Is Ofcom up to the job of regulating local media?
I’ve had another cut and paste letter back from Ofcom.
Deep breath. Its ‘Interim Group Director of Ofcom’s Broadcasting & Media Group’ says of BBC local radio that it will:
“monitor the impact of the changes for audiences and have commissioned new research in order to better understand what audiences need and value from local services. If we find that the needs of audiences are not being met, we will consider whether the local radio conditions in the BBC’s Operating Licence should be modified.”
It’s been eight months (24th Feb 2023) since Ofcom’s sniffy letter to the BBC saying that they ‘planned to commission’ new research. Can we surmise from my most recent communique that at last something is happening? It’s odd that this is not reported as an investigation as it would have been for any other broadcaster.
If it felt that the research was needed to help better understand things, it suggests its staff weren’t very well equipped to nod through the plans in the first place. Ofcom’s analysis at the time was indeed rudimentary.
Now, we hear the changes on-air - and tearful local listeners have waved farewell to their friends. Vulnerable audiences are left behind. Stations fail to hold their listeners’ hands in times of adversity. On-air it's too frequently shoddy operationally. Audiences to programmes, as registered by online data, are falling rapidly and Parliamentary debates are angry.
Yet Ofcom has still done nothing.
I should remind Ofcom that the BBC Charter states (S. 49) that Ofcom: “must enforce compliance by the BBC of those requirements specified as enforceable in the Framework Agreement or Operating Framework (“specified requirements”) and, in particular, may — (a) consider complaints made to them by any person; and (b) carry out such investigations as they consider appropriate."
In other words, it has full authority to wade in now. Indeed, it must. It is choosing not to.
The BBC may or may not just scrape through in providing the number of hours of local output stipulated by its Operating Licence. It’s a challenge to say - given the BBC can aggregate them across a year so that no-one really can add them up reliably. Convenient, that.
It will find difficulty, however, in meeting all the qualitative requirements – and Ofcom must feel equipped to judge by those requirements given it drafted them.
Whilst (oddly) programmes are still deemed local even if shared with several other stations in areas with little connection, the requirement for the content within the shows, as judged on each station, must still be compliant. I think even those on-air who’ve valiantly wrestled with trying to broadcast across a mad BBC-invented region would agree that, actually, it’s no longer very local to any of the stations in the patch - and even the volume and frequency of local news has diminished. As for high-quality, my old hospital radio station had fewer gaps and errors on-air. Distinctive? Pah. Not when so much of it is now the same - and generic.
That is in no way intended as criticism of those on the ground doing their best in an appalling environment - or honourable managers trying to manage their disillusioned staff amidst a strategy of madness.
By contrast, Ofcom feels able to pursue the volunteers at community radio stations for the smallest alleged infringement. I’m fully in favour of action where operators have no intention of honouring a community role properly or erring egregiously – but not for some of the daft stuff Ofcom are merrily hounding community stations about. At last weekend’s Community Media Association conference, I was treated to further laughable examples where respected operators are on the verge of telling Ofcom where to shove it – in the hope that their fruity language will appear in its published bulletin.
The BBC has an army of compliance and legal staff and appears to have been given no case to defend. Community radio stations often have barely the resource to keep themselves on air – and yet Ofcom despatch frightening missives sometimes with scant cause. In any other world, that’s called bullying.
Want to complain about a local commercial or community station? Just go straight to the operator via details which must be made public. Want to complain about BBC local radio – you must use the complaints bot on its website.
The BBC is afforded the luxury of a ‘BBC first’ policy where it can consider complaints not just once but twice before you are even ALLOWED to complain to Ofcom. And they don’t tell you that when you get the first response – contrary to their own policy.
Want to complain more generally about BBC local radio strategy? Quality of the service overall - and the BBC's failure to discharge its relevant Charter obligations. The BBC online complaints bot says no – despite the BBC’s obligations to deal with such complaints.
Want to know how BBC local is regulated - and see all the latest guidelines and frameworks on all related matters accessibly? There is no one list - just set Sunday aside to Google and wade through acres of versions of numerous documents. I’m not surprised that Ofcom’s Dame Melanie Dawes moaned about the BBC’s complaints process last June – before then seemingly losing interest.
