‘Keep Off Our Patch,’ BBC Tells Ofcom

07 October 2004

Ofcom, the Blair administration's new cross-media and telecoms regulator which assumed office in January following enactment of the 2003 Communications Bill, has crossed swords with the BBC.

The state-owned broadcaster, which operates under a renewable Royal Charter and is regulated by its own board of governors, is not best pleased at Ofcom's foray into its hallowed territory

As part of a consultation document for its proposed Public Service Publisher concept [WAMN 04-Oct-04], Ofcom included a clause stating that "factual programmes must respect the truth".

No cause for a squabble on that score, you might think – but Auntie did not take kindly to such a guideline proposed by an upstart nephew.

"Both before and during the passage of the Communications Act through parliament," fumed the BBC, "the government made it very clear its policy was that the BBC should not be subject to any of Ofcom's codes relating to accuracy or impartiality".

Citing a policy document attached to the bill on its journey through parliament, the public broadcaster referred Ofcom to a clause that stated "requirements relating to accuracy and impartiality... will continue to be regulated solely by the BBC governors".

Outraged Auntie also rejected another section of the draft code that requires "descriptions of religious views and beliefs [to] be presented with due accuracy and fairness". This too cuts across the role of the governors, according to the BBC.

It is not, of course, these unexceptional requirements that have triggered the BBC's spleen, but the principle of governance.

It is also an example of the ineptitude of the bill's drafting: on the one hand it underscore the responsibility of the BBC governors in matters of accuracy and impartiality; while on the other hand issues of taste and decency are within the remit of Ofcom – which has the power to impose financial penalties on the BBC for transgressions in the latter area.

New BBC chairman, the highly respected media tycoon Michael Grade, is reportedly attempting to distance the board of governors (sinecures peopled by the great and the good, appointed by whichever political adminstration is in power) from the every day management of the Corporation.

The Ofcom versus governors issue could well become a political hot potato, with the Liberal Democrat party and former BBC director general, Greg Dyke both supporting oversight by a public service broadcasting regulator instead of a board of governors.

Both proponents are also enthusiasts for an editorially independent BBC – unlike many in the government and Britain's official opposition party, the Conservatives.

Data sourced from MediaGuardian.co.uk; additional content by WARC staff