Saturday 11 April 2015

Complaining about 'PM' - A Cautionary Tale

Please brace yourselves for a very long post, but as we've been quiet for a few days (for various reasons)...

You may recall a post we did recently about an edition of Radio 4's PM (3 April) where UKIP appeared to be on the receiving end of an unusually high number of attacks (well, unusual for a single edition of a BBC current affairs programme during a general election that is.)

You may also recall Rod Liddle's take on the same programme at the Spectator:
I caught Radio 4 PM programme on the way home, on Friday. Its coverage of the debate consisted of taking three statements made during the debate and subjecting them to what they called statistical scrutiny. All three statements came from Nigel Farage and all three statements were deemed inaccurate by some supercilious bint. 
No other leader was subjected to similar scrutiny and even if the supercilious bint’s figures were correct, the points Farage made still pertained. (In other words, for example, while Farage said the vast majority of people obtaining new HIV treatment in the UK were health tourists, the supercilious bint pointed out this was only 54 per cent. And that some of those had every right to treatment etc, and might come from rich countries like the USA. Where of course they would have to pay for treatment, or have the requisite insurance, she failed to add.)
There was another dig at UKIP later in this execrable programme, during a piece of staggeringly unfunny “whimsy” about rail replacement bus services. I think I shall listen to PM each day until the election and monitor its commitment to fairness and impartiality. And then never, ever, listen to it again.

So, choosing the 'Bias' category [the one the BBC seems to like least], I put in the following complaint:
I wish to complain about the appalling level of anti-UKIP bias on PM on 3rd April.
Why did Ruth Alexander and Eddie Mair's review of the use of statistics during the leaders' debate begin with Nigel Farage, continue with Nigel Farage and end with Nigel Farage? Why were all of his facts found to be faulty? There were a lot of dodgy statistics used by all the party leaders, so why just pick on Nigel Farage?
Also, why did Carolyn Quinn's report from Hastings and Rye mention that the previous UKIP candidate there has been disgraced and forced to step down?
And why did Chris Mason's run-through of the spin from all the political parties in the debate omit UKIP's response?
And, finally, why was Guardian writer Gareth McLean's piece allowed to contain a negative assertion about the dangers of UKIP entering a coalition government?
This was on onslaught against UKIP and surely completely out-of-order during a general election. Please could this bias be dealt with as soon as possible and some redress given to UKIP.


The newly-arrived reply from the BBC Complaints department runs as follows:
Thank you for contacting us about ‘PM’ as broadcast on 3rd April 2015.
I understand you’re unhappy with the programme as you feel it was bias against UKIP on a number of occasions.
I appreciate your frustration with this and have reviewed the segment so as to provide further context with which to address your concerns however it should be noted PM is a very well known programme and it’s expected there will be political analysis and discussion on various aspects of the political arena.
I wish to stress BBC journalists are well aware of our commitment to impartial reporting and they are expected to put their own political views to one side when carrying out their work for the BBC.
That said it is not always possible or practical to reflect all the different opinions on a subject within individual programmes and our editors are charged to ensure that over a reasonable period they reflect the range of significant views, opinions and trends in their subject area.
More importantly the BBC does not seek to denigrate any view, nor to promote any view and it seeks rather to identify all significant views, and to test them rigorously and fairly on behalf of the audience.
In your correspondence you mention Ruth Alexander and Eddie Mair’s discussion regarding political statistics and you feel it was bias to mention only Nigel Farage however I should note Eddie Mair did support Farage with the statement ‘Well maybe he was not far off the point. Does that mean 54% are health care tourists?’. Furthermore they both come to the conclusion that Nigel’s statistics that one house needs to be built every seven minutes to cope with immigration was relatively correct.
Eddie also points out that anyone in the public can get facts checked, on any party, through BBC More or Less via Twitter.
You have also stated ‘Carolyn Quinn's report from Hastings and Rye mention that the previous UKIP candidate there has been disgraced and forced to step down’ however upon review Carolyn did not use the term ‘disgraced’.
Rather she explained Andrew Michael was chosen after the previous candidate was deselected and he is well known for his appearance on Gogglebox and we feel this is an accurate and fair explanation of the latest addition to the political arena in Hastings and Rye.
It should be noted the report also commented extensively of the Conservative candidate Amber Rudd, who we heard comment from and Sarah Owen of the Labour Party and it is common place when discussing the political climate of a constituency to include comments from a number of political candidates as was done in this case.
In reference to the comments made by Gareth McLean regarding a Conservative-UKIP coalition, you feel they were unfair and unnecessary and I’m sorry if Gareth’s attempts at humour fell short of the mark.
Throughout the segment Gareth mentioned many pop culture references and many socially recognised faux pas or clich├ęs in an attempt to report on rail replacement bus services with somewhat dry and loquacious humour.
I sorry the report did not meet your expectations and rest assured your feedback is very important to us. As such I have placed your concerns on an overnight report which is a document that is made available to senior staff, programme editors and news teams across the BBC. This means your comments can be seen quickly and can be consulted in future broadcasting and policy decisions.
Thanks again for getting in touch.
Kind regards
BBC Complaints

