Arguing with the BBC


Oh, there's so little point in embarking on the course I have embarked upon, yet I have embarked upon it: the modern version of "go fight City Hall", "go argue with the BBC".

I'm a huge BBC fan. I have to say this, because there are a very tiny but extremely loud minority of sociopaths, right-wing loonsacks and general hard-of-thinking fools who believe the BBC is biased to the right/left/centre, is too/not enough progressive, sucks up/insults the government, is anti/pro war, and would be better if scrapped so that Mr Murdoch's empire could have free rein and save us from any or all of these supposed ills. I am not one of those fuckwits. Certainly not: I actually think that the licence fee is too little and should probably double (and then be index-linked to the Sky subscription price, as a counterweight).

But there's no denying that the current BBC management are failing, dismally, to manage the BBC very well on a number of levels. Whose idea was it to sack experienced, dedicated people in London in order to hire cheaper people in Salford? Whose idea was it that BBC-2 should be rudderless and seemingly without a reason to be? Whose idea was it to sell Television Centre like this was still 1994? Whose idea was it to cave in to everything and more a pro-Murdoch, anti-BBC government wanted without a fight?

This lack of management has begun to filter down through the ranks. With nobody leading at the top, the middle management has got confused and the bottom management is operating without support, so much so that I've had reason to complain to the BBC twice in the last couple of months – and I almost never complain to the BBC, mainly because it's an exercise in futility, but also because, as I say, I'm a huge BBC fan.

I've previously detailed how I complained to the BBC over a trivial – oh, go on then, anal – matter of them putting on-screen, at prime time, on BBC-1, wrong phone numbers. The promo makers – possibly Red Bee Media in these outsourced days, I don't know – grouped a London number as 0208 576 9785, when the code for London is 020 and the number therefore is 020 8576 9785. Anybody in London who doesn't know that 020 is the code would dial 576 9785 and wait for about 45 seconds before the schoolmistress BT voice broke in to tell them to check the number and dial again you idiot. I hoped that the BBC would accept this point and say that they'd try to get the numbers right in future.

My mistake: they justified it instead. After careful research, the BBC has found that grouping numbers in "easy to remember" clusters is now policy. Of course, I had to get back to them (they make you go back to the website, jump through all the hurdles again and write your reply in a tiny box, possibly just for the lulz) and, tactfully or otherwise, call their bluff. If there has been research into such a preposterous subject, then please can they produce it, I asked. So they ignored me. Needless to say, I've put in a Freedom of Information request to attempt to unlock this research they claim to have done. I'm awaiting a reply, but if (when) that produces the reply "we can find no record of such research", then the next step is to take it to the BBC Trust: not because of the damn telephone numbers, but because the BBC, like everybody else, doesn't have carte blanche to lie to people when they can't find an actual justification for what they're doing. Who do BBC Complaints think they are, politicians?

I was typing my FoI request while listening to BBC Radio 4's six o'clock news. Three quarters of the way through, their science correspondent came on with a package about exciting research done by the charity Diabetes UK that offered real hope for a cure for diabetes. Several paragraphs of about the detailed "scientific study" were read out before, in a classic "Paragraph 19 denial", the correspondent added that the "study" was of 11 people. Eleven people? Nothing scientific, nothing statistically significant, nothing of note at all can come from a study of 11 people. A beat later and he 'fessed up that, of those 11, only 7 had had a medium-term improvement in their condition. He then added a brief disclaimer hinting that the science wasn't up to much and the package ended. In short, the man had come on the radio and read out Diabetes UK's press release.

I complained out loud Twitter and then directly to BBC Complaints – again in full knowledge that doing so will be futile and, on past evidence, knowing that they'll tell easy lies to make me go away. Interestingly, Diabetes UK saw my Twitter complaint. They were at pains to point out that they did think the research was important… but also that an 11 person study wasn't up to much and that they needed to ensure scientific rigour was evident in future; but particularly that my concern was valid and they hoped that the BBC would listen, which suggests a lot of things about that particular report, none of them flattering to the BBC.

I await the reply from the BBC, even if it is just fobbing me off as I expect, with real interest – and will report back.


  1. If it’s any consolation (OK, I already know it isn’t), this kind of arrogant blustering by the BBC is nothing new. Many thousands of years ago, when the Radio Times was a directly controlled BBC organ as opposed to the stand-alone, vaguely independent thing it is now, it was every week breathtaking to read the official replies to the letters from readers. "We know best, we are right, you know nothing" was the invariable tone. Nowadays they know they have to be "inclusive" and "consultative" and "interactive" blah blah, except of course when it suits them not to bother.

  2. <html><body bgcolor="#FFFFFF"><div>I don’t think I even got the BBC brush-off of old. I think the attitude that had the BBC running text votes on recorded items and studio guests pretending to be contest winners still pertains: the underlying belief that we "consumers" of their output are "punters" and that our watching of their output disqualifies us automatically from commenting on it, because by watching it we’ve proved ourselves too stupid to comment in the first place.</div><div><br></div><div>I guessed this attitude had not gone away when the ultimate response to the phone-in scandals was to add a rider in text and sound saying "Calls cost X pence from a BT landline. Other operators may vary. Mobile calls will cost much more. Lines close at X and calls after that time may not be counted and may still be charged". Freely translated, this read "Duh, you stupid punters, if you can’t even fucking dial properly, it’s your own moronic fault", spectacularly missing the point that the problem was 0% with those ringing in and 100% with the BBC for inviting calls into recorded programming.</div><div><br></div><div></div><blockquote type="cite"><div> <div style="width: 600px; font-size: 12px; font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; line-height: 18px;" class="PosterousEmail"></div></div></body></html>

  3. As well as Mark Thompson being singularly incapable of organising something proverbial involving the consumption of alcohol and breweries, the BBC is now run instead by its marketing department (ironically since its PR department has been emasculated beyond recognition), meaning that the BBC’s prime objective is now to ‘sell’ its content to its licence fee-payers.This was all too evident in its 6 Music sell off proposal, where the marketing department had decided that it couldn’t understand what the station was all about and its ratings were low therefore "let’s get rid of it". Then there’s the Sachsgate fiasco which led to a hugely overstaffed compliance checking department being put in place to catch mistakes being made by grossly understaffed journalists and production teams. Problem is, these compliance checkers only look for the obvious (ie. libel, bad language, etc.) which they understand, and you now have the ludicrous situation whereby far fewer highly qualified staff are being policed by people who aren’t that qualified.Of course if they employed more qualified people they wouldn’t have to have so many compliance checkers and it would work out just as cheap (perhaps even cheaper), but that would be too logical and would backtrack on earlier journalistic cutbacks, wouldn’t it? And management never, ever, EVER likes to backtrack on an earlier decision no matter how wrong it may be.You couldn’t make this up.

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