Ofcom has published its second annual report on the BBC, raising concerns over the corporation’s engagement with young people and audiences from diverse backgrounds.
The broadcast regulator, which became the first external regulator of the BBC in 2017, also said BBC News, which was subject to a separate review by Ofcom, should be “bolder” in its newsgathering and more relevant to licence-fee payers across the UK.
Sharon White, Ofcom chief executive, said: “The BBC is still a vital, valued part of British culture, but we’re concerned that a new generation is tuning out of its services. So the BBC must set out bolder plans to connect with younger viewers and listeners.
“We also want the BBC to broaden the appeal of its news, which some viewers and listeners feel isn’t relevant to their lives. And the BBC must find ways to be more distinctive online, where our research shows younger people are passing it by.”
Here are five key points from Ofcom’s annual report relating to the BBC’s newsgathering capabilities.
1. Young audiences pose risk to BBC’s future
The continued decrease in young people engaging with the BBC’s TV, radio and websites is a “significant risk to the future sustainability of the BBC,” Ofcom said, warning of a “lost generation”.
Unless more is done to reach young audiences, public support for the licence fee could be eroded in future, the regulator added.
The BBC has to compete with young people increasingly consuming news through social media and aggregators like Apple News, which Ofcom said means they are often less aware of the source and their attention is “typically fleeting”.
The total online population accessing the BBC News website has only grown by 0.3 per cent between March 2016 and 2019, according to Comscore figures quoted by Ofcom – from 63.4 per cent to 63.7 per cent.
The BBC’s online news content therefore needs to do more to stand out “or risk losing its reputation and status as a trusted voice”.
A BBC spokesperson said: “As Ofcom has recognised, in today’s digital world it’s vital that the BBC engages with young audiences online, which it’s why we will continue to develop our offer for young people.”
2. Journalists should be ‘bolder’ and challenge controversial viewpoints
Some people have the perception that the BBC gives too much coverage to extreme voices, Ofcom’s report found.
Others criticised an ineffective strategy of “false equivalence” where equal weight was given in a debate with unequal factual basis.
“Broadcasting rules do not require the BBC or other broadcasters to be absolutely neutral on every issue within news and current affairs, but they must be duly impartial,” the regulator said.
“This means journalists should take context into account when considering how to achieve due impartiality.
“BBC journalists should feel able to challenge controversial viewpoints that have little support or are not backed up by facts, making this clear to viewers, listeners and readers.”
Ofcom’s research found that audiences respect BBC journalism and expect its reporters to “investigate, analyse and explain”.
“This should give the BBC confidence to be bolder in its approach,” the regulator said.
A BBC spokesperson said: “Ofcom notes that people’s perceptions of due impartiality are often coloured by their own beliefs, and that the BBC’s unique status means we are subject to greater scrutiny than other news providers.
“As Ofcom points out, it has not upheld any complaint against the BBC on the grounds of impartiality. Being an impartial broadcaster means people will hear from a wide range of people, including views that they don’t agree with, but we will continue to give different views their due weight so audiences the context they need to understand what’s happening in the world.”
3. Representation is ‘key to staying relevant’
Some audiences continue to see BBC news and current affairs content as “middle-class, white and London-centric”.
Demographics that rated the BBC lowest for its representation and portrayal of them included those aged 55 and over, people from lower socio-economic groups, and people in Scotland.
However there has been an increase this year in positive opinions of the BBC from the Asian population of the UK.
Ofcom said the BBC ought to be able to represent the whole country using its “unparalleled” local and regional resources.
It also said the BBC’s representation of the diversity of the UK would be “key to creating authentic content that feels relevant and engaging to all audiences”.
The BBC recognised in its annual report, published earlier this year, that it needs to reach out to and reflect all UK communities back to the country.
A BBC spokesperson said: “We are committed to ensuring the BBC serves all audiences and reflects and represents the whole of today’s UK, and while we have made progress in reflecting this in our workforce we have been clear there is still more to do.”
4. More transparency needed on complaints decisions
Ofcom said it would be addressing the BBC’s “lack of transparency” in the way it communicates and explains decisions made by its internal Executive Complaints Unit as a matter of urgency.
The regulator said it has “significant concerns” on the issue after the BBC’s handling of complaints against remarks made by BBC Breakfast host Naga Munchetty about a tweet by Donald Trump.
The BBC did not publish the ECU’s full reasons for partially upholding the complaints, nor director general Tony Hall’s reasoning for ultimately overturning the finding following backlash from prominent ethnic minority media figures.
Ofcom said transparency is “important for public confidence in the operation and effectiveness of the BBC’s complaints process”.
5. Accuracy is paramount
Throughout everything else, the BBC needs to maintain an “intense focus” on accuracy.
Ofcom said this would be the “best way” for it to “retain and strengthen its reputation”.
“As long as people continue to turn to the BBC at important moments, it has the opportunity to attract and serve the broadest range of audiences.”
Ofcom also said it plans to keep a close eye on the effectiveness of the BBC’s planned work tackling disinformation, which is set to be a key part of its work maintaining accuracy, trust and impartiality.
A BBC spokesperson said: “We welcome Ofcom’s recognition of our reputation for trusted, accurate news; that we provide a range and depth of analysis not widely available from other UK news providers; and importantly, that we remain the place people turn to most when they want to know what’s going on.
“We will do all we can to maintain this trust and serve all audiences across the UK.”
Picture: Reuters/Neil Hall