bbc

A victory of sorts

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I case you don't remember, a couple of months ago I took issue with the BBC over something very minor – the way they were displaying the telephone number for people wanting to take part in John Barrowman's godawful variety show. I know it sounds petty, but why show numbers wrongly when it's so easy to show them correctly?

The BBC replied to me with an out-and-out lie. They said that they displayed numbers in an easy-to-remember format, even though this meant the numbers were actually wrong. If that were true, there would've been research to prove it: hand it over. They ignored me, so I submitted a freedom of information request to get the research. After much searching, the BBC came back: there is no research (surprise!). So I complained to the BBC Trust.

At last I feel the BBC has listened to me. The reply shows that, for once, the BBC read my complaint rather than scanning it and assuming the contents. They admit that BBC Complaints isn't up to the job at the moment and needs reform. I suspect the problem is that most complaints are from out-and-our ranting nutjobs with an agenda to push or an axe to grind. Actual complaints from the relatively sane are getting buried under these mad ones and BBC Complaints is treating all comments like they're coming from Scientologists, internet conspiracy theorists and members of the Tory right. So reform is due and it probably needs them to step back from giving personalised but wrong replies and instead go back to the old system they used in the 1970s — pre-printed cards reading "Dear ______ Thank you for your comment, which the Director General was pleased to receive. Yours sincerely, <BBC manager>" — for the nutters, since no reply will satisfy a nutter, and personal responses for those asking serious questions or for general information.

My faith in the BBC is thus restored to a degree. I still don't like that the knee-jerk, gut reaction was to tell a lie. But I'm willing to trust the Trust to work on that. I'll still keep an eye open for the BBC telling lies in its editorial output — these things don't happen in isolation, they get into the culture — but I'm pleased that a bit of the BBC, of my??BBC, our BBC, the best broadcaster in the world, is on the case.
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I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you

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A fortnight ago, I??escalated??a complaint from BBC Complaints to the BBC Trust??when BBC Complaints appeared to have told me a bare-faced lie. So far, no reply from them. But evidence has emerged that BBC Complaints do indeed, as I feared, lie to people who complain as a matter of routine.

During the recent riots, the BBC helped themselves to images and videos they found online. These were then credited on-screen to a website, not the original cameraperson. Andy Mabbett challenged BBC??Complaints??about this — rightly believing that broadcasters should credit the person behind the lens rather than the method of hosting the file. After all, if you show someone a photo and they ask you who took it, you don't reply "The Family Album volume 7" or "the photo belongs to iPhone 4", do you? (And if you do, seek help).

Worse, the BBC credited the photos to Twitter, who didn't at that time even host images. The images were hosted on sites like twitpic and yfrog — they were just found using Twitter. "Who took this photograph? Oh, it was ICI, because the plastic sheeting covering them in the album was made by them".

Broadcasters should be doing a little extra research — and it's honestly just two clicks, not a punt up the Amazon. Now: the churnalist in question is sat at a PC. They see a retweet of an interesting photo and download it, crediting Twitter. In future: the journalist in question is sat at a PC. They see a retweet of an interesting photo and download it, noting the @username of the person who posted it on twitpic or yfrog or the like. It's not brain surgery, it's basic journalism and the @username is in huge type at the top of the page. It's not like they need a giant calculator and Fred Harris on hand to interpret the results.

Now here's the rub. Mabbett complains in strident tones. BBC Complaints reply, having only skimmed what he said (they say he was calling on them to stop using Twitter as a source. He wasn't). The person replying says:

Twitter is a social network platform which is available to most people who have a computer and therefore any content on it is not subject to the same copyright laws as it is already in the public domain.

This is not true. Not one part of this is true. Not, even for a moment, is any of it true. Yes: BBC Complaints have lied to another stakeholder to try to make them go away. The BBC have been caught red-handed at a practice that all journalistic organisations have fallen into because it's cheap and quick and lazy. But we hold the BBC to a higher standard, whether they like it or not, because we all, collectively as a nation, own our BBC.

And the BBC does have some really good arguments instantly at hand for using the images with a correct credit: "fair dealing", prior publication, expectation of reuse, the host's terms and conditions… lots of arguments. But they, again, resorted to telling an out-and-out lie instead.

I know this is how society now works. Big organisations now regularly, as a default, lie to us. 'Dave' Cameron can hardly open his mouth without letting a lie slip out. Gideon Osborne runs with them from both ends. Nick Clegg sleeps with a blankie made out of lies sewn together. British Gas has just stopped door-to-door selling because of the lies their representatives spew on the doorstep. Even the Co-operative has lied to me in the last 6 months, as a reflex, without a qualm. Lying is now normal.

Nevertheless, I say again: I love the BBC and I'd happily pay double the licence fee (it'd still be great value compared to Sky). But the lying has to stop. Now.

BBC trust

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Previously on 'Another Damn Blog': I wrote to the BBC to complain about a minor matter??of them getting telephone numbers deliberately wrong on-screen.

I know this is a petty point, but it's one that annoys me. And, as I said at the time, "[i]f the BBC can get its own telephone number wrong, can they be trusted to make a documentary without cutting such basic corners?"

The reply came from BBC Complaints and seemed to be deliberately trying to prove my point. It said that they put numbers up on screen incorrectly because they were easier to remember that way. Bollocks. What a load of cobblers. I wrote back, saying that I didn't mind the brush-off, but did mind them actually lying to me. If they weren't lying, then they would produce the research that the BBC had done that showed people could remember telephone numbers more easily when they were wrong than when they were right. After all, they must've have done that??research??to come up with that answer.

But, I warned darkly, if they'd done no??research??and this reply was just a lie, it was time for them to 'fess up or I would prove the lie by requesting a copy of the research myself. BBC Complaints never replied. So I had to carry through with my threat and I made a formal Freedom of Information Act request to see the research — warning the FoI department that they wouldn't find any but that two could play at the timewasting game.

