BBC Local Radio England Cuts – Ofcom Response

I made a complaint to the BBC about their proposed cuts to local radio in England, and their lack of consultation with the public. My complaint is that the BBC have not provided any detailed assessment of the views of the public, nor have they published an assessment of either the economic impact of the proposed changes, or an equality assessment about how these changes will impact the public in regard to those defined by protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010.

After receiving an unsatisfactory response from the BBC, I raised the issue with Ofcom, complaining that the BBC is failing to engage the public in a meaningful way. Ofcom replied to me on Tuesday 21st February. The text of the response is below, and I’ve shared the full exchange on the Better Media forum.

Ofcom point out that the BBC is facing a significant period of change that is driving the corporation to look at new ways to serve audiences who access media content in many different ways than in the past. Ofcom accepts that the BBC must make some difficult decisions about the services that the corporation provides, however, Ofcom points out that these have to be undertaken and planned in line with the statutory obligations that the BBC has. Such as the obligation to provide services of a high-quality for all audiences across the whole of the UK.

Ofcom then notes that as a public service organisation, paid from the licence fee, the BBC has a duty to engage with audiences when it plans to make changes to its content and services. Licence fee payers must have confidence in the corporation’s decision-making process, Ofcom points out, and so any changes that the BBC wishes to introduce must be done so in a transparent manner.

My interpretation of Ofcom’s statement is that there is some disquiet, however diplomatically expressed, about how the BBC has gone about instigating these changes. My reading of this reply to my complaint is that Ofcom is not completely satisfied with the way the BBC has acted in relation to its unique public service role when proposing and advocating these cuts to local radio in England.

While Ofcom’s language appears neutral in their reply to me, the fact that the BBC needs to be reminded of their duty to meaningfully consult with the public about any proposed changes to its services, should be seen as something of a red flag by the managers and executives running the corporation.

Ofcom’s independent oversight of the BBC is clearly necessary, both for broadcast content and for the delivery and management of services that the BBC provides. Having confidence in the way programmes are made is equally as important to what programmes are made. Given the BBC’s primary income is derived from a universal licence fee public trust is paramount.

This expectation and requirement that all public bodies undertake meaningful public consultation might be alien to the BBC, but there is a lot that can be learnt from public consultation in other sectors, such as the health services and local authorities. Many public bodies have defined statutory obligations to consult with the public in meaningful ways, and follow statutory processes. Indeed, Ofcom itself is obliged to consult on matters of media regulation.

Perhaps it’s time for the BBC to drop the management consultants, market research and self-regard, and start to listen to how the public sector makes itself accountable to the public?

Ofcom’s Response:

“The BBC is currently operating in a period of significant change. It needs to evolve its offering to reflect the new ways audiences are consuming content, yet at the same time it is also coming under greater financial pressure. We recognise that the BBC will have to make some difficult decisions as it seeks to respond to these challenges. However, it must continue to deliver on its obligation to serve all audiences across the UK with distinctive, high-quality UK content.

We believe that the BBC needs to do more to engage with audiences about changes to its content and services. Audiences pay for the BBC through the licence fee, and their confidence in the BBC’s ability to respond to the challenges it faces is critical. We have explained to the BBC that in making changes to its services it must be more transparent about its plans and fully explain what these mean in practice for the delivery of content for audiences, and how it will continue to deliver its remit.

We are closely scrutinising the BBC’s plans for local radio and engaging with it to understand them in greater detail, particularly the updated plans it announced on 18 January 2023. Our ongoing monitoring process will also enable us to assess the BBC’s provision of local content for all audiences, and if we identify any concerns we could address these by imposing specific requirements within the BBC’s Operating Licence.

We are currently in the process of finalising a new Operating Licence for the BBC which we publicly consulted on last year. This new Licence will formally require the BBC to publish more information about how it is delivering high quality, distinctive content and services for audiences across the UK, including in relation to local radio.”

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