BBC Editorial Guidelines threaten future of investigative journalism

We have today written to all members of the House of Commons’ Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee to raise concerns over the way in which the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines effectively gagged the broadcaster from showing film of illegal hunting on their Countryfile programme on Sunday. As we say in our letter, we are deeply concerned for the implications of this on all aspects of investigative journalism and the broadcast of footage of illegal activity.

The following is the text of our letter.

As a member of the Commons’ Culture, Media and Sport Committee I want to bring an issue to your attention which I believe seriously impedes the BBC from broadcasting quality investigative journalism. I should also point out that one’s opinion on the issues given attention by the League Against Cruel Sports is largely irrelevant; this issue goes far wider and affects all issues.

In January 2009, hunt monitors acting on behalf of the League were monitoring the Mid Devon Foxhounds when they witnessed the huntsman and hunt followers in a clear breach of the Hunting Act 2004. This incident was filmed, a file prepared for prosecution, and the case passed to Devon & Cornwall Police. However, despite clear evidence of law breaking, the case did not proceed as the Police handled the case badly and it ran out of time before suspects had been questioned.

Last month, we were contacted by staff on the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme, Countryfile, who were undertaking background work for a piece on hunting to be broadcast on 2nd November. We worked closely with the Countryfile team and gave them the footage of the Mid Devon Foxhounds mentioned above.

Over the course of the two weeks between their initial contact and the date of broadcast, we had close contact with the Countryfile team, including when they interviewed the League’s chairman, John Cooper, a barrister. Three days prior to broadcast we provided a copyright clearance to allow the BBC to broadcast the footage, and they were clear that they intended to use it.

You can imagine our surprise, then, when the programme aired on 2nd November without the footage of the Mid Devon Foxhounds.

Upon querying the absence of the footage, the League was informed that the footage fell foul of the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines and as a result, the decision had been taken to remove the footage from the edited programme. We were referred to two sections in the Editorial Guidelines which cover ‘Secret recording for news and factual programmes’ and ‘Secret recording’ but it is not clear exactly where the footage fell foul. The League’s monitor involved in the operation was not acting covertly and nor was the filming ‘secret’; he was stood at the top of a tor looking down onto the area where the offence was being committed. Had the offender in the footage scanned the horizon, he would easily have seen our monitor.

You can view the footage for yourself to see exactly how clear it is and how a decision not to broadcast it sets a dangerous precedent which threatens the future of the broadcast of any investigation based footage. The footage can be found on our blog here.

I would urge you to raise this matter with the Director General and to seek assurances that producers of BBC programmes will be given clear guidance on the use of footage obtained by external sources and indeed encouraged to use such footage where it is appropriate.

We are sending a similar letter to other parliamentarians we know are interested in broadcasting and the BBC, and we will keep the blog updated with news of responses to the letter.

 

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