On 29 June 2009 the House of Lords published its report on the governance and regulation of the BBC, having heard evidence from five current or former BBC Chairmen and three Directors General.

The report contains some radical proposals, widening Ofcom’s remit over the BBC and suggesting that it become the final arbiter of whether BBC programmes have met required editorial standards.  

The current BBC framework for editorial complaints

The BBC operates a three-stage procedure for complaints about the content of its programmes, when broadcast on BBC channels or websites:  

Stage 1 involves a consideration of the complaint by the BBC’s central “audience services” team, or the relevant programme team if the complainant writes to them direct. The BBC aims to respond to complaints at stage 1 within two weeks.

If a complainant is unhappy with the outcome of stage 1, they can lodge a complaint with the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit. This is a small, independent team, staffed mostly by former senior programme makers, who will investigate the complaint in detail. The ECU will consider the complaint against the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines, and decide whether those Guidelines have been complied with. If they have not been, the ECU can recommend corrective action, for example preventing re-transmission or broadcasting a corrective statement.  

The final stage is an appeal to the BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee. The Trust will usually appoint an editorial adviser to investigate the complaint, and the Trustees will then decide whether the BBC’s Guidelines have been breached. If they have, they can direct that corrective action is taken.

Ofcom

Ofcom is the overall communications regulator for the UK, with responsibilities across television, radio, telecommunications and wireless communications services.  

Both the BBC and Ofcom have a legal duty to consider standards complaints. The BBC Charter and Agreement require the Trust to establish and maintain procedures for the handling and resolution of complaints. Ofcom is required to adjudicate on fairness complaints and to establish procedures for the handling and resolution of complaints about the BBC.  

Ofcom has its own Broadcast Code, which covers similar material to the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines, such as impartiality, accuracy and fairness. The Ofcom Code also applies to the BBC, except in respect of due accuracy and impartiality and some commercial references – these three areas are regulated exclusively by the BBC Trust.

This means that most editorial complaints, such as those on fairness and offence, can be considered by both the BBC Trust and Ofcom, as both have jurisdiction. Where the complaint is from someone directly affected by the programme – for example a contributor, or the subject of it – the regulators will usually give the complainant the option to have the complaint considered by Ofcom or the BBC Trust, but not both at the same time. If the complainant asks Ofcom to consider the complaint, then the BBC will stop considering it. If the complainant chooses to pursue their complaint with the BBC, then Ofcom will suspend its consideration, but it may allow the complaint to be reinstated if the complainant is unhappy with the BBC’s decision.

TV On Demand

Video on Demand” (VOD) is regulated separately in the UK by ATVOD. The Ofcom Broadcasting Code does not apply to VOD services, but they have to abide to a set of minimum standards imposed by EU law. The ADVOD code contains relatively few restrictions for VOD services – the main ones are over material that might incite hatred, seriously impair children or include inappropriate commercial references.  

ATVOD does not regulate the BBC’s iPlayer, which falls within the remit of the BBC Trust and Ofcom. However, BBC VOD on other platforms, eg Virgin Media or BT Connect, does fall within ATVOD’s remit. ATVOD operates a “broadcaster first” complaints process, which means that it will only entertain complainants once the broadcaster has been given an opportunity to consider them first.

The House of Lords’ report

The report looks at a range of issues, including quotas and internal BBC compliance. The main recommendations on editorial complaints processes are:

  • Greater clarity of the complaints process for BBC content, with a single page on the BBC website that identifies the role of each regulator  
  • A single entry point for complaints to the BBC, so they are handled centrally and not by people responsible for the material that is complained of  
  • The Ofcom Broadcasting Code’s provisions on due accuracy and impartiality should be extended to cover the BBC – with Ofcom having final responsibility for regulating these issues in BBC content, just as it does in areas such as fairness, harm and offence  
  • Ofcom and the BBC Trust to consider introducing a “broadcaster first” complaints process, under which Ofcom will only consider complaints once they have been adjudicated on by the BBC Trust.  

The future

The House of Lords’ report is significant for two reasons. Firstly, it acknowledges the importance of the role of the BBC Trust in the regulation of content standards, and recommends that the BBC has sole responsibility for initial complaints handling. Secondly, it widens the scope of Ofcom over the BBC, recommending that it has final responsibility for determining standards complaints, and allowing it to consider complaints on due accuracy and impartiality.  

The BBC’s current Charter runs until 2016, so these are just quick fixes. More significant change is likely in 2015 with the introduction of a Communications Bill, with the new Charter the year after. That change is likely to include a scaling down in the remit of Ofcom, lighter touch content regulation and a complete re-think of how the BBC should be structured, managed and regulated.