Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Excerpt from Mark Thompson, BBC Director-General, speaking to his staff on Wednesday afternoon, 18 July 2007:

I joined the BBC in 1979 and spent years working in production. I have never been involved in a deception of the public. It would just never have occurred to me and I know it would never occur to the overwhelming majority of the people watching me this afternoon either.

On Newsnight that evening (BBC2 10.30pm), in a recorded interview, Mark Thompson spoke to Gavin Esler about how he aims to restore trust in the BBC:


Gavin Esler: I asked the BBC's Director-General, Mark Thompson how damaging he thought these cases of deceit really were.

Mark Thompson: I think they're really very serious indeed actually. We've looked at about a million hours of television and radio over the last two and a half years - a vast amount of output. The overwhelming majority of the output we looked at seems to be entirely trustworthy, entirely honest. I believe the overwhelming majority of my colleagues in the BBC have got very high standards, and understand the BBC's values about truth and honesty with the public. We found a small, but totally unacceptable, number of cases where that has broken down. And - not for personal gain, not for reasons of malice, but because of a misguided attempt it would appear in most cases to keep a programme on the air or deal with a production issue - I'm afraid some of our colleagues have done things which are totally unacceptable.

Gavin Esler: Some of these programmes are jewels in the crown of the BBC: Comic Relief, Sport Relief, Children in Need and a World Service programme.

Mark Thompson: What I've tried to do today with all of my colleagues in the BBC, and indeed with our suppliers, is to say this has to stop - it has to stop. Deceiving the public is never the right thing to do. There's no excuse for doing it. And in the end, from now on - I thought this was clear before, but absolutely make it clear now - from now on, if it happens we will show people the door.

Gavin Esler: You've introduced a culture of change into the BBC. There's a lot of young inexperienced producers in the BBC, you've spread too thin doing too much. As Michael Grade put it, people are not being trained properly.

Mark Thompson: We have, and the BBC has always had, a lot of young production staff. It's true on Newsnight, it's true on every programme we make. And I meet young producers and researchers. I also meet young 'indies' who've got very very high values. But I want to say as a result of this relatively small number of instances, I don't want to take any chances with culture or with training. And one of the things I've announced today is you know of the fifteen thousand, sixteen thousand, people inside this organisation who deal with editorial matters, with content, and for our suppliers and for the freelance and casual sectors, we want to make sure that everyone understands what we require, and also what our values are.

Gavin Esler: Have you really got to the bottom of this, or do you think there could be more cases?

Mark Thompson: I don't think we have quite finished. I mean you can appreciate looking at, and trying to understand and trawl through, the volume of content we're talking about is a Herculean task. We have found the overwhelming majority of these cases we have found and we have voluntarily disclosed. If we find more serious breaches of this kind we will disclose them. But I want to say, you know, that process should continue and we should understand exactly why each case happened. If we can make redress or recompense to members of the public if there's any loss in these, we will try and do that as well.

Gavin Esler: There could be compensation?

Mark Thompson: It's possible. The character of many of these "competitions" as they were really quite small scale, often token or even spoof competitions. And we're not talking in any cases about big money, big prize money or anything like that, or indeed about in virtually all cases even premium phone lines. So they are rather unlike some of the other issues which have come up across the industry. But we will do that. At the same time Gavin though, what we also have to do is make sure that we relentlessly put in place all of the safeguards we need, through training through absolute clarity with our editors and our editorial leaders about the fact that compliance with our values is not a kind of nice-to-have or a voluntary option. It is absolutely required. And more than that. It's the duty of the people who lead our production teams to have an eye to the culture of the people in the production team. But also I would say that the other part of this is to support junior members of staff. You know we want to be in a position where if there is a problem - let's say a technical problem with a programme - that any member of the production team feels they can confess there's a problem, they can share the problem, and share it with their boss on the programme, but if necessary share it with the public. It's much better to make a clean breast to the public if it's a problem than think the best thing is to take some Herculean and disastrous you know step into thinking if we deceive the public in some way we'll get away with it.

