It is rumoured that the days of the BBC Trust are over and that regulatory oversight of the BBC will be transferred to OFCOM. The House of Commons Select Committee on Culture Media and Sport recommended in its report The Future of the BBC http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmselect/cmcumeds/315/31510.htm#a48 that OFCOM be the final arbiter of complaints made about the BBC. Paragraphs 331-337 make the case for the transfer and give the statistics.
The BBC complaints procedure is far from simple: http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/assets/files/pdf/regulatory_framework/protocols/2014/complaints_fr_work_ed_complaints.pdf
Wd OFCOM be any better? In their annual report 13-14 it is revealed that 12,774 complaints were made about content and standards, and 124 breaches found. 22 complaints about fairness were upheld from 241 made. OFCOM cleared Channel 4’s mockumentary on UKIP, The First 1000 Days, despite over 6000 complaints.
The BBC Annual Report for the same period reports 192,459 complaints, and 52 upheld by the Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee. I make that .02%. I rarely see apologies made in the same forum where the offending issue was first aired. Apologies by the BBC or its reporters are reported in the press but diligent searching of the BBC website does not necessarily turn them up. The Commons report referred to the dissatisfaction expressed by complaints about the process.
I highlight this issue because the crux of the importance of the BBC’s impartiality and accountability lies in the way in which complaints about its service are responded to and handled. Here there have undoubtedly been failings and complications. There is overlapping jurisdiction with OFCOM, which is empowered to look into complaints regarding BBC output that relate to taste, fairness, privacy and decency, while issues of accuracy and impartiality remain solely within BBC jurisdiction. Some complaints are handled by both organisations simultaneously, others get passed from one to the other. There are 3 layers of complaints handling at the BBC with the final stage being a committee of the Trust itself, and at each stage there is wide discretion within the BBC to dismiss the complaint. The findings are made entirely inside the organisation with no outside oversight. The odds are stacked against the complainant because of the complex procedures and because they need to allege a breach of the Editorial Guidelines, which they may not be familiar with. I surmise that complainants tend to be very angry and vent their dissatisfaction in their own words to the BBC, in a style that can readily be refuted (“Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells”) rather than being guided to align the upsetting issue with the precise paragraph of the Editorial Guidelines that is allegedly being breached.
Taste and decency complaints (e.g. about Russell Brand or Jeremy Clarkson) are less important to my mind, than those about accuracy and impartiality, the values by which the BBC stands or falls. They are the heart of the public service of the BBC. The current defensive handling of complaints is harmful to the BBC, albeit recently reformed to some extent. Its impartiality is what makes it a world influence through the World Service. It is therefore of the utmost significance that its impartiality be guaranteed by a complaints process that matches the significance of the issues. Issues such as: was the Iraq intelligence dossier “sexed up”?, who may be designated a “terrorist” or a “militant”; reference to ISIL or Daesh; the accuracy of Middle East reporting, the attitude towards climate change science and so on. These are issues of exceptional national and international importance and deserve to be treated as such, not least because they form national political opinions. If complaints were transparently and satisfactorily handled, and if more were upheld, there would be even more confidence in the BBC and more audience satisfaction.
It might therefore be a good idea, as the Commons Report suggested, to remove the final appeal from the BBC, in line with most public bodies against whom complaints are made: it is expected today in best practice that there will be an independent arbiter who is not associated with the organisation being complained against. My suggestion is an Ombudsman, who would report his or her findings to the Trust (assuming it survives), leaving them to decide whether to accept or reject the findings. The Trustees would have to have an exceptionally strong reason for rejecting the findings of the Ombudsman, but this system would give them the appearance, indeed the reality, of retaining the final say, and retaining independence.
An alternative, also put forward by the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications in its report on BBC Governance (HL Paper 166, 2011) is to give the final appeal to OFCOM. The difficulty here is that OFCOM is not recognisably “superior” to the BBC (nor should it be) but is on a level. Appeals should go upwards to bodies that are more and more expert, just as litigation moves from lower court to superior court. It might be possible to have a special tribunal within OFCOM to handle those appeals, containing outside experts (legal or political) or, say, a retired judge. Probably the outcome of OFCOM final appeals in a new system would be acceptable to the BBC only if there were created a special tribunal within OFCOM to hear them. The repercussions of an adverse finding against the BBC relating to a political broadcast, if made by OFCOM or even by the Trustees’ own Committee, are hard for the Corporation to bear. It is slightly more palatable coming from a distinguished outside figure, and this would give the public confidence. The BBC has been content to commission distinguished outside experts in the past to study particular issues of impartiality, e.g Sir Quentin Thomas on the Middle East and Lord Wilson of Dinton on EU coverage. I believe that people like them could be trusted by everyone to hear appeals. But I think on balance that the BBC’s independence and its reputation for impartiality would be compromised in the eyes of the public if another quango, namely OFCOM, could rule on these matters. OFCOM board members are appointed by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport. Determinations as delicate as these need to be made by people who have reached the top of their careers and can afford to be fearless. The professional histories of the members of the Board and committees of OFCOM may be too steeped in the BBC and its culture to be perceived as sufficiently detached. Many of them were once with the BBC and several others with ITN or other TV companies. The House of Lords Select Committee was unanimous in regarding externality as essential to complaints handling. It is hard to see OFCOM, as currently constituted, making better decisions than the Trust about the balance to be struck between public interest, journalistic freedom, impartiality and accuracy. This is very much editorial and political territory, and in my view can only fairly be considered by an outsider with a track record of expertise and judgment.