Advanced Television

Ofcom: BBC must transform how it serves audiences

June 22, 2022

By Colin Mann

As the mid-point in the BBC’s current Charter period approaches, broadcast regulator Ofcom has been reviewing the BBC’s performance and its future regulation of  the Corporation. As part of this, Ofcom has tracked audiences’ experiences and interactions with the BBC, and their feelings towards it.

One in nine people have had a reason to complain about the BBC. However, most of those do not actually make a complaint, with many telling Ofcom it would not make a difference or be taken seriously. These concerns are nearly twice as high for the BBC than for other broadcasters.

Ofcom also asked audiences about BBC news and current affairs. Although they rate its news highly for trust and accuracy, conversely they rate it less favourably on impartiality.

Accordingly, Ofcom is 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.

Ofcom is also expecting the BBC to alert it at an early stage to potential serious editorial breaches. This will allow Ofcom better to scrutinise how the BBC’s complaints process is working in practice and, if necessary, to intervene early to protect audiences. If the BBC fails to do this, Ofcom will recommend that the Government makes this a legal requirement.

While the BBC is still generally popular with viewers and listeners, the way content is consumed has changed dramatically over the last 10 years and is still evolving rapidly. The BBC therefore needs to keep developing its online services, while continuing to deliver distinctive, original UK content. Accordingly, Ofcom has set out proposals for a new Operating Licence for the BBC, to enable its continued transformation.

“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,” sttated Dame Melanie Dawes, Ofcom’s Chief Executive. “So we’re directing it to respond to these concerns, by being much more transparent and open with its audiences.”

“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,” she added.

Complaints handling must improve

In total, 11 per cent of adults had cause to complain about the BBC in the last year. This is the highest level among broadcasters (6 per cent for ITV, 4 per cent for Channel 4), but lower compared with other industries (21 per cent for online retailers, 15 per cent for energy companies).

Complaints tend to relate to bias (39 per cent) and misleading/dishonest content (26 per cent). Our research suggests the BBC is more than twice as likely to attract complaints about these issues compared to the other public service broadcasters.

Unlike other broadcasters, the ‘BBC First’ complaints system, agreed by Parliament, gives the BBC an opportunity to respond to complaints before they are escalated to Ofcom. And while people are generally not opposed to this system in principle, Ofcom research uncovered a number of issues:

  • Lack of awareness. Only 21 per cent of participants were aware of the BBC First process. Fewer still (7 per cent) were fully aware of all the steps involved in making a complaint;
  • Dissatisfaction with responses. Fewer than one in five complainants told us they had a satisfactory complaints experience, and over half reported a bad experience. Others were concerned about the tone and detail of response; and
  • Too long to respond. Fewer than half of complainants said they received an initial substantive response within two weeks, the BBC’s target response time.
  • Furthermore, around two thirds of UK adults who have cause to complain do not go on to make one at all, with 42 per cent feeling it would not make a difference and 29 per cent feeling it would not be taken seriously.

Importance of impartiality

Ofcom’s audience research also shows the BBC’s impartiality remains a key area of concern with its audiences. Although they rate its news highly for trust and accuracy, they consistently rate it less favourably on impartiality.

The BBC needs to understand why this is the case and do more to address concerns arising from perceptions of its impartiality. Ofcom’s new research illustrates the complexity of the issue, and that audience perceptions of the BBC’s impartiality are driven by more than just content. Ofcom found:

  • in the current politically polarised and emotionally charged cultural climate, some favour news outlets that take a single clear perspective on an issue and criticise some outlets for ‘sitting on the fence’;
  • different audiences reach diametrically opposing conclusions when judging the due impartiality of the same news content;
  • the closer people feel to a story, the more likely they are to have strong beliefs and emotions about it; and
  • audiences have higher expectations of the BBC’s impartiality because of its unique position.

New requirements to hold BBC to account

Ofcom is clear that the BBC needs to make its complaints process simpler and more straightforward for people to navigate. It must also be more transparent and open about its decision-making.

This is essential for building trust and improving its relationship with audiences, and for justifying why it should continue to enjoy the unique position of handling its own complaints first.

To help address audience concerns, Ofcom has updated its complaints handling determinations. This now directs the BBC to publish the reasoning behind any final stage decision not to uphold complaints about due impartiality and due accuracy.

Ofcom also welcomes, and will closely monitor, the measures the BBC has taken to improve audience attitudes and perceptions of its due impartiality, particularly in response to the Serota Review, such as the Impartiality and Editorial Standards Action Plan. Ofcom expects the BBC to rigorously assess and transparently report on these actions to retain audience trust.

Meeting audiences’ needs in a digital age

Ofcom also sets an Operating Licence that ensures audiences across the UK are well served by the BBC. It is currently specific to individual TV and radio services, with limited recognition of content online. Without reform, the Licence will become out of step with audience behaviour and technology developments.

Accordingly, Ofcom has proposed to modernise the Operating Licence to enable the BBC to innovate and respond to changing audience needs, while ensuring it delivers its remit. The proposed new Operating Licence:

  • sets new requirements on the BBC’s online services. BBC iPlayer, BBC Sounds, the BBC website and other online services have become increasingly important for reaching audiences. 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.
  • gives the BBC more flexibility to enable it to better serve audiences across different services and platforms, but with safeguards. The proposed licence allows 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. But the licence also retains strict regulatory safeguards where necessary – for example, in relation to news and current affairs and original UK programmes; and
  • requires greater transparency from the BBC. The BBC needs to explain its strategy and plans better and be much clearer about where it is already delivering for audiences and where it can do better, by setting out specific information with its Annual Plan and Annual Report.

Next steps

Ofcom’s consultation on the BBC’s new Operating Licence is open until September 14th 2022. Ofcom expects to issue its final decision and updated Licence in early 2023, in time for the new Licence to take effect on April 1st 2023. The Government is conducting its mid-term Charter review. Ofcom will update the Operating Licence following completion of this review if necessary.

In the autumn, Ofcom will consult on changes to its competition regulation to enable the BBC to adapt its services more effectively, better to meet audience needs, while ensuring fair and effective competition is protected.

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