The BBC clearly gave a reasonable amount of time and effort to answering my complaint, which is re-assuring, and some of it makes sense to me...

...however, I don't think their answers were entirely satisfactory. And I shall explain why here.


My complaint came in four parts.


Part One had an ABA structure. (In other words, I repeated myself somewhat!):
Why did Ruth Alexander and Eddie Mair's review of the use of statistics during the leaders' debate begin with Nigel Farage, continue with Nigel Farage and end with Nigel Farage? Why were all of his facts found to be faulty? There were a lot of dodgy statistics used by all the party leaders, so why just pick on Nigel Farage? 
The BBC's answer, you will note, only tackled the 'B section' ("Why were all of his facts found to be faulty?") and didn't give an answer as to why, specifically, on the post-leaders' debate edition of PM, only UKIP' Nigel was picked on. 

The BBC respondent was right, however, to note that Eddie raised a counter-point over health tourism which appeared to offer Nigel some support...

...though he fails to mention that Ruth Alexander then subsequently poured several further buckets of cold water over it. 

Plus, the BBC respondent was also correct to note that Ruth's detailed and emphatic rubbishing of (around) four 'Farage facts' was then followed by one final stat which she found to be (as the BBC respondent puts it) 'relatively correct'...

...though the BBC respondent is simply wrong to claim that "both [Eddie and Ruth] come to the conclusion" about that being "relatively correct", as Eddie said absolutely nothing to back that statement up. [Please listen for yourselves to confirm that]. 

However, on the question of not answering my 'A section'...

Well, the (cookie-cutter) preliminary comments about the BBC's stance on impartiality...(more dots!)...

...[it's "not always possible or practical to reflect all the different opinions on a subject within individual programmes" & BBC editors are "charged to ensure that over a reasonable period they reflect the range of significant views, opinions and trends in their subject area"]...

...were, probably, taken (by the BBC respondent) to sufficiently answer the "Why just pick on Nigel Farage?" question. 

Having heard a fair few of these More or Less spots on PM I'm aware that other parties are (of course) the targets for regular statistical debunking too, but I've noticed lots of light and shade and frequent features investigating stats from two or three parties at one sitting. This feature simply hammered away at one party, almost entirely to the disadvantage of that party (UKIP). 

My complaint should probably have established that context. 

And I should have made much clearer the point that this edition was somewhat different, context-wise. It was the post-leaders' debate edition. 

Given that event's (apparent) singular importance, it should surely have been incumbent on the BBC to focus on the dodgy stats from a range of party leaders, so, in that context, why only pick on Nigel?


Part Two asked a single question: 
Also, why did Carolyn Quinn's report from Hastings and Rye mention that the previous UKIP candidate there has been disgraced and forced to step down? 
The BBC Complaints respondent enlightened me on the need to give different parties a platform during an election [well, blow me down with a feather! Who knew?!] and picked up on my misuse of the word "disgraced", correctly pointing out that it wasn't used by Carolyn Quinn. 

And the report did - as he says - merely use the word "deselected". 

Fair points.

