BBC Trust: “no requirement for re-edited material to be flagged to the viewer”

The BBC’s Trust Unit has confirmed that there is “no requirement for re-edited material to be flagged to the viewer” and defended the corporation’s lack of “a formal policy obliging it to supply the source of substituted material on request”.

An earlier BBC Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) finding had upheld my complaint that the swapping of Syria footage between two August 2014 broadcasts had breached BBC accuracy standards.

The new comments, reproduced in full below, were made by Trust Adviser Leanne Buckle in a rejection of my further complaint to the Trust about the ethics of substituting footage without acknowledgement and the BBC’s refusal to identify the source of the substituted images.

In earlier correspondence, ECU Director Colin Tregear had stated imperiously:

You have been given an explanation as to why the footage was changed; there is no reason why the audience should be made aware that any such editing has taken place; and BBC News is under no obligation to tell you the source of the substituted images which were broadcast.

After expressing my astonishment at these remarks Mr Tregear replied:

In response to your comment about the paragraph in my email which you found “astonishing”, I can only say the point I was making was that there is no formal policy which obliges BBC News to inform viewers that footage has been changed or to confirm when asked the source of material used.  It is a matter for BBC News to decide whether to provide that information.

In my subsequent (“Stage 2”) complaint to the ECU I had asked Mr Tregear to consider:

How your remarks of 26 May 2015 sit with the BBC’s remit as a public service broadcaster, funded by British license fee payers.

How the BBC’s lack of a formal policy obliging it to inform viewers a) that news footage has been changed and b) when requested, of the source of substituted material sits with the BBC’s remit as a public service broadcaster, funded by British license fee payers.

On these points the Trust Unit, which represents Stage 3 of the BBC complaints process, now writes:

The Trust Adviser confirmed that as a rule there would be no requirement for re-edited material to be flagged to the viewer and agreed with the ECU that the decision to do so did not engage the editorial guidelines.

Finally the Trust Adviser noted the complainant’s query as to how it could be consistent with the BBC’s remit as a public service broadcaster for there not to be a formal policy obliging it to supply the source of substituted material on request. The Trust Adviser noted from her review of the correspondence that the complainant now knew where the substituted images came from and when they were first broadcast on the BBC. The Trust Adviser did not consider that the absence of a formal policy on the matter was an indication that the BBC was not accountable to its audiences nor did she consider that it was a matter that engaged the editorial guidelines.

At Stage 2 I had also asked Mr Tregear to clarify the criteria of “taste and decency” which BBC Complaints had previously invoked as grounds for substituting the Syria images. On this the Trust Unit now states:

The Trust Adviser considered these were generally matters of editorial discretion and did not engage the guidelines…

She noted also that the replacement images depicted an incident of a similar nature to the attack discussed in the commentary. The Trust Adviser did not consider there to be any issues which engaged the guidelines beyond those already dealt with in the ECU finding.

The BBC Trust Unit’s decision in full is below.


BBC Trust
British Broadcasting Corporation
180 Great Portland Street
London W1W 5QZ

T. 020 3214 4994
bbc.co.uk/bbctrust

Mr Robert Stuart
By email:

Our Ref: 3490798

21 September 2015

Dear Mr Stuart

BBC News Channel, “Syria Vote: One Year On”, 30 August 2014

Thank you for writing to the BBC Trust. I am responding to your appeal of 11 August 2015. You appealed to the Trust about the re-editing of an item for the News Channel which had first been broadcast on the previous evening’s Newsnight on BBC Two. You considered it was unethical not to have advised the audience that an edit had occurred and the reasons for it. You also say that the BBC should have supplied the source of the substituted images when asked.

I am sorry to send a disappointing response, but I have assessed your complaint and do not intend to put it before Trustees. The detailed reasons for my decision are in the following annex. In the second annex are relevant sections of the BBC’s complaints procedures and the Charter and Agreements which you may find helpful.

