A central part of the New BBC Charter is that appeals about complaints are now handled not by the BBC itself, but Ofcom, the independent sector media regulator.
This change – recommended in a report to the former culture secretary John Whittingdale by Sir David Clementi, who has since become BBC chairman – was trumpeted as a way of ensuring independence of outlook and greater fairness in the complaints process.
So how is this panning out? Well, it has taken nine months for what seems to be the first BBC-based complaint to find its way through to the Ofcom Content Board.
The complaint was submitted by Gavin Hunt, an avid viewer of BBC1’s Question Time, who tracked the 25 editions of the programme in the series running from January 2017, and found that 22 had panels which contained a majority of EU Remainers. This, he claimed, showed significant bias against the Leave case.
The Ofcom response is contained in a five-page letter which can be read here.
They based their findings on only two of the editions of the programme. This was because the Content Board thought it would not be ‘proportionate’ to examine all 25. Instead they picked the two programmes which had five Remainers and no supporters of Leave.
One of these, the Board decided, was irrelevant to the complaint because it was broadcast from Salford soon after the Manchester Arena bombing, and there was no EU-related content.
Thus their inquiry was into the edition – from Oxford – broadcast on April 27, the panel on which was Damian Green (then Work and Pensions Secretary), Clive Lewis, the shadow Defence Secretary, Jo Swinson, the former Liberal Democrat MP, Stephen Gethins of the SNP, and Camilla Cavendish, a non-affiliated peer who was an adviser of David Cameron.
Two questions posed during the edition were deemed by Ofcom to be relevant to the complaint:
Has the General Election been called for the benefit of the Conservative Party and not the country?
Is tactical voting undemocratic or a way to prevent Hard Brexit?
The conclusion? A key passage of the Ofcom letter relating to panel composition said:
…we considered that there were also views expressed which could be described as supporting Brexit in some form, or otherwise challenging the Remain position. For example, Damian Green disagreed with various statements that were supportive of a Remain position. He said most people had not changed their mind since voting in the 2016 EU Referendum (“the referendum”), and although he was part of the referendum campaign for Remain, he respected democracy and the referendum outcome. He also: rebuked Tim Farron for saying the Liberal Democrats would frustrate the Parliamentary process for introducing Brexit; stated a strong and stable government would get a good Brexit deal; the referendum outcome ruled out membership of the Single Market and being subject to the European Court of Justice; and argued that Brexit had to mean more control over immigration and our budget. We considered that these were views that could be reasonably described as supporting what may be termed a form of “Hard Brexit”.
The second key element of the Ofcom finding related to David Dimbleby’s handling of balance issues, The Content Board letter said:
There are a range of editorial techniques that broadcasters can use to preserve due impartiality. In the case of Question Time, the role of the presenter, David Dimbleby, is crucial. In our view, and as evidenced in the Oxford and Salford programmes, Mr Dimbleby consistently provides critical challenge to panellists’ stated positions, summarises with due objectivity and, where necessary, offers alternative viewpoints. Panellists themselves also challenge viewpoints put forward by their fellow panellists. Alternative viewpoints are also expressed by audience members, who are given the opportunity to challenge statements made by panellists.
In essence, therefore, they turned the complaint down, basically on the ground that first, Damian Green expressed the Hard Brexit perspective, and also because, in Ofcom’s judgment, host David Dimbleby ensured that debate was marshalled fairly and impartially.
Was this ruling robust, independent and fair? Eyebrows might be raised by that Ofcom only looked in detail at one of 25 programmes, and considered that Damian Green’s remarks added up to an expression of support for a ‘Hard Brexit’ perspective, especially as Mr Green is on record as not supporting it. Some would also wonder how on the basis of only two programmes out of 25 – one of which contained nothing of EU coverage, the subject of the complaint – the Content Board were sure that David Dimbleby’s handling of his ringmaster’s role was always as balanced as they decided.