Party Election Broadcasts: BBC Trust consults on new complaints procedure

The BBC Trust is running an online survey asking for views on its plans for a new complaints procedure for Party Election Broadcasts. Although the BBC generally steers clear of the content of PEBs – leaving that to the parties in question – there are often issues around who gets how many and when they are shown.

Therefore it is good to see the BBC Trust proposing a clearer and more rigorous process – and also asking for views on these proposals.

(Controversies over the content of PEBs also sometimes rears its head, though these proposals do not cover the system for dealing with those.)

The document explaining the proposals does only a fairly minimal job of explaining the reasoning behind them, with the result that for some of the more questionable details anyone completing the online survey is left to guess on the reasoning before deciding on their views.

The BBC’s overall explanation for the proposals is based on admirable intentions, though lovers of bureaucrat-speak may smile at the quartet of “complaint(s)” in the second paragraph:

The proposed procedure aims to streamline processes and to improve the expediency and effectiveness of handling PEB allocation complaints, taking into account the particular requirements of these types of complaints.

The proposed complaints process brings PEB complaint handling into line with general complaints handling as set out in the BBC’s complaints framework.

If only there was a complaints benchmark for beaconicity they could also aspire to.

In practice this means:

The proposed changes include having a clear process set out at each stage to give complainants a better understanding of how their complaint will be processed. Timeframes will be set for the notification of complaints, and for the BBC to hear these. This aims to ensure greater fairness for complainants and other affected parties taking into account the potential need to determine complaints quickly within the election period. Complainants will be required to provide detailed grounds of appeal and supporting evidence to ensure that the details of their complaints are clear and to assist the BBC to effectively consider all aspects of their complaint. Previously, these requirements were not set out as part of a formal process.

Areas that may cause controversy in the proposals include:

  • The proposal to only allow registered political parties to use the complaints process. This would exclude, for example, either the Hansard Society or the Electoral Commission using the process to raise issues of public concern. The PEB provisions are there to parties get their message out – but only because that in turn is a service to the voting public. Only allowing registered parties to use the complaints system risks having a system that is there to serve the interests of political parties rather than the wider public. It also excludes independent candidates who, whilst there are not themselves going to get PEBs, do have their own electoral prospects directly affected by PEBs on behalf of parties they are standing against.
  • The timetables for the complaints procedure will only be set once an election is called. This seems to leave those who may wish to use the process too much in the dark for too long because general election timetables have a fairly well defined framework which would allow for advanced guidance about how the complaints procedures timings are likely to work. The exact dates can’t be fixed until the exact dates of the stages of an election timetable are fixed, but this does not mean no broad parameters can be notified in advance.
  • Complaints can be rejected from consideration if it would not be “cost effective” to hear the complaint. More a curio than a problem, but it’s hard to see what this provision would cover – and how rejecting a complaint from even being heard for costing too much could be other than hugely controversial given the power that is at stake in an election.
  • Complaints can also be rejected if they “are relevant to matters which are the subject of, or likely to be the subject of, or relevant to, legal proceedings”. How complaints procedures interact with legal processes is often a tricky issue, but it is a shame if the decision in this case is that legal action must always be the first course of action if available or likely to be available.

There is much good in the proposals. But with the above points addressed the proposals would be even better.

People have until 4 December to respond to the consultation.

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This entry was posted in Election law and News.
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