Gavin Esler: But that makes my point. There's been a management failure. Have you considered your position? Have you considered resigning?

Mark Thompson: I think what I want to say is this. Given the scale of what the BBC does, you know 400,000 hours of broadcast output, millions of web pages every year, we will - the nature of broadcasting, particularly live broadcasting is - we will see some serious mistakes. I think the way to judge me, the way to judge the whole leadership of the BBC is how we react to those mistakes and whether, if we discover weaknesses in our system, we've put things in place to reduce or eliminate those weaknesses entirely. That's what we're going to do. And I will be judged, the BBC Trust have made it very clear to me today that they will judge me and they will judge my colleagues on our success in taking this utterly seriously which I assure you we do. But then over the coming months putting in all the steps in place to make sure that these instances either never happen again - which of course is the ideal - or that that the chances of them happening is reduced to absolutely as small as it humanly can be.

Gavin Esler: Do you accept that the BBC licence fee is based on trust from the British public and tonight many people will be saying why should we trust the BBC?

Mark Thompson: Well I believe that in these instances we've let the public down very badly. What I would say is I hope that the public would also recognise that what we've done today, and what we've done over the last few months is try to be very open and honest about this issue. Both about the fact that it exists, to explore, I think more thoroughly than any other broadcaster I'm aware of, exactly to what extent this problem exists, how widespread it is, and also that we are totally committed to putting this right and in this respect fully winning back their confidence.

Gavin Esler: Thank you very much.

Mark Thompson: Thank you Gavin.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

There was a comment on my previous blog entry. Someone asked about my 'obsession' with Newsround.

Newsround isn't the only programme discussed here. In fact ironically the comment is posted on a blog entry which concentrated on Blue Peter and Biddy Baxter. Sometimes this blog also criticises adult programmes - Jonathan Ross being an example in my blog dated 7 July 2007.

I did choose to deliberately target Newsround because it is a news programme and, as such, should be subject to the same standards of impartiality as other news programmes. Adult news programmes may, as the comment says, be unenlightened when it comes to gay issues, but they do report important lgbt-related items like the introduction of civil partnerships. In addition the main BBC News website usually helps to make up for less important lgbt stories not covered in detail on TV news.

I think that Newsround is in many ways an excellent programme. For example the day after Gordon Brown became Prime Minister most of the 'adult' news programmes were still giving wide prominence to Mr Brown and his Cabinet appointments. Newsround, however, concentrated on the flooding in Hull which was affecting people there in a very real way.

Then on 6 July 2007 Adam was reporting live from Toll Bar, warning kids about the dangers of infection from the flood water. The issue wasn't covered on other programmes at the time. And the report was very well done with Joanne, an expert from the Environment Agency, there to carry out tests and explain the dangers from flood water. Some newspapers only headline the dangers today.

The 'Creative Future' initiative, which sought to narrow the target age range of CBBC's audience (blog 16 July 2007), was a very big mistake. In the case of the flooding news, for instance, is it right that only younger kids, but not teens, should be warned about the dangers of flood water just because the BBC says they aren't part of Newsround's target audience? Isn't the water potentially a danger to kids of all ages?

The point of having a children's news programme is surely that it should be relevant to children, and the problems they face in life and in school. Many young people in Britain were, and still are, affected by flooding, and that's why the programme was right to lead with it in the early days.

ChildLine's report last year made clear that many are affected by homophobia (See blog on 3 September 2006), so why not properly report that story too? The BBC says, in its Statements of Programme Policy 2007/2008 that it has a duty to be inclusive, but it has not lived up to the promise - on Newsround and on CBBC in general. It also says it is "committed to reflecting the diversity of the UK audience." CBBC has actually become less inclusive since the 1990's, and more recently some of the thinking behind 'Creative Future' has only made things worse.

If Newsround is not the issue, then what is?

Only a few days to the start of Pride in Brighton & Hove.

The main event is the Pride Parade on Saturday 4 August 2007. This year the event will include a demo as part of the BYC campaign to Stop homophobia in Poland.

