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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lloyd

Ofcom says it's all fine



Three people.


That's how many individuals wrote to Ofcom about its Modernising the BBC's Operating Licence consultation and mentioned BBC local radio.*


You'll recall that this was the key consultation which Ofcom carried out before giving full permission for the BBC to roll out its truly disastrous changes.


As broadcasters, if we don't get much response on-air to a significant topic, we blame ourselves. We examine how we tackled a subject - the words we used and how we approached it.


So, does Ofcom maybe reflect now on this major consultation which enabled the annihilation of BBC local radio and wonder whether it got things right in engaging with people?


No. They've written back to my lengthy letter of concerns with an Assessment which insists all is hunky dory. They did the best they could.


That is, of course, nonsense.


Ofcom is required in its consultations to "aim to reach the largest possible number of people and organisations who may be interested" in the outcome of their decisions. Not just reach people - but the largest possible number of people yet their account of how they did that in their reply to me seems laughable.


Ironically, they have not troubled to share with me the efforts they made to reach what the BBC calls the 'difficult to reach' audiences. The very ones Ofcom's report into the BBC last year criticised the BBC for not reaching.


And the response level speaks for itself. Proof of pudding. Yum yum.


They argue to me now that they only have to "aim to" do all this pesky 'reaching lotsa people' business, of course. Not actually do it.


I'd suggest if one aims to win the Olympics, one practises day and night to stand the best chance of achieving as many Golds as possible; one does not turn up at gym in January and claim to have done one’s best.  


They claim too that the proposals were crystal clear to local radio listeners - in such things as the 108 page consultation about the entire BBC - because there were some pretty headings and loads of little summaries.


They clearly have little idea about how normal busy people live their lives. The very people who listen to BBC radio and pay for it.


Their response to me suggests they think we all sit with a cup of tea, with several consultations strewn across our dining room tables, calculator at the ready to work out what impact the number of local hours across a whole year might mean to our favourite station. A map alongside of course, to work out what exactly the BBC and Ofcom may or may not mean by 'neighbouring areas'.


They said we didn't need any plain English guides - as its Principles suggest might be useful for some consultations - 'cos the 108 pages had no technical terms.


They boast to me that the Ofcom Advisory Committees all had input. Indeed, I can see the consultation responses for Scotland. And Wales. And Northern Ireland. I don't think the poor chap at Ofcom who wrote to me had noticed a country was missing.


They still insist there was bags of research. They even offered me an example of something, although I struggle to see its relevance. I find it fascinating that the BBC and Ofcom suggest there was lots of this, yet they don't seem to show it to anyone.


I concede, from Ofcom's statement, there was some research "to better understand what audiences need and value from local services" and "research into what audiences expect from local content". Oops. My apologies. I've got that all wrong. Ofcom is planning to do all that. It hasn't done it yet. Hold your horses.


As you might expect, I've written again asking for a more diligent analysis of the process when they've got a moment - in between hounding exhausted people who give all their waking hours to community radio.


A frank admission from Ofcom at this stage would be a very welcome and sensible thing.


After all, if this consultation were fine, how poor does a consultation have to be to be for Ofcom to agree it fails to meet its own Consultation Principles?


This regulatory failure paved the way for the worst decisions ever taken since BBC local radio's inception- and even most working there would agree there's quite some competition for that title.


Whilst many of the gifted folk at all levels who remain in local radio carry on trying to do their very best in a pretty awful environment, the audience to many stations are already showing how they feel. The network has just lost almost 800,000 listeners in the last year amidst the change and distraction.


I calculate that the BBC, which is required by Charter to spend our money wisely is likely to be spending more per listening hour after these changes than before.


*My full response is below, just for the record, with all the detail. Just like the consultees to Ofcom consultations, I expect huge numbers of people to read every single word. Not.


