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Ofcom outlines BBC regulation plans

UK comms regulator Ofcom has set out how it will take on regulation of the BBC from next April.

This is in advance of the imminent publication of the final BBC Royal Charter, which details how the BBC will operate in the new Charter period from 2017 to 2027.

This will see the biggest reform of the governance and regulation of the BBC since it was founded.

The Government has decided that a new BBC unitary board will govern and run the BBC, and ultimately be responsible for editorial and management decisions.

Ofcom will become the new external regulator of the BBC. Our job will be to hold the BBC to account. It has published a statement explaining how it will prepare to undertake its new regulatory duties from the planned effective date, 3 April 2017.

Ofcom’s approach to regulating the BBC

As the new external regulator, Ofcom will bring its experience of regulating the wider broadcast and communications sector at a time of increasing convergence.

Ofcom already has roles across many of the BBC’s services, from content standards to competition. These new responsibilities broaden the scope of Ofcom’s existing work.

Regulation of the BBC will sit within Ofcom’s existing teams and will focus on three core areas as laid out in the Charter: content standards; protecting fair and effective competition; and reviewing the BBC’s performance.

In order to carry out its new duties effectively and efficiently, and to provide clarity to audiences and the wider sector, Ofcom will:

  • Proceed from its principal duty – as with all its work, its principal objective is to further the interests of citizens and consumers;
  • Recognise that the BBC is the cornerstone of public service broadcasting in the UK – the BBC has a special status, but Ofcom won’t give it special treatment;
  • Recognise that responsibility for governance lies with the new BBC Board – it is for the BBC Board, rather than Ofcom, to determine how to deliver the mission and purposes defined in the Charter. The Board must set the BBC’s editorial guidelines. Ofcom will hold the BBC to account;
  • Make good use of its depth of knowledge and experience – Ofcom has experience of regulating the broadcasting sector, as well as existing roles in relation to the BBC in the key areas of content standards, competition and performance;
  • Consult widely – ensure the views of citizens, consumers and stakeholders feed into its work; and
  • Be clear about its expectations and requirements of the BBC – provide clarity on how Ofcom will address issues if things go wrong, to provide certainty to the BBC, its audiences and the wider sector.

Public consultations

In the coming months, Ofcom will develop an ‘Operating Framework’ for the BBC. This will ultimately contain all of the elements of its regulation across the BBC’s content standards, competition and performance.

The Operating Framework will set out the regulatory tools that Ofcom will use to hold the BBC to account. There will be separate consultations on the finer details of its role over the coming, which fall into the following broad categories:

  1. Content standards

Viewers and listeners should be able to trust what they see and hear. They should know that steps have been taken to avoid unjustified offence, and that protection from harmful content is in place. Ofcom will set content standards for the BBC so that its viewers and listeners are adequately protected.

The previous Charter and Agreement gave Ofcom shared regulatory oversight of some of the BBC’s content standards with the BBC Trust, which will close when Ofcom takes on its new role. The new arrangement hands Ofcom regulatory responsibility for content standards on BBC broadcasting and on-demand programme services including, for the first time, for the accuracy and impartiality of BBC news and current affairs programmes. Ofcom will be updating the rules in its Broadcasting Code to fulfil these new responsibilities.

Ofcom will also create procedures for handling complaints about BBC content standards, and for conducting its investigations and sanctions.

Additionally, Ofcom will publish procedures explaining how audiences will be able to obtain an independent opinion from Ofcom on whether the BBC has observed relevant editorial guidelines for online material in its UK Public Services.

  1. Protecting fair and effective competition

Fair and effective competition is good for viewers and listeners. It can increase choice and stimulate investment and innovation – ensuring the provision of a wide range of high-quality and varied programmes, and different ways to access them.

Ofcom will assess the effect of the BBC’s activities on audiences and the UK media sector, and set rules as to how the BBC should behave.

Ofcom will also impose requirements on the BBC to avoid the relationship between its public-service activities and commercial subsidiaries distorting the market, or creating an unfair competitive advantage for the BBC’s subsidiaries.

  1. Performance – holding the BBC to account

Ofcom is currently developing a set of tools to regulate the BBC’s performance. This will include an Operating Licence for the BBC’s UK public services and may include any performance measures Ofcom consider appropriate, further to those set by the BBC, Ofcom will consult on this over the course of next year.

As explained in the Charter, Ofcom will have a particular focus on assessing the distinctiveness of the BBC’s output. Ofcom will also hold the BBC to account in relation to its obligations to serve audiences in all four of the UK’s nations and for diversity.

As part of the approach to performance, Ofcom expects to carry out both ad hoc and periodic reviews of the BBC’s services.

 

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