Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Final letter to the BBC Trust

Dear Sir,

I was disappointed to read the reply to my earlier letter to the BBC Trust which was dealt with by BBC Complaints . It apologises many times for the way the complaint has been handled but at no time has the BBC apologised or admitted fault for the broadcast itself. This is odd because there remain important issues which BBC Complaints have steadfastly refused to address.

I am considering resolved all the issues which have been addressed by this correspondence regardless of whether I feel they were answered satisfactorily. This is to assist the BBC Trust in focussing on the matters outstanding. It should be noted that the matters remaining have all been raised more than once in the course of this correspondence. Firstly I have a question, who were the nearly 200 “hard core deep environmentalists” referred to by Solitaire Townsend ? If that question cannot or will not be answered then an explanation is necessary for why the BBC is broadcasting unsubstantiated accusations about people it cannot identify. Resolving that question is also necessary to address my other outstanding concerns. Namely that the broadcast fell outside sections 7.9 and 7.13 of the OFCOM Broadcasting Code.

I put it to you that it was incumbent on the programme makers to make some effort to identify the 200 environmentalists (either collectively or as individuals) because Sections 7.9 states "anyone whose omission could be unfair to an individual or organisation has been offered an opportunity to contribute". Unless the programme makers identified the 200 or so environmentalists the programme makers could not have offered them an opportunity to contribute. The BBC has thus far refused to address this question.

Ms Townsend’s claim that she knows the motivations of the environmentalists in question is nothing more than opinion, dressed up as fact, there would be another side which the broadcast did not consider ie the real motivations of the environmentalists. To that extent the broadcast was unfair. Ms Townsend makes the statement “I was angry because it really showed that they wanted more. They didn’t just want to prevent climate change. They wanted to somehow change people, or at very least for people to know that they had to change.” It is derived from an exchange between herself  and the presenter (from 1:50 to 3:09)it is too contrived to be considered a casual opinion that sneaked through the editing process. From that viewpoint I invite you to consider that this is more than sloppy journalism it is misleading, Ms Townsend’s words are conjecture but they are presented unchallenged as if they were much more.

Section 7.9 states “broadcasters should take reasonable care to satisfy themselves that: material facts have not been presented, disregarded or omitted in a way that is unfair to an individual or organization” since Ms Townsend’s contribution made the motivations of the 200 environmentalists material it is incumbent to point out that the actual views or real motivations of the 200 or so environmentalists have been omitted. Ms Townsend has not been elected to speak for them but that is what is effectively going on in your programme. Furthermore Ms Townsend’s opinion of the motivations of the people she claims to have met (but has refused to identify) was extrapolated to imply is indicative of the environmental movement as a whole. A completely unscientific and immoral way of tarring a wide group of people with the same brush.

Finally I ought to record that it is lamentable that the BBC complaints process has not ascertained sufficient facts to deal with this matter properly before now and also that the BBC complaints process has ignored a complaint that a broadcast is outside OFCOM’s rules. As you know OFCOM is a form of external governance to the BBC and it looks very poor that the BBC has not answered concerns within the ambit of OFCOM before now.

Yours Sincerely

Hengist McStone

Monday, 17 October 2011

BBC: "to add to the confusion..."

Today I have recieved a long letter from the BBC which claims to answer my most recent letter to them and my recent letter to the BBC Trust, thereby blurring the distinction between the BBC and the BBC Trust. It goes over the ground of who wrote to whom when. I am absolutely baffled by paragraph four .

"The confusion was spotted and a letter was written to you much later in the process tying all your complaints together. To add to the confusion you did not recieve this letter (I am unable to discover why it was not delivered) and so another was sent on 6 January 2011. It apologised extensively and cleared up the misunderstandings, then went on to address the original points you made in your various complaints but within one single letter."

Needless to say I never got a letter from the BBC around 6th January 2011.

Keith Jones Head of Communications and Complaints concludes with the words  "I have responded to your points about handling in full in this letter and feel I can add no more at this stage" and that there are 20 working days to appeal to the BBC Trust.

Will do.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Letter to the BBC Trust

23rd September 2011 

BBC Trust Unit
180 Great Portland Street

Dear Sirs,

"Are Environmentalists Bad for the Planet" BBC Radio 4

Last year I raised a number of specific concerns about the above programme to the BBC Complaints Unit which to all intents and purposes have been lost rather than dealt with.

