A couple of days ago I posted a quick piece on my disquiet about the BBC offering members of parliament anonymity to discuss government policy.
Today I got a reply, and I have to say that both the speed and the content are unsatisfactory: I don't think that a serious issue of policy and journalistic ethics can be discussed and decided within such a short time. Even more annoying is the use of a no-reply email address - the issue is clearly closed as far as the BBC is concerned, and dialogue is not invited.
This is what the BBC had to say:
Thank you for contacting us regarding Radio 4’s ‘The World at One’ which was broadcast on 15 September.
We note your unhappiness that the item on the cut to Universal Credit featured a contribution from a Conservative MP who agreed to speak to the programme off the record.
Choosing the individuals to interview for the reports on the programme is a subjective matter and one which we know not every member of our audience will feel we get right every time.
Sarah Montague did make clear to listeners that the team at ‘The World at One’ had attempted to contact both the minister and several backbench Conservatives before one MP had agreed to speak anonymously.
In an ideal world, politicians or their representatives might only speak on the record; however, in politics as in life, people are often more candid in private.
While our journalists always prefer on the record quotes, it is important to talk to unnamed sources to get a greater sense of what is going on in Westminster, which can then be relayed back to our audiences.
Without doing this, there is a risk that information coming out of Parliament would be restricted, which could impact our journalism and ability to hold politicians to account.
Nevertheless, we do value your feedback about this. All complaints are sent to senior management and we have included your points in our overnight report.
These reports are among the most widely read sources of feedback in the company and ensures that your concerns have been seen by the right people quickly. This helps inform their decisions about current and future content.
Thank you once again for getting in touch.
BBC Complaints Team
Please note: this email is sent from an unmonitored address so please don’t reply. If necessary please contact us through our webform (please include your case reference number).
I don't think this is satisfactory. The core issue is that the source was not providing any kind of insight beyond what had already been reported: he or she was simply stating support for his or her party's decision without risking any electoral unpopularity.
Terry's summary of my complaint is a little slippery: WATO didn't 'speak to' a politician 'off the record': it accepted a statement, anonymised it then read it out without any opportunity to challenge its basis. The statement was not 'candid': it consisted of a Conservative Member of Parliament repeating the government's view that the benefit uplift is no longer affordable. Nothing more.
It seems ironic that the BBC feels that anonymity allows it to 'hold politicians to account' when providing secrecy to an elected representative prevents the electorate from holding it to account, while simply reading a statement rather than interviewing the MP concerned means that there's no possibility of the BBC doing so either.