Lonely Planet closure of Thorn Tree triggered by letter to acting BBC director-general
There is some degree of confusion as to who may have started the process, but a BBC (owner of Lonely Planet) official confirms that the initial concerns were raised by a “forum user” who informed the acting director-general of the corporation, Tim Davie.
Davie (keeping the DG seat warm until new boss Tony Hall takes over in March) is said to have immediately forwarded the complaint to BBC Worldwide.
The BBC has already denied that speculation circulating that the Thorn Tree forum was closed due to the discovery of material or comments relating to paedophilia.
The line being used consistently by Lonely Planet and the BBC is that the forum contained some “inappropriate content” which breached editorial guidelines.
Reports elsewhere suggest the person who contacted Davie was planning to write an article for the travel section of the New York Times outlining and analysing a number of popular travel forums.
This process started in mid-December and a few days later the forum was suspended. The writer is said to have discovered over 43,500 posts in the archive of Thorn Tree which were of an “adult” nature.
There is no official or independent confirmation of this.
Nevertheless, given the currently sensitive nature regarding similar matters within the corridors of the BBC, following the Jimmy Savile scandal in the latter part of 2012, it perhaps hardly surprising that the “forum user” took the complaint direct to the acting director-general, and how quickly bosses subsequently took the forum offline.
The identity of the complainant is still unknown.
Despite the important and often busy time of the year for the Thorn Tree community (on average it gets around 100,000-110,000 new posts a month), bosses are only reopening it in stages.
An email from managing director Dominic Rowell to Lonely Planet authors and Thorn Tree moderators in recent days says the forum has been the subject to a “painstaking review of existing content to ensure that language and themes are appropriate”.
A so-called “gold standard” moderation system is being put in place and any existing content deemed to be breaching guidelines will be removed.
- Keep it clean. Strong language has no place here. You won’t be able to use well-known profanities and creative alternatives will be deleted.
- Keep it relevant. This is a travel forum. We can’t support off-topic discussions and will remove them.
- Keep it respectful. Thorn Tree is a global community that embraces different cultures, faiths, attitudes and view points. Please be respectful of this.
- Keep it legal. We’ll delete posts defaming others, posting porn, ticket scalping, plotting illegal activities, or posting other people’s private information.
Some are likely to scoff at the new rules given that many forums or online communities have similar and basic guidelines already in place.
Clearly bruised by the experience and with new processes in place, Lonely Planet says the destination “branches” of Thorn Tree will be the first to reappear and then other elements will go live in the coming months.
Rowell ends the email with a firm defence of Lonely Planet’s commitment to Thorn Tree, playing down speculation that the BBC may be looking to end the service to keep the brand trimmer in terms of the number of products in the portfolio.
“Thorn Tree remains a key ingredient to our future and we are as committed as ever to its importance as a source of trusted travel advice,” Rowell says.
The community has grown steadily for 16 years as a result of a self-policing strategy for its content, he adds.
“However, as travellers and contexts change it is important that we change as well, which is why we took the opportunity to instigate this program of work. We have taken our members on a bumpy ride over the last two weeks and we will now focus on building the best travel community on the web.”
Kevin May is a senior editor and was one of the co-founders at Tnooz in 2009. He was previously editor of UK-based magazine Travolution and web editor of Media Week UK from 2003 to 2005.
He has worked in regional newspapers (Essex Enquirer) and started his career in journalism at the Police Gazette at New Scotland Yard in London. He has a degree in criminology, a postgraduate diploma in magazine journalism and publishes his first book - a biography about electronic band, Depeche Mode - in 2015.