The BBC must be much more open with audiences about how it handles their complaints, responds to concerns, and meets viewers’ and listeners’ needs, warned Ofcom.
The media watchdog has called on the BBC to make its complaints process simpler for people to navigate, and for the channel to be more transparent about its decision making,
It argued this was essential for building trust and improving the BBC’s relationship with audience, and for justifying its unique position where the BBC can handle its own complaints first.
Ofcom has now updated its complaints determinations, requiring the BBC to publish the reasoning behind any final stage decision not to uphold complaints concerning impartiality and accuracy.
It will also 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.
The regulator is also expecting the BBC to alert us at an early stage to potential serious editorial breaches.
This will allow Ofcom to better 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 the Government makes this a legal requirement.
Confused viewers struggle to make complaints
Ofcom has been reviewing BBC’s performance and its regulation with the channel approaching the mid-point of its current charter period.
It has also been tracking audience perceptions of the broadcaster and the outlook of viewers towards its impartiality and trustworthiness.
The company’s research revealed one in nine people (11 per cent) felt they had a reason to complain about the BBC in the past year.
This is the highest level among broadcasters (six per cent for ITV, four per cent for Channel 4), but lower compared with other industries (21 per cent for online retailers, 15 per cent for energy companies).
However, 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.
There was also a lack of awareness of how to complain, with only 21 per cent of participants aware of the BBC First complaints system, while fewer still (7 per cent) understood all the steps involved in making a complaint.
This process, agreed by Parliament, gives the BBC an opportunity to respond to complaints before they are escalated to Ofcom.
Meanwhile, people who managed to complain were largely unhappy – with only one in five complainants reporting a satisfactory complaints experience, and over half revealing a bad experience.
Fewer than half of complainants said they received an initial substantive response within two weeks, the BBC’s target response time.
Dame Melanie Dawes, Ofcom’s Chief Executive, said: “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. So we’re directing it to respond to these concerns, by being much more transparent and open with its audiences.
Bias remains a thorny issue for the Beeb
The most common complaints directed to the BBC related to bias (39 per cent) and misleading or dishonest content (26 per cent).
Ofcom’s research suggests the BBC is more than twice as likely to attract complaints about these issues compared to the other public service broadcasters.
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.
Ofcom argues the BBC needs to understand why this is the case and do more to address concerns arising from perceptions of its impartiality.
Its research illustrates the complexity of the issue, and that audience perceptions of the BBC’s impartiality are driven by more than just content – with Ofcom also assessing consumer behaviour.
In the current politically polarised and emotionally charged cultural climate, some viewers 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, and the closer people feel to a story, the more likely they are to have strong beliefs and emotions about it.
Audiences also have higher expectations of the BBC’s impartiality because of its unique position as a licence-fee funded entity.
Operating licence to be updated
While the BBC is still generally popular with viewers and listeners, Ofcom suggests the way content is consumed has changed dramatically over the last 10 years and is still evolving rapidly.
Ofcom has consequently set out proposals for a new operating licence for the BBC, to enable its continued transformation while delivering distinct UK content.
Its proposed new operating licence includes new requirements for the BBC’s online services such as the website, Sounds and iPlayer – which have to be available for online audiences and be easily discoverable.
Ofcom also wants to give the BBC more flexibility to enable it to better serve audiences across different services and platforms, but with safeguards relating to news and current affairs and original UK programmes.
It also pushing for greater transparency from the BBC – suggesting the broadcaster 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 improve – by setting out specific information with its Annual Plan and Annual Report.
Dawes concluded: “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.”
Ofcom’s consultation on the BBC’s new operating licence is open until 14 September 2022.
It expects to issue its final decision and updated licence in early 2023- to take effect on 1 April 2023.
The Government is conducting its mid-term Charter review, Ofcom will update its operating licence following completion of this review if necessary.
In the autumn, Ofcom will be consulting on changes to our competition regulation to enable the BBC to more effectively adapt its services to meet audience needs – while ensuring fair and effective competition is protected.
A BBC Spokesperson said: “Like any organisation we work to make continuing improvements, which is why we published a 10-point plan on impartiality and editorial standards last year. Everyone knows this is an absolute priority for the BBC, and Ofcom rightly recognises impartiality is a complex area, audiences hold us to a higher standard than other broadcasters and that we have a good record of complying with broadcasting rules”
“In addition, the BBC has the most thorough and transparent complaints process in UK media and we are committed to being accessible and accountable to our audiences. We will work with Ofcom to make further improvements to this system.”