Effective regulation of the BBC – putting audiences first
Speech by Sharon White to the Oxford Media Convention
8 March 2017
What a pleasure to be here today, at a time of such important change in the media landscape. Thank you to the IPPR for hosting another fascinating and reflective event.
This is also a period of renewal for Ofcom. The biggest ever change to our remit arrives on 3 April, when we take on full regulation of the BBC. That’s 25 days away – if, like me, you’re counting.
So ahead of this afternoon’s discussions on news and distinctiveness, I too would like to focus on the BBC, and explain the approach Ofcom will take as the first external, independent regulator of an institution at the heart of a British life.
I want to explain our priorities for strong, effective regulation, designed to ensure the BBC delivers for everybody in the UK.
At Ofcom, we understand the scale and importance of our new task. To meet it, we will apply deep experience of the broadcasting industry, and a track record of regulating hundreds of commercial TV and radio stations over many years.
We welcome our new role. For the first time, one regulator will oversee the entire UK broadcasting industry. One set of rules will apply to each broadcaster.
And I believe that the BBC – with its proud heritage of public service, independent of Government and commercial interests – will be stronger under the watch of an equally independent regulator, tasked with protecting the needs of audiences.
An independent BBC overseen, for the first time, by an external, independent regulator.
Through its public funding, history and ability to bring the nation together, the BBC occupies a special place in UK society, and our creative economy.
We need a healthy BBC, held to the highest standards, editorially independent and free to inform, educate, entertain and innovate.
As the broadcasting regulator, we already oversee much of the BBC’s output. We are acutely aware of the BBC’s importance, but no less so of the commercial sector.
I believe we have the most vibrant, creative and innovative broadcasting industry in the world. The British public have never enjoyed programmes of such quality and diversity, live or on-demand, across so many devices – from BBC Three’s Fleabag; to Channel 4’s Interview With a Murderer; to The Marriage of Reason and Squalor on Sky Arts.
Our country is home to some of the most respected creative and technical talents in the world. The BBC generates hundreds of millions of pounds overseas. ITV is one of Europe’s leading independent producers. Major global broadcasters, such as Discovery, Viacom and Disney base their European networks here.
Ofcom understands that value. We hear every day from viewers and listeners about the programmes they enjoy, the services they value, and the protections they expect.
Those views inform our regulation. Most of you know well our existing approach to regulating the commercial sector: upholding standards, promoting competition, prioritising the audience.
But of course, the BBC attracts a particular level of scrutiny and expectation. People feel passionately about its plans, priorities, programmes and presenters. Most of us see, hear or read its work every day of our lives.
So let me explain how it will be held to account.
First, we believe a strong BBC Board, independent from external pressure, is crucial. Under the new Charter, the BBC will be governed by this new Board.
The Board will ensure the BBC is well run, and decide how it meets its obligations for high-quality, distinctive programmes. The Board will be responsible for strategy, budgets, salaries and management issues. Separately, the National Audit Office will assess the BBC’s finances and value for money.
Ofcom’s role spans three broad areas. We will make sure the BBC delivers on its commitments to audiences. We will ensure that its services don’t stifle competition, or prevent other broadcasters from launching valuable new services. And we will uphold standards in all BBC programmes.
Our guiding principle is that viewers and listeners must be at the heart of our decisions. Just as we put consumers first when we regulate broadband, phone and postal services, so our BBC regulation will be focused on the viewers and listeners it serves.
So how will we ensure the BBC delivers for its audiences – the first of our three broad duties?
Later this month we will publish a ‘performance framework’ for the BBC. This will establish clear measures of how well the BBC is doing its job – both quantities of investment and programming hours, and vital qualities that we require of the BBC’s programmes and services.
One such quality is to be distinctive. The new Charter is clear that the BBC should be discernibly different from the commercial sector. This applies both to its overall approach, and to the quality and nature of its content.
Of course, the BBC already does many things that are distinctive – prime-time current affairs shows; film-quality drama; radio plays; Planet Earth; 6 Music; the Asian Network and countless more.
