arrested by evil cops sexually abused returned to UK where naturally mi 5 THEN persecuted him by banging on his door day and night. This would obviously drive Florence Nightingale to decapitation.

    Even more outrageously the said friend of the lovely devout boy had after being given free rein adversely to influence the Owen Jones types who are avid for Newsnight had himself been arrested by the police on the hallowed ground of bbc premises on the suspicion he might be a militant.

    As you can imagine EVan was outraged. Very outraged. The useful idiot from Newsnight and Evan outdid each other in expressing shock at how the security services had conspired to turn one model citizen into an understandable killer and another into an almost certainly wrongful arrested.

    I was enraged by this terrible sloppy stupid dangerous journalism and made a considered website complaint that it was the unbalanced broadcasting of propaganda.

    No response. I chased twice then complained about the failure to deal with my complaint. This elicited a response so curt and patronising it might have been Evan interviewing someone on one of his many areas of expertise. I gave up. I simply don't listen to Today any longer.


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