BBC Trust: Unsupportable opinions are OK

Mandybill bias was just an opinion, says broadcaster

The BBC Trust has partially upheld a complaint against The Culture Show on the Digital Economy Act - but strangely ignored the most serious allegations of inaccuracy and bias.

The complaint was made by UK Music chief executive and former Undertone Feargal Sharkey about a 10-minute film broadcast on 4 February, and featured both music and movie industry figures and anti-copyright activists talking about the Digital Economy Act. The slot was presented by Mark Thomas, who was evidently quite badly let down by his researchers, and was also erroneously described by the BBC as a "comedian" - but we'll let that pass.

UK Music - an organisation representing the collective interests of the UK's commercial music industry - appealed to the Editorial Complaints Unit and then to the BBC Trust's Editorial Standards Committee.

The BBC Trust today said that the BBC was wrong to say the Act "criminialised" unlicensed file sharing, since it only involved modifications to civil law. It was also wrong to say that the Bill gave new powers to the music and film industries to make users disconnect. It also erred in broadcasting unchallenged the assertion that the Secretary of State could modify legislation without scrutiny.

"None of these contentions were true then and none of them are true now," UK Music said in a statement.

Yet the Trust disagreed on several other areas. The 10-minute segment did not have to be fair, because it was "editorial content". Viewers should have known it was a personal opinion, the Trust argued, because Thomas had been described as a comedian.

Nor did the Trust agree that questionable information - for example the view presented by the blogger and copyright activist Cory Doctorow - should be challenged or corrected. Doctorow told the nation:

“Imagine if any of the big record labels made three false accusations of copyright infringement and we were allowed to go over to their offices with a big set of bolt cutters, and went over there and shut off their internet so they would have to carry out all their business by fax and carrier pigeon. It would be the corporate death penalty; they would cease to exist as members of the information society.”

The Trust thought that was OK, since he "was expressing only his interpretation of what the Bill proposed. The report did not present this as a statement of fact. As such, the ECU could not conclude that audiences would have been seriously misled."

That's certainly an unusual way of approaching a factual topic. Opinions are either supportable (though evidence and reason) or they are not. But the Trust's logic here is that unsupportable opinions may be broadcast because they're . . . opinions.

BBC producers were bombarded by copyright activists during the passage of the Digital Economy Bill - leading one well-known presenter to fear his computer was about to be confiscated.

There's more detail on this and other adjudications here. ®

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