The BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee (ESC) has declined to hear a complaint arguing that Facebook images posted by Trust Me I’m a Doctor presenter Dr Saleyha Ahsan brought the BBC into disrepute.
The images, taken in Libya in 2011, include some in which Dr Ahsan poses with an armed unit which appears to include an adolescent. Others showing a captive in the Libya conflict would appear to potentially be in breach of international humanitarian law. All of the images were removed from Dr Ahsan’s Facebook account subsequent to the complaint being lodged.
The Committee’s decision, which is final, has been published in the December 2015/January 2016 edition of the ESC’s bulletin (pp 16-19) and is reproduced below.
In an earlier decision BBC Audience Services had noted that no criminal charges had been brought against Dr Ahsan in relation to the publication of her Facebook photographs and judged that her employment as a presenter did not break “any of our guidelines on Impartiality or Conflicts of Interest and there are no grounds to exclude her from presenting our programmes.”
In response to an appeal to the BBC Trust, the Trust Adviser noted that the Facebook photographs were no longer publicly available and that, as Dr Ahsan “did not have a high media profile, was not a well-known ‘personality’, and had parallel careers in medicine and drama”, she was “unlikely to be closely associated with the BBC in the public mind.”
In considering a request for a review of the Trust Adviser’s decision, the Editorial Standards Committee observed that “the issue in front of them was whether the decision by BBC Audience Services to decline to enter into further correspondence was correct on the basis that the Editorial Guidelines had not been breached.” In rejecting the review request the Committee concluded that
There was no evidence to suggest that the external activities of the presenter had brought the BBC into disrepute or could undermine the public’s perception of the impartiality, integrity or independence of BBC output.
The complaint had also raised concerns about the UK registered charity Hand in Hand for Syria, for whom Dr Ahsan had been filmed volunteering in the 2013 BBC Panorama special ‘Saving Syria’s Children‘.
While the Charity Commission has determined that there is insufficient “verifiable evidence” to substantiate concerns that Hand in Hand for Syria is “celebrating or supporting violence”, recently discovered images show a Hand in Hand for Syria hospital staff member posing with a shocking array of weaponry.
A number of perplexing contradictions in accounts by Dr Ahsan of the events featured in ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ are noted here.
Previous complaints correspondence:
- Stage 1a complaint (29 April 2015)
- BBC Audience Services stage 1a response & stage 1b complaint (6 July & 29 July 2015)
- BBC Audience Services stage 1b decision (27 August 2015)
- Appeal to BBC Trust (15 October 2015)
- BBC Trust rejection of appeal (26 November 2015)
- Review request (11 December 2015)
The final decision of the ESC, received 7 March 2016, is below.
Decision of BBC Audience Services not to respond further to a complaint about a health related documentary aired on BBC One, in 2015
The complaint concerned a health documentary which was broadcast on BBC One in 2015.
The complainant made a number of allegations regarding the external activities of the programme’s presenter, which the complainant believed had brought the BBC into disrepute. These allegations were set out in detail in the complainant’s correspondence.
The complainant asserted that the presenter’s external activities breached editorial guideline 15.4.5 which states that “the external activities of BBC editorial staff […] should not bring the BBC into disrepute” because:
- The presenter had breached the law by posting photographs of armed conflict online.
- The presenter did not display an appropriate level of concern for those caught up in armed conflict.
- The presenter had links to two charities that the complainant believed to be disreputable.
BBC Audience Services made the following points in response to the complainant:
- The presenter was a practising doctor, and was already part of the presenting team for another health series.
- The documentary in question was commissioned by BBC Science, alongside another documentary, for BBC One. It was felt appropriate for both programmes to have a presenter with medical expertise, and in both cases a presenter from the health series was selected.
- A primary consideration in selecting this presenter was the presenter’s particular interest in the subject, having previously presented related items for the health series. Furthermore, the presenter was prepared to undergo medical tests on camera, the results of which would give the audience insights into 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 online, 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 the presenter from BBC programmes.
