Daily Archives: October 2, 2010

How the BBC surreptitiously censors callers to phone-ins

Midway through 2007  I discovered a strange thing. Try as I might I could not get through to BBC  R5 phone-in programmes. The phone would ring and ring but it was never answered. This was very odd because I had never experienced such a problem before. Moreover, it occurred directly after I had managed to get on the Victoria Derbyshire morning programme to raise the issue of the failure of the  British mainstream media in general and the BBC in particular to report the attempted suicide of  Tony  Blair’s  daughter Kathryn in the spring of  2004. (see http://livinginamadhouse.wordpress.com/2010/10/02/the-blair-daughters-attempted-suicide-and-the-publics-right-to-know/).

I had the line checked and there was nothing wrong with  it or  the BBC line.  From that and the proximity of my mentioning Kathryn Blair’s attempted suicide to the problem arising,  I concluded that the most likely cause was the deliberate blocking of phone calls by the BBC. This turned out to be correct after I put in a Freedom of Information request asking whether the BBC was blocking calls and received a reply in which they admitted that telephone systems were used by the BBC which allowed them to mark any telephone number to identify it as a number not to be answered (see document 1 below) .

The blocking works like this.  The BBC number continues to ring as normal but the phone is never answered because  the BBC’s system flags it up as a call not to be answered. As  the caller is  never told that their phone number had been blacklisted,  they have no way of knowing for sure that the BBC was censoring them. Indeed, the most likely response from banned callers would be to simply think that when they rang calls were especially heavy.

Because the BBC does not advise people that  they had been blacklisted they do not have to justify the reasons for their ban.  But even if a person discovers,   as I did, that calls are routinely blocked , they still have no chance of getting a reason for their banning because, astonishingly,  the BBC claim that they do not keep records of the reason for a person being banned.

The numbers censored are substantial. The BBC refused to give me the details of how many people are banned on the grounds of cost and I was unable to get this refusal overturned by the Information Commissioner.  However, the BBC did give me the figure of 239  for Radio 5 (see document 1).  If this is repeated throughout the full range of BBC  radio and TV programmes the number banned would be in the thousands.

The BBC Trust refused to act (see document 5 ) despite the fact that Ofcom said that the matter was within their competence (see document 9).

Ofcom   refused to act, claiming that it did not come within their remit even though they had intervened in equivalent circumstances  when they investigated claims of fraud in phone-ins to reality shows (see document 10)

I informed The BBC complaints programme Feedback  of the BBC’s behavior  (see document 14 ) but they neither contacted me nor used the information on their programme.

The final port of  call was the Information Commissioner (IC) .  My complaint was submitted on 8 January 2008 and a Decision Notice  not made until 3 November 2009, a delay which even if the  IC had found in my favour would have largely nullified its effect.  It is noteworthy that the IC tried to persuade me against requesting the issue of a Decision Notice (see document 16) which an unkind soul might interpret as a wish by the IC not to have to rule on a politically sensitive issue.

On the question of  advising people that they had been banned, releasing information relating to who made the decisions to ban  and the grounds for the ban, the IC found against me on a most  peculiar ground. Consider these two paragraphs from the Decision Notice:

“17. For completeness, the Commissioner considers that where information is held for non-journalistic/artistic/literary purposes and is only held to a trivial or insignificant extent for the purposes listed in Schedule 1, then the BBC  will be obliged to comply with its obligations under Parts I to V of the  Act.”.

“26. The Commissioner’s decision is that as the request is for information held for the purposes of journalism, art or literature the BBC was not obliged to comply with Part I to V of the Act in this case.”

The idea that surreptitiously censoring callers to phone-ins is legitimate  falls under the heading of data “held for the purposes of journalism, art or literature” is an abuse of the English language.   Para 17 surely applies. The IC’s  decision to decide that the banning of callers without telling them they have been banned constitutes significant editorial control, input etc is simply perverse. (I did not take the matter further because the only appeal is to the Information Tribunal which carries the risk of costs being awarded against appellants.)

What this case has proved is that the BBC surreptitiously censor callers to phone-ins.  They do this by using a phone system which allows them to flag up numbers which they then refuse to answer. The caller is unaware of what is happening. They make the connection and the phone rings but is never answered. The Information Commissioner’s decision means the BBC can censor callers without the subject of censorship knowing and without having to explain their reasons. Such decisions make it  possible to refuse disclosure of virtually anything which can be remotely connected with the BBC’s activities, however nefarious.

In my own case, I have never engaged in abuse of  BBC staff off air or anyone on air. The failure to answer my calls ceased after my referral to the IC but resumed after the IC issued the Decision Notice. It is reasonable to conclude (1) that the original  flagging of my number occurred because of my breaking of the mainstream media’s omerta on Kathryn Blair’s attempted suicide and (2) that as they raised the flag during the course of my complaint to the IC they knew that they could not defend neither the general system of excluding  people or my case in particular.

The excluding of me was clearly a political act to prevent an important fact about Tony Blair being made public and consequently the failure of the BBC and the rest of the British mainstream media to act, as they always claim to be acting, as fearless conduits of political information to the British public.

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Correspondence  with:

The BBC – Documents 1- 4

The BBC Trust – Documents  5-7

OFCOM  – Documents  8-14

Feedback – Document 15

The Information Commissioner – Documents 16-19

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Document 1

Information Policy and Compliance

British Broadcasting Corporation

MC3  Media Centre,

Media Village

201  Wood Lane

London W 2 YTQ

Tel 020 8008 2883

Fax  020 8008 2398

email foi@bbc.co.uk

Mr Robert Henderson

Philip@anywhere.demon.co.uk

19 October 2007

Dear Mr Henderson

Freedom of information request — RF12007000807

Thank you for your request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“the Act”) dated 24 September 2007. You requested the following information:

“(1) whether the BBC has a system capable of doing what I suspect has been done to block callers.

(2) if the system exists how often has it been used in the past five years?

(3) If it exists who authorised it?’

