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Why we can’t always rely on Aunty Beeb

July 18th, 2007

Dr Petra

Over the past few days a number of unethical and dodgy activities in broadcast journalism have been uncovered at the BBC. The main cases have been manipulating an image of the queen in one TV programme, and misrepresenting activities for Comic Relief and Children in Need fundraising events.

Perhaps predictably the BBC immediately blamed external production companies, junior researchers and the fact that those making errors weren’t trained BBC journalists but instead worked on other programmes (whatever that means).

I thought I’d add to the ongoing debate on this issue as I’ve had a number of concerns about the BBC’s journalism ethics over the past few years and this seems like as good a time as any to share them. I have previously tried to share them with the BBC’s college of journalism who I’m sorry to report weren’t very interested.

I’ve been running training courses for journalists over the past few years on events hosted by the British Psychological Society, British Association and Periodicals Publishers Association. I’ve written guides for journalists for the Mediawise Trust, and addressed media and journalism problems in The Guardian and the trade magazine Press Gazette. You can find information for journalists and links to these training activities here. Most of the training I’ve been involved in has been around explaining how experts work, how to get the best from academics, and issues around ethics in research and broadcasting.

I’ve had very good experiences with the BBC in terms of radio, working on a regular slot on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Up All Night programme presenting a sex/relationship discussion show. The staff on Up All Night have always been interested to cover new angles, listen to evidence and ensure that callers were treated with respect – and that diverse views could be heard. I’ve enjoyed appearing on shows for BBC Asian Network, BBC6 and many local BBC radio stations. I’ve been a regular guest on Woman’s Hour and have worked closely with the BBC World Service around their sexual health programming (particularly on HIV). The only exception I’ve found in radio has been BBC radio one who tend to get a bit trigger happy when doing their youth programming and run off and do dreadful sex surveys despite being told their planned work is ethical or accurate.

Where I’ve experienced problems is with BBC television. Below are some of the main problems I’ve encountered and concerns I have with BBC TV. Not all of the problems listed below are unique to the BBC, but as the organisation that’s supposed to set standards in broadcast journalism it’s worrying these things happen at all. My main reason for outlining them here is many higher ups being reported from the BBC are claiming the current problems that have been exposed are just one-offs or down to junior staff. From my experience of dealing with BBC journalists for the past five years that’s not the impression I’ve recieved.

I appreciate I’m now about to probably never work on BBC television, although I do hope this feedback might be useful to someone to sort out the problems the organisation needs to address. Again, if I get any joy helping to improve training of BBC journalists I will let you know.

So here are the problems I’ve experienced….


Why is the BBC college of journalism a closed shop?

If you want to get in touch with any other media studies or journalism department at any UK (and worldwide) institution you go to their website, find the staff member you wish to speak to, and email, call or write to them. True, they may not all get back to you, but you can find out who they are, what they teach, and what their areas of expertise are. You can see what’s on the syllabus at different universities, and it enables academics to network together.

You try that with the BBC. Go on, type into google ‘bbc college of journalism’. You’ll find stories heralding its launch and some links to courses you could go on (if you worked for the BBC). But the college itself is only open to BBC employees as an internal site. So if you’re making programmes for the BBC but work as an external production company you may struggle to get access. Many people don’t appear to know the BBC even has a college of journalism – or who it is for.

I found out about it when I was at the Beeb one morning for a radio show and read it in their staff bulletin. I tried to access the college’s site as mentioned in the bulletin but found it very hard. Although I did learn you could study journalism ethics with Evan Davis (host of that fantastic example of ethical BBC programming – Dragons Den). I wanted to get in touch with them to see if I could add to their syllabus with some training on how to work with experts and particularly drawing attention to some of the problems I’d encountered working with their production and research staff.

I found out that Kevin Marsh was to be the editor in chief of the college, with Vin Ray as director. I emailed them both. Nothing back despite several messages.