Ofcom’s job is not to assess the merits of individual programmes. We will not surround the BBC in red tape, hamper its creative freedom, or interfere in its commissioning, scheduling or programme making.
But we will ensure that each of the BBC’s channels, stations and services provides something different. Taken overall, each one should offer content and character that distinguishes itself from what’s available from commercial rivals.
There will be plenty of opportunities for the BBC to remain distinguished and distinct. We think it could invest more in original, UK content. Equally, it could build on its trusted role in children’s programmes – by making them available in different ways to a new generation of children for whom the TV set is secondary to the smartphone and tablet.
We will monitor and measure what kind of services the BBC is providing, and their value to viewers and listeners. We recognise that the tastes of audiences, and what commercial broadcasters can offer them, change over time. So our assessment of what is distinctive must also evolve.
Some worry that a more distinctive BBC must be a less popular broadcaster. I disagree. Many of the BBC’s most-loved programmes – EastEnders, Match of the Day, or its radio breakfast shows – are distinctive and original in their own way.
The BBC’s challenge now is to sustain the depth and breadth of its appeal, while setting itself apart and building on the quality and specialism of its work.
The BBC has the right to remain relevant; we do not seek to reduce its reach. In fact, we think the BBC can become more relevant to certain parts of its audience.
Like other broadcasters, the BBC can improve how it represents its audience, particularly on screen. Too many older people, especially women, feel they’re negatively portrayed on TV. A fifth of viewers in Scotland, and a quarter in Northern Ireland, feel the same way
People from a minority group – whether a distinct region of the country or a particular ethnicity – feel that they are neutrally portrayed at best, or negatively at worst.
These are challenges the whole industry can – and must – address. Our broadcasters play a vital role in shaping and reflecting our society, culture and values. And the BBC has a responsibility to lead.
It should strive to serve the needs all four of the UK’s nations, and to portray their full character and diversity. Tony Hall’s recent announcements on Wales and Scotland are a clear step in that direction.
The BBC can also do more to broaden its talent pool – helping to ensure that brilliant individuals from all backgrounds are able to forge a successful career in TV and radio.
Our second broad role is to ensure effective competition in the market.
That matters, because healthy competition is good for viewers and listeners. It can increase the choice of programmes they are offered, stimulate investment in the sector, and encourage broadcasters to find new ways to serve their audience – such as Ultra-High Definition, or interactive services that let drama viewers control a plot.
The BBC’s role in competition is critical. People are passionate about its services, and how they might evolve. As the BBC seeks to reinvent itself for the digital generation, some of its ideas may spur others on; others may harm competitors’ plans.
Before we step in, we expect the BBC Board will review the plans of BBC management, and reject them if they lack public value, or threaten the wider market. But we will always review the BBC’s plans for significant changes to its services, to ensure any effects on the market are justified by the new value they provide.
And when it comes to the BBC’s commercial arms – BBC Studios, Worldwide and others – we’ll put in place safeguards to ensure these don’t distort the wider market, or create an unfair advantage for the BBC over its rivals.
Our final major role is to uphold the BBC’s standards.
Here, we want to build on our proven track record of protecting audiences. We already regulate standards across the commercial sector, and some of the BBC’s output. From 3 April, we will also consider its programmes’ accuracy and impartiality.
The BBC will handle initial complaints, but the public can come to Ofcom if they remain unhappy. Whenever it’s required, we’ll step in.
Audiences must feel protected. So we won’t hesitate to intervene if we have concerns. And we’ll oversee how the BBC handles its own complaints, to make sure people are treated fairly. We’d also like the BBC to resume publishing its complaint numbers, which is good for transparency.
Ofcom must take account of changing tastes, attitudes and habits among the viewing and listening public. So we’ll carry out regular, in-depth research to ensure we remain in touch with people’s priorities and concerns.
We will keep asking audiences what they need and expect from TV and radio stations.
Speaking to viewers and listeners
Much of that work is happening now. We’ve already been speaking to the public about what they expect from the BBC, gathering detailed views from people across our Nations, regions and diverse communities.
