What do the Pollard transcripts tell us about the BBC, Jimmy Savile, and comment moderation?

Facing the question that the BBC did not act on information about Jimmy Savile’s paedophilia left by users on a BBC tribute page, the transcripts of the Pollard Review give an interesting insight into what senior BBC management understand their comment moderation policies to be.

Pollard Review transcript excerpt

Excerpts from the Pollard Review transcripts

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. The Times today has this to say about some of the contents of the recently published appendices and transcripts that fed into the Pollard Review into Jimmy Savile.

“It also emerged in the evidence that detailed accusations about Savile’s sex crimes were censored after viewers tried to post them on a BBC tribute webpage. The comments included one person who wrote: ‘One of my best friends in 1972 was molested by this creep Savile. He was never the same again. Killed himself in 1985. How’s About That Then?’. They were stopped from being published by a team of moderators employed by the corporation.”

The Times and the censor article about BBC comments

“Censors” is a strong emotive word. In the context of what we know now, it looks like just another example of the BBC turning a deaf ear to allegations against one of its stars. In truth though, it isn’t standard practice to allow people to post accusations of sex crimes in the comments underneath articles on news websites, whether the accused is dead, recently deceased, or alive, or was ever an employee.

In fact, given the hagiography that was going on about Savile in the wider media at the time of his death, it is not inconceivable that if the BBC had not “censored” them, as the Times put it, the BBC would have been facing accusations that it allowed a “paedo slur” to be published about a “much loved” character. In the days after his death The Times itself had Caitlin Moran offering “massive bling-props to the late Sir Jimmy Savile” and Ben Macintyre published an essay arguing that it was “conventionality-creep” that made Savile joking about eating children seem distasteful.

Ben Macintyre’s column in praise of Jimmy Savile’s eccentricity

User comments are gushing about Jimmy on the articles published at the time of his death — including one that talks about Jimmy’s “‘Under the bedclothes club’ for teenagers” which sounds a lot more sinister now than it did at the time.

Comments about Jimmy Savile in the Times

The transcripts of the interview with short-lived Director General George Entwistle on this issue are illuminating for those of us with an interest in user-generated content under news sites. Much of the concept seems alien not just to Entwistle, but to his inquisitors:

“Q. Did you know that when Jimmy Savile died the BBC, I think Online News put out News stuff about him and they had a kind of notice board thing –
A [Entwistle]. Yes, I have heard about this–
Q. –that you could contribute to?
A. — recently, but I didn’t hear — I didn’t know about it at the time.
Q. Some sort of blog a bit like–
A. With comments on it afterwards.
Q. Saying “My football team was hopeless today”, and so on. They had comments.”

The session goes on to reference a piece that Alison Pearson wrote in The Telegraph in October 2012. The version in the transcript appears to be quoted inaccurately. This is what her piece says:

“After Savile died, a year ago on Monday, a commemorative page was put up on the BBC website. As requested, viewers shared their memories of ‘Ow’s-About-That-Then’ Jimmy — only, instead of a light-entertainment legend, they recalled a dark, devious pervert. The Savile tribute page was hastily removed. Shouldn’t that have been the first sign that celebrations needed to be put on hold?”

The Pollard team then quoted internal correspondence about the moderation of the page:

‘Two users posted a lot of comments to the Savile page about molestation and paedophilia and a few others left comments making similar hints. All were stopped from being published by the moderators.’
Then this sentence: [in the email being examined]
‘Their existence wasn’t referred up…’
Which again I don’t think was unusual at the time:
‘You see the main examples of those comments below.’
Over the page, one comment was, second paragraph, second sentence:
‘He was a paedophile. You may not like the truth but he was. It will all tumble out now. The little grope here, little touch there. There have always been little whispers that he was…

After a few more examples, the question next framed to George Entwistle is this:

So there is, to say the least, quite pungent material that the BBC itself had gathered without doing anything other than sticking up a piece on its website. It seems from 284 [a document reference] that the moderator of the website simply said ‘Well, we’re not putting that material up’, and, so far as I’m aware, didn’t ever ask him or herself, well, wait a minute, this is something that some other part of the BBC might be interested in, for example the Director of Vision who might be planning tributes to this fellow.

The idea that someone sitting in an out-sourced moderation team has a hotline to the Director of the BBC’s TV department every time someone posts something online that is dark about a BBC employee is bleakly comical. If you’ve ever sat watching the firehose of personal abuse that comment forms can generate for moderators to sift through, you’d know that they’d never be off the phone. Still, I do love the idea that out of this might come a policy directive that ends with the Head of BBC News constantly getting phone calls saying things like “Hi, one of the moderators here. I keep seeing reference to a ‘Tony Bliar’. Do you think we should investigate him?”

What strikes me from the rest of this section of the transcript is the extent to which senior BBC management is vague about the process of inviting user comment, and entirely divorced from reading it.

Q. Which part of the BBC do these moderators inhabit? This is a News entity, is it?
A [Entwistle]. No, moderating is done by– there’s an independent company. It’s a service we buy in for handling our websites where we allow comments. But they work to — they usually have a spec from the commissioning assistant producer, whoever it might be, the person who is actually having contact with them, who will say ‘These are the parameters’ and they would work on whether they were actively moderating, or passively moderating, ie are they taking stuff down after it has been published or they are reading everything that is submitted to determine what should be published. But [it] is a service provided by an outside company.
Q. It is easy, sitting where we are to read page 284 [of the documents] and say ‘This is ridiculous. Look at this material that was received in this blog, it is obvious this should have gone into and up the organisation.’
A. Up the chain, yes.
Q. On the other hand, there is no doubt that a lot of rubbish gets posted on these blogs and if it got into and up the chain, those up the chain might find themselves with little else to do but read all this stuff. So this practical terms [sic], sitting there with your knowledge of the BBC, what is the mechanism which means that that which gets captured — needs to get captured, gets captured and the chaff gets weeded out?
A. I’ve never worked in detail with a moderation company, but my guess would be that the person in the BBC editorial structure that has the relationship with the moderator on that particular blog, whatever it might be, would set some sort of rules, or would have some sort of parameters set, which would enable them to be able to work out what the feedback between the two should be. Am I right in inferring from this that these were taken down by the moderator and never referred to the BBC at any level?
Q. That’s my understanding.
A. Yes. Well, that feels to me to be unusual. Although I shouldn’t say unusual because I don’t know. I have never worked in detail in this interface between an external moderator and the BBC person commissioning the moderation, but, um, I wonder to what extent the mood surrounding this was set by this anxiety about spoof [Moderators had been briefed there might be references to the spoof HIGNFY transcript ] and that got translated as a sort of fundamental view that anything of this kind would be regarded as nonsense and could be treated as nonsense.
Q. So the ‘referred up’ at page 384, their existence was not referred up. Let’s accept that they were not referred up, but if they had been, where would they have gone to, do you know?
A. They would have gone into the News machine and would have ended up, if they had kept on going up the machine, to Steve Herman [sic], who is the editor of News Online and a senior manager inside News and I think sits on the News board. And he may well — he may have thought it appropriate to refer them further.

Still, as I said at the beginning, hindsight is a powerful thing. There can’t be many media companies who have a procedure in place for it being revealed that a recently deceased star was a paedophile in the comments on a website, or who might later expect to be thoroughly grilled as to why those comments weren’t immediately escalated to the most senior of managers.

A big thank you to tent1010 who re-processed the PDFs published by the BBC into a searchable format: Searchable PDFs from the Pollard Report (Savile abuse at the BBC)

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