Achieving due impartiality continues to be a “complex challenge” for the BBC, according to an Ofcom report.
Improving how audiences feel they are represented and portrayed by the BBC will also be critical to its success, the regulator warned.
Ofcom’s annual report on the corporation, which this year looks at the BBC’s output since it began regulating the broadcaster in 2017, found the corporation has a good record of complying with broadcasting rules intended to ensure programming is impartial.
However, when audiences are asked about BBC news, they “consistently rate the BBC less favourably for impartiality”.
The report said: “Each year since 2017 audiences have scored the BBC highly for trust and accuracy in news output.
“However, our audience research also shows that the perception of impartiality continues to be an area where audiences are less favourable about the BBC.
“In research conducted for our 2019 news review we found that some audiences tended to base their perceptions of the BBC’s impartiality on what they think about the BBC more generally.
“For example, in our qualitative research, we heard that views were influenced by the BBC brand, its funding mechanism and its portrayal in wider media. We also note that some audience groups are less satisfied with the BBC more generally, including those in DE (social grade) households and audiences in Scotland.”
The report also said the BBC must continue to evolve to be relevant to all audiences.
It acknowledged the corporation is taking steps to better serve audiences with lower satisfaction, such as the disabled, people in Scotland and those from less-well-off backgrounds, but it warned the BBC will “need to robustly hold itself to account in the delivery of these initiatives”.
The report said: “The BBC needs to improve how it represents and portrays less-satisfied groups and must ensure that its workforce is more representative of people from different backgrounds.
“These are critical to the BBC’s long-term success.”
If audiences do not see people like themselves on screen, or people from where they live, they are less likely to connect with the BBC and use it on a regular basis, Ofcom said, adding: “The BBC has a duty to serve, reflect and represent people across the UK.”
The regulator also said: “Given the importance of the BBC to many people in the UK we have consistently called for the BBC to be more transparent.
“For instance, in how it explains its decisions to the public, how it engages with industry on proposed changes to its services, and in its reporting.
“We have seen some improvements in recent years, but there is further to go; it is critical the BBC holds itself accountable by clearly setting out how it will implement its strategies, measure their success and report on their effectiveness.”
Last month the BBC unveiled plans for its “biggest and most significant push” to ensure its content is fair, accurate and unbiased in response to the publication of the Serota Review into governance and culture at the broadcaster, which made a number of recommendations on improving editorial standards.
The BBC told City A.M.: “We are pleased Ofcom recognises the BBC continues to deliver on its remit through its popularity with audiences, offering a wide range of programming, investing heavily in the UK creative sector and providing trusted news.
“The report is clear more people consider the BBC to be impartial than any other broadcaster and we have set out how we want further improve this with a clear 10-point plan to raise standards. We’ve also committed to better representing and reflecting communities through our ambitious Across the UK plans and providing all audiences with great value and brilliant original content.”
On the Ofcom report, Thomas Thomson, analyst at Enders Analysis, said: “It is important to note that Ofcom found in its research that audiences tended to base their perceptions of the BBC’s impartiality on what they think about the BBC more generally. The issue of impartiality will continue to be an ongoing challenge for the BBC but it is taking steps to tackle this through its recently published Action Plan, which incorporated elements of the Dyson and Serota reviews into editorial standards and culture. Ofcom is well aware of these measures and repeatedly referred to them in today’s report.”