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21/01/2011 - BBC breaches its Parliamentary Service Licence

In our previous news story, we claimed that the BBC had acted most inappropriately by posting on-screen comments during Mr Tom Watson's Adjournment Debate in the House of Commons on 20th December 2010. Not only did these comments contradict the points raised by the MPs when they were raising their constituents concerns about possible long-term adverse health consequences of mobile phone use, especially by children and young people, but they only represented one side of a very two sided story. The nation relies on the BBC for high quality, impartial presentation of current events, and in this case the public has been let down badly.

The BBC responds to our complaints

Eileen O'Connor (Radiation Research Trust) and Alasdair Philips (Powerwatch) have now received responses to their complaints about the programme from the BBC Complaints section. The reply to Eileen O'Connor's letter calls the on-screen comments "straightforwardly factual", which is misleading spin - the underlying point is they were facts (with the exception of the ones that weren't even correct) that promoted one side of the debate only.

Even more unbelievably, the reply to Alasdair Philips claims that the BBC regularly post viewers' comments on-screen during Parliamentary Debates. Has coverage of the UK government really been reduced to captioning the views of the general public and superimposing it on the top of the genuine questions asked by MPs on behalf of their constituents? This is something we would expect from MTV, not the UK BBC!

If we meld the key statements from the two replies into one paragraph we get:

"These comments were provided by our audience and therefore it was not the opinion of the BBC but that of those who were watching the coverage. We were sent a number of captions which relayed the findings of official bodies and research institutions and these are straightforwardly factual and I am happy with their use by the BBC. We have a duty to allow everyone to have their freedom of speech, regardless of their views. Due to the range of opinions in our public it's inevitable that not everyone will agree."

BBC Complaints

This is in an apparent breach of their own Service Licence conditions, policy mission and values for the broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings:

"The service should place a high value on showing proceedings with little or no broadcast mediation, such as commentary or voice-over. On-screen text should be used as a non-interventionist way of providing explanation. Opportunity should be taken to broadcast in full speeches and news conferences that may have been shown only in edited versions on other BBC output. There should be regular programmes providing highlights, analysis and context.

"BBC Parliament should make a very important contribution to this purpose amongst its audience, by providing accurate, impartial and comprehensive coverage of the work of the UK's parliamentary chambers and of the European Parliament."

In our opinion, this breach of policy in a parliamentary debate is quite outrageous:

  1. it opens up a route for all sorts of inappropriate public and industry lobbying and
  2. it distracts viewers from the genuine parliamentary debate.

There seems to be a serious BBC senior management organisational failing here. They still have not apologised for undermining parliamentary democratic debate and apparently see no need to do so. We believe that the only appropriate, unspun coverage of the debate would be to have no running banners other than the names of the MPs standing, and the constituency they represent. Anything else is a misuse of the public's license fee to expect an impartial presentation of government proceedings.

The Full responses (bold highlights by Powerwatch)

13th January 2011     Ref no: CAS-526467

Dear Mrs O'Connor

Thanks for your e-mail.

I have forwarded your concerns to the Deputy Editor for BBC Parliament, Daniel Brittain-Catlin. He has accordingly asked me to relay the following response to you:

"Many thanks for your note. I have taken the opportunity to look at the information captions we used for the adjournment debate on mobile phones. We had a number of captions which relayed the findings of official bodies and research institutions and these are straightforwardly factual and I am happy with their use by the BBC. Such captions are supplementary to the debates and it is standard practice to provide this supporting information to viewers."

"As you are well aware, concerns about the use of mobile phones by the under 16s formed a constant theme throughout the debate. Indeed your own constituency MP Bill Esterton's intervention was on this very point, and he made reference to you. Tom Watson raised concerns about his own children using mobile phones. Any viewer to BBC Parliament would not have failed to appreciate that concerns about the under 16s formed a very substantial part of the debate. Nevertheless, I think it was regrettable that we did not have a caption on the official guidance from the Department of Health on the use of mobile phones by under 16 year olds for inessential calls. This would certainly have been relevant to the debate and it would have been good to have included this line. I have drawn this to the attention of the researcher concerned. Although this was an omission, I am though satisfied that any viewer would have grasped the relevance of this subject. I hope you will feel that I have answered your comments."

I hope this allays your concerns, thanks again for taking the time to contact us.


Liam Boyle
Complaints Advisor for News and Current Affairs
BBC Audience Services

17th January 2011    Reference CAS-512678

Dear Mr Philips

Thanks for contacting us regarding BBC Parliament's 'House of Commons:Adjournment debate'. I understand that you're unhappy about on screen comments which were broadcast during the live debate as you found them distracting and inappropriate.

These comments were provided by our audience and therefore it was not the opinion of the BBC but that of those who were watching the coverage.

We have a duty to allow everyone to have their freedom of speech, regardless of their views. Due to the range of opinions in our public it's inevitable that not everyone will agree.

