Impartiality fears as Ofcom warns BBC to transform
| 22 June 2022
In a stinging rebuke to the public broadcaster at the mid-point in its current Charter period, UK broadcast regulator Ofcom has called on the BBC to be clearer with audiences about how it handles complaints, responds to concerns and meets viewers’ needs.
BBC Building 27May2022
Ofcom has been reviewing the BBC’s performance and its future regulation of it and as part of this, process says that it has we have tracked audiences’ experiences and interactions with the corporation, and their feelings towards it.

The review found that in total, 11% of adults had cause to complain about the BBC in the last year. This was the highest level among broadcasters and compared with 6% for ITV and 4% for Channel 4. That said it was lower compared with other industries 21% for online retailers, 15% for energy companies.

The majority of complaints tended to relate to bias (39%) and misleading/dishonest content (26%). Ofcom said that the research suggested the BBC is more than twice as likely to attract complaints about these issues compared with the other public service broadcasters and noted that unlike other broadcasters, the BBC First complaints system, gives the corporation an opportunity to respond to complaints before they are escalated. Yet Ofcom found that although audiences rated its news highly for trust and accuracy, they consistently rated it less favourably on impartiality which was a key area of concern.

Ofcom stressed that the BBC needed to understand why this was the case and that it needed to do more to address concerns arising from perceptions of its impartiality. Ofcom quoted research showing that audience perceptions of the BBC’s impartiality were driven by more than just content. It also found that in the current politically polarised and emotionally charged cultural climate, some favoured news outlets that took a single clear perspective on an issue and criticised some outlets for sitting on the fence.

As a result of its review, Ofcom was now directing the BBC to change its policy and publish sufficient reasoning in cases where it decides not to uphold due impartiality and due accuracy complaints. It was also expecting the BBC to alert it at an early stage to potential serious editorial breaches. This said Ofcom would allow it to better scrutinise how the BBC’s complaints process was working in practice and, if necessary, intervene early to protect audiences. Ofcom warned that if the BBC failed to do this, it would recommend that the Government made it a legal requirement.

Another area of concern was as feeling that the BBC needed to keep developing its online services, while continuing to deliver distinctive, original UK content. Ofcom noted that while the BBC was still generally popular with viewers, the way content was consumed has changed dramatically over the last 10 years and is still evolving rapidly.

To that end, it has set out proposals for a new Operating Licence for the BBC, to enable its continued transformation. These include new requirements on the BBC's online services, principally the BBC iPlayer. The BBC will be required to make important content, including content for the nations and regions and at-risk programming, available for online audiences and make such content easily discoverable. It must also evidence how its online services contribute to its performance. The proposed licence was said Ofcom also designed to allow the BBC greater flexibility to adapt and innovate in how it delivers content for audiences, with Ofcom closely monitoring its performance through additional new transparency requirements.

“Viewers and listeners tell us they aren’t happy with how the BBC handles their complaints, and it clearly needs to address widespread perceptions about its impartiality. So we’re directing it to respond to these concerns, by being much more transparent and open with its audiences,” said Ofcom chief executive Dame Melanie Dawes. “The BBC must also adapt quickly to keep up with changes in what audiences want, and how they get their content. We’re doing our bit, by future-proofing our regulation so the BBC can continue its transformation for the digital age.”

Replying to Ofcom, a BBC Spokesperson said: “Like any organisation we work to make continuing improvements, which is why we published a 10-point plan on impartiality and editorial standards last year. Everyone knows this is an absolute priority for the BBC, and Ofcom rightly recognises impartiality is a complex area, audiences hold us to a higher standard than other broadcasters and that we have a good record of complying with broadcasting rules. In addition, the BBC has the most thorough and transparent complaints process in UK media and we are committed to being accessible and accountable to our audiences. We will work with Ofcom to make further improvements to this system.”