Over the past year many public bodies, including the BBC, have been forced to recognise that their handling of complaints is not always up to scratch. In June last year the BBC’s complaints procedures were found to be convoluted and over-complicated by the House of Lord’s Communication Select Committee. The BBC’s answer to the criticism was published in its recent public consultation on proposed changes to the way it handles complaints.
The BBC receives many different types of complaints, ranging from complaints that programme content failed to follow its Editorial Guidelines (“editorial complaints”), to complaints about party election broadcasting and television licensing. The vast majority are editorial, with 240,000 received every year. Editorial complaints place the BBC under conflicting pressures. On the one hand it must try to defend editorial freedom and freedom of speech, and on the other, it must seek to fulfil the duties imposed on it by the BBC Charter, to ensure that its content is accurate and impartial. These tensions must then be balanced out in the course of the complaints process, an exercise often played out in the public eye due to high profile complaints about broadcasters like Jonathon Ross and the infamous “Sachsgate” scandal.
Under the new framework, editorial complaints will continue to proceed through up to three stages. A complaint will first be considered by the programme maker. Next, if the complaint is further investigated, it will in most cases be considered by the Editorial Complaints Unit. Finally, if still dissatisfied, a complainant may appeal to the BBC Trust.
One new feature of the process, which may also hold lessons for other public bodies, is the introduction of a ‘threshold test’ at the final stage; appeal to the BBC Trust. It is proposed that the Trust will only consider an appeal if it raises, “a matter of substance”. This is described as, “a real prospect that the appeal will be upheld as amounting to a breach of Editorial Guidelines”. This is a key reform, aimed at preserving the right of appeal to the Trust without burdening it with trivial cases. It also appears designed to balance out the tension between editorial freedoms and Charter responsibilities by allowing the Trust to take into account whether it would be proportionate to consider the appeal. This and other reforms, such as the introduction of an expedited complaints procedure to weed out repeated trivial complaints, will, it is hoped, simplify and speed up complaints handling by the BBC Executive and Trust, and set an example for other organisations.