The BBC Twitter picture copyright storm reminds me why I’m glad I don’t answer emails for the BBC anymore

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 13 August 2011

Today there has been a Twitter-storm over an email sent from the BBC to Andy Mabbett. He had complained about the BBC’s use of pictures from Twitter, and the reply he got seemed to suggest that the BBC considered anything posted via Twitter to be in “the public domain”. The response was clearly wrong, and at odds with the BBC’s own guidelines about the usage of social media. Several BBC staff responded on Twitter and in the comments on Andy’s blog post.

I have some sympathy with whoever wrote that original email.

I think it is another symptom of the “No more ‘Us and them’” communications revolution that has transformed the relationship between media companies and their audiences over the last twenty years. Andy rightly expected his complaint to be dealt with swiftly, accurately, and the BBC to change a corporate behaviour as a result. In fact, in a comment on my previous post, he said it hadn’t been dealt with swiftly because it had taken seven days for a reply.

Just think for a second about how long that correspondence used to take when it involved both sides licking a stamp.

According to their summary reports, the BBC received over 130,000 complaints in the first six months of the year, an average of around 700 a day. And all of them, like Andy, expected a personal response.

When I was at the BBC in the early 2000s, as part of my job on the search team I often had to join in and answer the email that came in to the 'Contact us' link at the foot of search results pages. The volume of email meant it was impossible to reply to all of them, so my colleague Anne and I wrote some stock responses to cut‘n’paste and send off. When replying, we had to be careful to select the right “Sent from:” address in Outlook so as not to give away our own personal details.

I would always try and be as helpful as possible. Sometimes people would ask questions that had nothing to do with search, and very little to do with the BBC, but if I happened to know the answer I would reply.

What type of enquiries did we get?

Well, I once got an email asking us where you could buy the wallpaper that was on the walls of the set of a particular sitcom. I couldn’t help with that, although presumably someone, somewhere within the BBC knew the answer. I like to think that the person who sent that email imagined that we all worked in one massive open-plan office, and that I could climb up on a big ladder and shout out: “Hey! Anyone in here who did the set dressing for programme x?”.

You had more chance of getting a useful reply if you’d sent through a question about sci-fi or computers or music. I guess the people who got those thought the BBC was awesome and great value for their Licence Fee. “Wow!”, they would say to their friends, “I emailed the BBC, and the next day I got an email back saying that the one with the giant maggots was called ‘The Green Death’ and was available on VHS from the BBC Shop”.

And the person who asked about the wallpaper just felt ignored.

Sometimes though, my responses would make people really angry, and you'd get back a virtual green biro email, cc'd to every BBC manager and controller whose name had ever appeared in a newspaper, complaining specifically about me and the way that I had replied. Making a spelling mistake used to particularly irk people.

They only saw the one email sent to them, not the fact that the people at the other end were trying to answer as many emails as they could as quickly as they possibly could, and didn’t have anyone to sub-edit or proof-read them. As far as they were concerned, they had just received an official response from the BBC with a spelling mistake in it. Replies to those would inevitably link my rushed typing errors with the decline and fall of Western civilisation as we know it, and they could seldom believe that they had paid their licence fee just to be subjected to that kind of sloppy treatment. Given that I would only have emailed them in the first place because I thought I knew the answer and was trying to help, it was incredibly demoralising.

I'm sure that the email to Andy doesn't reflect the BBC's true legal position on the issue of the re-use of pictures posted to social media. From my knowledge of the BBC's complaints process, the aim of the system post-Hutton was to respond to all complaints as quickly as possible. I'd bet that answer was written by someone not employed directly by the BBC, but outsourced to a “complaint response team” whose employer had won the contract because they could reply to email more cost-efficiently than just having BBC staff here and there replying to people when they thought they knew the answer.

The trouble is that one-to-many broadcast scales well. One-to-one conversation about what has been broadcast doesn't.

1 Comment

When you said, "Just think for a second about how long that correspondence used to take when it involved both sides licking a stamp.", it made me think about how I wish e-mail held the sort of resolution required in the days "snail mail only" correspondence. Back then, the act of licking a stamp and sending the mail held more intent and value than it does these days.

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