Monday, July 23, 2007

In my blog on 6 June 2007 I mentioned Michael Sundin.

Last week's newspaper headlines were an indictment of the Corporation as a whole after a culture of deception was unearthed. Newsround wasn't one of the programmes directly criticised, but BBC Director-General Mark Thompson has, according to The Telegraph, initiated a compulsory training scheme for all of his 16,500 programmes and content staff which will focus "on the issue of honesty with audiences". The initiative is called 'Safeguarding Trust.'

One of the programmes which was directly criticised is Blue Peter, because of a faked phone-in competition winner last year.

Blue Peter was, for many years, run by Biddy Baxter, and as its editor she was responsible for deceiving viewers. In a recent interview with Mark Lawson she laughed off the "Two Petras" incident: Mark, it was a little puppy, it had made about a thirty second appearance at the end of one programme - in those days the programme was once a week. We were not going to break the hearts of very small children by saying "the puppy's died." That was perfectly okay - I'd stand by that, and I'd do the same again.

Soon the BBC will be spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on integrity training. If the training course doesn't cover the unacceptability of incidents like this, it will be licence-payers money down the drain. Biddy Baxter exemplifies the outdated 'Auntie Knows Best' ethos, and that is where the rot set in.

Later in the Mark Lawson interview Biddy Baxter claimed that Michael Sundin wasn't sacked from Blue Peter for being gay, but because he was "hugely unpopular" and said "his leaving the programme was to do with the fact that children didn't like him, nothing to do with his sexual proclivities."

In April 1985, about a month before Michael Sundin's contract was due to be reviewed/renewed, BBC Children's Programmes, Television asked the Broadcasting Research Department to carry out an urgent study of children's TV presenters. The work needed to be undertaken rapidly, ostensibly for the purpose of helping decisions on the "deployment" of children's TV presenters that Autumn. Results of the research were conveyed back in early May.

Approximately 200 children between the ages of 8 and 13 took part in a telephone survey to assess the presenters from five different Children's programmes: Blue Peter, Newsround, Screen Test, Beat the Teacher and Saturday Superstore. They were asked to rate presenters as follows:

Like as a person: 2 = Like a lot, 1 = Like a little, 0 = Dislike

Rate as a presenter: 2 = Very good, 1 = All right, 0 = Not very good

The survey found that John Craven was considered best presenter (rated 1.69 on Newsround), and Michael Sundin was considered the worst presenter (rated 1.06 on Blue Peter). However Sundin's rating in terms of likability as a person (1.17) was not quite the lowest - that position went to Mark Curry (rated 1.15 on Screen Test).

Michael Sundin's last appearance on Blue Peter as a presenter was on 24 June 1985. One year later Mark Curry, despite the findings of the internal research, became a Blue Peter presenter and remained on the programme for three years.

Excerpt from Mark Lawson's interview with Biddy Baxter

Excerpts from Blue Peter: the inside story by Biddy Baxter and Edward Barnes

Thursday, July 19, 2007

BBC Cheats

Readers of this blog won't be too surprised to read today's newspaper headlines.

You only need read my blogs on 13 and 16 December 2006 to see how young people were cheated by Newsround. And my last entry about the CBBC target audience still shows no feedback from anyone over 13. But when it comes to making Serious Ocean, CBBC doesn't want anyone under 12 years old to take part.

And things are much worse for lgbt kids. Last year BBC Governors acknowledged that 'gay' is widely used by young people to mean 'rubbish.' However Newsround hasn't in recent years done a single thing to combat homophobia. BBC Statements of Programme Policy 2007/2008 says that the BBC must be inclusive, but Newsround has failed to abide by this policy.

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people are everywhere in Britain, and they are entitled to be recognised on Newsround NOW!

We all deserve better from you, Auntie

Monday, July 16, 2007

CBBC's target audience

I've criticised Creative Future once or twice before. When Mark Thompson first announced the initiative on 25 April 2006 he said that the CBeebies and CBBC brands will be given tighter audience targets – up to 6, and 7 to 11 years respectively, and he said there would be a broadband based teen brand aimed at 12 to 16 years. The decision, a few days later, to axe Byker Grove, was not well received (see blog 13 May 2006). In autumn 2006 the plans were altered and CBBC now retains the original 6-12 year old target audience.