Let me share some of our early findings.
People told us they see the BBC as integral to British society. But this came through less in its current work, than through its historic status and the nostalgia people feel for how it has influenced their lives.
Others said the BBC offered comfort and safety. For many, that was a positive: it meant they could depend on the BBC to meet high standards. But younger groups often saw a lack of risk-taking. The BBC was not offering enough edgy content, or services relevant to them.
Many people we spoke to felt the BBC was overly focused on middle-aged, middle-class audiences. They said it could do more for the wider public, ethnic minorities and younger groups – something I touched on earlier.
But mainly, viewers and listeners told us the BBC remains reliable, high-quality and informative. They considered the BBC a trusted, impartial brand.
Never has that mattered more – especially in the arena of news.
In recent months, we have witnessed tremendous change and upheaval in the politics of the West.
Clearly, British audiences have been trying to make sense of events. They find themselves amid a sea of sources, voices and accusations of fake news delivered for commercial or political gain.
But amid the noise, British audiences expect to turn to broadcasters for reliable, impartial news. Our past research clearly shows that people rate the news from Channel 4, ITV, Sky, and the BBC as accurate, fair and trustworthy.
They also know that broadcast news is effectively regulated, and held to the highest standards. Strong regulation begets trust. Ofcom must ensure that broadcasters continue to analyse the facts, challenge every claim, and champion the widest range of views and voices.
We know the industry has the talent to achieve this. Last week, at the RTS, we saw an outstanding young filmmaker, Waad al-Kateab, win a string of awards for her harrowing Channel 4 News pictures from Aleppo.
A week earlier, we saw the incredible bravery of the BBC’s Quentin Somerville and his cameraman Nik Millard, as they reported the Iraqi army’s advance on Mosul, fiercely resisted by Islamic State fighters.
Courage, independence and quality. We must do everything to support these core qualities of British broadcasting news.
At the same time, we recognise that people’s consumption of news is rapidly changing. For regulators, this demands a deep understanding of what people see and hear.
Our research finds that a fifth of 16-24s use only the internet for news, compared to just 2% of those aged 55 and above.
Nearly nine in ten people aged 55 and over get some news from TV, but only half of 16-24s do so.
Facebook is the most important source of news for nearly one-in-five younger people, compared to just 1% of those aged 55 and over.
We monitor these changes through in-depth national research. Alongside that, to capture detailed behaviour over time, we’ve been tracking the media habits and attitudes of 12 individuals since 2006. We have witnessed fascinating shifts in their news sources, consumption and attitudes.
More of their news is now online or on-demand. It is ever-more personalised and specialised; much comes through social media, without a ‘news brand’ attached.
Our panel get their information from a growing list of sources – including familiar UK news brands like the BBC and national newspapers, but also overseas channels like Al Jazeera and Fox News, and online providers like Vice and Huffington Post. The boundaries of what constitutes news have widened.
At a time of ‘fake news’ and declining trust, improving this understanding is crucial. So we plan to undertake new research into people’s understanding of news, and whether they believe what they see or hear.
I hope today I’ve provided a flavour of the work that lies ahead, and how we will approach it.
Throughout, we will seek to offer careful, effective regulation that befits the outstanding quality of our broadcasting industry.
As we take on our BBC duties, we promise to hold the corporation rigorously to account on behalf of viewers and listeners. We will ensure it delivers to a high standard, across every service, for each part of its audience.
We will recognise the BBC’s special status, but offer it no special treatment. In doing so we’ll remain firm, independent and fair, building on our track record of taking decisions without fear or favour.
Most of all, we seek to uphold the trust and high standards that viewers expect from the BBC, and from UK broadcasters more widely.
Over the next few weeks, we will invite your views, and those of the public, on how the BBC’s performance should best be measured.
We will keep listening to licence-fee payers, wherever they live, to understand their hopes and needs.
The BBC is for everyone; it lies at the centre of our collective, cultural identity.
So every view matters. We want to hear as many as possible.
I hope you, too, will take up the offer.