Below is the BBC Trust’s response to my appeal (15 October) against BBC Audience Services’ decision (27 August) not to respond further to my complaint* regarding potential breaches of the Geneva Convention by BBC presenter Dr Saleyha Ahsan.
Our ref: 3467532
26 November 2015
Dear Mr Stuart
Decision of BBC Audience Services not to respond further to your complaint about The Truth About Fat, BBC One, 2 April 2015
Thank you for writing to the BBC Trust. I am responding to your appeal of 15 October 2015. The BBC has informed you that it does not wish to respond further to your complaint, and the point I have considered is whether you have been given a reasonable response to your original complaint.
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 email@example.com or at the above address, by 11 December 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 and your previous correspondence will also be available to them. They will consider it in their January meeting. Their decision is likely to be finalised 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 back to the BBC for a further response.
Senior Editorial Adviser
Annex 1— Decision of BBC Audience Services not to respond further to complaint about The Truth About Fat, BBC One, 2 April 2015
The complaint concerned the external activities of the programme’s presenter, which the complainant believed had brought the BBC into disrepute. The complainant made the following points about the presenter:
- Her external activities breached editorial guideline 15.4.5,1 in the following
- She had committed breaches of international humanitarian law:
- Photographs of a captive, taken in Libya in October 2011 and published on the presenter’s Facebook page, breached Articles 3 and 27 of the Geneva Convention.2
- The presenter’s Facebook page contained images from Libya, of her posing with armed groups that included children. In all the photographs in which she appeared, the presenter’s pleasure was apparent.
- These photographs had been removed from the presenter’s Facebook
- Her “chilling attitude towards children and armed conflict” was further evidenced in her dramatisation of her Libyan experiences,3 which included the following passage:
“a 17-year-old boy who’s been separated from his brigade and is desperate to get back to them. You can tell he’s seen action, the way he holds himself, his eyes always focussing somewhere else — he needs his unit”.4
This passage indicated the author’s instinct was that the child’s most urgent need was to be reunited with a military unit rather than with his family or a counsellor.
- Her attitude towards the participation of children in armed fighting units demonstrated a lack of concern for their physical and psychological wellbeing.
- In a 2013 edition of Panorama,5 she was shown volunteering with a charity (the first charity). Until July 2014, the Facebook banner of the first charity’s co-founder read: “WE WILL BRING ASSAD TO JUSTICE; NO MATTER WHAT LIVES IT TAKES, NO MATTER HOW MUCH CATASTROPHE IT MAKES.” These sentiments were in stark contrast to the first charity’s declared purpose of “the advancement of health or saving lives”.6
- The complainant also noted that a nurse who appeared with the presenter in the 2013 edition of Panorama7 was pictured online in the first charity’s tunic, apparently treating the battle wounds of child combatants.
- He stated that research into the first charity had been submitted to the Police and the Charity Commission. This noted the partnership between the first charity and a second charity, whose founder and former Chief Executive was facing fraud charges. In an email of 19 December 2014 to an unidentified recipient, the second charity’s Operations Co-ordinator wrote: “… Special Branch have also been in contact with [the second charity], and we have no doubt that they will also have been making investigations with [the first charity].
- In 2014, the presenter spoke at an event organised by Cage.8 Cage had been described as a “terrorism advocacy group” by The Daily Telegraph and as “extremist” by the Prime Minister.
The complainant also made allegations concerning the decision9 of the Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee (ESC) not to proceed with a complaint about the 2013 edition of Panorama. As the ESC’s adjudication was fina1,10 these allegations are not considered further.
Audience Services made the following points:
- The presenter was a practising accident and emergency doctor, and was already part of the presenting team for BBC Two health series Trust Me, I’m A Doctor.
- The Truth About Fat was commissioned by BBC Science, alongside The Truth About Calories, for BBC One. It was felt appropriate for both programmes to have a presenter with medical expertise, and in both cases a presenter from Trust Me, I’m A Doctor was selected.
- A primary consideration in selecting this presenter was that she had a particular interest in the subject, having previously presented related items for Trust Me, I’m A Doctor. Furthermore, the presenter was prepared to undergo medical tests on camera, the results of which would give the audience insights into how fat behaved within the body.
- In the event, the presenter delivered the programme content with the mix of authority and personal engagement that was required to make the subject accessible to a non-specialist audience.
- No criminal charges had been brought against the presenter in relation to the publication of photographs on Facebook, and no judgments had been issued against her. Any such proceedings would be taken into account when considering a presenter’s suitability for a role.
- The presenter’s role as a presenter did not break any Editorial Guidelines on Impartiality or Conflicts of Interest, and there were no grounds to exclude her from presenting BBC programmes.
Audience Services said they had nothing further to add, and that they did not believe the complaint had raised an issue that justified further investigation.
The complainant appealed to the BBC Trust on the substance of his complaint.
Decision of the Trust Adviser
The Trust Adviser read the correspondence that had passed between the BBC and the complainant. She understood that BBC Audience Services had decided not to correspond further with the complainant after Stage 1 and had not offered him the opportunity to seek a further, more detailed, response at stage 2. She decided that the point she should consider was whether the complainant’s appeal against the decision of Audience Services not to correspond further had a reasonable prospect of success —she decided it did not.