- - - - - - - -





3rd February 2024


OFCOM CONSULTATION FAILURES – BBC LOCAL RADIO. Ofcom ref: 01743604

 

Dear Corporation Secretary,

 

I am in receipt of your letter dated 29thj January 2024 in response to mine of 30th December 2023 regarding serious failures in Ofcom’s recent consultations regarding changes to the BBC’s Operating Licence.

 

Thank you for the Assessment of the process. I note your locus in this matter as Consultation ‘Champion’.

  

SUMMARY OF OFCOM ASSESSMENT

 

1.       Whilst you have quoted the Ofcom Consultation Principles and offered assurances of compliance with its provisions, the Assessment offers scant evidence that the process has been scrutinised with due diligence.  

 

2.       Ofcom must ensure, of course, it carries out its statutory duties correctly, but the description of your role as Consultancy ‘Champion’ suggests any assessment should also be mindful of the perspective of those whom Ofcom seeks to consult. This Assessment was not.

 

3.       As you say (24), BBC local radio is “an important part of the BBC’s output”. Any consultation, therefore on a matter which impacts hugely on that service must be consulted upon appropriately so that the views of its (then) 5.5m audience may be taken into account effectively.

 

4.       The Assessment of this consultation failed to attach due importance to the nature, scale and impact of the local radio changes - and the sorts of people whom it was important to consult for that element of the overall process. i.e. older local radio listeners – including many of those the BBC itself calls “hard to reach”.  

 

5.       Ofcom must: “aim to reach the largest possible number of people” in its consultations. There is nothing in your response whatsoever that indicates any appreciable effort to reach the largest possible number of people. The detail you have volunteered confirms the contrary; and there was no evidence of pertinent research findings.

 

6.       Just 38 responses were published to this broader ‘Modernising the Operating Licence’  consultation overall, including just 10 individuals. Of those ten, only three individuals made any reference to the BBC local radio changes; and none of those appeared to focus on the most significant changes to be implemented.

 

7.       Given local radio’s large audience – and the anger expressed since the changes have been implemented - that level of response is clear evidence that the consultation itself must have been unclear and poorly promulgated, contrary to Ofcom’s Consultation Principles.

 

8.       The examples you cite of Ofcom engagement appears to be derisory and yet you confirm there were no public open meetings. As you state, the list includes Ofcom’s Advisory Committees – yet although there were responses from the Committees for Wales Scotland and Northern Ireland, there was no response from the Ofcom Advisory Committee for England.

 

9.       The conclusion of your Assessment is a non-sequitur from the evidence offered. In the circumstances, I call for a further review with due diligence on the grounds which follow in this letter.

 

10.   The Assessment made no mention of the Gunning consultation principles of which I reminded you. Am I to presume Ofcom feels unable to defend its conduct against the founding legal principles applicable to UK public consultations to render them fair and worthwhile?

 

11.   On consultations (Gunning) states there must be: “sufficient information to give ‘intelligent consideration’ The information provided must relate to the consultation and must be available, accessible, and easily interpretable for consultees to provide an informed response”.

 

12.   The consultees in the case of BBC local radio changes should have been principally listeners/licence fee payers. Ofcom’s consultation in this particular arena was self-evidently inaccessible and not easily interpretable for consultees to provide an informed response.

 

 

RESPONSE TO OFCOM ASSESSMENT 01743604 - 29.1.24

 

Contact (4-17, 21, 37)

 

13.   You have listed my contact with Ofcom and whether it was “appropriate throughout (your) correspondence”. The account of dialogue is accurate. It is, however, the substance of the responses which was - and remains - unsatisfactory. Your outline summary of my concerns is also appropriate.

 

Consultations (18, 21, 22)

 

14.   Whilst some documents I cited were not consultation documents as such, they were pertinent to the overall direction of travel and, just like the current published Review of Local Media, some individuals and organisations will seek to comment in any case.

 

15.   You will understand too that I had taken care to examine all the documents published by Ofcom covering the overall territory, for the sake of thoroughness.

 

Whom we consult (25, 26)

 

16.   You claim that Ofcom was clear about: whom we are consulting, why and on what

questions”, in line with the Consultation Principles.   