The BBC has a number of telephone systems in place which have different functions available depending on the particular BBC department’s operational need. Authorisation of the particular system would be approved by the appropriate senior manager based on the department’s assessed need.For example, Radio 5’s telephone system has a function which allows them to place a warning or banned flag on a particular number. This will only occur if the phone operator gets abuse or a nuisance call from a person using the specific telephone number. In future, if that number calls in a symbol will appear on the screen to alert the operator to the warning or banned flag and the operator will then choose to not answer the phone call.

The BBC is unable to provide you with figures for how often the BBC’s telephone systems have been used to ban callers, or who authorised each telephone system. As noted above, each department within the BBC will have its own telephone system set up with different functions. We estimate that to audit the telephone systems of each department would take more than two and a half days to complete. Under section 12 of the Act, we are allowed to refuse to handle the request if it would exceed the appropriate limit. The appropriate limit has been set by the Regulations (SI 2004/3244) as being £450 (equivalent to two and a half days work, at an hourly rate of £25). However, we are able to confirm that there are currently 239 people on Radio 5’s banned or warning list.

Please note that unless you have previously made nuisance calls to Radio 5 or been abusive, your telephone number would not have a warning or banned flag lodged with it. If your telephone call is not answered it is more likely to be due to the call centre operators being too busy. Information relating to your specific calls to Radio 5 will be dealt with by the BBC in your Subject Access Request.

Appeal Rights

If you are not satisfied with this response you have the right to an internal review by a BBC senior manager or legal adviser. Please contact us at the address above, explaining what you would like us to review and including your reference number. If you are not satisfied with the internal review, you can appeal to the Information Commissioner. The contact

details are:

Information Commissioner’s Office, Wycliffe House, Water Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire, SK9 5AF, telephone 01625 545 700 or see http://wwwicoqov.uk

Yours sincerely

Andrea Chard

Advisor, Information Policy & Compliance

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Document 2

Andrea Chard

Advisor Information Policy and Compliance

British Broadcasting Corporation MC3 DI

Media Centre,

Media Village 201  Wood Lane

London W 2 YTQ

Tel 020 8008 2883

Fax  020 8008 2398

email foi@bbc.co.uk

22 10 2007

Dear Ms Chard,

FOIA request RF12007000807

I refer to your letter of 19th October relating to my FOI request for information about the BBC’s telephone system.   This is a formal appeal against the refusal to provide details of blocked calls throughout the BBC.

My reasons for appealing are these: I fail to see how obtaining the details of blocked calls from all departments could take two and a half days. The simple numerical information, i.e. the number of callers blocked by a department, will be automatically recorded on whatever system is used and can be simply obtained by using a search function at worst.

(Systems like this will in all probability produce a list of flagged numbers and a count as part of their configuration). All that is required is an email sent to all departments asking them to send the numerical count to a single point for collation, the collation being no more than a simple list of the numbers blocked by each department.  In summary, my appeal is that the process would take much less than two and a half days and hence comes within the FOIA.

I wish to extend my FOIA request to the detailed reasons for why people are banned. You already have the detailed information for Radio 5. Please supply me with the reasons for why the 239 have been banned. Note that I am not requesting information which identifies an individual, merely the reasons for their banning.

Yours sincerely,

Robert Henderson

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Document 3

Freedom of Information Internal Review Decision

Internal Reviewer

Simon Pickard, Information and Compliance Manager

Reference

IR2007000075 (RFI2007000807)

Date:

8 November 2007

Original Request:

1. ‘Whether the BBC has a system capable of doing what I suspect has

been done to block callers’

2. ‘If the system exists how often has it been used in the past five years?’

3. ‘If it exists who authorised it?’

Issues on review:

The requester wishes for an internal review on the BBC decision to refuse the information on the grounds that it would take more than 2.5 days to answer question 2 of the original request.

Findings

The BBC’s response to the requester dated 19 October clearly addresses questions 1 and 3 of the original request and is therefore not part of this internal review. This internal review was conducted to ascertain whether the process of gathering the information to answer question 2 of the original request would take more than 2.5 days.

Under section 12 of the Freedom of Information Act, the BBC are allowed  to refuse to handle the request if it would exceed the appropriate limit. The appropriate limit has been set by the Regulations (SI  004/3244) as being £450 (equivalent to two and a half  days work, at an hourly rate of £25).

The original request explained that the BBC used a number of different telephone systems with various ways in which either incoming telephone numbers could be banned or have a warning mechanism associated with them. The letter went on to explain that to audit the telephone systems of each department would take more than 2.5 days to  complete. It is my view that it would have been beneficial to have further explained what this  meant on terms of scale at the BBC; as of September 2007 there were 21,449 members of  staff (not including the BBC’s subsidiaries) and over 320 different departments. Therefore, in  order to respond to the original request this would have entailed contacting each department to ascertain what telephone system they are using and whether they have records dating  back over the past 5 years as to how many times a caller may have been blocked. However, it is worth noting that the requester has been in correspondence with various parts of the BBC regarding an alleged blocking of their telephone number by  Radio 5 in regards to their 9:00 phone-in. Therefore, although the answer to question 2 in the original request was clearly a task that would exceed the fees limits set out in the Act, the  person handling the request did address the specific issues with the Radio 5 telephone  system in order to assist the requester as much as possible.

The response explained that the telephone system in operation at Radio 5 does allow them to place a warning or banned flag on a particular number, and that this only occurred if the phone operator had received either abuse or a nuisance call previously  from that particular telephone number. The letter went on to explain that there were currently 239 telephone numbers on the Radio 5 warning or banned list. It is my view that, having looked at the correspondence regarding the original handling of this request it may  have been further helpful to explain that in the case of the Radio 5 telephone system that  records going back 5 years were not available due to the fact that from February 2007 a new  system was introduced and previous records were not kept. Conclusion I uphold the original findings that to undertake the request would have  exceeded the appropriate fees limit. It has also been demonstrated that the BBC has, despite the fees limit, attempted to address the issue that seems central to the requesters’  questions.

Appeal rights

If you are not satisfied with this internal review you can appeal to the Information Commissioner. The contact details are: Information Commissioner’s office, Wycliffe House, Water Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire, SK9 5AF, telephone 01625 545 700 or see http://www.ico.gov.uk/

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Document 4

Mr Robert Henderson

Via email: Philip@anywhere.demon.co.uk

22 November 2007

Dear Mr Henderson

Freedom of Information request – RFI2007000898

Thank you for your request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000

(“the Act”) dated 22 October, received 26 October 2007.