BBC FoI came back to me: they could find no evidence whatsoever that the BBC had commissioned or received any research on the formatting of telephone numbers on screen or elsewhere. In other words, the guy at BBC Complaints had lied his little socks off to make me go away. As I say, I wouldn't mind a brush-off, but this default that now exists in the UK of telling a lie, no matter how implausible, rather than just telling the truth has to stop.

I first had an organisation tell me an obvious and implausible lie a few years ago. After being very ill and having the NHS strangely reluctant to treat me (indeed, receiving open hostility from some staff) I sought a copy of my hospital notes. Lovely: as correspondance was passed between departments, I was referred to on multiple occasions as "this homosexual". As in "this homosexual first presented to me on…" and "I would like to refer this homosexual to you for further tests" and the like. This, clearly, would not do. So I complained to the chief executive of the hospital. Here comes the whopping great porker: he wrote back and said this was normal practice for all patients and they were all referred to that way in notes. Yeah, right. Do you even believe for a moment that your notes, assuming you're straight, say anywhere, anywhere at all, "this heterosexual presented to me on…"? Uh huh.

I went to the then-Healthcare Commission about this and they gave the hospital a mighty slapping down because of it. The chief executive had to write to apologise to me personally, the writers of "this homosexual" had to attend special courses in not writing "this homosexual" in notes, and the Trust had to employ a 'Diversity Officer' (no, me neither) to make sure this never happened again. But nobody had to apologise for the great fat lie the chief exec told me in his first reply. It was seen as entirely acceptable to try to make me go away by lying to me. It isn't.

A similar, if less outrageous in its detail, thing happened last month when a WHSmith employee told me a barefaced lie to my face rather than admit a mistake had been made. As I say, it seems to have become the default in British society, at least in larger organisations, to tell lies rather than deal with consequences.

For the BBC, this initial lie isn't going to go away. Today I've written to the BBC Trust, what was the governors, to ask them if they agree with me that trust in the BBC is important and lying to stakeholders undermines that trust. I'm expecting the BBC Trust to give me the brush-off and I won't mind that. I just hope they don't take the opportunity to lie to me at the same time.

Arguing with the BBC

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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.

0208 if you’re outside reality

Some will say this is petty, but it’s worth pointing out.

Just before Doctor Who, the BBC ran a trailer for the return of the John Barrowman cheap variety filler programme “Tonight’s The Night”. They were begging for idiots in the audience to apply to humiliate themselves on television. In order to take part in this ritual humiliation, they need to call the production company.

Just call 0208 576 9785, they said. Except this number doesn’t exist. The Subscriber Trunk Dialling number for London is 020. It used to be 01, as we probably all remember from childhood when the BBC would often tell viewers “Call for more information on 01, if you’re outside London, 811 8181”, helpfully ignoring that 85% of the country are outside London. Then they split London into inner 0171 and outer 0181. Then they combined both again into 020. When they created 020, they added 7 or 8 to the front of the local number to make more numbers. Since then, they’ve introduced 3 at the start of the number for some subscribers, with 5 to follow soon.

Similar changes of numbers have happened elsewhere too. Leeds was 0532 (0LE2 on the old dials, see?) but they changed it to 0113 and put an extra 2 on the front of the subscriber number. So a Leeds number is 0113 2XX XXXX. It isn’t 01132 XXXXXX. Locally, you have to dial the 2, even if you don’t have to dial the 0113.

So when the BBC said to call 0208 576 9785, they meant 020 8576 9785. Why is this important? Because these little things are important. If the BBC can’t even research correct telephone numbers for a trailer, why should we expect them to research correct background information for a news report?

If the BBC can get its own telephone number wrong, can they be trusted to make a documentary without cutting such basic corners? If there’s a phone vote, can they be trusted to count the calls correctly? If they can’t even get a phone number right, can anything they say be trusted? From such acorns do mighty oaks grow.

A perfect day

I am a huge supporter of the BBC. It is a fundamental part of our culture, something that unites what can often be a fractious and unhappy nation. It makes the best radio (via Radio 4) and the least worst television in the world. Without the BBC, and the unique way it is owned and funded by us all, Britain would be unbearable.

Alas, the one thing the BBC has been incapable of doing of late is reminding us all of that – just at the time it is under the greatest attack, from a fearfully right-wing government and their friends in the big media companies. The last time the BBC was hammered in this way, it responded with real style. Under the dreadful John Birt, the Corporation continually reminded viewers and listeners of how great the BBC was.

Now, the BBC is a wounded beast, seeking to hide from the aggressors and failing to even do the minimum needed to defend itself. It is seriously in danger of being broken up and privatized – as is the NHS – on the basis that doing so worked so very well on British Rail 15 years ago. BR didn’t stand up for itself particularly well (although it did the very best it could to ensure that the Board’s staff didn’t get the shitty end of the stick as much as the government wanted, thereby doing a very good job as an employer even as the Board carefully packed BR away). The NHS has us all standing up for it, including the nurses who have finally got rich twat Andrew Lansley to kneel before them (it won’t work, he’s still going to screw the NHS, and us, over).

The BBC doesn’t even have the BBC standing up for the BBC. Instead we’ve all had to do it, and we’re all eminently ignorable by this terrible government.

So it’s nice to see a small fight-back. During the coverage of some wedding or other on TV today, they aired the above video. Neatly done, a nice reminder of the BBC’s strengths, right in the middle of a top-rated broadcast. Well done!

Of course, it’s not as good as the best ensemble promo ever done (in fact, the best promo ever done, I suspect) but then it’s hard to live up to the standard that “A Perfect Day” set.