 

17.   You state this is “particularly evidenced by the ‘in brief’ summary section of the Consultations where we explain what we are proposing. The overall summary also gives some information”.

 

18.   You also state (25) that “in the ‘Next steps’ section clearly states who we are inviting views from, for example, for the Consultation on Proposed changes to requirements for BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Radio 2 and programming of a national or regional interest we invited views from any ‘affected or interested parties’”.   Would a consultation ever not be aimed at those “affected or interested”?

 

19.   The title of the consultation, is branded in a disingenuous  way.

 

20.   You also say (26), “It would not be helpful or practical to list every BBC service that may be affected in the title or summary of a consultation.” 

 

21.   As I stated in my last letter, therefore, it was not clear in the title nor overview that this document contained key decisions on BBC local radio.  It simply cannot be asserted, ergo, that the consultations made clear: “whom we are consulting”. 

 

22.   Breach of Ofcom Consultation Principle 2.

 

On what we consult 25-26

 

23.   May I suggest you put yourself in the shoes of a typical BBC local radio listener. Did that consultation reach out to me?  Did it tell me clearly what was proposed on my publicly-funded local station?

 

24.   Let’s examine your claim that the ‘in-brief’, overview and next steps serve the purpose you suggest.

 

25.   With Modernising the BBC’s Operating Licence (ofcom.org.uk), what would listeners have made of what they read in the ‘in brief’ section (had they even been aware of the consultation in the first place)?

 

26.   That section refers only to: “Decreasing the breakfast peak time speech quota on local radio from 100% to 75%”.

 

27.   In the ‘overview’ in that consultation, there is nothing whatsoever which makes clear the matter at stake for local radio listeners. There are but broad statements of regulating more flexibly.  In ‘next steps’ – nothing.

 

28.   You insist that, in Section 9 of the consultation, “the summary box has a bullet point on local radio proposals”. That reads:

 

29.   “For local radio in England, retain quotas for original locally-made programming; retain the core hours speech quota at 60%; but reduce the breakfast peak speech quota from 100% to 75%. This will be supported by a new requirement for the BBC to provide a significant amount of local news and information during the breakfast peak”.

 

30.   From that, how is a BBC local listener supposed to know the implications for their much-loved local service?

 

31.   To a consultee to this document, what are the ‘quotas for locally made programming’ which are to be retained? They are not detailed in this document.  Is a local radio listener expected to spread several consultation documents across their dining room table to compare?

 

32.   When the figures of locally-made programming are outlined in other documents – as annualised averages over a year - are listeners required to sit with a calculator and work out the impact on their local station? 

 

33.   Breach of Ofcom Consultation Principle 2.

 

Clarity (27)

 

34.   You insist in your Assessment of my letter (27) that “the documents have “in brief” points highlighted in grey boxes which provide a shorter summary of the overview section. These along with the summaries at the top of each section of the documents are designed to make it as easy as possible for the reader to navigate.”.

 

35.   The above perfectly illustrates the gulf between your view of clarity and that of the average person. Which ‘readers’ had you in mind when drafting that sentence about a 109-page document?  Whom exactly did you imagine might trouble to read 109 pages to find out whether their local station is about to undergo radical change.

 

 

36.   At what stage in the earliest consultations was it made sufficiently clear that some local stations would become part of a very large, very odd region for much of the week.; and that shared programming would largely not be locally relevant to any of the broader area served? The line about ‘neighbouring’ does not achieve this end with any clarity.

 

37.   You will persist in claiming all is clear in the documents.  It may be to you.  You are a regulator.  

 

38.   Even as an ex-regulator, it has taken me days to wade through the intricacies of these documents.   Ofcom’s language and approach is fitting for a b-2-b consultation but not for BBC local radio listeners. 