If you disagree with my decision, you can ask the Trustees to review it by contacting the Complaints Adviser, at trust.editorial@bbc.co.uk or at the above address, by 6 October 2015. Your request must be in one document and in fewer than a thousand words. Trustees will only exceptionally give more time, so if you do need longer, please reply giving your reasons as soon as possible.

If you do ask the Trustees to review this decision, that request as well as your original appeal letter and this letter will be put before Trustees. Your previous correspondence will be available to them. They will consider it in either their October or November meeting. Their decision is likely to be finalised by the following month and will then be given to you.

If the Trustees agree that your case has no reasonable prospect of success then it will not be taken further as their decision is final. The decision will be published in the next complaints bulletin. If the Trustees disagree with my decision, then your complaint will be passed to an independent Editorial Adviser to prepare appeal paperwork and you will be informed of the new time scale for your appeal.

Yours sincerely

Leanne Buckle

Senior Editorial Adviser

Annex 1 – BBC News Channel, “Syria Vote: One Year On”, 30 August 2014

The complaint concerned a report which was first broadcast on BBC Two Newsnight one year after the House of Commons voted against British military action in Syria. It was transmitted after the watershed and included graphic sequences of the immediate aftermath of a chemical weapons attack on civilians. The item was shown again on the News Channel and also broadcast around the world on BBC World News. The report was re-edited prior to being rebroadcast to remove those images which were considered unsuitable for pre-watershed viewing.

This was the commentary which ran alongside the sequence:

“By chance, just as MPs voted, these images of a chemical attack were shown for the first time”

The complainant said that the substituted images were from a different event or events but that the commentary accompanying the relevant sequences was unchanged.He asked whether the commentary was still accurate, given that it stated that the images were “shown for the first time… just as MPs voted”. He asked

  • why the change was made
  • why the viewer was not been told there had been changes
  • the source of the new images

At Stage 1 Audience Services said that the changes of pictures were editorially justified and did not change the journalistic integrity of the item. Audience Services explained that as the item was being shown to audiences elsewhere in different time zones, the BBC had “to be more careful in terms of taste and decency”.

At Stage 2 the Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) noted that although the August 2013 date stamp which was on the original sequence did not appear on the substituted images, the narration remained unchanged. This continued to inform the audience that the footage was being shown for the first time on the evening of the vote in August 2013, whereas it was material which had first been broadcast three months prior, of a different alleged chemical attack, in Saraqeb, Northern Syria.

The ECU advised the complainant that the editing was done by the Newsnight team shortly after the programme went off air, and after the reporter had left the studio and that the failure to check the soundtrack was an editorial oversight. The ECU said that the substitution of the pictures would not have affected viewers’ understanding of the matters under discussion and there had been no intention to mislead. Nevertheless the audience for the News Channel version were given the impression they were seeing footage of an attack which was being shown for the first time just before MPs voted, and thus the ECU decided that the item had breached the accuracy guideline.

The ECU published the following finding on the BBC’s corrections and clarifications page:

News Channel, 30 August 2014: Finding by the Editorial Complaints Unit

Complaint
The channel re-broadcast an item about the first anniversary of the Commons vote against military intervention in Syria, originally shown in the previous evening’s edition of Newsnight. A viewer complained that footage of an attack on Syrian civilians (the authenticity of which he has questioned in another context) had been replaced in the item as re-broadcast by footage of an earlier incident. As the presenter said the footage in question had first been broadcast “just as MPs voted”, the result was misleading to viewers.

Outcome
After coming off the air, the Newsnight team had replaced the original footage with less graphic footage of a different incident, with a view to making the item more suitable to be re-shown before the watershed. However, the soundtrack was not checked, and it was not noticed that the substitution rendered the presenter’s comment inaccurate. The result was inadvertently misleading to viewers of the item as re-broadcast.
Upheld

Further action
The finding bas been discussed with the production team, and Newsnight’s internal compliance procedure has been amended to ensure that, in similar circumstances, the duty editor will view any picture recuts prior to approving the script.

