Saturday, 29 January 2011

An apology (of sorts) from the BBC

A BBC Radio 4 programme called "Quote ... Unquote" used to be a favourite of mine. It was (past tense) a quiz about different quotations and who said them. A feature of the programme was the anecdotes that the participants contributed, anecdotes that were not infrequently humorous but were (past tense) not offensive in any way. Both the questions asked in the quiz, and the participants anecdotes, were (past tense) very informative. The series that was running last July represented a significant change in the style of the programme, both with regard to the style of the questions and the style of the anecdotes.

I last listened to an episode - well, actually, I switched to another radio station after only a few minutes - on 12th July last. I made an initial mistake in submitting my complaint via the BBC website. With hindsight, I should have written and therefore had access to a copy of exactly what I had said in my complaint and a certificate of posting to verify exactly when I posted my letter. The reply came back by e-mail, on 27th August 2010, and I wasn't happy with its contents. I got round to writing back again on 28th September. The BBC's reply to me was then dated 6th December 2010.

My complaint was about a rather crude joke contained in an anecdote told by one the contributors, Toby Young, a contributor who was not familiar to me from previous series of "Quote ... Unquote". The essential part of the initial reply was that the BBC had to provide a range of programmes to cater for different tastes in humour, and that there is "no single set of standards in this area on which the whole of society can agree".

Along with some other points, my letter of 28th September contained the following:

.... you state that “there is no single set of standards in this area on which the whole of society can agree”. Should the joke about which I complained have been transmitted via the e-mail system at my place of work it would have been clearly and unambiguously a breach of my employers IT systems acceptable use policy. A colleague forwarding that joke would have been open to disciplinary processes by the employer. Since the policy which my employer uses is quite typical in its expectations of colleagues, I believe that it indicates a standard for behaviour that is widely accepted.
I think there are three significant points in the following paragraph of the reply that I received to that letter:
I've now liaised with the comedy department at BBC Radio 4 who are sorry you were offended by the "Sloane Ranger's" joke. They've asked me to explain that "Quote ... Unquote" is a long-running celebrity panel game with a tradition of including amusing quotations and quips from the panellists. While Toby Young's joke was certainly crude, we don't believe it went beyond the expectations of the audience for a grown-up BBC Radio 4 panel show. We stand by the point Philip made in the initial response that humour is a subjective area and we are guided by the BBC's Editorial Guidelines in deciding what is appropriate for inclusion in the programme. We received no significant reaction to suggest that listeners found the joke particularly objectionable, but again, we're sorry you were personally offended.
The first significant point is the recognition of the crude nature of the joke about which I had complained. The second significant point is that an apology is offered to me. This apology joins the one that I received some years ago from Television Licensing (after they had sent me some very threatening letters about buying a TV license when I do not own or use a TV) in the archive of MY BEST ACHIEVEMENTS. I do think there is some credit to be given to an organisation like the BBC when it recognises a need for apology at an individual level, even though it defends its action as being quite acceptable.

The third significant point in the paragraph is the continued denial that an objective standard exists in terms of the judgement of what is and what is not acceptable in the field of humour. This qualifies the apology to some extent. I would like to put this in the context of something that Pope Benedict XVI said when he spoke in Westminster Hall last September. This was a meeting between the Holy Father and representatives of public life in Britain. I am sure someone was there from the BBC! The Holy Father's words were spoken in the specific context of political discourse, but have a wider application to culture in general, since culture forms a part of the fabric of a democratic society:
By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved? These questions take us directly to the ethical foundations of civil discourse. If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident - herein lies the real challenge for democracy.
In Westminster Hall, Pope Benedict called for those in public office to look for something ethically objective to form the basis of their decision making. That an organisation like the BBC is not responding to this call in any way is an indication that the dialogue proposed by Pope Benedict's Westminster Hall address is not being taken up. Whilst we might not expect the BBC to follow Catholic teaching in all things, I do think we could expect them to take seriously a call such as that proposed in Pope Benedict's address, to engage in a search for an objective ethical basis to their programming.

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