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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 May, 2005, 11:00 GMT 12:00 UK
Byford speech on BBC complaints reforms
Speech by Mark Byford to the Organisation of News Ombudsmen 25th anniversary conference, Monday 23rd May 2005

May I thank you for inviting me here to the 25th anniversary conference of News Ombudsmen.

I'm very pleased to be here to contribute to a conference all about greater accountability and responsiveness in news journalism.

This year the BBC has introduced a major reform programme in the way that it handles editorial complaints from its licence payers. It's a radical change in complaints handling, running throughout the organisation, to ensure greater objectivity, fairness and transparency.

The BBC now begins with the presumption the licence payer is right. After all, the licence payers are the public that fund and own the BBC here in the UK. We have now made it much easier for them to know how to make complaints about BBC programmes and services. We have developed much simplified procedures and publicised them widely. We have established a central logging system so we know exactly how many complaints we are receiving and created a new dedicated website: www.bbc.co.uk/complaints.

We now publish all errors, clarifications and corrections promptly on the BBC's website. We now set out for all complainants the actions that the BBC is taking to correct an error and, hopefully, minimise the risk of it recurring. We have published a clear Code of Practice. We have established a truly independent appeals process.

Moreover, we are transforming the culture across the organisation about the way we handle complaints. We recognise that the BBC will be a stronger organisation for openly recognising where it is wrong and taking clear steps to put things right. This is truly a sea change in both reform and attitude.

The BBC's complaints procedures have been greatly strengthened. But they needed to be.

How an organisation responds when someone complains is an important determinant of how people feel about its openness and responsiveness.

In the past it was too difficult to find out how to complain about the BBC; the procedures were too complex; the appeals process not transparent and independent enough. Too often complainants felt they had not been listened to properly.

The programme of reform is changing all of that. As the BBC's new Chairman Michael Grade has emphasised, a real test of openness, responsiveness and accountability of any organisation is how it deals with complaints from the public. We've taken that to heart and fundamentally changed our procedures, systems and behaviour.

This afternoon I want to give you the context of the reform programme and set out its detail.

As Deputy Director-General, I am responsible for all the BBC's journalism at local, regional, UK wide and international levels. Everything from local radio across England; to our flagship national news programmes across the UK on radio and television; to our global news services - the World Service radio in 43 languages, BBC World television, and our award winning news website.

I'm also the Chair of a new Complaints Management Board in the BBC - a senior management forum where senior programme executives track the handling of complaints across the BBC, ensure the new system is working effectively, and learn from mistakes and when complainants are right. Every editorial division across the BBC is represented on the Complaints Management Board at a senior level. We want to make sure we learn lessons from complaints and feed them back into editorial processes. The Complaints Management Board now provides the organisation with an inbuilt forum for discussion and improvement.

The billing for this particular session is interesting. The title in the programme is "The Way Forward: the BBC after the Andrew Gilligan affair and the restructuring of its complaints and corrections system".

In fact, the restructuring of the BBC's complaints system is NOT wholly the result of the Andrew Gilligan/Hutton affair. Well before the serious consequences of what Andrew Gilligan said on the BBC's flagship morning radio programme Today at 6.07 am on the morning of 29th May 2003, the BBC Board of Governors had been emphasising that they wanted improvements to the way the BBC handled complaints.

The Governors, the supreme body of the BBC, and the trustees of the public interest, have a duty under The Royal Charter to ensure that comments and complaints about the BBC's output are "given due consideration and are properly handled".

The Governors Programme Complaints Committee had had significant concerns about the consistency, transparency and quality of complaints handling across the BBC and had called for the complaints system to be simplified, improved and made more open. They also wanted the BBC to make better use of complaints as a source of organisational learning and change.

But of course, the Gilligan affair and the subsequent Hutton report put all this into stark focus.

The handling of Alistair Campbell's complaint about the reports by Andrew Gilligan on the Today programme led to some stark criticism from Lord Hutton in his report, of both the BBC management and the Governors.