You requested:

“the detailed reasons for why people are banned. You already have the detailed information for Radio 5. Please supply me with the reasons for why the 239 have been banned.” The reference number for your request is RFI2007000898.

As Andrea Chard explained in her letter to you of 19 October, Radio 5 telephone operators will only place a warning or banned flag on a particular number if the call received is abusive or nuisance. Therefore, the 239 individuals would have been banned because they made an abusive or nuisance call to Radio 5. We do not hold any specific information about the nature of the abusive or nuisance telephone calls those particular individuals made to Radio 5.

Appeal Rights

If you are not satisfied with this response you have the right to an internal review by a BBC senior manager or legal adviser. Please contact us at the address above, explaining what you would like us to review and including your reference number. If you are not satisfied with the internal review, you can appeal to the Information Commissioner. The contact details are: Information Commissioner’s Office, Wycliffe House, Water Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire, SK9 5AF, telephone 01625 545 700 or see http://www.ico.gov.uk/

Yours sincerely

Fern Kersey

Adviser, Information Policy & Compliance

Correspondence with BBC Trust

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Document 5

British Broadcasting Corporation MC3 0 Media Centre,  Media Village 201  Wood Lane  London W 2 YTQ Tel 020 8008 2883 Fax  020 8008 2398 email foi@bbc.co.uk

13  January 2008

Sir John Lyons

The BBC Trust

35 Marylebone High Street

London W1U 4AA

Dear Sir John,

Complaint against the  BBC’s surreptitious censoring of phone-in programmes

I have used the Freedom of Information Act to get the BBC to admit that they are censoring callers to phone-in programmes without telling the people who are censored that this is being done.

The censorship is achieved as follows.  The BBC decides someone shall not be allowed on air at any time because they are either making “nuisance calls” or being abusive.  In the case of Radio 5 they do this by using a telephone system which allows the person’s phone number to be marked as banned and the operator then refuses to answer the call. The caller is not told that they have been banned  and the phone is left to ring until either the caller gets tired of trying or the provider of the phone cuts off the call.  See the BBC’s letter to me of 19 10 2007.

The BBC have only given me the current figures for Radio 5 (239  people banned) because they claim that the cost of  providing it for the BBC in its entirety would exceed the £450 cost limit for FOIA request. (This is almost certainly not so for the reasons given in my letter to Andrea Chard dated 22 10 2007.)  They also claim to have no historical records of  such bans – the data will almost certainly be recorded on the systems used because deleting does not lose the data only remove it from immediate access.  However, it is clear from their letter of 19 10 2007 that the practice is  a general one and,  consequently,  the numbers of banned people involved throughout the BBC could plausibly be thousands based on the number given for  Radio 5.

I would further draw your attention to the refusal of the BBC to give names and details of those who have authorised the use of such systems. The BBC  does not define what a nuisance call is or what constitutes abuse. As they operate the system secretly and act  judge and jury  in deciding who shall be banned, the system is clearly  open to considerable abuse because they can ban anyone at their whim.

This is a matter of  considerable  public interest for it is indubitably destructive of  what the BBC is meant to be about, namely, fair, honest and impartial broadcasting.  Consequently , it is far  more serious than fixed quiz shows,  dishonestly edited shows  and fixed votes for reality programmes, serious as those are.

I ask you to

(1) stop the practice forthwith

(2) investigate when  it began and  who authorised it

(3) take  disciplinary action you against those responsible for the practice

(4) notify all those who have been censored of the period of their censorship and the reason for it

(5) Find out how what definition of “abusive” and “nuisance”  has been applied

6. Quantify the reasons why people have been censored

7. Publish the results of 1-6.

Yours sincerely,

Robert Henderson

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Document 6

Robert Henderson

philip@anywhere.demon.co.uk

Our ref: 15056810

15 February 2008

Dear Mr Henderson

Thank you for your email of 13 January to the Chairman and BBC Trustees regarding calls to BBC phone-in programmes. I am responding on behalf of the Chairman as I work in the Trust Unit which provides support and advice to the Trust. I do apologise for the delay in responding.

I should explain that the role of the Trust, as set out in the BBC’s Royal Charter, is distinct from that of the BBC Executive. The Trust’s role is to set the BBC’s strategic and editorial frameworks, but responsibility for operational decision, such as that which you raise, rests ultimately with the BBC Director-General.

I am therefore forwarding your email to the Director-General’s office and asking that BBC management respond to your complaint.

Regarding your email to Bruce Vander of 25 September, I understand that Mr Vander responded on the same day. I am attaching a copy of hisresponse for your reference.

Yours sincerely

Victoria Finney

Correspondence Manager

BBC Trust Unit

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Document  7

Victoria Finney

Correspondence Manager

BBC Trust Unit

19  2 2008

Dear Ms Finney,

I am advised by OFcom that my complaint does fall within the Trust’s remit – see  Ofcom letter from David Burkin dated 15 1 2008 .

The DG is not an independent arbiter because he is an employee of theorganisation about which I complain. That is a clear breach of natural justice which requires those in judicial or quasi-judicial positions to be disinterested.

Yours sincerely

Robert Henderson

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Correspondence with Ofcom

Document 8

7 January 2008

Mr Ed Richards

Chair and CEO

OFCOM

Riverside House

2a Southwark Bridge Road

London SE1 9HA

Ed.Richards@ofcom.org.uk

Switchboard: 020 7981 3000 or 0300 123 3000

CC The BBC Board of Trustees

The BBC Director General

The DCMS Commons Select Committee

Dear  Mr Richards,

Complaint against the  BBC  – the surreptitious censoring of phone-in programmes

I am submitting this complaint directly to you  because of its seriousness. As you will see from the enclosed documentation I have used the Freedom of Information Act to get the BBC to admit that they are censoring callers to phone-in programmes without telling the people who are censored that this is being done.

