Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Broadcasting Standards Commission

  1.  The Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC) considers audience complaints about fairness, privacy and standards[1] in broadcasting of all kinds. It is unique. It is the only statutory body which covers the whole field: radio and television; public corporations (including the BBC) and commercial broadcasters. Its overarching codes must be reflected by all the broadcasting regulators.

  2.  The BSC continues to believe that the merger of the existing regulatory functions in broadcasting and communications into a single body is worthwhile and necessary. It is working with the other regulators to prepare for OFCOM and to minimise any adverse effects both of the delay in introducing legislation and of the continuing overlapping functions between it and other regulators. The BSC is now, by arrangement with the ITC and the Radio Authority, carrying out (with the complainants' consent) all investigations into complaints relating to fairness and privacy, whichever regulator initially receives the complaints. Co-operation is also advanced in audience research, for which joint planning and joint working with the ITC in particular is now routine.

  3.  However, the new OFCOM should not merely merge the functions of the existing regulators, but should start from a fresh analysis of the future necessary purposes and functions of sector-specific regulation of broadcasting and communications. That analysis must principally be undertaken by Government and Parliament. The substantive Communications Bill now being prepared should re-enact and codify all the legislation which is to remain in force, and state or re-state the guiding principles to provide a future framework which is clearly intelligible to the industry and the public. Within such a clear framework, Parliament should allow the regulator sufficient scope to respond to new market and technological developments.

  4.  OFCOM should from the start establish itself as a body at the cutting edge of those new developments. The initial key appointments should send that message: the Chairman and Chief Executive need to establish a flexible, non-bureaucratic culture which builds on the expertise of the existing bodies and deploys it on the issues which matter. As communications develop, the issues and the mechanisms for regulation (both economic and of content) will change.

  5.  In the BSC's view, the BBC and S4C should come under OFCOM on much the same basis as Channel 4 is now regulated by the ITC. The remits of all these public broadcasting corporations should be set by Government and Parliament, in general terms; those remits interpreted in more detail by their appointed boards; and performance against the remits monitored and assessed independently by OFCOM. The recent debate over the BBC's proposed new digital channels demonstrated the danger of the Government's becoming too closely involved in the definition and policing of the BBC's programming operations in the absence of other independent supervision. The model we suggest both safeguards the BBC's independence and provides independent scrutiny of its performance.

  6.  The debates in the House of Lords on the current Office of Communications Bill have emphasised the need for a clear, strong and specific "content" regulation function within OFCOM. That does not mean having separate content and economic regulators, which would simply perpetuate existing overlaps: the economic and content objectives need to be seen together, and balanced as necessary. Nevertheless, OFCOM should embody the principle of dedicated, "lay", representative, control of content regulation, independent of commercial interests. It should therefore, in our view, have an identifiable "Content Board" to carry out its distinct content regulation functions: this could act as a sub-committee of OFCOM itself, chaired by a non-executive OFCOM board member.

  7.  The BSC successfully applies this principle of independent, lay control to represent the citizen's interest. All its cases derive from individual complaints, and are assessed by Commissioners. In reaching a decision, they take full account of wider public opinion, as revealed through extensive research, which is in turn embodied in the BSC's codes, and through a programme of seminars, conferences and roadshows. OFCOM will similarly need to demonstrate, through its structure; its practice and its research, that it takes direct account of the citizen/consumer's views in formulating its content policies.

2 January 2001

1   Fairness and privacy complaints cover cases where individuals or organisations are directly affected by a programme which they say has misrepresented or misled them; not given them a fair say or intruded on their privacy. Standards complaints cover cases where viewers and listeners claim that offensive material has been broadcast which falls below acceptable standards of taste and decency. This may involve the use of foul or abusive language or the broadcast of inappropriate subject matter, eg violent, criminal or sexual activity. Back

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