The BBC has released new draft editorial guidelines, which include some suggestions for online news as well as for its prolific television and radio output. For the first time, the BBC Trust - the body which aims to represent the public as owners of the corporation - has launched a public consultation on the revised draft, offering licence fee payers the chance to have their say on the standards, which are rewritten every five years.
The consultation period opened yesterday and continues until 24 December. An online survey offers ten questions on different areas of the new guidelines as well as a comment box. The BBC Trust says it will "look at all the information that we receive, including your answers and a range of other data. We will take the interests of both content producers, including programme makers, and audiences into account before finalising the new Editorial Guidelines." The completed set of standards will be published in summer 2010.
The importance of respecting the guidelines in online news as much as in broadcast is stressed in the impartiality section, adding to the existing guidelines. It requires that "news in whatever form must be presented with due impartiality" and "our audiences should not be able to tell from BBC programmes or other BBC output the personal prejudices of our journalists and presenters on such matters." It continues by emphasising "this applies as much to online content as it does to news bulletins: nothing should be written by journalists and presenters that would not be said on air."
The Guardian pointed out that some industry observers are already referring to the last phrase as the "Jeremy Bowen clause." In April, the BBC Trust partly upheld complaints over accuracy and impartiality made against Bowen, the BBC's Middle East editor.
With regards to the appropriate nature of content for children, the guidelines suggest that "Any content immediately accessible on the BBC Home Page must be suitable for a general audience, including children. Any content immediately accessible one click from the Home Page should normally be suitable for a general audience, including children." After that, the appropriateness should be carefully judged based on the expected audience.
Guardian writer Maggie Brown questioned "will tighter guidelines destroy the BBC or protect it?" She points out that, unlike the work of many other news organizations, the BBC's output "has become more important and more scrutinised, not less, which means mistakes and blunders mushroom ever faster into controversies, aided by a 24/7 reporting culture, and the ease of complaining online." She suggests that journalists and others "on the front line" will be frustrated by the limitations which tighter editorial control will put on them. Such steps also increase "the potential for timidity, playing safe." But for an institution such as the BBC, surely safe is indeed better than sorry.
Asking for the public's views in establishing new guidelines seems a worthy step to take, and one that is arguably the UK public's right, given the fact that it pays a licence fee. How many members of the public actually read through the 190-page document is another question, and obviously it is impossible to say how much attention the BBC Trust will actually pay to suggestions.