Out of the frying pan into the fire: the BBC to OFCOM

Baroness Deech



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 OFCOMThe 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.





4 comments for “Out of the frying pan into the fire: the BBC to OFCOM

  1. maude elwes
    03/07/2015 at 12:01 pm

    What is really going on here is, fat cats want to do away with what is known as ‘Public Service Broadcasting.’ They want the entire media, print and voice to be privatised to enable them to stop any kind of information they don’t want put out from reaching the public eyes and ears. It threatens their control.

    It is becoming so difficult to find any reporting on any matter that doesn’t have an angle or agenda now. And politics is getting so reality stifled it’s the equivalent of wartime.

    And how they do it is, withdraw their advertising or funding from any outlet that does not adhere to their chosen view. Turner, of the Fonda husband fame, as well as being a big earner in his day, told of it when he said he couldn’t stand by his principles or political views if it meant his income fell as a result. He was a billionaire.

    This link tell it all.


    Then there is this guy in this next link. The BBC cannot be controlled completely if it is funded by the people, or, the tax payer. Which means they can and often do, make documentaries that don’t fit into the political agenda of the powerful.


    So the real story underlying this thread is, how the money men work their mind games to rid the people of real information and the mission they are on. The BBC being the demon of the moment. They have RT in their sights in just the same way.

    Ask yourself this one, are any of the other channels any better than the BBC? Channel 4 has become completely politically correct and follows the line slavishly poured endlessly over all our heads. The one left, with very limited genuine journalism, is the BBC.

  2. MilesJSD
    04/07/2015 at 10:58 am

    I just wrote 200 words about this “you must complain, and first only to the perpetrator” canker within Britain’s constitutional, legal and social system;

    but suddenly it all disappeared.

    The point is, that the BBC should be running a “feedback and lifeplace-further-education and emulable example” channel
    24/7 for the whole of the public;
    quite separately and distinctly from the “career-job education” programmes already appearing [inadequately there, too].

    There should be a “Public-Jury-plus-Advisory-Advocate Judge” Receiving House for all complaints,
    verbatim as the complainer says or writes them;
    such a Receiving House’s duty should be to impartially make any clarification and ‘charity’ notes thereto
    before re-routing it to an ombudsman-like adminisrator or executive
    [but definitely not to the “perpetrator”].

  3. Jennifer Parkhurst
    06/07/2015 at 12:19 pm

    I am pleased at the recommendation that complaints be judged by experts independent of the BBC who can be trusted not to be partisan. I would like to be able to trust the BBC to be a non-partisan presenter of the facts, and not as biased and “politically correct” as I have observed it to have become. The BBC is simply not trustworthy anymore. I often wish reporters had done a better job to fact-check claims, and had talked to people on both sides of a matter rather than reporting “facts” that are later debunked. I also wish that the BBC would stop citing past BBC reports that have proved to be inaccurate.

  4. Peter Martin
    06/07/2015 at 1:25 pm

    “Would OFCOM be any better?”

    Clearly not, by your quoted figures, analysis and a simple appreciation of how they have behaved elsewhere less as public advocates but telco defence mercenaries. Add the bond of joint public sector employment and it is hard to see ‘holding to account’ being top of any agenda. Just a rebranded means to make problems caused by fellow state organs go away.

    “The Commons report referred to the dissatisfaction expressed by complaints about the process.”

    I was one of the published witnesses. It was a shame they didn’t invite some more members of the public down to amplify on our concerns, as the whole thing seemed more an insider old boys and girls’ club mulling how to ease funding issues than addressing any massive problems on accountability with accuracy, objectivity and impartiality.

    I on occasion complained to the BBC. Once I got one through, but mostly their attrition system managed to achieve stalemate on their terms, more often based on their belief that their possession of ball, pitch, stadium, officials and referee trumped all else. And that was then called a win. Enough rigged wins and the complainant loses, by virtue of being deemed a waste of public money, and ‘expedited’ (banned) for two years.

    Few have the time or money or skills to challenge such a loaded, well-resourced system. When they do it can be interesting:


    That of course is FOI. I have a few either in limbo or outright refused, despite all being entirely legitimate. The BBC do it because they can.

    Equally complaints.

    To get me expedited because they ran out of lame excuses to acknowledge error, the BBC then made a massive mistake and decided to use, and abuse, its vast resources to ‘investigate’ not the merit of my complaints, but me, and beyond any interaction I had or was having with the complaints department. To do this they used 3rd parties going way beyond the remit any organisation should to silence a critic. Especially a public sector one. This all now rests with the ICO, and to date has lasted over two years and seen almost as many system hurdles placed in the way as OFCOM trying to protect a mobile operator. But I remain hopeful.

    The BBC cannot persist in being utterly unaccountable. Or pushing the lie that they are trustworthy or transparent; both patently untrue yet intoned as mantra by their 150-odd PR staff and executives, and lapped up by a mostly credulous media.

    They are a law unto themselves, and look set to remain so.

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