Monday, September 29, 2008

the bug letter: when 1 is more than 63,000

click to read more on the BBC from the Social Policy UnitRecently, I got a letter from a friend who lives in a nearby old fen and, like me, used to work with people who use illicit drugs. Inside were two letters from the BBC to him, in response to two letters of complaint he had sent about an objectionable song by The Beastie Boys called She's on it turning up on Dale Winton's show Pick of the Pops, which airs on Sunday afternoons from 2.30-4.30.

My friend, Iratus, was unhappy with those of the lyrics he managed to make out, and so looked them up on the web. When they did, he found the vocabulary of a situation that unfortunately is not uncommon today: a young lady (in the song a schoolgirl) being given cocaine in return for sexual favours. He wrote to the BBC, complaining that while he realised BBC Radio 2 did broadcast challenging material, this usually happened later in the evening and always with a warning.

Iratus received a prompt reply from the BBC, stating:

We are of course concerned if our programmes offend people and we never set out to offend but of course our public service role includes reflecting the world as it is...

I appreciate the strength of your views on these matters. Accordingly, I would like to assure you that I have registered your comments on our audience log. This daily report of audience feedback is circulated to many BBC staff, including members of the BBC Executive Board, channel controllers and other senior managers. The audience logs are seen as important documents that can help shape future decisions about future programming and content. They are also published on the BBC's intranet site, so are available for all BBC staff to view.

Thank you again for your interest in the BBC..."
When I took the letters to Professor Calculus to look over, upon reading the first he threw back his head and laughed, exclaiming: "They've given him the bug letter!"

Seeing my puzzled look, Calculus told me a story about a passenger on a cruise-ship who complained to the owners upon finding a bedbug. He got a reply stating that the member of staff responsible had been sacked and the captain reprimanded and, stuck to it, was his original complaint, with the words written on the back: "Give him the bug letter."

It was an amusing story, and when I investigated further I found that "the [bed]bug letter" had an interesting life as an urban legend. Anyway, Iratus didn't need any pointers to enlighten him to the fact that he was being fobbed off, and therefore iterated his complaint, adding that to give cocaine in return for sexual favours was to commit a criminal act.

This nugget appears to have exercised them down at BBC complaints. Their second reply to Iratus stated:

Having considered your further comments...I raised your concerns with senior management at the Radio 2 network. They acknowledge the record was not appropriate and suitable for this show. They pass on their apologies for any offence and thanks for bringing this matter to their attention.
Calculus and I looked at each other significantly like a pair of '70's detectives at this. So much for the "audience log" referred to in the bug letter!

Today, Andrew Porter interviewed Shadow Culture Media and Sports Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who was attending the Conservative Party Conference. Hunt questioned why the BBC should expect to receive a "£3 billion guaranteed cheque" every year and press onwards with a "lack of vision" regarding how it can help people and government tackle the pressing social issues of the day: "the rise in knife crime, gun culture, broken families".

He also referred to the £100 million per year that it takes to run BBC3 for "miniscule audiences". Too right. We bought a Freeview box in not in anticipation of the proposed switch from analogue to digital TV, but because it frustrated me to pay the license fee everynewsreader Fiona Bruce was approached about wearing a cross - click to read more year for so many services - BBC's 3 and 4, the childrens' channels, the digital radio stations - that I was unable to receive.

One way in which the BBC could help heal our broken society, which was Mr Hunt's main topic, is not to attack the backbone of our Christian society, which is still its religion. I'm thinking mainly of its decision to air Jerry Springer: the Opera in the face of the most complaints it had ever received prior to its being aired (it was already in the public realm as a stage musical).

There was some discussion about the actual number of complaints, but this was put to bed by the BBC Press Office, which reported that it received about 55,000 complaints prior to the show's broadcast and 8,000 complaints afterwards, with about 2,200 messages of support.

click to read Ofcom's advice on how to complainIn other words, there were around 30 times more complaints than pats on the back: in spite of this, communications regulator Ofcom found in its meeting on the subject that "The Content Board...suggested that whilst the programme would have offended some people, the requirements of freedom of speech were such that it must be permissible on occasion to cause offence."

I accept the principle, but it isn't practiced. In autumn 2006, a summit looked at the requests of performer Sacha Baron Cohen, who was invited to throw his pet hates into the bin in the BBC's Room 101. Cohen, a fair man, chose kosher food, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bible and the Koran. Almost everybody at the summit, including the show's producer, agreed that all of these items could be binned except the Koran.

Andrew Marr, senior journalist with the Corporation, was admirably honest:

“The BBC is not impartial or neutral...It’s a publicly funded, urban organization with an abnormally large number of young people, ethnic minorities and gay people. It has a liberal bias not so much a party-political bias. It is better expressed as a cultural liberal bias.”

The BBC, in fact, has also been criticised roundly for its anti-American and BBC caught out in bias: click to read moreanti-Israeli stances from both internal and external sources. William D Rubinstein, formerly of the Social Affairs Unit, asked at the time why no politician was willing to take serious action to tackle the BBC's bias. Perhaps Jeremy Hunt is in the vanguard of politicians who aren't afraid of the big bad Beeb.

Anyway, Iratus should be pleased; I don't know how many complainants got past the BBC's bug letter in the battle against Jerry Springer: The Opera, but in his own fight to get the BBC to admit it was wrong he's succeeded where 63,000 failed.

click to go to mediawatch-uk, who campaign for decency and accountability in the media

Related posts:

what the hell was all that about?

strictly sociopathic - the bbc has bullied us enough


  1. The bug story originated as a cockroach seen on board a Lufthansa aircraft resulting in the plane being stripped down to millions of pieces, the cockroach not found, and the normal cockroach letter sent out.
    I also am in despair that the Conservative party do not take on the bbc in a more direct manner.
    This morning I turned off the pro-government Today programme since they repeatedly praised Brown and his incompetents, while blaming America for all our financial troubles, and criticizing the Conservatives for not giving the bbc their ideas to pass on to the political masters at NuLabor head office.
    Now they are supporting Al Queda by promoting the story that we are losing the war on them.
    Basically the bbc is acting against the interests of this country and they need a lesson in how to conduct themselves.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I don't watch BBC news/current affairs programmes any more because of their biases - especially in the light of the campaign in Iraq, they don't like the fact that the tide is starting to turn.

    I get news etc from the papers, the radio and the internet. BBC Radios 2-4 have culturally important components that should be protected, and the Last Night of the Proms is an important celebration of Britishness. The rest could be funded by advertising or given to institutions that are skilled in attracting advertising revenue.


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