He also told me that Carolyn's mentioning of the fact that the UKIP candidate appeared on Channel 4 reality show Gogglebox was fair because he's well-known for appearing on it. 

Fair point too. 

However, to be equally fair, (a) I didn't complain about Gogglebox - except here at ITBB - so that's completely irrelevant! and (b) it still leaves totally unanswered the point I was trying to make (ineptly, as it turns out): that there was no obvious need to mention that the previous UKIP candidate had been either "disgraced" or "deselected". 

Still, that's a reminder to always quote correctly when complaining to the BBC. Any failure to do so will be picked up on and used in evidence against you (and rightly so). 


Part Three also posed a single question: 
And why did Chris Mason's run-through of the spin from all the political parties in the debate omit UKIP's comments? 
I should have spelled out the point that only UKIP and Plaid were not heard from in this package. All the other five parties were featured, all saying how great they'd done. Ergo, UKIP was hard done-by. QED. [Ignoring Plaid!]

You will have noticed though - regardless of the intrinsic quality of my complaint - that this question was completely ignored by the BBC Complaints department. They simply didn't answer it. 

A bit naughty?


And, finally, Part Four was no less of a single question: 
And, finally, why was Guardian writer Gareth McLean's piece allowed to contain a negative assertion about the dangers of UKIP entering a coalition government? 
The BBC respondent sympathised with me for not getting Gareth's humour and explained to me what his piece was trying to achieve. I'm grateful. [For any passing non-Brits, that's an example of British irony.]

Unfortunately, he didn't answer the question I actually asked.  

Now, you may think it was an unreasonable question anyhow - and, as Lord Dobbs would say, I couldn't possibly comment - but, still, the point was skirted here by the BBC Complaints department, wasn't it? 


Conclusions: This complaint got nowhere.

The BBC really doesn't like dealing with complaints about 'Bias' and, I'd say, selecting 'Bias' from the drop-down list on the Complaints website is a fairly sure-fire way to ensure your complaint will be looked at very unsympathetically by the BBC.

However, if you don't select 'Bias' the BBC's stats will show one less complaint about bias.

I wasn't wholly convinced by my own complaint anyhow - though it, hopefully, raised some important points. Enough people (at the Spectator and Biased BBC), however, were outraged enough by this edition of PM to make it an interesting exercise in testing out the BBC's response.

The BBC Complaints Department guy did the best he could here, I think. He made the general points about balancing things out over time (which I fully accept). He spotted my slip and made use of it against me. He didn't answer the parts that the BBC didn't want to answer.

However, there were some slips on his part too - and a certain slipperiness overall that, from my experience, is all part and parcel of the BBC Complaints process...

...though it shouldn't be.


  1. I think your complaint will have a positive effect. I doubt they'll ever again put UKIP exclusively in the fact-checking dock.

    But should the BBC be setting itself up as the "ultimate arbiter" - an all-seeing fact-checker? I doubt it. Whenever I hear Ruth Alexander pontificating, it's pretty clear a lot depends on your assumptions and what you count in or out. Question and elucidate - but it's not the job of the BBC to set themselves as judge and jury.

  2. That wasn't such a bad response, really. Some answers were good, some unsatisfactory, but there was an effort more than there was a sneer. I think it's pretty obvious they went to Mair or a producer for a response on one point as well, and of course were going to go with their interpretation of what someone thought he meant to say, rather than what actually happened.

    As for the McLean bit, I think you'll find they did answer your question, and used a standard BBC line of defense. They excused the negative remark by claiming "humor". It was humor on the correct side of an issue, so no problem.

    1. Yes, I probably should have made it clearer in the post that I appreciated the effort that had gone into this response, some of which I agreed with.

      You could well be right about them going to 'PM' for part of the response, given that anyone who listened to the programme couldn't themselves have heard Eddie agreeing with Ruth on the housing point (as it never happened).

      The BBC's one-sided sense of humour seems to be one of those biases that everyone accepts. It's just the way is it. Shrug.

  3. Good to offer credit where due, but clearly an exception to too many ignoble BBC 'rules'.

    As you know, I had a smug blow-off recently to a complaint that, at best, cited other media in excuse, and flat-out ignored almost all the tangible key points I made, with no hint that a follow-up was legitimate if unsatisfied.