The censorship is achieved as follows.  The BBC decides someone shall not be allowed on air at any time because they are either making “nuisance calls” or being abusive.  In the case of Radio 5 they do this by using a telephone system which allows the person’s phone number to be marked as banned and the operator then refuses to answer the call. The caller is not told that they have been banned  and the phone is left to ring until either the caller gets tired of trying or the provider of the phone cutsoff the call.  See the BBC’s letter to me of 19 10 2007.

The BBC have only given me the current figures for Radio 5 (239  people banned) because they claim that the cost of  providing it for the BBC in its entirety would exceed the £450 cost limit for FOIA request. (This is almost certainly not so for the reasons given in my letter to Andrea Chard dated 22 10 2007.)  They also claim to have no historical records of  such bans. However, it is clear from their letter of 19 10 2007 that the practice is  a general one and,  consequently,  the numbers of banned people involved throughout the BBC could plausibly be thousands based on the number given for  Radio 5.

I would further draw your attention to the refusal of the BBC to give  names and details of those who have authorised the use of such systems. The BBC  does not define what a nuisance call is or what constitutes abuse. As they operate the system secretly and act  judge and jury  in deciding who shall be banned, the system is clearly  open toconsiderable abuse because they can ban anyone at their whim.

This is a matter of  considerable  public interest for it is indubitably destructive of  what the BBC is meant to be about, namely, fair, honest and impartial broadcasting.  Consequently , it is far  more serious than fixed quiz shows,  dishonestly edited shows  and fixed votes for reality programmes, serious as those are.

I ask you to arrange for this matter to be investigated and for OFCOM to take action to prevent  the practice continuing, to alert the public to the fact that it has been occurring, to obtain the full details of how many people have been banned throughout the BBC,  publish an analysis of the reasons given  by the BBC for the bans  and  ensure that those  who have been banned are notified of the ban, its  duration and the reason for the ban.

I also ask you  to bring what pressure it can on the BBC to discipline those responsible for  the practice.

Yours sincerely,

Robert Henderson

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Document 9

Dear Mr Henderson

Thank you for your e-mail to Ed Richards’ Office, which has been forwarded to this team for response.  We’ve noted your concerns about the BBC’s screening of participants to its programmes. We should clarify that while we can investigate complaints about programme content under the Ofcom Broadcasting Code, which sets out standards for violence, language, and a range of other matters including harm and offence generally, the responsibility for the production of programmes lies with the individual broadcasters.  Provided such content is in accordance with our rules decisions as to which individuals are allowed on air are at the editorial discretion of individual broadcasters, in this case the BBC, rather than something Ofcom can influence.

Any complaint about the editorial policy of screening callers to programmes should therefore be pursued with the BBC Trust.  In terms of obtaining background information from the BBC on this subject, the Information Commissioner’s Office may be able to give you furtherguidance on this matter – http://www.ico.gov.uk

Yours sincerely

:: Broadcast Team

Central Operations

Tel: 020 7981 3040

Fax: 020 7981 3334

Email: occbroadcast@ofcom.org.uk

:: Ofcom

Riverside House

2a Southwark Bridge Road

London SE1 9HA

020 7981 3000

http://www.ofcom.org.uk

10 January 2008

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Document  10

OFCOM

Riverside House

2a Southwark Bridge Road

London SE1 9HA

Switchboard: 020 7981 3000 or 0300 123 3000

CC Ed Richards Chair and CEO OFCOM

CMS select committee

Dear Sirs,

Your ostensible reason for taking no action does not stand up to the most cursory scrutiny.  For the past  year  OFCOM have been investigating instances of directly comparable misbehaviour by broadcasters, namely, the wilful deception of the public by reality and quiz shows which invite the viewers and listeners to phone in.

My complaint has a much greater public interest than the quiz and reality show deceptions because the motive here is not to “improve” a programme by making it more exciting or polished,  but to censor views on any subject which does not meet with the BBC’s ideological stance.

Please explain to me why you investigated the reality and quiz show but refuse to investigate my complaint.

When you reply,  pay me the courtesy of  attaching a person’s name and their position  within OFCOM  to your answer. It says a good deal about the mentality of OFCOM that your standard practice appears to be to hide behind anonymous communications.

Yours sincerely,

Robert Henderson

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Document 11

OFcom

OFFICE OF COMMUNICATIONS

Riverside House

2a Southwark Bridge Road

London SE1 9HA

http://www.ofcom.org.uk

Telephone -4-44 0)20 7981 3000

Textphone +44 (0)20 7981 3043

Facsimile +44 (0)20 7981 3333

Ofcom reference: 1-41818452

15 January 2008

Dear Mr Henderson

Alleged “surreptitious censoring of phone-in programmes” by the BBC Thank you for your email dated 10 January 2008, which has been passed to me, as a Programme Executive in the Standards Team. You ask why we “refuse to investigate” your complaint. I have therefore read all correspondence to  date.

I should state at the outset that Ofcom has not refused to investigate your concerns. We are in fact unable to investigate them. The following may assist you in understanding why:

Both Ofcom and the BBC Trust have specific duties.

Under the Communications Act 2003 Ofcom is the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries, with responsibilities across television, radio, telecommunications and wireless communications services.

The BBC was established by Royal Charter to serve the public interest.

The Charter also recognises the independence of the BBC. The BBC Trust therefore represents the interests of licence fee payers and is responsible for ensuring the effective promotion of the BBC’s public purposes. The Charter and a Framework Agreement between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the BBC set out the public obligations placed upon the BBC and the duties and functions of the BBC Trust.

The Communications Act 2003, the Broadcasting Act 1996, the Royal Charter and the Framework Agreement set out Ofcom’s duties and powers in relation to the BBC. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) therefore exists between the Ofcom and the BBC Trust, which can be found at, httr://www.ofcom .org. uk/aboutlaccoun/mou/mou. pdf.

In your original email you appeared to question the BBC’s transparency concerning its method of screening out certain callers to its programmes, which you believe brings into question “what the BBC is meant to be about, namely, fair,  honest and  impartial broadcasting.” In so doing, you have identified two  specific issues:

• The level of transparency concerning the BBC’s decision not to answer calls from specific individuals; and • Alleged “censorship” and its implications concerning impartiality.