I understand that the BBC is subject to the OFCOM Broadcasting Code and I cited sections 7.9 and 7.13 of the OFCOM Broadcasting Code as having been breached (I first did that through the BBC's internet complaints portal on 21st February 2010 ) . Despite the fact that I have raised the matter of sections 7.9 and 7.13 many times since the BBC have never addressed it. This correspondence indicates that the BBC Complaints process is able to filibuster a complaint under the OFCOM Broadcasting Code despite the fact that OFCOM is external to the BBC.

I recieved a letter from Gemma McAleer earlier this month telling me the matter was out of time, but it is the BBC that have been tardy in dealing with this, I should also add that her chronology was flawed. I also have a specific question that I have raised numerous times which has been ignored and needs to be answered, in that light I contend that the one-sided account of a meeting by a contributor was untruthful and BBC programme makers have failed in their duty to see that the programme was truthful.

Stage two of the complaints process was dealth with by Sean Moss who took seven and a half months to respond, when he did so he gave no instructions on how to escalate this matter to yourselves.

I have spoken to OFCOM on the phone and they say to write to yourselves, which I am now doing. But I hasten to point out that unless you are able to engage in this correspondence the record would show that the BBC Complaints process can ignore accusations of stepping outside OFCOM's rules.


Hengist McStone

Thursday, 15 September 2011

... in the strongest possible terms...

Dear Sir,

I write in response to your letter from Gemma McAleer dated 7th September 2011.

It is your department that has lost track of this matter, therefore I have to put it to you in the strongest possible terms it is entirely inappropriate to dismiss this complaint as falling outside of your complaints timescale.

I did not recieve any communication from the BBC in November 2010 as you claim. The facts of the matter with regards to timescale are briefly as follows:

Programme broadcast 25th January 2010
First written complaint sent 5th Feb 2010
16th June 2010 undated letter recieved from Stefan Curran
My Stage 2 letter sent by rec'd delivery 9th August 2010
Follow up email requesting reply sent through your complaints portal 18th March 2011
Sean Moss replies by email 23rd March 2011

Sean Moss did not offer any method of escalating this matter to the BBC Trust. I understand that you are subject to the OFCOM Broadcasting Code and I have cited sections 7.9 and 7.13 of the OFCOM Broadcasting Code as having been breached (I first did that through your internet complaints portal on 21st February 2010 ) . Despite the fact that I have raised the matter of sections 7.9 and 7.13 many times since you have never addressed it.

The OFCOM Broadcasting Code is external to the BBC, I telephoned OFCOM earlier this week and they have advised that they can no longer consider this, however they advised me to write a letter to the BBC Trust.

I must say I no longer have any faith in the BBC complaints department to consider this matter. I have your answers and the gist is that the BBC ignores accusations that it has breached the OFCOM Broadcasting Code .

Now I am not entirely sure that any of us would like to leave this correspondence at that point. I will write to the BBC Trust in the next week asking for this matter to be heard by them. In the meantime I would be grateful if you would review whether it is correct to dismiss this complaint as out of time when it is mostly yourselves that have been tardy.


Hengist McStone

Friday, 9 September 2011

BBC goes all pythonesque

A letter arrives from the BBC apologizing for the time taken  to process my complaint and saying that the time period to make a complaint has now elapsed .  

Dear Mr McStone

Thanks for contacting us.

Please accept our apologies for the delay in our reply however, my colleague Sean Moss's reply to which you refer was sent in November 2010 and your e-mail was sent in May 2011

This falls outside of our complaints timescale which is published here :


Thanks for getting in touch.

Gemma McAleer
BBC Complaints

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Nimble footwork from BBC Editor Innes Bowen

Much of the email from the BBC is simply lifted from the transcript of the programme. They think that because it's over a year since the original broadcast I've forgotten it's content. They are wrong.