    I am frankly livid, and determined to pursue this, which of course eats into time on 'other projects', which get kicked further down the line. At least the source material expands once the template is in place.

    The 'bias' category is still worth pursuing on a logging basis, but they will cheer when they see it. It's a licence to launch into pure subjective semantics 'til the cows come home.

    I also concern myself with them setting up replies on various degrees of grammar nazidom and procedural (namely theirs) box-ticking.

    You, I and many others who have raised concerns with the BBC can be surely judged to string a sentence and an argument together pretty well, marshalling facts, etc.

    So quite how a member of the public not blessed with perfect English usage or the mind of a barrister is meant to fare with their hurdle-jumping demands is beyond me. It is simply elitist and exclusionary.

    And you are right about any chink in the armour of argument; it will be zeroed in on and used to ignore anything else, usually the substantive issue, to the exclusion of all else.

    Which is where you issue a BBC standard apology (ie: a non one), drop that part, and persist.

    And finally, as any parent of toddlers to teenagers will tell the BBC, if caught out the response... 'but, but just... jooookiiiing!' getting used is a) confirmation bang to rights and b) pathetic.

    He is a one degree of separation shill brought on to say what they would like to be really can't. Humo(u)r is fine, but if it is subjective to the point of being misunderstood, or deliberately used to hide behind...

    It. Does. Not. Wash.

    1. I see what you mean about how using the 'bias' allows them free range to make the whim of subjectivity a flexible get-out clause. It's something I sort-of learned before but keep failing to remember. Chalking up a mark on the 'bias' tally may (as Lynette points out) show that people are worried about bias, but who actually reads those stats? Or cares?

      I can well imagine how offputting the BBC Complaints process must be for the public. I've learned to copy-and-paste my complaint so that I remember what it actually said. You need to have EXACTLY what you originally wrote at hand when you received their reply, as they don't include it and every dot and scintilla of what you wrote will be brought into play by the BBC if it helps them 'answer' your complaint to their satisfaction.

    2. The complaint categories are of course set by the BBC and are designed to be restrictive. It's just one of the first of many deliberate hurdles.

      It also let's them set the structure to suit.

      For instance, I just went to the Complaints page and these... are the biggest complaint around at the moment?:

      12 APRIL 2015
      Have I Got News For You, BBC One, April 2015
      We received complaints from people who were unhappy that Jeremy Clarkson was to appear as a guest host on Have I Got News For You.

      7 APRIL 2015
      BBC News at Six and Ten, BBC One, 23 March, 2015
      We received complaints from some viewers who felt there was too much coverage of James Landale's interview with David Cameron and that it was biased in favour of the Prime Minister

      Be interesting to see how my FOI on how these featured complaints are tabulated to appear will fare (I jest, it will be exempted from answer).

      Back to the categories, these are:

      Bias - worth keeping them on their toes, but the chances of pushing past the initial levels to ECU or beyond slim as belief and semantics kick in immediately.

      Factual error or inaccuracy - the big beast. They have to tackle this one. You just need to dot every 'i' and cross every 't'. And don't allow a strawman to creep in. It is why your recent one succeeded. But... they will try to start a tangent. Or drag it out until the whole thing is well moved on from. Also, if they concede (which they hate), it stays a nice little secret between you and them, at best mentioned in a dark corner of their online world. I am not even sure it does register internally with senior management.

      Offence - see 'Bias'. The exact reverse to how Racism accusations work, yet ironically the BBC loves reporting these 'perceptions'.

      Poor Quality - see 'Bias'. What does that even mean?

      Scheduling - see 'Bias'. I think it just gives them a means to let those who don't use iPlayer vent. I have used it for HYS comments closing only in working hours.

      Standards of interviewing/presenting - see 'Bias'. But a better option than 'Bias' if you can't nail them on facts or accuracy. There's wiggle room.

      Too much coverage - See 'Bias'. Prove it.

      Not enough coverage - See 'Too Much Coverage'.