The complainant wrote to the BBC Trust following a further response from Audience Services which stated that they had nothing further to add and that they did not believe the complaint had raised an issue that justified further investigation.
Appeal to the BBC Trust
The complainant appealed to the BBC Trust on the substance of his complaint.
The Trust Adviser’s decision
The Trust Adviser (the Adviser) understood that BBC Audience Services had ceased handing this complaint at Stage 1 and had not offered him the opportunity to seek a further response at stage 2 and so 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 for the following reasons:
- She 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.
- In her 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 Adviser also noted the allegation that the presenter’s external activities had breached Editorial Guideline 15.4.5 and brought the BBC into disrepute, however:
– the photographs that were the subject of complaint were no longer publicly available online and, in any event, the presenter had not been charged, prosecuted or convicted in connection with the publication of any of those photographs. Until the legality had been determined in a court of law the allegation that the presenter had breached humanitarian law was unproven.
– the charity had not been charged, prosecuted or convicted in connection with any alleged illegal activity, and there was no evidence that, when working as a doctor for the charity, the presenter had engaged in any illegal activity.
– the presenter did not have a high media profile and had parallel careers in medicine and drama, so was unlikely to be closely associated with the BBC in the public mind. Furthermore, viewers of health programmes such as the documentary at issue would be likely to associate the presenter primarily with previous appearances on health programmes, and would be unlikely to be aware of, or concerned with, the presenter’s interests outside work.
– the Adviser believed Trustees would be likely to conclude that the presenter’s lawful personal activities (including online activity, charitable work and 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 those caught up in armed conflict.
- Overall, Trustees would be likely to decide there was no evidence that the presenter had undermined the public’s perception of the impartiality, integrity or independence of BBC output or, through any external activities, had brought the BBC into disrepute.
On this basis, the Adviser replied to the complainant and said that in her view the appeals did not have a reasonable prospect of success and it was not appropriate, proportionate or cost-effective to proceed with the appeal.
Request for review by Trustees
The complainant requested that the Trustees review the decision not to proceed with his appeal. He said that:
- The photographs had been available for some years up to September 2015
- The Adviser’s decision said that the allegation that the presenter had breached humanitarian law was unproven yet later took the clear view that the publication was legal
- He referred to a memorandum provided by a human rights lawyer he had submitted which he said the Adviser had not viewed
- The Adviser had said that there was no evidence that the charity had engaged in illegal activity but the complainant referred to a complaint he had submitted to the Charity Commission which was being investigated and he had submitted additional photos
- The other arguments by the Adviser (regarding the presenter’s lack of a high media profile; that viewers would associate the presenter with previous appearances rather than any outside work; that the presenter’s lawful personal activities 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), all seemed beside the point.
- He considered he had advanced evidence that supported his allegation that the presenter had breached international humanitarian law and that such an action did threaten to undermine the public’s perception of the impartiality, integrity or independence of BBC output.
The Panel’s decision
A panel of the Committee noted the points made by the complainant, the BBC and the Adviser and all of the documentation provided in support of his complaint, including the memorandum provided by a human rights lawyer.
The Trustees noted that the issue in front of them was whether the decision by BBC Audience Services to decline to enter into further correspondence was correct on the basis that the Editorial Guidelines had not been breached.
Trustees agreed that if they took this matter on appeal they would not be likely to uphold the complaint given that:
The presenter had not been charged, prosecuted or convicted in connection with the publication of any of the photographs or in regard to work for the charity
- The charity concerned had not been charged, prosecuted or convicted in relation to illegal activity. Trustees did not consider that the fact of a complaint submitted to the Charities Commission by the complainant himself sufficient evidence, especially in the absence of any adverse finding by the Commission (which was the appropriate body to investigate such matters).
- There was no evidence to suggest that the external activities of the presenter had brought the BBC into disrepute or could undermine the public’s perception of the impartiality, integrity or independence of BBC output.
- The complainant had received a reasoned and reasonable response to his complaint.
The Panel therefore decided that this appeal did not qualify to proceed for consideration.