OFCOM begins new role as BBC’s external regulator

For the first time in its ninety-five year history, yesterday – April 3rd 2017 – the BBC ceased to be an entirely self-regulating body. Under the terms of the new Royal Charter, OFCOM is now the BBC’s external regulator.

As required by that Charter, OFCOM has compiled an ‘Operating Framework’ for the BBC, details of which can be found here.

OFCOM also recently published a document titled “Introduction to Ofcom’s Operating Framework for the BBC“.

“During 2016, the Government ran a review process for setting a new Charter for the BBC. An independent review to look at how the BBC is governed and regulated was commissioned by the Government and, in March 2016, concluded that regulation of the BBC should pass to Ofcom. The Government confirmed its decision that Ofcom should regulate the BBC in a White paper published in May 2016.  

A new BBC Royal Charter for the period 2017-2027 was published by the Government on 15 December 2016, together with an accompanying Agreement between the BBC and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. The Charter and the Agreement together set out how the BBC will operate in the new Charter period.”

The document states:

“Under the Charter and Agreement, Ofcom has regulatory responsibility for all areas of BBC content standards including, for the first time, for the accuracy and impartiality of news, and the impartiality of any programme covering politically controversial issues or current public policy.

Ofcom holds the BBC to account under the rules of its Broadcasting Code (“the Code”). These rules reflect the standards objectives set out in the Communications Act 2003 which Ofcom also applies to all its licensed broadcasters. From 3 April 2017, the Code applies in full to BBC licence-fee funded broadcasting services and, as relevant, to BBC on demand programme services (such as the BBC iPlayer).”

The newest version of the OFCOM Broadcasting Code can be found here.

With regard to complaints, the document states:

“Complaints about BBC programmes are considered under a ‘BBC First’ complaints framework. The BBC handles complaints in the first instance, and complainants can refer their complaints to Ofcom if they are dissatisfied with the BBC’s response or if the BBC fails to respond in a timely manner. To ensure the effectiveness of the ‘BBC First’ framework and to have assurance that audiences are being appropriately safeguarded, Ofcom has oversight mechanisms (such as regular reports from the BBC on complaints handling). Importantly, Ofcom also has the power to ‘step in’ and intervene in a BBC content standards case at an earlier stage, or to launch an investigation in the absence of a complaint, where we consider it necessary.

Ofcom has set and published transparent and accessible complaints procedures for the handling of BBC content standards complaints. These make clear to consumers and other stakeholders how Ofcom considers complaints it receives on a ‘BBC First’ basis and how Ofcom handles content standards investigations (including fairness and privacy cases) for BBC broadcasting services and BBC on demand programme services. Our procedures also set out how Ofcom considers the imposition of sanctions on the BBC.”

And:

“The Charter and Agreement requires that the BBC and Ofcom must set and publish procedures for the handling and resolution of complaints about the BBC’s compliance with its obligations, including content standards. The BBC’s procedures must provide that, with the exception of complaints relating to Fairness and/or Privacy, a complaint must normally in the first instance be resolved by the BBC before a complainant can refer a complaint to Ofcom. This is known as the ‘BBC First’ approach.

Ofcom has set and published procedures for the handling and resolution of relevant complaints about the BBC which are referred to Ofcom in the following circumstances:

  • If a complainant is not satisfied with the resolution of a complaint by the BBC;
  • If a complainant considers, following the resolution of a complaint by the BBC, that the imposition by Ofcom of a sanction, where available, may be appropriate;
  • If the BBC has failed to resolve a complaint within the time period set in its procedures.”

Those complaints procedures are available here.

With regard to the UK version of BBC Online the document states:

“BBC complainants will also be able to obtain an independent opinion from Ofcom on whether the BBC has observed editorial guidelines on the content of online material in its UK Public Services, once Ofcom has the necessary functions in legislation. Ofcom will enter into an arrangement with the BBC making provision for this and will publish procedures to inform consumers and other interested stakeholders as to how we will consider and handle complaints about BBC online material.”

The legislation referenced in that paragraph is The Digital Economy Bill which is currently in process in parliament.

Importantly, OFCOM’s new role does not include standards regulation of all BBC platforms.

Ofcom does not regulate standards for the BBC World Service. BBC commercial broadcast services, provided by BBC companies, are not UK Public Services but are subject to Ofcom’s content standards regulation under the terms of their Ofcom licences.” [emphasis added]

Whether or not this new system of regulation will provide a better alternative for members of the BBC’s funding public who have for years been frustrated by the corporation’s unnecessarily complicated maze-like complaints system remains to be seen.

The process of introducing OFCOM regulation of the BBC is however not yet complete, with the corporation’s operating licence expected to be published in September 2017. A related consultation titled “Holding the BBC to account for the delivery of its mission and public purposes” was launched on March 29th and will remain open until July 17th

Apparently, the new BBC Board also intends to hold a public consultation concerning a new complaints framework in the near future. 

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