Appeal

The complainant appealed to the BBC Trust on 11 August 2015. He asked Trustees to consider the following outstanding points:

  • what criteria did the BBC apply in determining the “taste and decency” of images
  • what criteria did the BBC apply to the images which were substituted in place of those deemed unsuitable.
  • why was the BBC not obliged to inform viewers when it had substituted material
  • why is the BBC not obliged to provide the source of substituted material when asked

Decision of the Trust Adviser

The Trust Adviser decided that the complainant’s appeal did not have a reasonable prospect of success.

The Trust Adviser noted that the substance of the complaint had already been dealt with by the finding of the Editorial Complaints Unit that the item had breached the guideline on accuracy: in the version which was shown on the News Channel the audience was wrongly informed that the pictures they were seeing were being shown for the first time as MPs voted on military action against Syria, whereas they had in fact been shown three months previously.

The Trust Adviser noted the explanation provided to the complainant; namely, that it was human error that the Newsnight team did not consider the commentary when the original sequence was replaced with images considered more suitable for a pre-watershed audience. The Trust Adviser noted and agreed with the ECU finding that the substituted images would not have altered viewers’ understanding of the matters under discussion.

The Trust Adviser considered the complainant’s queries about how the BBC assessed images for “taste and decency”, and the criteria it used in determining which images were suitable for substitution. The Trust Adviser considered these were generally matters of editorial discretion and did not engage the guidelines. She noted that programme makers had access to guidance on the depiction of violence in news and current affairs output, which was cross-referenced in the section on Harm and Offence in the Editorial Guidelines and available online at
http://www.bbc.co.uk/editorialguidelines/page/guidance-violence-news/

She concluded that the programme makers appeared to have taken appropriate account of the guidance in making the decision to substitute a number of images. She noted also that the replacement images depicted an incident of a similar nature to the attack discussed in the commentary. The Trust Adviser did not consider there to be any issues which engaged the guidelines beyond those already dealt with in the ECU finding.

The Trust Adviser considered the complainant’s point querying why the audience wasn’t informed that the material had been edited and some of the images replaced. She noted the ECU’s observation that the issue did not raise a potential breach of the BBC’s editorial standards. She noted that it is standard practice for items to be reedited for any number of reasons and that this would not be an issue for Trustees unless the impact of the edit misled the audience in some way (as for example it was found to have done in failing to re-edit the commentary when the original pictures were replaced). The Trust Adviser confirmed that as a rule there would be no requirement for re-edited material to be flagged to the viewer and agreed with the ECU that the decision to do so did not engage the editorial guidelines.

Finally the Trust Adviser noted the complainant’s query as to how it could be consistent with the BBC’s remit as a public service broadcaster for there not to be a formal policy obliging it to supply the source of substituted material on request. The Trust Adviser noted from her review of the correspondence that the complainant now knew where the substituted images came from and when they were first broadcast on the BBC. The Trust Adviser did not consider that the absence of a formal policy on the matter was an indication that the BBC was not accountable to its audiences nor did she consider that it was a matter that engaged the editorial guidelines.

Taking this into account the Adviser considered Trustees would be likely to conclude that the appeal did not have a reasonable prospect of success. She therefore did not consider it was appropriate, proportionate or cost-effective to proceed with the appeal and did not propose to put it before Trustees.

Annex 2

The Trust is the last stage of the complaints process and everyone who works within the Trust Unit is outside the day-to-day operations of the BBC. We review the complaints that come to us to assess whether they should be put before the BBC’s Trustees for them to reach a final decision. We read the correspondence in each case and also review the relevant BBC content in order to make this assessment.

The Trust acts in the interests of all licence-fee payers and it would not be proportionate, appropriate or cost-effective to spend a good deal of time and money on cases that do not stand a realistic prospect of success.

