All change for the Beeb?Posted on

The UK government has sparked debate by announcing[1] that the current regulatory body for the BBC, the BBC Trust, is to be scrapped with sole regulation being handed over to Ofcom. Historically, the BBC has been regulated by a combination of both organisations, with Ofcom handling areas such as harm and offence, fairness and privacy and the BBC Trust dealing with accuracy and impartiality through its Editorial Standards Unit and the Trust.

The changes have been announced ahead of the BBC’s charter renewal at the end of the year. The discussions about the BBC’s future have been going on for a while, with the option of a separate external regulator for the BBC, dubbed “OfBeeb”, also being considered.

This latest decision comes after an independent review, conducted by Sir David Clementi, who recommended that, “Regulatory oversight should pass wholly to Ofcom, which is already the public service regulator for the UK’s broadcasting industry and has the ability to look at the BBC in the context of the market as a whole. Ofcom would be a strong regulator to match a strong BBC.”

In his review,[2] Clementi highlighted that the current BBC Trust model conflates governance and regulation which is the “reason that some argue that the Trust is both “cheerleader and regulator”” for the BBC.

A simple solution on the face of it but it has led to concerns that the change could lead to deterioration in the BBC’s programme standards. Ofcom already handles accuracy and impartiality complaints in regards to other institutions, such as ITV and Channel 4, which are covered by Section Five of its Broadcasting Code. However, as things currently stand, the BBC Trust and Ofcom take different approaches when it comes to regulation in this area. The BBC applies its standards across the wide range of shows it broadcasts whereas Ofcom only applies its equivalent standards to “news programmes” and will include programmes where there are “matters of political or industrial controversy and matters relating to current public policy” when it comes to impartiality standards.

This will clearly leave a gap in standards if Ofcom’s approach is not changed – for example, in November 2015, the Guardian reported comments from a BBC Trust director who did not believe Ofcom was equipped to regulate the BBC. In doing so, the Guardian stated that, “Ofcom’s regulation of accuracy only applies to news and that about half of the 286 editorial standards cases that the BBC Trust dealt with last year would not have been considered by Ofcom under its current remit.”

Perhaps a good case in point – in May, the BBC hosted the BAFTA TV awards, where many speakers made comments in support of the BBC. The broadcaster aired most of these comments in full, leading to Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen to claim that the BBC had breached “their impartiality requirements”. This seems somewhat ironic considering that, if the Conservative government proposals go through and Ofcom takes over regulation of the BBC according to its current Code, then the BAFTAs would likely not be regulated for accuracy and impartiality at all.

It is unclear exactly how Ofcom will adapt to meet its new challenges. If Ofcom updates its Code to cover new areas of regulation – such as accuracy and impartiality – in all programme genres – this could dramatically expand Ofcom’s workload.

It seems almost certain that Ofcom will need an influx of new resources. Ofcom deals with around 25,000 complaints every year, whereas the BBC currently handles 250,000[3] – a big jump by anybody’s standards.

Plans are still somewhat in the air and details are yet to be confirmed and finalised so for now we will have to sit back and watch this space.

 

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/a-bbc-for-the-future-a-broadcaster-of-distinction

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/a-review-of-the-governance-and-regulation-of-the-bbc

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/jul/21/ofcom-bbc-regulation-governance-sharon-white

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