BBC accused of treating staff like 'the enemy' as new figures show increase in email monitoring to investigate leaks

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  • 56 emails 'monitored' in 2014 – up from 46 in 2013
  • 27 account snoops in 2014 related to leaks – up from ten in 2013
  • 'We all know it goes on but it's not nice to think it's happening to this extent'
  • NUJ to 'get to the bottom of the kind of spying that has been taking place'

The BBC has been accused of treating its employees like “the enemy” after it emerged that 37 staff email accounts have been monitored as part of leak investigations.

Freedom of Information Act figures obtained by Press Gazette show that 148 staff email accounts were "accessed" or "monitored" by the BBC in 2013 and 2014. Of these, 46 were accessed in order to comply with requests made under the Data Protection and Freedom of Information Acts.

There was a sharp increase in BBC monitoring of staff emails to investigate leaks, from ten instances in 2013 to 27 last year.

Some BBC insiders believe this may be due to increased leaks relating to the Delivering Quality First job cuts, with 415 BBC News and Current Affairs roles made redundant this year.

In 2014, 17 staff accounts were accessed in relation to fraud investigations, and 12 in relation to disciplinary cases.

Accounts are "monitored" by the BBC Investigations Unit.

The BBC said it “rarely monitors staff email accounts and only in exceptional circumstances where it is reasonable, necessary and represents a proportionate response”.

It added: “In the rare occasion, such as in relation to criminal, data security or disciplinary investigations, where it is deemed necessary to monitor an email The BBC has in place a formal process that must be followed by The BBC Investigation Service.”

2014 table

In 2013, 46 staff accounts were monitored, including ten in relation to information leaks.

Further, 20 accounts were accessed as part of disciplinary cases, seven in relation to fraud investigations and three each in relation to harassment and assault claims. There was one investigation each into complaints, computer misuse and enquiries with the police.

2013 table

Press Gazette’s FoI asked for these figures dating back to 2010, but the BBC said it was unable to do this within the £450 cost limit on requests.

The figures mark a large increase on previous email monitoring figures provided by the BBC.

Mail Online, for instance, reported in December 2013 that the BBC Investigations Unit had spied on staff emails 140 times between 2009 and 2013.

The website was told through an FoI that there had been 21 occurrences in 2013, and this figure was referenced in Press Gazette’s FoI.

The BBC said: “Regarding the Mail Online article that you mentioned within your request, the information provided was in relation to the number of authorised requests for the “monitoring” of staff email accounts. The numbers shown in this article do not therefore reflect the actual amount of staff accounts “monitored”.”

A BBC insider was critical of the figures, highlighting in particular the prevalence of information leak investigations in 2014.

They told Press Gazette: “The BBC has a right to look at our emails. We all know it goes on but it's not nice to think it's happening to this extent.

“We rely on leaks and whistleblowers to get exclusives for our news coverage but the BBC obviously doesn't like it when they think it's their own staff leaking stories.

“The BBC can't afford any bad press with charter renewal and the licence fee negotiations around the corner. Instead of treating its own staff like the enemy, they should be addressing the problems that are painting the BBC in a bad light.”

The figures, representing a “disturbing leap in covert surveillance of staff”, were also condemned by the National Union of Journalists, which suggested they show a “collective paranoia gripping the corporation”.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “The BBC has previously denied any significant monitoring of staff email accounts, and only in criminal or disciplinary investigations but these figures cast doubt on that explanation and the NUJ will work with our network of reps to get to the bottom of the kind of spying that has been taking place.

“It is revealing that when faced with media coverage of important issues such as bullying and harassment or executive excess, some BBC managers have reacted with disproportionate anger and a keen desire to establish the source of what they see as ‘leaks’ rather than spend their time and energy sorting out the real problems that exist in our public service broadcaster.”

In December 2013, the NUJ was forced to apologise to BBC HR director Lucy Adams after publishing an article suggesting she had been involved in "hacking NUJ members' emails".

The BBC said: “There are strict guidelines in place covering when access is permissible. The BBC very rarely monitors staff email accounts and only as a last resort where exceptional circumstances indicate criminal activity or disciplinary behaviour meaning it is a justifiable, necessary and proportionate action.”

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