Ofcom & BBC Board Handed More Powers To Handle Complaints About BBC Content As UK Gov’t Publishes Long-Awaited Mid-Term Review

Ofcom and the BBC Board are to be handed more powers to oversee complaints about BBC content including on its website and YouTube channel, as the government’s mid-term review into the corporation focuses intensely on the issue of complaints and impartiality.

The BBC has agreed to undertake “major reforms to boost audience confidence in its impartiality,” the Culture, Media & Sport (CMS) department said, with the organization taking on all recommendations from the review that takes place at the approximate mid-point of each 11-year-long BBC charter.

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This includes extending Ofcom oversight to complaints about the BBC website and YouTube channel, handing Ofcom a legally binding responsibility to review more of the BBC’s complaints decisions and forging a similar responsibility for the BBC Board – newly chaired by Samir Shah – to oversee the complaints process.

A subcommittee of the board, which will benefit from “outside perspectives provided by independent advisors,” will also be given greater powers to scrutinize and challenge how the BBC handles complaints.

Notably, the person responsible for handling complaints will soon report directly to Director General Tim Davie rather than the director responsible for editorial policy, which the CMS said will “separate pre-broadcast editorial policy and post-broadcast complaints resolution.”

The BBC made a number of the proposals during the review period and they were subsequently recommended by the government. Some have already been taken on, Deadline understands.

Giving Ofcom and the board more power, forging legally-binding responsibilities and taking power to examine complaints away from BBC program makers is all part of the government’s drive to shore up the complaints process and make it as independent as possible, it said.

Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer said the changes “will better set up the BBC to ask difficult questions of itself.”

“We all rely on the BBC being the best it can be and this review will help ensure that is what the British public gets,” she added.

“In a rapidly changing media landscape the BBC needs to adapt or risk losing the trust of the audiences it relies on. Following constructive conservations with the BBC and Ofcom, we have recommended reforms that I believe will improve accountability while boosting public confidence in the BBC’s ability to be impartial and respond to concerns raised by licence fee payers.”

“Lack of public confidence”

Published today, the mid-term review concludes that the BBC’s current complaints process, known as BBC First – where audience complaints are normally addressed by the BBC before they can be escalated to Ofcom – allows licence fee payers to “hold the BBC directly accountable.” But it said impartiality continues to be a key concern for audiences and highlighted a “lack of public confidence in the way the BBC currently handles complaints.”

While complaints about BBC content are never far from the spotlight, they have been particularly front and center for the past few months in the main due to its sometimes controversial coverage of the Israel-Hamas War, along with some viewers taking umbrage with its royal reporting. Speaking to the CMS Committee recently, Shah said he would push to “review” coverage of Israel-Hamas, particularly the controversial question of whether the BBC should label Hamas “terrorists.” “It seems to me there is enough in terms of criticism of the way the BBC has covered this war,” he said at the time.

BBC content attracted more than 8,500 complaints in the first two weeks of January – double the previous fortnight – and its Executive Complaints Unit examined 27 in detail.

A BBC spokesperson said “no other organisation takes its commitment to impartiality more seriously.”

“We have well-established and detailed plans to sustain and further improve standards,” added the spokesperson. “We know this matters to audiences and the BBC continues to be the number one source for trusted news, with the highest scores for impartiality and accuracy. During discussions over the Mid-Term Review, we proposed and implemented a number of reforms, including strengthening our complaints procedures, which now form part of the conclusions. We are pleased the government has fully taken our proposals onboard. We remain committed to continuous improvement to ensure we deliver for all licence fee payers.”

Meanwhile, the CMS recommended the BBC strengthen transparency and engagement with commercial competitors when making changes to its services, especially in areas such as local news and radio.

The department also pointed to the need for a “diversity of thought and opinion to be better reflected in [the BBC’s] decision-making,” citing audience groups such as disabled viewers and people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who feel underrepresented by the BBC.

The mid-term review is conducted around halfway through the BBC’s 11-year charter, with the current charter ending on December 31 2027. Handing Ofcom some oversight of BBC regulation and complaints was one of the flagship changes to have come from the previous charter review, with Ofcom becoming the corporation’s first ever external regulator.

The mid-term review doesn’t touch on the BBC’s mission, public purposes or funding model.

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