“The BBC never admits to making a mistake”?


The former BBC Director-General, Lord Birt, quoted a complaints executive who told him when he arrived at the corporation in 1987 that “the BBC never admits to making a mistake”. At the moment it seems as though little has changed, despite reviews of and reforms to the BBC’s complaints procedure since then.

We have been posting the responses received to a number of complaints on here, but after several weeks we seem to have reached a point at which the BBC Complaints department is sending identical replies to all complaints about Berena and representation in Holby City, no matter what their substance or emphasis. The BBC rules allow them to send the same responses if they receive a number of complaints ‘about the same issue’, though it is unclear how many it would take to trigger that response, or how similar the complaints would have to be in order to justify it.

The complaints that we know about have variously raised: the BBC’s failure to comply with Ofcom guidance on representation and portrayal (Oct 2018) with regard to the creative process; the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes of underrepresented communities; the use of social media to lead (often vulnerable) viewers to expect an entirely different outcome; that until now the show had happily engaged with the notion of representation. Some complaints were personal and emotional, others laid out specific articles and paragraphs of the BBC Charter and its own published commitments to representation of, and engagement with, minority communities.

These were not identikit complaints, yet the BBC is sending a standardised reply irrespective of whether or not it applies to the complaint (in most cases, it does not), and at both the first and second stages of the complaints process. It is, therefore, hard to conclude that the corporation is engaging in the process in good faith. Indeed it is far easier to surmise that the complaints are not being read for longer than it takes to identify that they relate to Berena.

We have set out elsewhere on the site where and how viewers might consider that the BBC has fallen short of its charter obligations, but in this instance in particular, the reply is not only disappointing in light of the Charter’s expectation that the BBC actively engages with the views of licence fee payers, it also refers explicitly to “the majority of viewers” as a yardstick for audience response, despite the matter raised clearly relating to a minority with protected status.

This apparent disregard for the substance of what viewers are saying has only reinforced our feeling that this issue must be pressed further. We will be pursuing our complaints by rejecting these responses (viewers have 20 days to do so from receipt of the response), and anyone who would like help to do so is welcome to contact us.

The one-size-fits-all response is as follows:

“Thank you for contacting us about Holby City. We’re sorry you were unhappy with some circumstances leading up to the ‘Berena’ break up.

Holby City approaches LGBTQ relationships as it does heterosexual ones. In this particular episode it was the case that a female couple split up while both a male couple and a neuroatypical heterosexual couple got married.

However, the characters of Bernie and Serena parted amicably, retaining a great respect and mutual affection for each other. They agreed that they would always love each other but that their lives and priorities were not currently in the same place.

While we note you are unhappy with this story development we don’t believe such a storyline would fall outside the expectations of the majority of viewers.

We appreciate however that is has resonated strongly with you personally and we have shared your views with the production team.

Once again, thanks for getting in touch.”

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