I can assure you our journalists are well aware of our commitment to impartial reporting. They are expected to put their own political views to one side when carrying out their work for the BBC. They seek to provide the information which will enable viewers and listeners to make up their own minds; to show the political reality and provide the forum for debate, giving full opportunity for all viewpoints to be heard. We regret that on this occasion you felt the need to complain.

We're guided by the feedback that we receive and to that end I'd like to assure you that I've registered your complaint on our audience log. This is a daily report of audience feedback that's circulated to many BBC staff, including members of the BBC Executive Board, programme makers, channel controllers and other senior managers. The audience logs are seen as important documents that can help shape decisions about future programming and content.

Thanks again for taking the time to contact us.

Kind Regards

Tanya McKee
BBC Complaints     www.bbc.co.uk/complaints

NB This is sent from an outgoing account only which is not monitored.
You cannot reply to this email address but if necessary please contact us via our webform quoting any case number we provided.

The bolding in the replies above was added by us.

Here is a copy of Eileen O'Connor's complaint sent to the BBC that they have responded to:

I am lost for words after viewing evidence provided by Powerwatch UK demonstrating the BBC's bias reporting and blatant disregard for Tom Watson's Adjournment Debate on mobile phones and health in the House of Commons on 20th December, 2010. I am calling for the BBC to apologise to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health Anne Milton, MPs Tom Watson, Bill Esterson and the public they represent.

MPs Tom Watson, Bill Esterson and The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anne Milton) would not have been aware of the misguided comments displayed on the monitor which did not reflect the debate.

I am a member of Labour MP Bill Esterson's constituency. He kindly represented serious concerns with regards to compelling evidence in connection to the dangers of electromagnetic radiation from mobile phone handsets and phone masts. He also raised valid and serious concerns about children after reviewing evidence provided by the EM Radiation Research Trust.

I question the BBC's vested interests and misuse of licence/tax payer's money to lobby Government while using underhanded reporting to undermine a very serious health debate on mobile phones and phone masts.

The BBC did not reflect on the debate or promote official advice from the DH mobile phone leafletDepartment of Health leaflet which clearly states that children and young people under 16 should be discouraged for non-essential calls. In the light of this recommendation the UK Chief Medical Officers strongly advise that where children and young people do use mobile phones, they should be encouraged to use mobile phones for essential purposes only keep all calls short - talking for long periods prolongs exposure and should be discouraged. The UK CMOs recommend that if parents want to avoid their children being subject to any possible risk that might be identified in the future, the way to do so is to exercise their choice not to let their children use mobile phones.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health Anne Milton responded to concerns raised by Tom Watson and Bill Esterson, she said "I am aware of the ability of large and powerful vested interests to lobby, often very successfully. There are, without doubt, eye-wateringly large amounts of money at stake in the mobile communications industry. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am old enough and cynical enough to apply at all times an appropriate level of scrutiny and cynicism to all information that comes my way-always seeking to find out whence it came and who paid for it". I will be drawing the BBC's reporting of this debate to Ann Minton's attention and encourage her to review the BBC's privileged position with regards to reporting on Parliamentary proceedings while trying to influence the democratic process with misguided information.

I call on the BBC to alert MPs and the general public and especially our children to the precautionary advice from the Department of Health in order to help protect future generations from what could turn out to be another public health disaster. I highly recommend the BBC review the evidence from independent scientists and public health officials/advocates. Please read the report 15 Reasons ReportCell phones and Brain Tumours: 15 Reasons for Concern.

I am the Director for the UK EM Radiation Research Trust charity. I will be drawing this serious disregard and misuse of broadcasting to the attention of fellow Radiation Research Trust trustees Joe Benton, Labour MP and Dr Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP. Trustee members of the European Parliament are Liz Lynne, Lib Democrat MEP, and Jill Evans, Plaid Cymru Member for the European Parliament for Wales. Other members are Devon based Scots Lawyer and environmentalist, Michael Bell, Graham Lamburn, Powerwatch UK, Dr Ian Gibson, doctorate in biochemistry and previous member of Parliament and Chairman Brian Stein, Chief Executive Samworth Brothers Ltd.

Yours faithfully,

Eileen O'Connor
EM Radiation Research Trust

Extra relevant information:

bbc_screenshots_plus BBC coverage screen shots and PW responses in PDF format (850 KB) These are taken from the previous Powerwatch news report. This document contains all the "comment" captions, though most were used more than more during BBC coverage of the debate. It does not show a few non-contentions labels (e.g. "Anne Milton" and "Adjournment debate" etc). Bill Esterson MP was, for some reason, never named on-screen during the transmission. We do also have a marked up Hansard text showing when the comments were displayed.

nov2010_listofstudies A list of 139 studies showing biological and health effects at SAR levels below 2W/kg (110 KB)
Added note: The Pubmed hyperlinks seem to have been broken by the PDFing process (they are still valid but don't now hyperlink directly (without copy and pasting) so we have decided to make the XLS spreadsheet version available.
XLS Spreadsheet version (110 KB)

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