BBC 'extremely regretful' for inaccurate FoI release suggesting comms staff number of 241

The BBC has said it is "extremely regretful" for providing a document to Press Gazette which it said gave a misleading picture of the number of PR staff it employs.

The document suggested that the corporation had 241 staff in its communications "family" and was provided in response to a Press Gazette Freedom of Information request asking for a list of every job title at the BBC and the number of people who hold those titles.

The BBC has now said "there are 129 staff engaged in PR work for the Communications Department". This figure, a full-time equivalent number, excludes "administrative support staff, occasional freelancers, event organisers and fixed-term trainees although we have included staff involved in Public Affairs work". It also excludes PR staff employed by independent production companies that work with the BBC. And at the time of disclosure, to the Whatdotheyknow website, there were a "small" number of PR vacancies.

The 129 figure appears to have been falling steadily since January 2013, when Press Gazette reported it as 147. The BBC said it was 141 in spring 2014 and then 137.3 a year ago. On releasing the last figure, the BBC said in an FoI: "As a large broadcasting organisation there are obviously other staff who may be involved in speaking to journalists, preparing interviews and elements of whose job may involve communications in some way."

It added: "Please note that, as set out in section 6(1)(b)(ii) of the FOI Act, our subsidiaries (including BBC Studios & Post Production Ltd, UKTV, BBC Global News Ltd and BBC Worldwide Ltd), as well as the charities BBC Media Action and BBC Children in Need, are not subject to the Act, therefore information relating to their personnel is not included in any of the figures quoted above."

In response to the latest FoI – for job titles and numbers – the BBC said it could not afford, under FoI cost restrictions, to answer the question. Instead, it volunteered a list of jobs "families" and the number of individuals who worked in them.

This suggested the BBC's communications division had 241 individuals working in it, 381 in marketing and 6,699 in news journalism. The 241 figure was of interest to Press Gazette because, in 2014, a claim – based on a list from the BBC media website – that it had 220 press contacts was described by the press office as a "fantasy".

When Press Gazette put the 241 figure to the BBC press office, it was denied: "These figures are wrong. You will be getting a note from the FOI team shortly making clear the figures are not correct and they will send you a correction as soon as possible. We wouldn’t expect you to use these figures until a correct version has been sent out." 

The request was made on 17 March, the response was sent on 6 May and the response from the press office was made on 26 May.

There is a 20-working-day deadline for FoI responses, but the BBC did not provide further clarification until last week – more than six months after the request was made. 

The final response from the BBC said: "The BBC responded to you originally on 6 May stating that there are numerous job titles (including variations of the same job title often only differentiated by departmental name) so that it was not practical to provide a list of them all. This response should have informed you that your request therefore exceeded the fees limit under the Act and was therefore exempt under s.12.

"However, in an attempt to provide assistance to you, the BBC volunteered two spreadsheets providing lists of ‘job families’ rather than individual job titles. The BBC wrote to you again on 26 May explaining that upon reflection the data contained in these spreadsheets had a number of misclassifications and could not be regarded as accurate.

"The tables you were provided with contained unchecked and unverified data, which had significant errors. As an example, the ‘communications’ section, which we believe you have a particular interest in, included on-air journalists such as a foreign editor along with senior television production executives and job titles such as Head of Intellectual Property, Head of Tours and Head of Rights. We are extremely regretful for this error and in hindsight it would have been preferable not to volunteer this information.

"You will see from another recent Freedom of Information request that there are 129 staff engaged in PR work for the Communications Department: https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/287413/response/709653/attach/4/RFI20151442%20response.pdf

"Please note that, as set out in section 6(1)(b)(ii) of the FOI Act, our subsidiaries (including BBC Studios & Post Production Ltd, UKTV, BBC Global News Ltd and BBC Worldwide Ltd), as well as the charities BBC Media Action and BBC Children in Need, are not subject to the Act, therefore information for their personnel is not included in the figures in the attached document."

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