REPUTATION CHECK: Poll shows public dismay with BBC

The recent programming scandals have seriously damaged the reputation of the BBC. Report by Kate Magee.

Nick Rabin: Head of broadcast, Weber Shandwick
Nick Rabin: Head of broadcast, Weber Shandwick

The furore over a documentary trailer featuring the Queen, and admissions by the BBC that several TV phone-ins for shows were rigged, have impacted badly on the broadcaster’s reputation, according to an Opinion Matters survey which quizzed 1,660 members of the public for PRWeek.

Of those polled, 83 per cent said their level of trust in the BBC had been damaged by the revelations over false competitions and phone-ins. While 80 per cent thought the scandals were of serious ‘public interest’.

It was the older age groups who found their trust most shaken, with 31 per cent of 45 to 54-year-olds and 38 per cent of those over 55 years agreeing that the scandals were ‘of profound public interest’. These figures fell to 26 per cent in the younger age groups.

Alongside age, there were differing opinions among British regions. Those living in the North East were most affected, with 42 per cent believing the scandals had seriously damaged their trust in the BBC, followed by those living in Scotland (37 per cent) and Wales (35 per cent).

BBC head of press Donald Steel responded: ‘We believe that when we get things wrong we should say so, even if that means that in the short term the public’s trust in the BBC is dented. Our own research shows that the BBC remains the most trusted media outlet.’

Charities who use the BBC to publicise their own appeals also face bad news with 44 per cent of those polled saying they were now less likely to contribute after the phone-in scandals came to light.

To the BBC’s credit, over 60 per cent of those polled thought that the broadcaster had handled the scandals acceptably. It is still too early to tell whether this is enough to totally restore confidence in the public broadcaster.

Analysis 1: the PR professional’s view

Nick Rabin Head of broadcast, Weber Shandwick: One dodgy phone-in could be viewed as unfortunate, two careless, but to suffer six serious editorial breaches is a disaster – not least because we’re talking about some of the BBC’s highest-profile programmes here.

The deception appears to be so widespread that viewers are now, quite understandably, asking questions about the culture of the BBC. Why did its programme makers believe that it was OK to dupe the public simply to allow the show to go on? Of course, it isn’t, and the BBC – an organisation whose existence is based on trust and honesty – is really feeling the heat.

Reputation and trust take years to build and a single moment to break. If not handled with care, it is easy to cause serious and lasting damage. The BBC now has a mammoth task on its hands to establish what went wrong and how, and to show the public that, as an organisation, it’s taking its responsibilities seriously. Middle-ranking heads may roll, but without someone right at the top taking responsibility for the ‘it’s OK to cut corners’ culture, viewers and listeners may well remain unconvinced.

Analysis 2: the journalist’s view

Lisa Campbell (r), Editor, Broadcast: When news first broke back in 2006 that there were problems with call TV, the issue appeared to be confined to specialist gaming and quiz channels
on the outer reaches of the television schedule.

No one could have predicted that the BBC, a national institu­tion that prides itself on journalistic integrity, honesty and accur­acy would prove guilty of deceiving its viewers. The fact that such deception took place within landmark shows which sit at the heart of the schedule, such as Blue Peter and Children in Need, has left the BBC’s reputation in shreds.

The corporation needs to move quickly to restore that reputation both among viewers and its own staff. One BBC producer writing in Broadcast last week describes the collective pain that only people who work for the corporation can understand. And many, particularly senior executives, believe director general Mark Thompson’s measures are merely a knee-jerk reaction that will only add to the famous BBC bureaucracy. The BBC must know that reassuring staff and regaining their trust is as important as winning back viewers.

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