It is appropriate to address these in reverse order: You will note from the MOU that Ofcom does not have the statutory powers to consider the due impartiality of BBC output. Should you believe the absence from air of specific views has rendered the BBC partial in news and/or on a political (or similar) matter, you should therefore contact the BBC Trust.

Editorial decisions concerning who should feature in a programme, or which specific individual’s view(s) should be represented in a programme,  are entirely down to the broadcaster. Transparency concerning this is therefore a matter you may wish to continue to pursue with the BBC or refer on to the BBC Trust, if you believe that the absence from air of specific individuals’ views is a form of censorship that has rendered the broadcaster partial.

I am sorry that we are unable to assist you further.

Yours sincerely

David Burkin

Content and Standards

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Document 12

David Burkin

Content and Standards

OFcom

OFFICE OF COMMUNICATIONS

Riverside House

2a Southwark Bridge Road

London SE1 9HA

22 1 2008

Dear Mr Burkin,

Your letter of  15 January makes no sense. In 2007 Ofcom investigated various phone-in scandals involving the BBC which included a faked Blue Peter competition for which the BBC was fined £50,000.

My complaint  falls within the same category of behaviour, namely, inviting the public to phone in when it is pointless to do so. That is what I am asking you to investigate. I ask you again to do so.

If you fail to investigate this complaint the only rational conclusion will be that you refuse to investigate this instance of BBC fixing of phone-ins because it is politically inexpedient to do so.

Just to make sure that there is no confusion, I am asking you to investigate the practice of  misleading listeners and viewers into believing they can take place in phone-in programmes when there is no chance of them doing so.

Yours sincerely,

Robert Henderson

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Document 13

OFccm

OFFICE OF COMMUNICATIONS

Riverside House

2a Southwark Bridge Road

London SE1 9HA

http://www.ofcom.org.uk

Telephone +44 0)20 7981 3000

Textphone +44 0)20 7981 3043

Facsimile +44 10)20 7981 3333

Ofcom reference: 1-41818452

24 January 2008

Mr Robert Henderson

Dear Mr Henderson

Alleged “surreptitious censoring of phone-in programmes” by the BBC Thank you for your email dated 22 January 2008, which now clarifies precisely your current concern – namely, that the BBC may be, “misleading listeners and viewers into believing they can take place in phone-in programmes when there is no chance of them doing so.”

I have only two points to add to my letter dated 15 January 2007:

1. While certain BBC programmes are under investigation by Ofcom, the “phone-in scandals” to which you refer (i.e. those investigated in 2007) included only one sanctionable breach of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code (“the Code”) by the BBC – Blue Peter, which you have cited. The relevant programme included a competition that all viewers were invited (on air) to enter, when none of them had a chance of winning. This resulted in a breach of Rule 2.11 of the Code. Rule 2.11 states:

“Competitions should be conducted fairly, prizes should be describe accurately and rules should be clear and appropriately made known.”

Clearly, this Rule is of no relevance to your current concern.

2. Ofcom is primarily concerned with broadcasters’ output and, clearly, misleading output has the potential to harm viewers. However, any response by members of the home audience to a broadcast invitation for its views (to be made on or off air) may include attempted phone contact by people who have previously made nuisance calls or have been abusive. For such calls to trigger a “warning or banned flag” and alert a phone operator appears to be an appropriate and proportionate response by a broadcaster. It also appears reasonable that a broadcaster could expect the individuals concerned to be aware of the possible implication of their previous actions. Far from raising the matter of “fixing … phone-ins”, the issue appears to concern the treatment of specific individuals off air rather than the potential general misleadingness of programme content.

I am sorry that we remain unable to assist you further.

Yours sincerely,

David Burkin

Programme Executive

Content and Standards

—————————————————————————————————————-

Document 14

Ed Richards

OFcom

OFFICE OF COMMUNICATIONS

Riverside House

2a Southwark Bridge Road

London SE1 9HA

http://www.ofcom.org.uk

Telephone +44 0)20 7981 3000

Textphone +44 0)20 7981 3043

Facsimile +44 10)20 7981 3333

Ofcom reference: 1-41818452

19 2 2008

Dear Mr Richards,

I have delayed my response to David Burkin’s letter of 24 January  (seebelow) because I wanted to get the BBC Trust’s response to my complaint to them -see bottom of this email.

In his letter of 15 January (copy below)  M Burkin  advised me to refer the  matter to the BBC Trust, claiming that it fell within their remit not OFcom’s. I have done this. The BBC Trust  say it does not fall within their remit and have referred it to the Director General of the BBC. This is unsatisfactory because it emphatically breaches natural justice as the DG is an employee of the organisation I am complaining about and, hence , by definition not disinterested.  Unless OFcom investigates, there will be  no independent investigation of what is a very serious complaint, because if the BBC are censoring 239 people on Radio 5 alone there must be thousands censored throughout the entire BBC, many thousands possibly bearing in mind the number of local BBC stations which rely very heavily on phone-ins.

Let me now turn to Mr Burkin’s letter of  24 January.  The fact that OFCOM have only fined the BBC for the Blue Peter scandal is irrelevant to my case. You have investigated  other  complaints of a similar nature and that is all I am asking you to do, investigate. The police do not fail to investigate alleged crimes because they do not think they will get a conviction. Neither should OFcom.

Mr Burkin’s claim that flagging those deemed to be abusive or “a nuisance” is “an appropriate and proportionate response by a broadcaster” will strike most people as astonishing. What he is sanctioning  is the BBC operating a covert system of censorship which is operated   entirely at their will and for which no records of why people are censored are kept .

The fact that this censorship is made without telling the person banned that they have been banned means that the person is left in the same situation as those taking part in reality shows and others programmes which invite audience participation such as Blue Peter, namely, they are invited to take part in a programme in which the BBC has ensured they have no chance of taking part.