I made it pretty clear in my letter of August 8th that I felt that sec 7.9 and 7.13 of OFCOM had been broken because the BBC hadn't identified the "200 environmentalists". I asked directly who the "200 environmentalists" were. Last year I emailed Futerra PR and asked them who the "200 environmentalists" were.  I have frankly lost count of the number of times I've asked. I'm asking because I don't believe Solitaire Townsend's statement nor her logic, and because we have a right to know. It seems pretty obvious to me that if you get 200 environmentalists in one place it's a big pow wow, there would be more than one account of such an event. Instead we only have an account from a PR executive who that will not engage in correspondence and will not even identify her client . Solitaire Townsend's account does not add up.

My basic question is still unanswered and unaddressed. But Innes Bowen  (Editor of the Anaysis prog) writes this :
...no doubt Ms Townsend's assumption is based not just on that single incident but from extensive contact with different elements of the environment movement and on her other interactions with those attending the conference. We leave listeners to judge whether they think Ms Townsend's assumptions are reasonable in that context.
Only it wasn't in that context. Innes Bowen is changing the context . So it's a conference now. And Ms. Townsend's view is supported by her extensive network elsewhere rather than the shady anecdote which the BBC broadcast.... 

More to follow

And the answer comes winging back

Dear Mr McStone

Thank you for your further letter and e-mails regarding the BBC Radio 4 ‘Analysis’ programme entitled “Are Environmentalists Bad for the Planet?” that was originally broadcast on 25 January 2010.

I am a BBC Audience Services Complaints Advisor with responsibility for News and Current Affairs and your complaint has been escalated for my attention.

I understand that you originally complained about the programme via a letter sent on February 5th.

I note that you received our response in June and made a second complaint in your further letter sent on 8th August, making additional reference to “a number of emails,” which you had subsequently sent to us in the interim after your first complaint letter, raising further points about our editorial guidelines on impartiality and personal view.

In the first instance I would like to apologise for the delay in my response, which was the result of a major fault with our systems. I would also like to make clear that the confirmation you were given by telephone, stating that our first letter was a response to all the points you had previously made, was erroneous. I have accordingly raised this mistake with the management team for the department responsible and they are investigating.

I hope that this has helped to clear up any misunderstandings that have arisen with regards to the handling of your complaint and I would now like to take the opportunity to address all the original points you have made.

To this end I have been in contact with Innes Bowen, a week previously at the time of writing, and she has offered a detailed response which I hope you will find useful.

In relation to your request for information on the rules that govern impartiality and your suggestions that “Ms Townsend's extrapolation of what the environmentalists wanted is contrary to Sec 7.9 of the OFCOM broadcasting code,” that her poll was “unscientific” and that Justin Rowlatt was “unfair/biased” by “reinforcing her opinion and not challenging the rationale,” Innes Bowen explained in response that:

“Mr McStone is referring to the following extract from the programme:

‘What worries me is that the political objectives of some greens seem to override their interest in solving global warming. Solitaire Townsend runs a city PR firm, but one which specialises in communicating a single issue: sustainability.

TOWNSEND: I was making a speech to nearly 200 really hard core, deep environmentalists and I played a little thought game on them. I said imagine I am the carbon fairy and I wave a magic wand. We can get rid of all the carbon in the atmosphere, take it down to two hundred fifty parts per million and I will ensure with my little magic wand that we do not go above two degrees of global warming. However, by waving my magic wand I will be interfering with the laws of physics not with people – they will be as selfish, they will be as desiring of status. The cars will get bigger, the houses will get bigger, the planes will fly all over the place but there will be no climate change. And I asked them, would you ask the fairy to wave its magic wand? And about 2 people of the 200 raised their hands.

ROWLATT: That is quite shocking. I bet you were shocked, weren’t you?

TOWNSEND: I was angry. I wasn’t shocked. I was angry because it really showed that they wanted more. They didn’t just want to prevent climate change. They wanted to somehow change people, or at very least for people to know that they had to change.

ROWLATT: I noticed early on in my year of living ethically that all sorts of the advice you get from greens has little if anything to do with tackling global warming. Organic food, for example, is often more carbon intensive to produce than super-efficient industrial agriculture; locally produced goods can sometimes have a higher carbon foot print than imported goods.’”

