BBC Complaint: Round 2

It took me a couple of weeks over the xmas period to respond to the BBC’s complaints team after they got back to me (with a significant delay past their two week target). I experienced some of the exhaustion familiar to people whose words consistently fall on deaf ears. The emails sat in my inbox for a couple of weeks while I enjoyed some time away (and worked on things more relevant to my thesis!)

Their response, while being both patronising and condescending, did nothing to address the original point I made: that the language the BBC uses to talk about gender-diverse people does not meet the standards that we expect of the broadcaster.

Thank you for contacting us regarding BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Moral Maze’ broadcast on 18 November.

I understand you believe it was offensive for Michael Buerk to say the word “transsexuals”.

This episode focused on the Church of England issuing schools with advice on transphobic bullying, suggesting that “boys should be free to dress up in tutus and tiaras, and girls allowed to wear tool-belts and superhero capes, in the spirit of exploring who they might be”.

Let us assure you that there was never any intention to cause offence by Michael making reference to the word that you found offensive.

We do value your feedback about the programme. All complaints are sent to senior management and in this case the ‘Moral Maze’ programme every morning, and I’ve included your points in our overnight report of audience reaction.

These reports are among the most widely read sources of feedback in the BBC and ensures that your concerns have been seen by the right people quickly. This helps inform their decisions about current and future programmes.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact us.

Kind regards

Neil Salt

BBC Complaints Team

“I understand you believe it was offensive”… I felt like I qualified why it could be reasonably well in my original complaint. I’m sure people are familiar with my position on othering; i.e. how it shouldn’t be viewed as a political issue but rather one of being decent to people. Unfortunately, it seems that something as simple as not being an asshole is considered a political issue…

So, I went for a look through the BBC Editorial guidelines to see if there was any ammunition I could use:

Portrayal  5.4.38  We aim to reflect fully and fairly all of the United Kingdom's people and cultures in our services.  Content may reflect the prejudice and disadvantage which exist in societies worldwide but we should not perpetuate it.  In some instances, references to disability, age, sexual orientation, faith, race, etc.  may be relevant to portrayal.  However, we should avoid careless or offensive stereotypical assumptions and people should only be described in such terms when editorially justified.   5.4.39  When it is within audience expectations, we may feature a portrayal or stereotype that has been exaggerated for comic effect, but we must be aware that audiences may find casual or purposeless stereotypes to be offensive.
BBC Editorial Guidelines Section 5: Harm and Offence

Anyway, here’s my (round two) reply:

I received a response to my complaint from Neil Salt at the BBC Complaints Team on 19th Dec. However, the response I received treated the complaint as an issue of individual offence, rather than addressing the concerns I raised about the editorial quality of BBC programming. I have therefore categorised this follow up (stage 1b.) in terms of editorial standards, rather than offence, as I believe this may have caused some confusion.

Your response states: “Let us assure you that there was never any intention to cause offence by Michael making reference to the word that you found offensive.” Please be assured that no offence was taken. My complaint was intended to raise the issue that the BBC consistently fails to get this language right, and I suggested a solution in the introduction by the BBC of a style guide for trans-related language.

Section 5.4.38 of the BBC Editorial Guidelines states that the BBC aims “to reflect fully and fairly all of the United Kingdom’s people and cultures in our services” and that “people should only be described in such terms when editorially justified”. If you refer back to my original complaint, I have outlined why the BBC is failing in this regard through the use of othering and exclusionary language with reference to to gender diverse people.

If you could respond appropriately to this complaint, addressing the points I have raised both in my original complaint and in this clarification, I would be grateful. For reference, my request from this complaint at stage 1a. was for you to “address how the BBC will be updating its style guide and training presenters and journalists on the correct usage of this terminology”. In addition, if you have any suggestions for actions which the BBC might take to improve reporting standards with regards to trans* issues, I am of course happy to hear them. Finally, if you are unable to address this at the complaints team level, then by all means please elevate the complaint to stage two.

We’ll see if they have anything to say for themselves this time around, but I’m not holding my breath. On a wider note, I think it’s important to publish complaints for transparency (where those complaints do not personally identify an individual or infringe on some other legislation), which as the Beeb don’t publish the complaints they receive I’m using my own resources to put this one online. I would assume that data is available under Freedom of Information, so perhaps there’s a project in this– I do know a researcher who is looking at automating FOI requests and can definitely see the application here.

There’s a significant amount of energy which goes into writing complaints, and last time I wrote one I didn’t have the time or energy to follow it up after the second round, despite being unsatisfied with the response. I suspect that most issues are left unresolved after the first complaint, as those affected are often the least able to sustain the emotional labor required in continually rebuffing an organisation set up to speak, rather than to listen.