He concluded the BBC management was at fault in failing to investigate properly and adequately the Government's complaint that Andrew Gilligan's report was false in stating that the Government probably knew that the 45 minute claim was wrong before it was decided to put it in the dossier.

Lord Hutton said the Governors themselves should have made more detailed investigations into the extent to which Mr. Gilligan's notes supported his report. Lord Hutton emphasised that the Governors should have recognised more fully than they did that their duty to protect the independence of the BBC was not incompatible with giving proper consideration to whether there was a validity in the Government's complaints that the allegations against its integrity were unfounded. He said the Governors failed to give this issue proper consideration.

At the Hutton Inquiry, the BBC acknowledged that the investigation into the complaints should have been handled differently and more time should have been taken to investigate thoroughly.

Following the then Chairman and Director-General's departure from the BBC in January 2004, the Corporation established the Neil Committee to identify the learning lessons from the whole affair.

Amongst the Neil Committee's conclusions about the main lessons to be learnt were:

  • All complaints should be handled in the same way regardless of who is making them - efficiently and with due speed.

  • The Director-General should not be directly involved in the normal process of responding to complaints.

  • So called "red flagged complaints" - which highlight the potential seriousness of a specific complaint - should receive a closer degree of management scrutiny.

  • The Head of the Editorial Complaints Unit which examines appeals against management responses must be independent of those responsible for output.

  • Moreover the BBC must not be defensive and must become more open in its approach. When mistakes are made, the BBC must develop a system and a culture that encourages fast clarification and unambiguous correction.

All these points have been fully embraced and built into the new complaints processes.

The Complaints Review reported to the Board of Governors just under a year ago in June 2004 outlining new procedures to make the BBC system more easily accessible, better publicised, simpler, fairer, speedier, more effective, more transparent and with a clear independent appeals process.

Those reforms were implemented in full in February of this year.

  • We now will respond to every complaint as speedily as possible and certainly within ten working days.

  • There are now just two routes for complaints to be sent to the BBC in the first instance. Complainants may direct their complaint centrally to BBC Information or, if they prefer, to the relevant programme or service. We recognise it is essential to build on the direct relationship between the BBC and the public and ensure that programme makers feel directly connected to audiences and vice versa.

  • Thirdly, the new complaints website gives clear, simple information on how to make a complaint. All complainants are treated equally. We aim to resolve all complaints at that first point of contact.

However if complainants are not satisfied with the Stage One response they can appeal to the Editorial Complaints Unit which is now independent of all programme makers.

The Editorial Complaints Unit investigates complaints independently and its findings are now binding on all divisions. It aims to respond within twenty working days.

Moreover, a complainant, if dissatisfied with the Editorial Complaints Unit decision, can then appeal to the Governors through its Governors Programme Complaints Committee, for a final appeal.

The Governors are the trustees of the public interest representing the licence payers not management. They will investigate the appeal thoroughly and independently of programme makers, calling on independent expert advice to inform their deliberations as appropriate. The GPCC is the highest authority for complaints handling in the BBC. All their findings are now published prominently on the BBC website.

A clear Code of Practice has been published laying out all these procedures and explaining the escalation process. It complies with the Parliamentary Ombudsmen's view that internal complaints procedures should have no more than two main internal stages followed by an appeals process.

Moreover as part of the major culture change programme we are providing a much greater willingness to admit mistakes and learn from them. We are using the BBC's online presence to provide proper reporting to the public on the complaints received, any remedial action we have taken and publishing corrections where appropriate.

Please take a look at the site www.bbc.co.uk/complaints. It's a big change.

79% of all complaints since 1st February have been dealt with within the ten day target period at Stage One. 93% of all those handled within the programme division have met the ten day response target - a massive improvement.