Mr Burkin’s claim that “It also appears reasonable that a broadcaster could expect the individuals concerned to be aware of the possible implication of their previous actions. Far from raising the matter of “fixing … phone-ins”, the issue appears to concern the treatment of specific individuals off air rather than the potential general misleadingness of programme content ” is best described as ludicrous. Both what  constitutes abuse and “being a nuisance” are very subjective matters. No one could be expected to know that they have been banned, especially when there is no public advertising of this fact by the BBC. Moreover, no matter what has happened previously, the fact that the caller’s  phone will still  ring will make it seem as though there is no problem. The system is designed to deceive.

As for  ” the potential general misleadingness of programme content ” (are you comfortable  with a senior member of your staff writing in such an ugly fashion? ) , the fact that people deemed a “a nuisance” are banned suggests that they may be banned because of their views, i.e., the BBC is directly censoring views.

I ask again that you investigate this matter.

Yours sincerely

Robert Henderson

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Document 15

21  January 2008

Feedback

Dear Mr Boulton,

I have used the Freedom of Information Act to get the BBC to admit that they are censoring callers to phone-in programmes without telling the people who are censored that this is being done.  I enclose below this letter my correspondence with the BBC.

The censorship is achieved as follows.  The BBC decides someone shall not be allowed on air at any time because they are either making “nuisance calls” or being abusive.  In the case of Radio 5 they do this by using a telephone system which allows the person’s phone number to be marked as banned and the operator then refuses to answer the call. The caller is not told that they have been banned  and the phone is left to ring until either the caller gets tired of trying or the provider of the phone cuts off the call.  See the BBC’s letter to me of 19 10 2007.

The BBC have only given me the current figures for Radio 5 (239  people banned) because they claim that the cost of  providing it for the BBC in its entirety would exceed the £450 cost limit for FOIA request. (This is almost certainly not so for the reasons given in my letter to Andrea Chard dated 22 10 2007.)  They also claim to have no historical records of  such bans – the data will almost certainly be recorded on the systems used because deleting does not lose the data only remove it from immediate access.  However, it is clear from their letter of 19 10 2007 that the practice is  a general one and,  consequently,  the numbers of banned people involved throughout the BBC could plausibly be thousands based on the number given for  Radio 5. I would further draw your attention to the refusal of the BBC to give names and details of those who have authorised the use of such systems.

The BBC  does not define what a nuisance call is or what constitutes abuse. As they operate the system secretly and act  judge and jury  in deciding who shall be banned, the system is clearly  open to considerable abuse because they can ban anyone at their whim.

This is a matter of  considerable  public interest for it is indubitably destructive of  what the BBC is meant to be about, namely, fair, honest and impartial broadcasting.  Consequently , it is far  more serious than fixed quiz shows,  dishonestly edited shows  and fixed votes for reality programmes, serious as those are.

I ask you to:

- Investigate when  it began and  who authorised it

- Find out how what definition of “abusive” and “nuisance”  has been applied.

- Interview those responsible both directly and  at the top of their chain of command.

- Broadcast the results of your investigations.

- Allow me to question those responsible on air.

Yours sincerely,

Robert Henderson

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Document 16

Email:philip@anywhere.demon.co.uk

8 January 2008

Richard Thomas

Information Commissioner

Information Commissioner’s Office

Wycliffe House

Water Lane

Wilmslow

Cheshire

SK9 5AF

Telephone: 01625 545 700

http://www.informationcommissioner.gov.uk

Dear Mr Thomas,

FOIA – Complaint against the BBC for withholding Information

I address this complaint to you because it is a matter of considerable public interest. As you will see from the enclosed correspondence between myself, the BBC and OFCOM,    the BBC have admitted  that they are surreptitiously censoring phone-in programmes  without notifying the people censored that the censorship is happening.

The BBC have given me the present figures for Radio 5  (239 people), but claim that they cannot obtain the same data for the whole of the BBC because  it would exceed the £450 cost limit. This is an extremely dubious claim, because all they need to do is send a single email to all departments and ask them to send the totals of people banned, data which will almost certainly be readily and immediately available by using the search facility on the database or because the system itself automatically counts the numbers.  All they would then have to do is produce a table with each department’s figures. All of that would not constitute 2 and half days work.

They have also refused to give me (even for Radio 5) the  other information I have requested, namely, the  names of those responsible for instigating the system  of censorship and  a breakdown of the reasons why people have been banned. The latter is particularly important because the BBC refuse to describe what constitutes abuse or a nuisance call and are, consequently, a law unto themselves.

I ask that you instruct the BBC to release the numbers for the entire network, give definitions of what constitutes a nuisance call or abuse, release figures showing how many people have been banned for nuisance calls and abuse  and  identify those responsible for instigating the censorship.

If you judge the information regarding nuisance calls and abuse would exceed the £450 limit for the whole of the BBC, please instruct them to release the data for as much as of  the BBC as it will cover.

Yours sincerely,

Robert Henderson

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Document 17

In message <721A4F2B7D4908468647E89ADCA4A636245D79@mswhex

02.ico.local>, Rose Warner <Rose.Warner@ico.gsi.gov.uk> writes

For the attention of Mr Robert Henderson

Dear Mr Henderson

In my email of 9 October 2008 (attached for ease of reference) I explained that I was making enquiries of the BBC, and would let you know when I received its response. The BBC replied on 26 January 2009.

May I first say that I recognise that the resolution of your complaint has taken much longer than any of us would have liked, for which I apologise. The BBC has explained that each time an audience member rings the BBC an operator takes their call, records their number and puts this into a database. If the operator deems that the caller has been offensive or abusive it is likely that the number will be tagged with a warning for future reference. The BBC said that the call is not ‘blocked’, the system will not allow this. The phone will still ring, although a symbol will appear on screen so the operator has the discretion whether or not to answer the call. The BBC does tag numbers but not callers themselves, as they may simply ring in from another number.

From the information provided to the Commissioner by the BBC it is clear that there is no co-ordination between the 39 phonebox systems situated, and receiving calls, in the various business units, and it would be up to each business unit to provide its own analysis/interpretation to obtain the information you are seeking. This has been illustrated by the actions of Radio 5 which was able to obtain a raw figure of 239 banned numbers using a particular web page interface which is not, as far as it has been possible to establish, employed by the remaining 38 business units. In view of this and the considerable difficulty in interrogating the system on each of the other 38 sites without this interface, the Commissioner?s likely finding, if there were to be a formal Decision Notice issued in this case, would be that obtaining the BBC-wide information that you seek, would exceed the cost limits, and the BBC would not be required to provide you with that information.