Having tighter audience targets was a foolish idea from the start because people develop at different rates - some are babyish at 15 and others are like adults at 10. So it was obviously misguided to try to further narrow the target age limits.

It is interesting to note that CBBC is now asking for kids to take part in their next reality exploration series, Serious Ocean, but as with all programmes in the Serious series, applicants must be aged between 12 and 15.

On CBBC Newsround's website, there is still a sharp cutoff in messages (ie none in the sampled data) from kids above 13. Curious eh?

June/July 2007 survey
June/July 2007 survey

Saturday, July 07, 2007

End gay jibes call

Kids who bully gay classmates will be treated like racists, in a crackdown launched yesterday.

New children's minister Kevin Brennan urged schools to protect the 156,000 gay pupils who suffer homophobic jibes.

He blasted Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles for using the word "gay" to mean "uncool" on air. Mr Brennan said: "This is too often seen as harmless banter instead of the offensive insult that it is."

New guidelines will be sent to schools in the autumn. It also emerged £14 million will be spent on teaching kids how to manage their feelings and resolve fights peacefully.

The above story was from page 2 of Friday's The Sun newspaper. Though neither Chris Moyles nor the BBC were actually mentioned by the children's minister, there was little doubt his remarks were a thinly-veiled reference to Moyles's language on Radio 1 last year (see blog 7 June 2006). The story was also covered in other media including The Mail and The Telegraph, but interestingly the BBC itself has so-far failed to report it anywhere. The news report was obviously relevant to Newsround's viewers, but once again the opportunity was missed.

Homophobic language has also been in the news this week when, in the Big Brother house Laura Williams called Liam a "poof." Channel 4 at first claimed the word was used in a non-derogatory context. Then two days later, Laura again compared Liam to a "big poof" apparently knowing it wasn't an appropriate word, but this time she was reprimanded. Laura was told that inappororiate or offensive language was not acceptable in the House and "that would include homophobic language such as poof."

It seems to be slowly dawning on Channel 4 that homophobic language is no more acceptable than racist language. And if the channel wishes to avoid accusations of double-standards it will have to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to both racism and homophobia.

Laura was voted out the Big Brother house last night, but later in the evening Jonathan Ross was on BBC1 with his house band Four Poofs And A Piano. For an organisation which claims "institutional support" for gay people (see blog 18 June 2007), it is sad to see that in reality this "support" amounts to little more than employing gay people as self-deprecating stereotypes or as the target of jokes by Jonathan Ross. Four Poofs And A Piano would not be employed by the BBC but for their offensive band name.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

When, in August last year, ChildLine published its Casenotes report - Calls to ChildLine about sexual orientation, homophobia and homophobic bullying Newsround avoided the subject and merely reported that bullying is reaching record levels. (see blog 30 August 2006). All too often bullies get away with homophobic bullying precisely because the real issue is avoided.

Yesterday in Prime Minister's Questions the Prime Minister said "The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families is announcing today a £30 million budget for ChildLine over the next two years, which will enable it to improve its services both to young people affected by bullying, and to all children who need the service of ChildLine. They do need it, and it is a great service." And today Esther Rantzen of ChildLine will be one of the high-profile speakers at an Education for All conference about tackling homophobia in schools. The problem affects thousands of primary and secondary kids, and cannot be ignored.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

London Pride went ahead in very difficult circumstances this year, defying the terrorists' attempts to cause chaos in the capital. Celebrities at the event included John Barrowman and Freema Agyeman as well as some important politicians like Harriet Harman.

Unfortunately a planned screening of Dr Who didn't go ahead, but given that CBBC has given extensive coverage to Dr Who, and also given that Newsround has some considerable ground to make up on equality and diversity, there was little excuse for Newsround's failure to give the Pride event at least a mention.