For information about the complaints system – and in particular about how the BBC Trust fits in – this is the web link:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/governance/complaints_framework/

All BBC output is required to meet the standards set out in the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines. These are written by the BBC and are commissioned and approved by the BBC Trust. They are publicly available and can be found through this link: www.bbc.co.uk/editorialguidelines. Where a complaint relates to a potential breach of the Editorial Guidelines, we will refer to the relevant Guidelines in our response.

The Trust’s Editorial Appeals procedure states that:

The Trust will only consider an appeal if it raises “a matter of substance”. [1] This will ordinarily mean that in the opinion of the Trust there is a reasonable prospect that the appeal will be upheld as amounting to a breach of the Editorial Guidelines. In deciding whether an appeal raises a matter of substance, the Trust may consider (in fairness to the interests of all licence fee payers in general) whether it is appropriate, proportionate and cost-effective to consider the appeal. [2}

For non-editorial complaints, the relevant procedures can be found through the link given above. However, in general, the Trust only considers appeals which raise “a matter of substance” and for non-editorial complaints this means appeals will only be considered which relate to “…significant issues of general importance”.

Again, the Trust operates in the interests of all licence-fee payers and will bear in mind whether it is appropriate, proportionate and cost-effective to consider the appeal.

The BBC’s complaints system has three stages. Complaints are answered at stage one by BBC Audience Services. Complainants who remain dissatisfied after this can request a further response at stage one. If they are still dissatisfied they may be able to escalate their complaint to stage two, where their complaint will either be answered by the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit or by a senior manager within the relevant division. The third and final stage is an appeal to the Trust. Time frames are set throughout the complaints process and complaints that are made outside those limits will only exceptionally be considered.

Under the Complaints Framework, it is open to the BBC to decline to correspond further about a complaint. The BBC can do this at any stage if it considers the complaint is trivial, misconceived, hypothetical, repetitious or otherwise vexatious. It can also stop replying to an editorial complaint that does not raise an issue of a breach of the Editorial Guidelines. The complainant can appeal to the Trust if they consider the BBC is wrong to stop corresponding about their complaint.

Where a complainant appeals to the Trust in these circumstances, if Trustees agree that the BBC was wrong to close down correspondence, the complaint will be sent back to the BBC for a further response. It will remain open to the complainant to appeal again to the Trust once the BBC has finished responding.

The Royal Charter and accompanying Agreement between the Secretary of State and the BBC draw a distinction between the role of the BBC Trust and that of the BBC Executive Board, led by the Director-General. “The direction of the BBC’s editorial and creative output” and “The operational management of the BBC” are defined as duties that are the responsibility of the Executive Board under paragraph 38, (1)(b) and (1)(c).

These are important because they are intended to protect the BBC’s editorial freedom and independence. They mean that the BBC is entitled to make editorial decisions without the Trust’s intervention – and the Trust would only have a role if, for example, a complaint raised a matter that was a potential breach of the BBC’s editorial standards (as set out in the Editorial Guidelines).

Similarly, the BBC is entitled to make operational decisions without interference and the Trust would only have a role if the BBC was potentially in breach of any of its other commitments – for example, if one of the licence-fee funded services has not operated within the terms set out in its Service Licence.

A high proportion of complaints that reach the Trust are either about editorial and creative decisions or operational decisions. However, it is outside the remit of the Trust to consider those complaints. Examples of the kind of complaints that Trustees would not be able to consider are:

  • a particular programme should not have been made
  • a contributor was not a good guest for a programme
  • a complainant disagreed with the line of questioning taken by an interviewer
  • a complainant was upset that a scheduled programme was not broadcast

[1] Under the Charter and Agreement, the Trust has a role as final arbiter in appropriate cases, and must provide a right of appeal in cases that raise a matter of substance.

[2] For example, if an appeal raises a relatively minor issue that would be complicated, time-consuming or expensive to resolve, the Trust may decide that the appeal does not raise a matter of substance, and decline to consider it.

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