As to your request for details of those who have authorised the use of the system for banning numbers, the BBC has said that that system came as part of the phone package. There was no specific authority for the tagging to be used: the ability to tag a number was intrinsic and a conscious effort would have to be made to disable it. In view of this, the Commissioner’s likely finding would be that the BBC does not hold details of those who authorised the banning of numbers, no such specific authority having been given.

You will understand from the above that a formal decision by the Commissioner is unlikely to find that the BBC should release to you any further information. Whilst I fully understand that this is not the outcome you were seeking, it is debatable whether any useful purpose would be served by the issue of a formal Decision Notice. However, if you wish the Commissioner to proceed to issue such a Notice, please let me know by 9 March 2009.

Yours sincerely

Rose Warner

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Document 18

11 February 2009

Mrs Rosemary Warner

Senior Complaints Officer

Information Commissioner’s Office

13th Floor, Millbank Tower, Millbank, London SW1P 4QP

Tel: 0300 051 1545 (Tues-Thurs)

Email: rose.warner@ico.gsi.gov.uk

http://www.ico.gov.uk

Dear Ms Warner,

Complaint to the Information Commissioner against the BBC (your

ref:FS50188859)

Thank you for your email of 10 February. I want the Commissioner to issue a formal Decision Notice because I believe the refusal of my complaint is mistaken on matters of fact and logic and I want what Iconsider to be a seriously erroneous judgement to be on the public record. My reasons for believing this are as follows:

1. The vast majority of people make calls to BBC phone-ins from their own phones. If the phone rings they have no reason to believe the call is being deliberately disregarded. Moreover, to make calls from a phone other than their own will in most cases be impossible because they do not have immediate access to another phone. The effect of both the lack of knowledge of the blocking and, if they do know or suspect something is happening, of not having access to another phone, is to affect their ability to join in public debate on the BBC.

2. If callers do not know they have been blacklisted they cannot challenge the blacklisting. This denies natural justice and allows the BBC to hide the censorship and progress their own agenda.

3.You write “From the information provided to the Commissioner by the BBC it is clear that there is no co-ordination between the 39 phonebox systems situated, and receiving calls, in the various business units, and it would be up to each business unit to provide its own analysis/interpretation to obtain the information you are seeking. This has been illustrated by the actions of Radio 5 which was able to obtain a raw figure of 239 banned numbers using a particular web page interface which is not, as far as it has been possible to establish, employed by the remaining 38 business units.” The Radio 5 web page you mention is almost certainly a product of the telephone system which is common to the 39 phone-box systems. Hence, the other 38 should be able to generate the details as easily as Radio 5. The cost of doing this would be minimal because all they would need to do is put the same query into each system and then send the results for each business system to me.There is no need to collate. I can do that.  You need to investigate exactly how the R5 web page is generated, i.e., is it something which comes from the common telephone system used by the business 39 units.

4. You write that the BBC’s states that “the ability to tag a number was intrinsic and a conscious effort would have to be made to disable it. ” The point is not whether it is disabled but whether it is used. The act of tagging a phone number requires a deliberate effort by someone at the BBC.

5. You write ” the Commissioner’s likely finding would be that the BBC does not hold details of those who authorised the banning of numbers, no such specific authority having been given.”  There is no logical connection between the fact of the ability to flag numbers as banned and the authority  to do so. Someone must authorise people to use the flagging system otherwise presumably the flagging ability would remain unused because none of those taking calls would feel they had the authority to do it. Nor would those in authority know that it was happening – which my correspondence with Radio 5 demonstrates – unless it was BBC policy.

I ask you to  take these objections to your present interpretation into account when making the formal Decision Notice decision.

Please acknowledge receipt of this email by return.

Yours sincerely

Robert Henderson

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Document 19

Information Commissioner’s Office Promoting public access to official

information and protecting your personal information

3 November2009

Dear Mr Henderson-

Freedom of Information Act 2000

BBC

Please find enclosed a Decision Notice providing the Commissioner’s decision as to whether the BBC has complied with its duties under the

Freedom of Information Act 2000 (the “Act”). This Decision Notice relates  to your complaint about a request for information that you submitted to  the BBC on 24 September 2007. Following a recent High Court Decision,  your complaint has been carefully considered and in this case the  Commissioner has found that your request was for information held for  the purpose or journalism, art or literature and is therefore not disclosable under the Act.

The Decision Notice outlines the findings of the Commissioner following the recent High Court decision in which the High Court clarified the way information held by the BBC is covered by the Act.

If you disagree with any aspect of the attached Decision Notice, you have the right to appeal to the Information Tribunal. Contact details for the Tribunal are included in the Decision Notice.

The Decision Notice includes details about you and the public authority. This is to ensure that there is no doubt as to the request for information to which the Notice relates. The Commissioner will publish the decision on the ICO website, but will remove all names and addresses of complainants.

Although public authorities may choose to reproduce this Decision Notice,  the Commissioner would expect that they would take similar steps. The Commissioner considers that these may be necessary in order to comply  with the requirements of the Data Protection Act.

I hope the above information is of assistance.

Yours sincerely

Paddy Dillon

Senior Complaints Officer

Information Commissioner’s Office, Wycliffe House, Water Lane,

Wilmslow, Cheshire, SK9 5AF t: 0845 630 6060 f: 01625 524510 e:

mail@ico.gsi.gov.uk w: ico.govuk

—————————————————————————————————————-

The full Decision Notice can be found at:

http://www.ico.gov.uk/upload/documents/decisionnotices/2009/fs_50188859.pdf

Decision Notice

Reference: FS50188859 Freedom of Information Act 2000 (Section 50)

Date: 3 November 2009

The Blair daughter’s attempted suicide and the public’s right to know

The British mass media claims it is committed to informing the public. The reality is that it  frequently colludes with politicians to suppress stories. A important  example is the attempted suicide of Blair’s daughter Kathryn in the Spring of  2004 (reports on the web by non-mainstream media  suggest she was taken to hospital on Thursday 13th May 2004, for example, http://www.public-interest.co.uk/aseye/index.htm#Tony ). Every single national  newspaper and broadcaster (including the BBC) refused to use the story.  The BBC’s failure is especially reprehensible because  a public service broadcaster has a special obligation to put anything of political importance  before the public.