The Trust Adviser noted that the complainant had made no complaint of a breach of editorial standards arising from the content of the output in question. Instead, he had made allegations that were not directly related to the output. He had also sought to revive a complaint that had previously been considered by the ESC.
The Trust Adviser noted that the Royal Charter and the accompanying Agreement between the Secretary of State and the BBC draw a distinction between the respective roles of the Trust and the BBC’s Executive Board. Paragraph 38(1)(b) of the Royal Charter specifically defines the “the direction of the BBC’s editorial and creative output” as a duty that is the responsibility of the Executive Board, while paragraph 9(3) states that “the Trust must not exercise or seek to exercise the functions of the Executive Board”. Therefore, the Trust will not involve itself in any matter concerning the direction of the BBC’s editorial and creative output unless, for example, it gives rise to a potential breach of the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines.
In the Adviser’s view, decisions about the choice of presenter concerned the direction of the BBC’s editorial and creative output, and were therefore not a matter for the Trust, unless they gave rise to a potential breach of the Editorial Guidelines.
The Trust Adviser noted the allegation that the presenter’s external activities had breached Editorial Guideline 15.4.5, which states:
“The external activities of BBC editorial staff, reporters and presenters should not undermine the public’s perception of the impartiality, integrity or independence of BBC output. External activities should not bring the BBC into disrepute …”.
The Trust Adviser noted that the photographs that were the subject of complaint were no longer publicly available on the presenter’s Facebook page. She also noted that the presenter had not been charged, prosecuted or convicted in connection with the publication of any of those photographs. In the Trust Adviser’s view, unless and until the question of the legality of their publication had been determined by a court of law, the complainant’s allegation that the presenter had committed breaches of international humanitarian law was unproven.
Similarly, the Trust Adviser noted that the first charity had not been charged, prosecuted or convicted in connection with any alleged illegal activity, and that there was no evidence that, when working as a doctor for the first charity, the presenter had engaged in any illegal activity.
The Trust Adviser also noted that the presenter did not have a high media profile, was not a well-known ‘personality’, and had parallel careers in medicine and drama, from which the Trust Adviser inferred that the presenter was unlikely to be closely associated with the BBC in the public mind. Furthermore, the Trust Adviser thought it likely that viewers of health programmes such as The Truth About Fat would be likely to associate the presenter primarily with her previous appearances on Trust Me, I’m A Doctor, and would be unlikely to be aware of, or concerned with in [sic], her interests outside work.
The Adviser believed that Trustees would be likely to conclude that the presenter’s lawful personal activities (including her Facebook postings, her charitable work and her political affiliations) had no significant bearing on the public’s perception of the BBC and did not give rise to any potential breach of the Editorial Guidelines. The Adviser also believed that Trustees would be likely to conclude that the content of the fictional work written by the presenter was not relevant to this appeal, and that the complainant had not provided any credible evidence of the presenter’s alleged lack of concern for the physical and psychological wellbeing of minors.
In the Trust Adviser’s view, Trustees would be likely to decide that there was no evidence that the presenter had undermined the public’s perception of the impartiality, integrity or independence of BBC output, or that her external activities had brought the BBC into disrepute.
Taking this into account the Adviser considered Trustees would be likely to conclude that BBC Audience Services had given a reasoned and reasonable response to the complaint and had acted appropriately in declining to enter into further correspondence. She therefore did not consider it was appropriate, proportionate or cost-effective to proceed with the appeal as it did not have a reasonable prospect of success. The Adviser did not propose to put it before Trustees.
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”.11 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.12
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 “The external activities of BBC editorial staff, reporters and presenters should not undermine the public’s perception of the impartiality, integrity or independence of BBC output. External activities should not bring the BBC into disrepute …”. See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/editorialguidelines/guidelines/conflicts-of-interest/other-output-areas
2 Article 3: “Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely …”.
Article 27: “… [Protected persons] shall at all times be humanely treated, and shall be protected especially against all acts of violence or threats thereof and against insults and public curiosity …”.
3 The Road to Bani Wald, BBC Radio 4, 27 February 2015: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b053c3pg
4 Ibid at 24:30.
5 Saving Syria’s Children: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03c7m8s
6 In fact, the first charity’s declared purposes are: “HELP THE REFUGEES IN LEBANON & TURKEY AS WELL AS PROVIDE FOOD SUPPLIES TO THOSE IN THE AFFECTED AREAS AROUND SYRIA. WE ALSO PROVIDE MEDICAL EQUIPMENT AND MEDICATION.” See:
7 At 31:17.
10 Para 5.8 of the BBC’s Editorial Complaints and Appeals Procedures states: “The Trust is not obliged to consider every appeal brought to it, and is the final arbiter if any question arises as to whether an appeal is for the Trust to determine or not.” See: http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/assets/files/pdf/regulatory framework/protocols/2014/complaint s fr work ed complaints.pdf
11 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.
12 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.