So I rang the BBC and asked to be put through to the college and when they found out I wasn’t a BBC employee they refused to put me through. Only BBC employees can apparently speak to people at their college of journalism.

Which seems daft to me since any other teaching institution is not only transparent about their teaching, but having access to departmental information means people can work together to improve practice. Sure, you don’t have to put all your course materials as open access, but it seems odd to me that the BBC are working in a silo in terms of their journalism college.

And why doesn’t the BBC college of journalism appear to listen to feedback?

Okay. I’m not as stupid as you may think, so after being told I wasn’t a BBC member I rang back the BBC switchboard and asked to be put through to the college of journalism. When they asked me who I worked for I said ‘Newsnight’. I was transferred straight to their offices. I spoke to a staff member and asked if I could speak to one of the directors or someone in charge of their syllabus. I was told I couldn’t do that but if I put the information in an email then someone would look at it and get back to me.

I did just that. Nothing. I sent another email. Nothing.

The BBC doesn’t just appear to be closed in terms of access to its training, it’s also closed when it comes to communicating about how to improve the training of its staff. I wouldn’t have minded if they’d have emailed me to say ‘thanks for identifying some of the shortcomings in our work we’ll take it from here’, but they didn’t even bother to do that.

Agendas are set by producers and you can’t shift their views

Commonly when a programme is being created a producer decides what they think the angle is. This is their job, true, but in many cases agenderising a programme can mean that it goes off on the wrong track. When this happens I’ve found that many producers, but frequently ones from the BBC, simply will not be persuaded to change their approach. Even when given lots of help and advice on how to change their angle (and with plenty of good ideas that would still make an excellent programme or series).

Here’s an example. Last year three separate television companies were making programmes for BBC Three on teenagers and sex. I spoke to researchers and producers for all three programmes (who all contacted me independently). One team I found very enthusiastic and keen to try and get things right. One team were a bit half hearted. And one team, tasked with making a programme on teenagers and pornography decided they would make a film about internet porn addiction.

Now internet porn addiction is a controversial topic at the best of times, but it’s particularly controversial when applied to teenagers. I explained to the producers that most teenagers don’t have access to internet porn in huge amounts, and of those who do they may well be randy rather than an addict. I outlined the existing evidence about teens and porn. For girls it’s often off limits, they can struggle with the right to be sexual, may experience sexual coercion, and often are under immense media pressure to fit with sexual roles that may be unhelpful to them. For boys porn is often viewed as mandatory but can make them feel anxious about their penis size and shape, their sexual performance and give them misleading ideas about sex that can cause problems when they try and get it on with a partner. I described that porn can be a great source of pleasure and arousal, as well as being a place of images and ideas that can be very problematic.

This gave them the chance to address some of the very real fears teens have, to focus on positive and negative aspects of porn/erotic material, to discuss wider issues of sex and relationships, and to cover debates on popular culture.

After all this, they decided they would go with the teen internet porn addict angle and made a show that implied that many teenagers are internet porn addicts, ignored the more common worries lads have, and excluded girls pretty much all together.

This is just one example of many I’ve experienced over the years. It’s the reason why many of my colleagues just give up dealing with the media. If you’re consulting an expert to help you put together your show surely you should listen when they tell you when you’re badly off track – and be happy to put things right with their help? Sadly not. If a show is unethical or inaccurate and you tell them so, it’ll still get made. After all, a general show that might answer teenagers questions may not, in the producer’s mind, chase the ratings as the teenage internet porn addict show.

BBC programmes inform other BBC programmes – even if they’re wrong

Frequently programmes made for one BBC channel then inform other programmes on other BBC television/radio. That may mean one programme topic turns up in a similar format on another channel, or one programme starts on one channel then is picked up and discussed elsewhere.

