MICHAEL Grade – Baron Grade of Yarmouth – becomes chairman of Ofcom today.
He takes over days after Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries published Up Next, her White Paper on the future of broadcasting.
Main points include that the current BBC licence fee funding regime will eventually come to an end, Channel 4 will be privatised and that ‘TV-like’ content will be subject to ‘harmful content’ restrictions regulated and policed by Ofcom.
The latter point apart – which Big Brother Watch fears will presage a new age of government censorship – many of the aspirations in the White Paper make sense and can be seen as necessary and often overdue adaptations to developments in the fast-changing broadcasting arena.
Lord Grade – who takes the Conservative whip in the House of Lords – has a formidable industry track record, from being director of programmes of the former ITV company LWT in the 1970s, controller of BBC1 and chief executive of Channel 4 in the 1980s and 90s, to chairman of the BBC and then executive chair of ITV in the noughties.
It is rumoured in Westminster that he intends to be especially tough on the BBC and in particular to use Ofcom’s regulatory leverage over the BBC to ensure impartiality. He apparently has the full backing of Mrs Dorries, who, it is understood, pushed hard for his appointment.
But ambition will not mean a fig unless the Corporation’s epidemic-scale wokery and groupthink is rooted out. BBC bias is now so blatant that it is impossible to keep track, as Peter Hitchens eloquently pointed out at the weekend.
On issues such as diversity and climate alarm, BBC troops see themselves as warriors of change and activists rather than chroniclers of events.
Changing the licence fee could have a powerful corrective impact, but there is no definite date or detail as yet. So in the short term, the only hope of rooting out bias is through Ofcom.
Against this background, in the 22,000 words of the White Paper, there are only six mentions of impartiality. The key passage at Chapter 2, section 1 states:
‘Looking forward, the government also wants to see the BBC taking steps to reform over the next six years. This includes taking action to improve on its impartiality, which is central to the BBC’s Mission and to maintaining trust with audiences. In that context we welcome the BBC’s 10-Point Impartiality and Editorial Standards Action Plan, published in October 2021, which aims to raise standards by ensuring that BBC programmes and content are fair, accurate, unbiased, and reflect the UK public. Alongside this, the BBC adopted the findings of the Serota Review into the BBC’s governance and culture in full. While the Action Plan is a good start, changes are necessary and they need to be delivered.’
Does that suggest definite action of the sort required? Only time – and Lord Grade – will determine.
His task, though, is Herculean.
Ofcom’s track record as BBC regulator – which it became at the start of the current Charter in 2017 – can only be described as complacent and inept. One of its key tasks in this domain is as appeals body on complaints. But in the four years since it took over, the Content Board has decided to investigate only six of the hundreds referred to it; none has been upheld. This chart illustrates vividly how dire the position is:
Part of the problem here is the Content Board is stuffed full of figures who have worked for the BBC, and is thus not independent.
Also in Lord Grade’s in-tray related to impartiality is the Jewish bus incident on December 1 last year. A party of Jewish youths innocently celebrating Hanukkah in Oxford Street were terrorised and spat at by racist thugs. The BBC initially claimed they had evidence which showed that the attack had been at least partially provoked by an anti-Islamic insult from someone on board the bus. The Jewish community was outraged, and eventually the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit issued a highly-qualified apology of the sort routinely deployed to make issues go away.
At this point, Ofcom stepped in – and keen to make it look as they took their regulatory responsibilities seriously – announced that they would also investigate.
More than three months on, the Content Board has not yet published its findings. This defies belief. With the board having never yet ruled against the BBC, the suspicion is growing that that the inquiry announcement was a PR ploy to deflect criticism.
This is just a starter in the list of mammoth tasks Lord Grade will face in the coming months.