Innes Bowen responded that:

“Mr McStone complains that ‘her [Ms Townsend's] conclusion that they wanted more cannot be arrived at solely from that poll.’ It's true that we can't be 100% sure what the motivation of those who didn't raise their hands was - for example those who didn't raise their hands might not have understood the question. However, I think it's clear from the context that it is only Ms Townsend's assumption that this indicates that "they wanted more". Having said that, no doubt Ms Townsend's assumption is based not just on that single incident but from extensive contact with different elements of the environment movement and on her other interactions with those attending the conference. We leave listeners to judge whether they think Ms Townsend's assumptions are reasonable in that context.”

In relation to your points about Justin Rowlatt giving his personal view, Innes Bowen explained that:

“Mr McStone complains that the presenter, Justin Rowlatt, by delivering some of his lines in the first person, is in breach of Editorial Guidelines about giving a personal view. The listener gives 3 examples and I will deal with these in turn:

(i) One interviewee, Tom Crompton of WWF UK talks about how issues of collective identity are a barrier to dealing with climate change. The listener complains about this response from the presenter:

‘ROWLATT: Helping people to access their better selves is a worthy project and I agree with Tom that tackling problems like poverty is important. But I can’t but help feel that the identity campaign that he champions carries a whiff of social engineering about it – it seems to imply an almost evangelical approach with green missionaries like Tom spreading the good news. It makes me feel rather uncomfortable and I’m not alone.’

Given that Tom Crompton holds some relatively controversial views about how to bring about a change in collective identity, for example controlling the number of advertising messages to which consumers are exposed as a means of decreasing consumerism and increasing concern for environmental issues, I think Justin's reaction was reasonable. These details about Tom's views weren't included in the programme - perhaps Justin's reaction would have been more understandable if he had included that detail.

(ii) Mr McStone complains about the following script line, which leads into an interview with the theologian and United Nations advisor on climate change and world religions Martin Palmer:

‘ROWLATT: What I find even more worrying is that often the almost evangelical nature of some green campaigning is justified, or perhaps even disguised, by the urgency of the climate issue. Environmentalists campaign on the basis that they are backed by “peer reviewed science” as if that validates whatever solution they are proposing. Indeed, the debate about how to tackle global warming can feel as if it is being conducted against the background of a relentless doomsday clock, ticking down the minutes and seconds until we are engulfed in some burning hell. It is almost as if climate change is some kind of planetary retribution, forcing humanity to pay the price for its greed. For the theologian Martin Palmer, these religious undercurrents show how environmentalism has adopted a familiar Western response to crisis – millenarian claims that the end is nigh.’

Again, I think raising this question, in the first person, is reasonable in the context. Justin is tapping into a much bigger debate (which we plan to explore in the next series of Analysis) about the relationship between science and ethics. Many of the environmentalists Justin has met, and several of those who appear in the programme, make it clear that they are motivated by ethical concerns which they link with scientific evidence about climate change. For example Jonathan Porritt talks about his concerns about consumerism and inequality. Not everyone who is convinced by the science necessarily shares the same views about ethics. Justin was merely pointing out that, in his experience, many environmental campaigners do not emphasise the distinction between the science and ethics. I think this is a reasonable opinion to express in the context.

(iii) Mr McStone complains about Justin's conclusion:

‘ROWLATT: I don’t have a problem with people campaigning for those other agendas for their vision of a better society – for me the problem comes if the fear of the consequences of climate change is used as cover to smuggle in other objectives for social and political change. That’s because many people already have a sense that there’ s something suspicious about the campaign to tackle global warming; they instinctively distrust the science and if they feel that the solutions people are proposing are less to do with carbon than pushing through a hidden agenda that will only serve to confirm their scepticism.’

My response to this is the same as my response to point (ii).”

Innes Bowen went on to further state, in relation to your point that the programme contained breaches of our editorial guidelines that:

“Mr McStone complains that the above breaches BBC Editorial Guidelines on impartiality.

In view of what I've said above, I think Justin Rowlatt came within the limits of the guidelines in that he expresses judgements rooted in evidence.”

In closing she stated that:

“With regard to the point made by Mr McStone in the return complaint about the title of the programme, I addressed this in my original response to him, sent via Stefan Curran.”

I hope that my response has gone some way towards addressing your concerns and thank you once again for taking the time to contact us.

Sean Moss
Complaints Adviser
BBC Complaints