Again, taking the teenage internet porn addicts programme as an example BBC Three made the programme even though they’d been told it was inaccurate. Next as part of the Bare All season BBC Radio 1 ran a series of programmes for young people about sex-related issues. One of those was about internet porn. They got the idea from BBC Three and again although myself and others advised them this wasn’t an accurate programme angle they still made the show with a focus on the ‘dangers’ of internet porn addiction. Their reasoning for this was the BBC Three programme was popular and had been made and therefore represented a BBC point of view, so they had to continue with this although they accepted it wasn’t accurate.

Of course it can be useful if one programme informs another – for example having a television series that informs a debate on a radio chat show, or a programme that begins as a radio series and is developed for television. But when a programme that’s based on inaccurate information informs countless spin off shows it is a cause for concern.

Junior staff are overloaded

Much to the fury of unions, one of the main groups to be blamed in the BBC scandal have been junior researchers. Admittedly there is a huge amount of pressure on them, and they are given a lot of responsibility, but they hold no power.

So when a programme is to be made, junior researchers are tasked to find people to contribute to it as experts, contestants or case studies. They’ll be asked to call round by the producer to find people who can be named as supporting the programme or series (even if said people are never used in the final show) or find people who can give them as much free information as possible (more on this later).

Unfortunately junior staff hold little or no power, and many I’ve talked to complain of feeling bullied to produce ‘results’ (ie find experts or cases for programmes). This means when they call scientists, medics or others like myself who might inform their programmes and we tell them that they need to go back to the drawing board or try a different angle – or explain we can’t participate due to the unethical nature of their proposal all they can do is go back to their bosses and say that x number of experts weren’t interested (and probably get shouted at).

What’s needed is for producers across the board (not just at the BBC) to be more involved in speaking to experts when planning their programmes (and paying for this) not making up their own angles then pressurising junior staff to find someone who’ll support the programme’s focus. Because the whole time this approach is being taken the less likely qualified people are to get on board – but the more likely dodgy characters who want to promote themselves or their products will be happy to sign up. And junior researchers will encourage this because it stops them being got at.

Once an ‘expert’ has been found, nobody else gets a look in

A few years ago the BBC claimed they were looking for the ‘next Robert Winston’ and there were complaints made in the media by the BBC that it was difficult to find qualified experts to host or appear on programmes. Myself and others immediately contacted the relevant BBC office and offered our services. I think pretty much everyone I know who got in touch got nowhere.

When it comes to science/health programming or other documentaries and news the BBC tends to go for those it knows. Therefore you begin with a well qualified expert in one area (say child care, fertility or emergency medicine) and the next minute they’re presenting programmes on areas outside their expertise. While I appreciate that programme makers want to know what the talent they’ll be using will be like and can easily picture a well known expert in the role, it does mean those wanting to communicate science/health messages who are equally qualified don’t get a foot in the door.

More annoyingly you’re often called as an expert to give information to put together programmes for the BBC that you know will be presented by someone else who may not be any better qualified than you, but who’s already in the BBC system. Not surprising that many academics, medics and other experts don’t want to work with the BBC as at best they may be an unpaid talking head featuring briefly on a show, at worst their knowledge will be used to inform someone else’s show.

Researchers and producers routinely make false promises

The BBC is notorious amongst other academics/experts I know for getting in touch, telling you that you’re their first or ‘best’ choice for a programme, and asking you to send over as much information as you can.

The first time this happens most experts are happy to do so believing it’s a signal they’re about to get that radio or TV series they’d hoped for. Unfortunately what it usually means is they are not anywhere near first choice, but they will send over lots of useful stuff for free that will inform a programme or series.

So what should the Beeb do about this?

There are several ways the BBC could tackle these problems and in so doing attract a better class of expert contributor and improve their programming.
Liase with experts when putting together a pitch for a programme
Avoid setting agendas/angles without first seeking expert opinion
Don’t expect junior staff to do all the work/have all the answers
Encourage the use of new talent either as consultants or presenters
Only base programmes on other programmes if the original programme was any good
Make the BBC college of journalism more open to sharing knowledge with other academics/journalism courses
Stop chasing headline grabbing programmes and start making shows we actually want to see

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