How do we know the story is true?  Well, Martin Bright when political editor of the New Statesman confirmed the story verbally to me at a meeting of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom and Tom Leonard when he was with the Daily Telegraph sent this email when I raised the matter with him:

“ In message <011401c5913d$53a14e40$171b1…@tgl.telegraph.co.uk>, Tom Leonard <tom.leon…@telegraph.co.uk> writes

Dear Mr Henderson, thanks for your email. The problem with the story about the Blairs’ daughter is that the BBC was far from alone in ignoring it. I think the whole of Fleet Street ignored it too on the grounds of sensitivity and intrusion into privacy (she is a minor of course).

However, you are completely right about the BBC’s vested interest and well done for pointing it out to Mr Grade. The BBC is too used to never being properly grilled by >the public.

Regards, Tom Leonard”

Then there is the behaviour of  the BBC.  I twice confronted  Michael Grade when he was  BBC chairman with the failure of the BBC to run the story.

The first occasion was at the Viewers and Listeners Spring Conference in April 2005. Grade claimed not to know the story, but refused to discuss the matter. Later I wrote to him asking him to justify his failure to make the story public. Grade did not reply but I received a letter from the BBC’s Head of communications Tina Stowell which ran “The question you raised at the VLV Seminar on 25 April relating to the Prime Minister’s daughter is not one which the BBC Chairman will respond to in public or via correspondence.”

The second occasion was at the Governors “AGM” at Television Centre on 19 July 2005. After the programme, The Governors rashly mingled with the audience. I managed to corner Grade for about five minutes and ask him in front of plenty of witnesses why he had censored the story of the Blair daughter’s attempted suicide, especially after I had raised the matter with him in April 2005 at the Voice of the Viewer and Listeners Spring Conference. He tried to make a joke of it, but before he escaped I asked him the following question: Do you believe the story is true? He refused to answer. ’nuff said.

At the same meeting I lobbied four other Governors: Deborah Bull, Merfyn Jones, Fabian Monds, Ranjit Sondhi and Angela Sarkis. Without exception they all seemed painfully startled by the news. I got a promise from each to look into the matter if I sent them the full details. I wrote to them and the other Governors on 20 July 2005. None have replied. Instead, I again received a letter from Tina Stowell (22 July 2005). This ran “Thank you for your letter to the Board of Governors. The BBC’s position remains the same as in my previous letter.” I then submitted a formal complaint through the governors’ website of 28 July 2005. This elicited no reply.

I raised the failure of the  BBC to act on BBC phone-in programmes and was always cut off immediately I had raised the subject.   I wrote to Feedback, the programme which supposedly deals with listeners concerns with the BBC, asking them to investigate the censorship. They failed to do so.

In addition to this evidence, there were  also references in the mainstream media  in 2004 of a family matter which could persuade Blair to resign.  It is reasonable to conclude that the ‘family matter’ was Kathryn Blair’s attempted suicide.  Interestingly, Cherie Blair said this in an interview in 2009:

”  Mrs Blair has also told Italian paper La Repubblica that Nicky and Kathryn were taunted at school over their father’s decision to send troops into Iraq in 2003 to stop Saddam developing weapons of mass destruction.

‘They had some really difficult moments at school. Everybody called their father a liar,’ she said.” http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1211450/The-young-OBlairs–Former-Prime-Ministers-children-Irish-passports-thanks-grandmother.html

There is the strongest public interest in the media running stories such as Kathryn Blair’s suicide.  Politicians are by definition professional moralists because they tell  everyone how to live through the laws they pass and the moral judgements they publicly make. For that reason alone, in a democracy the electorate need to know how their private lives match up to that which they ordain for others.

But there are other good reasons. Blackmail is one and the effect on a politician’s mind and behaviour of traumatic events another. Clearly, this event was such as to potentially seriously  destabilise Blair’s mental balance. As he was PM  the public had a right to know what he was undergoing.

To argue that a child must be given anonymity at all costs is nonsensical. It would, for example, prevent the release of names and details for a child who has gone missing.

Nor is there any reluctance on the part of the media to constantly name children who have done something wrong which stops short of an appearance in a criminal court. In addition, in some criminal cases, the ban on identifying children is lifted and the media again is only too happy to identify them, often in ways which may incite attacks on the child or parents.

It is also true that children generally have to bear the humiliation and shock of seeing their parents and other adult relatives named in the media when they have committed a crime or behaved immorally. That is at least as traumatic as the child being named.

Tellingly, the media have no difficulty with reporting failed teenage generally can be seen from the vivid example of Rebecca Ling, the survivor of a suicide pact*. Both at the time of the suicide pact and during the inquest into the girl who died the BBC and every other mainstream media outlet reported the story with her name, in depth and sensationally. What is sauce for the Man on the Clapham omnibus gander should be sauce for the PM goose. It should not be for the media to decide what they will and will not put before the public when there is a matter of great public interest at issue. Clearly, the Blair child’s case was  suppressed because of political pressure and/or bias on the part of the media.   (It is worth adding that the children of the elite gain great privileges simply by virtue of their accident of birth. The downside is that they may be under greater scrutiny than the ordinary child in the street.)

Why was the story so completely suppressed? I would suggest this. In modern Britain it is next to impossible to force a Prime Minister out of office for political reasons. Where a Government has a massive majority it is impossible. The only thing which could bring Blair down was personal scandal. that is why the story of his daughter’s attempted suicide was  so ruthlessly effected.

* See these examples of British mainstream media coverage of Rebecca Ling’s attempted suicide:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/south_west/3651008.stm

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/tragedy-of-the-suicidepact-teenage-girls-who-met-in-internet-chatroom-551402.html

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-316749/Suicide-pact-girl-bullied.html#ixzz11P5vVRDz

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