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Notes from the field of public involvement

Thursday, 20 January 2005

Beeb Bashing and the BBC Complaint System

As a partnership we take a close interest in developments in the world of complaint handling in all markets and organisations – not just health. The Partners’ expertise ranges from professional organisations, government departments as well as for-profit organisations.

We research and benchmark different organisations’ approaches to make sure that we are in touch with what is going on in the UK and elsewhere. The brief article below deals with the BBC’s initiative last year where the organisation gave its new complaint handling arrangements considerable publicity to create (or indeed post-Hutton to re-create) confidence less amongst the public than the political class and regulators in both its systems of governance and the quality of its response to individual complainants. Some interesting shifts in power and changes in process emerged. Now read on…

The BBC received by its own account contacts from about 45,000 people complaining about swearing and religious themes before it went ahead and screened the Jerry Springer opera.( By the day after, the Corporation had received 317 calls – half of them in favour.) If it counted these contacts as complaints (after all, the show had not even been broadcast), this would have been quite a test for its relatively new and untested complaint handling system.

The BBC revamped its complaint system in 2004, announcing what it called ‘radical reforms in the way the BBC deals with complaints’. These reforms were to be underpinned by ‘greater transparency, objectivity and accountability’. The reforms maintain the basic shape of the previous complaint handling process offering two entry points and a three stage escalation:-

and adds some new process and management features.

These are focussed on speed e.g. automatic escalation from the programme after two exchanges of correspondence and early recognition of seriousness giving both the complainant the right to escalate early and the right of the Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) to take over a complaint – what the BBC called ‘red-flagging’ of complaints “when a complaint is of such gravity that complaints-handling areas may judge it to be in the BBC’s interest to advance to fast track independent investigation by the ECU at an early stage”.

The word ‘independent’ seems to be mis-used in this context – ‘away from the defiant or defensive programme maker’ i.e. ‘more detached’ would be more accurate. However there is a real power of decision given to the Editorial Complaint Unit whose decisions are binding on programme making or output departments.

The concept of independence as it applied to complaint handling was much discussed within the BBC – should the Deputy Director General be the complaints supremo reporting directly to the Board of Governors? Should there be an Ombudsman? The new arrangements reflect a decision to split the management function from the governance function.

The Governors will have their own complaints adviser in the form of the Head of Complaints (Governance) who will monitor the effectiveness of the complaints processes and report directly to the Governor. The Governors’ Programme Complaints Committee (GPCC) will be the final court of appeal.

The BBC management control is now overseen by a new Complaints Management Board chaired by the Deputy Director-General. Its role is to “ensure best practice and that learning from complaints is shared at a senior level”.

The BBC did not choose to appointment an independent ombudsman because the role would duplicate that of the Board of Governors, which represents the public interest.

Learning Points

Colin Adamson | (Problem occured connecting to database: The server requested authentication method unknown to the client