BBC Not Destroyed By New Guidelines Shock

October 13, 2009

I worked in the BBC’s Editorial Policy unit for roughly ten years. I left three years ago.

Sometimes it all seems like a strange dream. What was I doing there? Did any of it actually happen?

So I turn to my bookshelf and pick up my edition of the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines. The red one.

The only thing I can be sure that I actually did while in Editorial Policy was project manage three editions of the BBC’s Producer Guidelines which became the BBC Editorial Guidelines. There was a silver one, a purple one (I think) and a red one.

I should add that I didn’t actually write the words in them. People far cleverer than me did that. But I did project manage getting them from early draft to finished book that you could hold in your hand.

I would proof read them and do the index, which although in some ways a bit of a pain (I once spent a bank holiday weekend stuck in a room at home going through each entry in the index), meant I knew the book back to front.

(And I’m sure that there are some who would remark that my understanding of BBC policy sadly never progressed much beyond being “back to front”)

So I was amused by some of the press coverage of the new version of the Guidelines last week.

Let’s start with: “Will the tighter guidelines destroy the BBC or save it?” asks Maggie Brown in the Guardian, before picking out some of the detail including:

In future, all pre-recorded programmes must be listened to completely by commissioning editors before broadcast, and all compliance documents signed and completed.

Hmmm… as I said in comments this doesn’t seem like an onerous condition likely to destroy the BBC. If you do have compliance documents at all it makes sense to fill them in properly doesn’t it?

The referral to controller for the f-word and strong language has been exactly the same in all the editions I worked on in the past ten years, and has been the case long before that.

Adnittedly the current wording is a bit long winded – the red one refers to “Senior Editorial Figure”. In the new draft the wording is simply “output controller”. A welcome change but hardly a major one.

The stuff on products as props is pretty much the same. The stuff about opinion polls is pretty much the same.

Then there’s this: “BBC Gets Tough on Journalists Blogging”.

“Blogging”? What does that mean?

The draft guidelines, which cover everything from bad language to impartiality, state that: “Nothing should be written by [BBC] journalists and presenters that would not be said on-air.”

Some industry observers are already referring to that as the “Jeremy Bowen clause”. The BBC’s highly-regarded Middle East editor, was censured by the Trust in April for loose phrasing in a potted history of post-war Israel, which appeared on the BBC News website.

The trouble is that the Jeremy Bowen piece referred to was NOT a blog, either a BBC blog or a personal one. It was an article published on BBC Online.

And while the formulation is new, and very well expressed, the idea that BBC online content should somehow be less impartial than radio and television is obviously daft. And as my colleague Steve Herrmann helpfully points out that’s quite clear in the current edition of the Guidelines.

Finally there’s this rant from Peter Preston in the Observer:

The Press Complaints Commission code covers, at most, two sides of A4. The BBC’s editorial guidelines, duly promulgated for five-year revision by the BBC Trust, take 19 densely detailed sections to do the same job.

So Peter, which is the better regulator, the PCC or the BBC Trust?

And this:

is anybody actually expected to read and remember what the clauses proscribe as they limp into the nether distance?

Er well yes they are actually as reading and abiding by the Guidelines is a contractural obligation for BBC staff.

The main difference this time is that the Guidelines have been put out for public consultation by the BBC Trust. This is good, although asking people to read a PDF and then fill in a form is a clunky way of doing it. Should’ve been a wiki.

I’ve speed read the new Guidelines. If you take “tighter” to mean “more precisely and elegantly” written, rather than “restrictive” then they are indeed “tighter”. The section on impartiality is particularly strong. And perhaps the most significant improvement (and missed by the press reporting – surprise, surprise) is the way that guidelines about online have been seamlessly integrated into the rest of the document.

For example, I was particularly pleased by this from section 17: Interacting with Audiences, about “user generated content”:

“Content which is critical of the BBC, for example of talent, programmes or policies should not be removed unless it breaks the rules.”

If I’d have know that the book I helped publish had the power to “destroy” the BBC I would have put a secret code in the index.

I wonder who’s doing the index this time?

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