The process appears not to be about addressing BBC concerns effectively – but about about making sure complainants give up. The publicly-funded broadcaster is less accountable than those who do not benefit from the licence fee. That cannot be right - and I speak as a huge supporter of the BBC.
The BBC Trust used to be a fall-back and one which showed its teeth in saving 6 Music and inhibiting other changes – but now the BBC Board has no reason to consider criticism of itself. I’ve inspected the Board’s minutes and I’m struggling to find how it moved from early consideration of the local plans (March and July 2020) to discussion of their announcement (October 2022). Were the implications of the plans considered appropriately – or does the BBC feel that people who are unfortunate enough to live in Derby or Worcester don’t deserve much time?
The only recourse appears to be the courts, and I anticipate that is where some matters will end. That is no way to run a public service broadcaster.
I spoke at the Community Media Association conference last week about the mess of local radio licensing and regulation which has failed to keep pace with changes in production and distribution of audio.
There are many ways now of generating local audio which delivers real public value. From community radio operators on FM - to those granted the new community DAB licences. There are also those who’ve just grabbed some capacity on small scale DAB – or on a local DAB multiplex. You can launch an online station if you wish – or great local podcast/on-demand content. Or you can be a BBC local radio station.
All are licensed differently, operated differently and regulated differently. All contribute some public value. Yet only one of them has significant public funding. How can that be right?
Are there parallels with the '80s, when the mighty turquoise IBA was not felt to be the best way to license a flurry of new local radio stations? The Radio Authority was created (for which I worked) which boosted the energies in radio and got stations on air quickly. It understood how radio worked on the ground – and imposed more sensible requirements of its licensees. Ofcom fares well in many highly complex areas, but it evidently struggles with understanding local radio.
Is there now a case for a Local Audio Authority, as the Annan report suggested in ’77? Licensing and regulating all local audio including the BBC and those commercial radio stations which wish to continue to define themselves as local. It would have access to frequencies too - so that everyone has fair access and the BBC is not squandering public funds by broadcasting the same thing across huge numbers of transmitters.
The Authority would also distribute the huge public funds still devoted to local (not just the content pot but the transmission funds too) – ensuring, inter alia, that media plurality is encouraged and the BBC is not the only newsroom in town. The Local Democracy Reporting scheme and the Audio Content Fund offer interesting models of how funds can be awarded and spent fruitfully.
Just imagine what sensible people could do with all that money.
Meanwhile, Ofcom, you have a job to do. You ‘must’ get on with it. That is what the Charter says, remember?
Related blog posts:
A lack of accountability: The most worrying thing about the BBC (davidlloydradio.com)
The impact of changes on broadcasting quality and training across the industry: The silent killer (davidlloydradio.com)
Rebuttal of the BBC's local claims: Clinging to the wreckage (davidlloydradio.com)
The damage caused: What's the latest on BBC local radio? (davidlloydradio.com)
A great example of proper local: A shining example of local radio (davidlloydradio.com)
Indefensible defining of neighbouring areas: Some very peculiar neighbours (davidlloydradio.com)
Why radio really matters: Why radio matters (davidlloydradio.com)
The challenge in hand: BBC Local Radio changes - state of play (davidlloydradio.com)
Account of my interview with the Director of Nations “I think we’ve run a very fair process” (davidlloydradio.com)
Why BBC local audiences were falling: What's happened to BBC local radio's audience? (davidlloydradio.com)
Poor management of BBC online resource How well is the BBC's local online resource being managed now? (davidlloydradio.com)
How well is Ofcom regulating the BBC How well is Ofcom regulating BBC local radio? (davidlloydradio.com)
How well can the BBC deliver its new plan How well can the BBC deliver its local radio plan? (davidlloydradio.com)
Analysis of the BBC's defence Another day - another BBC exec defends its local radio position (davidlloydradio.com)
Analysis of the BBC's defence BBC Local Radio seeks to explain itself (davidlloydradio.com)
This was always going to happen The funeral of local radio (davidlloydradio.com)
Is the BBC equipped for local radio Is the BBC now equipped for the job of local radio? (davidlloydradio.com)
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