 

39.   May I refer you to the construction of gov.uk and the lessons learned on the importance of simplicity in communications; or talk to one of the many sensible people in your radio team about how best to communicate with listeners

 

40.   The Gunning Principles state there must be “sufficient information to give ‘intelligent consideration’ The information provided must relate to the consultation and must be available, accessible, and easily interpretable for consultees to provide an informed response”. You failed to respond to this point in your response, so am I to conclude Ofcom does not concern itself with such compliance?

 

41.   If anything, your response is further proof that the Ofcom Consultation Principles were not met. 

 

42.   Breach of Ofcom Consultation Principle 2.

 

Consultation scope (27)

 

43.   To lean on the alibi, as you do, that the scope of these consultations was so great that making the local radio changes clearer would have been a challenge is not a satisfactory answer. 

 

44.   Would that not be a way for Ofcom to hide any controversial matter in any consultation?

 

45.   All else aside, that defence, per se, indicates a serious failure in the consultation insofar as BBC local radio is concerned.

 

 Summary/Plain English Guide (28)

 

46.   You suggest that a summary/’Short plain English guide’ of consultations was not required, contrary to Ofcom Consultation Principles, because the language used ‘in the longer of these consultations’ was not particularly ‘technical’. 

 

47.   Would you not concede that a huge document like this covering so much change across the whole BBC is, actually, a complex document - to the majority of consultees in this case. Its length makes the summary more important. Your argument is surely perverse.

 

48.   A well-promulgated plain English guide for local radio listeners would surely have been the best way of discharging this consultation in respects of BBC local radio.

 

49.   Breach of Ofcom Consultation Principle 3.

 

Largest possible number of people (29 30)

 

50.   The relevant principle states that a person within Ofcom will be in charge of making sure we follow our own guidelines and: “aim to reach the largest possible number of people and organisations who may be interested in the outcome of our decisions”.

 

51.   You contest that: “this is an “aim” rather than a requirement and that the Content Policy Team did its best to meet this aim to reach the largest group of interested people by seeking responses from a range of relevant organisations alongside publishing responses and issuing press releases.”

 

52.   If one aims to win the Olympics, one practises day and night to stand the best chance of achieving as many Golds as possible; one does not turn up at gym in January and claim to have done one’s best.  

 

53.   The legal definition of ‘aim’ is ‘attempt to achieve a goal’ – and there is a clear expectation of best endeavours in this principle. The specious point you chose to raise in your letter reflects poorly on Ofcom.

 

54.   Furthermore, this must be taken too in the context of Section 10 of the BBC Charter which demands that the BBC must “carefully and appropriately assess the views and interests of the public and audiences, including licence fee payers, across the whole of the United Kingdom. Whilst this places an obligation upon the BBC rather than Ofcom, the Charter also requires Ofcom to “have regard, in carrying out their functions, to the general duties” of the BBC which include Section 10.

 

55.   It is clear the job must be done well. To aim not just to reach the right people – but “the largest possible number”. Whilst offering assurances, you have failed to even estimate how many people you feel you reached with this consultation. As detailed below (this letter, 63-70), the level of response indicates failure.

 

56.   Whilst the overall consultation is relevant to just about everyone, significant BBC local radio changes are included - and thus reaching local radio listeners is surely critical. 79% of BBC local listening is from those aged over 55.  You do not say how Ofcom reached out to these audiences.

 

57.   The stations are now pursuing an audience target that it calls ‘hard to reach C2DEs”. Given they are by the BBC’s own definition, “hard to reach”, can Ofcom give a little more information about how it sought to garner the opinions of that grouping? Your Assessment appears again lacking in detail of whom it is targeting and how. You’ll recall too that Ofcom itself said “The BBC needs to do more to reach and resonate with viewers and listeners on lower incomes” in the regulator’s report on the BBC last year.

 

58.   For an organisation brimming with data, Ofcom’s approach to reaching citizens in its consultations seems alarmingly rudimentary.

 

59.   You suggest you sought responses: “from a range of relevant organisations alongside publishing responses and issuing press releases. These organisations included the Voice of the Listener & Viewer, the National Union of Journalists, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, Radiocentre, and Ofcom’s National Advisory Committees”.  