Leaflets setting out the new procedures have been sent to all BBC staff emphasising "Don't ignore it" and stressing that effective handling of complaints about our programmes and services is one of the most important demonstrations of the BBC's commitment to serving the public.

The new system is flexible and can respond to unforeseen circumstances. For example at the turn of this year the BBC received more than 50,000 complaints about the transmission of a single television programme on BBC-2 - Jerry Springer the Opera.

Because the Director-General (the CEO of the BBC and its Editor in Chief) had said before the transmission that the programme had not, in his view, breached editorial guidelines; the complaints were automatically escalated to the highest appeal stage, the Board of Governors Programme Complaints Committee, for independent investigation and adjudication.

The Governors Programme Complaints Committee demands that the management take account of all its upheld findings and report back on actions taken and the learning lessons identified.

The BBC, of course, is not a commercial newspaper. It's a public service broadcaster owned and paid for by the licence payers, the British public.

As part of the major reforms in BBC governance, in the context of the BBC's Charter Review, it has been proposed in the Government's Green Paper on the future of the BBC that the Governors will be abolished from 2007 and a Trust will be established. It will be very clearly separate from management, wholly there to represent the licence payer's interests. The Trustees will be there to ensure the Corporation fulfils its obligations and not to be a management cheer leader.

That goes for complaints handling too.

The clear separation of the Trust from the Executive will emphasise to the public the two clearly different roles, with the Trust wholly independent of management, operating a new framework of rigorous and transparent scrutiny and promoting increased accountability and responsiveness on behalf of the public.

As part of the complaints reform, the Governors considered carefully the case of establishing an independent ombudsman to handle complaints as some newspapers and broadcasting organisations have done. However they concluded the role would duplicate that of the Governors, soon to be the Trustees, who themselves represent the public interest. For the Governors, as trustees of the public interest, are independent of programme makers. It is they who have the final responsibility for scrutinising the effectiveness of the BBC's complaints handling processes, the management's responses, and they act as the final independent appeals committee on behalf of the public.

These reforms to the BBC's complaints processes are a big change and are being taken very seriously indeed across the Corporation. We recognise that perceptions about the BBC by the millions of people who contact us each year are heavily influenced by the kind of treatment they receive. When they contact us in order to complain, if we appear routinely defensive and distanced, then we will appear arrogant, self interested and bureaucratic. We don't want that.

We want to be open, transparent, fair and accountable. With a clear, simple speedy system for handling complaints. A clear code of conduct. A fully independent appeals process. A learning culture which admits mistakes and learns from them. A complaints process that builds trust and confidence in the organisation and the learning from it helping us to make even better programmes and services of high quality and distinction the reason of course why we exist.

The Neil Committee, set up last year to identify the learning lessons from the Gilligan affair, emphasised five core journalistic values on which there could be no compromise

  • Truth and accuracy

  • Serving the public interest

  • Impartiality and diversity of opinion

  • Independence

  • AND Accountability

Accountability is an absolutely critical value for our journalism.

Our first loyalty is to the BBC's audiences to whom we are accountable. Their continuing trust in the BBC's journalism is a crucial part of our contract with them as licence payers.

We must act in good faith at all times, by dealing fairly and openly with the audience and contributors to our output.

And, as I say, we must be open in admitting mistakes when they are made, unambiguous about apologising for them, and encouraging a culture of a willingness to learn from them.

In that context, as well as the new complaints procedures across the Corporation, BBC News has also recently launched Newswatch. It's an interactive website together with a weekly television programme on our continuous news channel News 24.

It's the first time the BBC has ever had a feedback programme solely dedicated to news and current affairs output.

The website encourages our audiences to contact us with comments, complaints, questions and suggestions.

Our editors, correspondents and presenters are interviewed about their decisions and dilemmas. We offer added context and increased dialogue.

It's promoting greater accountability but, hopefully, through greater openness also promoting greater trust.

Thank you for allowing me to address the conference today. I hope you have a successful and interesting dialogue during your time here in London.




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