Ofcom reveals dominant nature of complaints about the BBC
The UK communications/broadcasting regulator Ofcom has just (22 June) published the latest results in its review of ‘the BBC’s performance and our future regulation of it’. There are some notable findings based on Ofcom-commissioned research.
Key research findings
1) In total, 11% of UK adults had cause to complain about the BBC in the last year. This is the highest level among broadcasters (6% for ITV, 4% for Channel 4).
However, ‘around two thirds of UK adults who have cause to complain do not go on to make one at all, with 42% feeling it would not make a difference and 29% feeling it would not be taken seriously.’
The research also found that concerns about complaints not making a difference or not being taken seriously were much higher for the BBC than for the other broadcasters (42% BBC vs. 22% others and 29% BBC vs. 17% others respectively).
2) ‘Complaints tend to relate to bias (39%) and misleading/dishonest content (26%).’ The Ofcom research indicates that the BBC is more than twice as likely to attract complaints about these issues compared to the other public service broadcasters (see chart from an Ofcom commissioned report below).
(Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find in the Ofcom reports a national breakdown of the quantitative research on complaints.)
3) Unlike other broadcasters, the ‘BBC First’ complaints system, agreed by the Westminster Parliament, gives the BBC an opportunity to respond to complaints before they are escalated to Ofcom. However, ‘fewer than one in five complainants told Ofcom they had a satisfactory complaints experience, and over half reported a bad experience.’
4) This audience research also shows the BBC’s ‘impartiality’ remains a key area of concern with its audiences: ‘they consistently rate it less favourably on impartiality’.
Action by Ofcom
In the light of the research findings, Ofcom notes: ‘To help address audience concerns, we have today updated our complaints handling determinations. This now directs the BBC to publish the reasoning behind any final stage decision not to uphold complaints about due impartiality and due accuracy.’
Ofcom adds: ‘We also welcome, and will closely 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. We expect the BBC to rigorously assess and transparently report on these actions to retain audience trust.’
Here is just one section of this BBC document (issued October, 2021) that may cause you to ‘smile’ too:
‘The BBC’s editorial values of impartiality, accuracy and trust are the foundation of our relationship with audiences in the UK and around the world. Audiences deserve output that earns their trust every day. We must meet the highest standards in our output and behaviour, and hold ourselves accountable when we don’t.
‘The BBC Executive is today setting out detailed actions to ensure the highest editorial standards, including impartiality, across all BBC output.’ (with my emphasis)
Confident of seeing any change towards impartiality in Scotland any time soon? Not before late October 2023 at the very earliest I suspect!
This concept of ‘due impartiality’ gets a lot of attention. It is examined in some depth within one of research studies commissioned by Ofcom in support of its review:
Source: Jigsaw Research (June 2022) Drivers of perceptions of due impartiality: the BBC and the wider news landscape. Qualitative research report. (See Ofcom link above for access to this report)
First, in this definition much emphasis in placed on the term ‘due’. No doubt you too will note what ‘due impartiality’ does NOT mean – ‘that every argument and every facet of every argument has to be represented’. Now that is a surprise!
And then on the approach taken to ‘due impartiality’ – it ‘may vary according to the nature of the subject ….., the likely expectation of the audience as to content …’. All of which opens up huge scope for bias by omission.
And what is the significance of the following contention in the context of ‘due impartiality’? Many will recall Alex Massie writing in The Spectator on 30 June 2014. The article seeks to justify his headline: ‘Yes, of course the BBC is biased against Scottish Nationalists’. The Ofcom investigators appear not to have considered this as a research question. So the elephant in the room was left undisturbed!
The researchers argue: ‘The concept of ‘due impartiality’ is not widely known but when shown the definition …. , people recognise the importance of broadcasters using their editorial discretion to decide how to cover issues. People need to see clear examples of due impartiality in action to understand its value – topics where there is already a clear consensus are best for illustrating this.’ Really?I would have thought exemplars drawn from where there is no clear consensus might be a better illustration!
The researchers add: ‘Audiences feel two key principles are at the heart of due impartiality and should be practised together:
‘Seeking alternative views and including a range of views is a highly valued principle of due impartiality. Being able to access a range of different opinions plays an important role in helping audiences form their own opinions. However, the inclusion of what some audiences see as extreme views in the news also prompts strong objections and can be regarded as legitimising unacceptable views.’
Adding: ’Challenging different viewpoints is another highly valued principle of due impartiality. Audiences feel one of the most important roles the news plays is in challenging different views, including views of those in authority.’
The research report offers this description of the ‘signals’ audiences rely upon to evaluate ‘due impartiality’:
- ‘harder signals’ – including all sides of a story; giving clear prominence to factual content
- ‘softer signals’ – such as an individual’s tone of voice and demeanour – ‘Sometimes these more subtle signals can be interpreted by audiences as potentially revealing the individual’s underlying opinion or bias’.
Anyone care to mark BBC Scotland’s performance on these criteria? Challenging different views; including all sides of a story; clear prominence to factual content …..?