      Other - Worth a try setting your own category, but I don't think I have ever tried to see what happens. I'm pretty sure it gets sent straight to a black hole. The BBC are VERY good at using their own format demands to blow off stuff they say doesn't fit.

      Just my experience.

      I cut and paste out of their online form at every stage as it can glitch-out and send you back to square one, snakes-wise. I also don't trust them on answering what was asked.

      Each complaint therefore is stored in a file with the relevant URL, a page grab of the page (if online), the complaint page grab and the text. Then all exchanges subsequently added to the file.

      Trouble is, while 'we' are many and 'they' are few, on such complaints it's an unpaid, time-poor person vs. a paid cadre with all the time in the world to make things go away. I have had replies (always 'sorry for the delay'... when they will not entertain any reply past BBC-assigned deadlines, and the file is shut) come in at 3am.

      Your point on precision (along with Umbongo's on multiples below) is well taken.

      <1500 characters is good discipline, though we have discussed how the BBC can cause real problems as they take that, add to it, yet expect a detailed reply back to their 'Start at Go' re-entry level to fit.

      And I have noticed vast variation on what they acknowledge, assign a code to, and quote back, so you really need a great archive tracking system.

      All being added to the 'Advice' section to the coming Forum.

  4. Bit late to this one but, as a genuine enquiry, why do you avoid numbering your paragraphs and sub-paragraphs in your complaints? I notice when you commented on the BBC response that, for the purposes of analysis, you divided up your original list of complaints into 4. Would it not have been more effective when making the original compliant to have listed them under 1, 2, 3 etc? For instance, your first complaint is actually 3 related ones. So the complaint concerning all the facts found to be faulty would have been numbered 1.1 or 1(b)
    Of course, the various terms and conditions imposed by the BBC in its complaints regime might preclude such an arrangement. Moreover, I realise I’m probably trying to teach grandma to suck eggs or that you do indeed use a numbering arrangement but, when reporting on them, omit the numbering.
    Nevertheless, when I complain to intransigent governmental authorities or big corporate I find that single one-off complaints are usually (although by no means universally) addressed even if generally rejected at first instance. Where I have sent multiple complaints within a single communication, arranging them in the manner suggested makes it rather more difficult for the responder to avoid any particular point or makes such avoidance, evasion or dodge more obvious.

    1. Be good to get a 'follow' or 'comment' posted alert as you can BBBC, eh?

      Still, that format suffers other issues, so all have their pros and cons.

      Numbering can be effective, especially in the <1500 format. It also saves wasting space being nice or chatty with someone who signs off 'kind regards' having just spent a page wasting space blowing off what you were not complaining about.

      I saw its value in the 'Future of the BBC' submission I had selected for publication. I took their format and filed using 1.1.a.i, bang, bang, bang... and it worked well.

      You raise a dilemma, though. Often a complaint is composed of separate points, if related.

      The BBC loves this.

      They can easily spin off on a tangent one sets that suits and ignore a key one that they don't like.

      Best to get the killer up front and the lessers if still necessary in line.

      But it will most likely see a re-submission needed if they don't answer in full, and especially the core question.

      And they will log their failure to answer as a strike against you being flippant and/or vexatious if you persist trying to get an answer.

    2. No, you're right, I really should have numbered this complaint.

      Previously, before the 1,500 limit was imposed, you could paragraph your complaint, but now any paragraphing is automatically cancelled out by the BBC's system, resulting in one single paragraph.

      Using their format, as Peter did, sounds sensible, especially given that compressing of the complaint's layout.

      Had I done that part 3 of my complaint might have been answered.

  5. By way of... not quite sure how to categorise, let's go with... information, I have had a reply to an FOI:

    Karma has a cheeky sense of humour, clearly. I used numbering, but probably asked too many questions.

    I had forgotten that, in addition to 'we don't have to tell you because we don't want to, and 'purposes of journalism, art and literature', there is also 'we are allowed not to tell you because being transparent costs money, so we can keep secrets by saying we're saving money'.

