The gatekeeper-in-chief strikes again…

In an earlier post, I asked whether the BBC Trust would investigate the axing of Ilan Ziv’s “Jerusalem – An Archeological Mystery Story”.

The answer, but of course, is no..

Dear Mr Sucksmith

Decision not to broadcast ‘Jerusalem: An Archaeological Mystery Story’ in April 2013

Thank you for writing to the BBC Trust about the BBC’s decision not to broadcast Jerusalem: An Archaeological Mystery Story in April 2013. I am very sorry that you feel the BBC has not given you a proper response to your complaint.

The Trust is the last stage of the complaints process and everyone who works within the Trust Unit is outside the day-to-day operations of the BBC. We review the complaints that come to us to assess whether they should be put before the BBC’s Trustees for them to reach a final decision. If you want to find out more about how the complaints system works – and in particular about how the BBC Trust fits in – this is the web link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/governance/complaints_framework/

There are two committees which decide complaints: the Editorial Standards Committee and the Complaints and Appeals Board. The Editorial Standards Committee (ESC) hears complaints about specific broadcasts, where there is a significant risk that one of the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines has been breached. The Complaints and Appeals Board (CAB) hears general complaints which may relate to programme output, or may be about any other part of the BBC’s operations (for example, complaints about TV Licence collection).

I should explain that the Trust does not take every appeal that comes to it. In deciding which ones should be considered by the Trustees, we look at the merits of the complaint and only ones that stand a reasonable chance of success are passed to Trustees. The Trust acts in the interests of all licence fee payers and it would not be proportionate to spend a good deal of time and money on cases that do not stand a realistic prospect of success. The link that I have given above gives more information about this.

I have read the correspondence that has already passed between you and the BBC.

I am sorry to send a disappointing response but I do not believe your appeal should be put in front of the Trustees. I have attached a summary of your appeal as well as the reasons behind my decision with this letter. As this Annex may be drawn on when the Committee minutes are written, the writing style is formal. While I regret the impersonal feel of this, I hope you will appreciate it allows the Trust to work efficiently.

If you disagree with my decision and would like the Trustees to review it, please reply with your reasons by 30 September 2013 to the Complaints Adviser at trust.editorial@bbc.co.uk or at the above address. Please send your reasons by this deadline in one document if possible.

Correspondence that is received after this date may not be considered as part of your request for a review of the decision. If, exceptionally, you need more time please write giving your reasons as soon as possible.

If you do ask the Trustees to review this decision, I will place that letter as well as your original letter of appeal and this letter before Trustees. Your previous correspondence will also be available to them. They will look at that request in their October meeting. Their decision is likely to be finalised at the following meeting and will be given to you shortly afterwards.

If the Trustees agree that your case has no reasonable prospect of success then it will close. If the Trustees disagree with my decision, then your case will be given to an Independent Editorial Adviser to investigate and we will contact you with an updated time line.

Yours sincerely

Leanne Buckle

Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser

Annex

Decision to withdraw programme about Jerusalem

According to the General Complaints Procedure, the Trust will only consider an appeal if it raises “a matter of substance”. This will ordinarily mean that in the opinion of the Trust there is a reasonable prospect that the appeal will be upheld. In deciding whether an appeal raises a matter of substance, the Trust may consider (in fairness to the interests of all licence fee payers in general) whether it is appropriate, proportionate and cost-effective to consider the appeal.

Background

The complainant had contacted the BBC after it decided to withdraw the programme Jerusalem: An Archaeological Mystery from broadcast. He had sought information about the editorial reasoning for not broadcasting the programme and who had taken the decision.

“em>Ilan Ziv’s film was originally acquired earlier this year to supplement BBC Four’s season exploring the history of archaeology. Acquisitions are often prepared for transmission close to broadcast and it was only at this point that it was decided that the film did not fit the season editorially and was not shown. We would like to assure you that this was an internal decision and there was no political pressure involved in the decision to suspend this programme. We’re sorry for any disappointment caused but please be assured we are talking to the director about future plans for the film, the outcome of which will be published on the BBC’s FAQ website: http://faq.external.bbc.co.uk/ in due course.”

When the complainant pressed for further information, he was told:

…we are not in a position to discuss the specific details at present. As we have said, we are talking to the director about future plans for the film and we will publish the outcome on our FAQ website at http://faq.external.bbc.co.uk/ once these plans are decided. In the meantime we regret there is no more we can add.

The complainant had initially escalated is complaint to the BBC Trust on 3 June 2013. The Trust Unit considered that BBC Audience Services ought to give more information and, on 18 July, he was sent the following response:

Ilan Ziv’s film about the archaeology and history of Jerusalem and surrounding areas was acquired by the BBC for transmission during a BBC Four archaeology season. It was found during the re-versioning of the film to 60 minutes in length that it covered broader issues and for that reason, it was decided to withdraw it from this particular season. The BBC is now working with the film maker on a new version of the film and will issue a further statement once that process is complete.

Appeal

The complainant remained dissatisfied. He appealed to the Trust and stated:

…the circumstances surrounding the original axing need to be adequately explained. And of course, the more the BBC Executive procrastinates, the greater the impression they have something to hide. To re-iterate: I am seeking a full explanation of what was meant by the phrase “does not fit editorially”. This will obviously entail reference to the specific editorial criteria that the programme was considered against, and the reasons why these criteria were not considered to have been met. I think it would also be useful to know HOW these decisions were made, and by WHOM.

The Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser (the Adviser) carefully read the correspondence which had passed between the complainant and the BBC, and she acknowledged the strength of the complainant’s feelings. She noted that the Executive said that the programme had been acquired to supplement BBC Four’s season exploring the history of archaeology. She noted that the most recent response from the BBC had elaborated on its first reply and had explained that it was only when the film was being shortened prior to transmission that it emerged the film covered broader issues than had initially been understood and it was subsequently withdrawn from the series about archaeology.

The Adviser noted that the complainant had been told the film would be shown at a later point and had been given a webpage that would be updated once a new date had been confirmed. The Adviser considered Trustees would be likely to conclude that the complainant had been given a reasoned and reasonable response on this point and did not believe it had a reasonable prospect of success, therefore she did not consider it should be put before Trustees.

The Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser understood that the complainant felt frustrated that the BBC had not given further details about the decision. However, she considered there was no obligation on the BBC to do this. She noted that the Royal Charter and the accompanying Agreement between the Secretary of State and the BBC drew a distinction between the role of the BBC Trust and that of the BBC Executive Board, led by the Director-General. “The direction of the BBC’s editorial and creative output” was specifically defined in the Charter (paragraph 38, (1) (b)) as a duty that was the responsibility of the Executive Board, and one in which the Trust did not get involved unless, for example, it related to a breach of the BBC’s editorial standards which did not apply in this case. Decisions relating to what programmes to include within a themed series fell within the “editorial and creative output” of the BBC and were the responsibility of the BBC Executive. The issue of how much detail to provide about the reasons for such decisions was also a matter for the Executive.

Therefore the Adviser considered that it was not appropriate for the appeal to be put before Trustees on this point. Therefore the Adviser considered the appeal did not have a reasonable prospect of success and should not be put before Trustees.

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