    Net result: no answers. So basically at the BBC you can can be disciplined or fired, or not, for anything minor or major in assault and/or battery terms, depending on secret internal management whims, and nobody will ever be the wiser. Scanning the waffle quickly, it seems surprising they don't know at least how many cases of actual battery there have been, enough to get escalated to senior management and what the outcomes were. Most now will be aware of one recently that resulted in a BBC-trumpeted termination of contract, while some may be aware how that of Editor but eventual DG Thompson stalled at mid-level.

    It's all pretty unique.

    1. The 'two and a half days rule' to the rescue.

      From the short bit about how they record - or fail to record - incidents of violence, they don't seem to monitor such things with anything like the care you'd expect for a large public organisation like the BBC. It doesn't sound very professional.

      Is their 'monitoring' of 'impartiality' as poor as this? Do they actually properly monitor their output?

    2. "Is their 'monitoring' of 'impartiality' as poor as this? Do they actually properly monitor their output?"

      Short answer to both is 'who knows'? They clearly devote a lot to ensuring no one outside the hive finds out.

      What is interesting is they (certainly senior management) claim it... alllll the time. How do they know? What is the measure? Of course pursue that and they will go very coy, very quickly. Ironic.

      So the BBC makes claims they are unprepared to back up. Imagine any interviewee trying that with a BBC terrier? And how that would be edited and spread around the network?

  6. Peter/Craig - thanks for the info. I haven't complained to the BBC for years: more to do with my wife's concerns over my blood pressure than dawning satisfaction with the BBC's unique product. Can I just note my admiration for you guys - and others - who keep plugging away? I hope your efforts are the drip drip drip of water which, in the end, wears away the stone.

    1. Tx, Umbongo; means a lot. I know what you mean about family concerns! My wife does get worried, especially when she sees my speaking freely bringing unwelcome institutional attention down on us.

      It's guys like Craig and Sue with ITBB, BBBC, BBC Watch etc who are doing the heavy lifting on exposing the sheer extent of what is being carried out by the BBC daily in a formalised way with these blogs/Forums, and I hope to add my own small contribution soon focussing on the complaints and FOI aspects. Just sharing facts and utterly gobsmacking responses and shut-down attempts for the wider public to assess.

      The BBC seems less than keen when folk do this, which is odd for an organisation that claims to be so trusted and transparent. So I see a niche.

      The trick is to secure a wider audience and this then attracts others, from media to political heavyweights, who can learn more and rattle cages.

      What governs this intrigues me. BBBC is the 'big beast', with 40M+ visits. I can't fathom why here and BBC Watch do not get more as the calibre of analysis is more forensic frankly.

      Certainly the basis of much harder to dismiss complaints.

      I do it because they have to know that they are being held to account, and even though the 'success rate' is woeful thanks to the BBC rigging every aspect of the process, if these complaints have merit I see the BBC getting disconcerted even if they have managed to suppress them from their own pages.

      There is also the slim chance that if indeed these complaints are circulated and read as claimed, a professional glimmer flickers with a reporter or editor or top tier management that maybe they are screwing up so royally, so publicly, so often, because they do control the entire thing internally and in secret, and are actually unaccountable.

      Not healthy on a check or balance basis at all.

  7. By coincidence, this just arrived...

    Guess what!:

    "The information you have requested is excluded from the Act because it is held for the purposes of ‘journalism, art or literature.’ The BBC is therefore not obliged to provide this information to you and will not be doing so on this occasion."

    Given what I asked for, I don't think they are doing themselves many favours with such a response.

    Basically, the BBC is saying the facts of what they publish or do not are secret in case they show a trend that could by analysed to show clear bias or censorship.

    I can see why they are not keen, but telling to have it confirmed.

  8. OK, any advice I offer on technique.... ignore.

    Clearly they have all bases I can think of covered.

    First there's the blanket 'exempted from answering'.

    Then there's the 'too expensive to answer'.

    Now there's the 'not phrased in the way we like, so not answering':

    I'll need to ponder this one. A quick skim sees some fat that can be trimmed, but the questions are clear enough and all related as data under the same broad topic. But I notice them already setting up for a 'too expensive' bail already should my trying to clarify their claimed failure to understand nudge things into another exemption zone.

    Not sure whether to edit down or split things up.

    It's getting pretty silly now. I suspect, on their part, just as intended.


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