 

60.   Most people would agree this is not a satisfactory way to counsel the views of millions of BBC local radio listeners.  The NUJ and Radiocentre do fine work and will have legitimate views on the matter but they represent their members’ interests, not listeners.  I am bemused why they are even included in your evidence of a successful consultation in response to my point.

 

61.   Your Assessment refers to having taken soundings from “Ofcom’s National Advisory Committees”.  In the published responses, those from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are included, but not England. Is Ofcom able to say why its own Advisory Committee for England did not respond to a consultation about the future of local radio in England? Any response from the England Advisory Committee was peculiarly absent too in the July 21 ‘How Ofcom Regulates the BBC’ consultation.

 

62.   Whilst I appreciate your role is not that of a radio programmer nor research professional, the knowledge of such professionals is pertinent in this matter. When judging response to content and changes amongst a mass radio audience at large, one cannot simply write to lobby groups. Whilst they may have a view of interest, the real answer to what listeners want can only be garnered by reaching a suitable number of typical listeners and your consultation was utterly unsuitable to those ends.

 

63.   You refer to issuing press releases so that people may become aware of the nature of the consultation, yet you have supplied no evidence that, for example, local press/online picked up these releases and what efforts your press office made.  You have not shared the press releases to which you refer. One imagines that they also obfuscated and thus failed to alert local journalists to what the changes might involve.

 

Responses


64.   As you state, the contributions from those consultees who did respond (save presumably for confidential ones) can be viewed on the Consultation webpages.  I am concerned, however, that you failed to analyse the responses in your Assessment.

 

65.   Allow me to do that. Let us take the responses to the ‘Modernising the BBC’s Operating Licence’ consultation.

 

66.   The proof of any satisfactory consultation is whether it engaged with the desired audience. Evidence of that would be in the level and nature of response.

 

67.   The number of responses, however, on all areas of this huge BBC consultation was fewer than 40; with three-quarters from organisations, including several broadcasters or trade organisations which do not represent listeners at large.

 

68.   Only ten individuals responded overall, one being an MP. Just three of those made any mention of BBC local radio. Whilst these raised valid points, none seemed to focus on some of the largest changes, suggesting that these were unclear in the consultation.

 

69.   Is Ofcom content that a consultation which attracted but three comments on local radio was fit for purpose, given the nature of the changes, the size of local radio’s audience in millions; the interest in the matter; and the outpouring of concern expressed later from listeners and elected representatives?

 

70.   Ofcom must “aim to reach the largest possible number of people”. There is nothing in your response whatsoever that indicates any effort to reach the largest possible number of people. The consultation must also be clear - and the detail of responses suggests it was not.

 

71.   Breach of Ofcom Consultation Principle 5.

 

Research (31)

 

72.   You state “The Team conducted and commissioned extensive research with audiences about their engagement and attitudes to the BBC, including through focus groups across the UK’s nations and regions and by undertaking extensive surveys”. 

 

73.   You have, however provided no evidence of any appreciable research or findings which relate to the significant changes being imposed on BBC local radio.  

 

74.   You did cite one example: the work conducted for Ofcom by Yonder “to inform the future regulation of the BBC”. I am unsure whether you troubled to study this project prior to replying, but I am struggling to see in this document much relevance to the BBC local radio questions even in the broadest context. Indeed, ‘BBC local radio’ is not even listed as an option in the quant and other questions refer to local news and little more.

 

75.   I note in the published supporting documents for Statement: Modernising the BBC’s Operating Licence - Ofcom, a report on research commissioned from Jigsaw. This, however, focused on discoverability and distinctiveness across the BBC’s different online services and failed to investigate anything of much relevance to the local radio changes.

 

76.   I am aware of qualitative research work over the years for local radio in general terms, but I can see no evidence of that having been taken into account of shared with consultees.

 

77.   Despite Ofcom’s claims, I can see no evidence in the statement following the ‘Modernising the BBC’s Operating Licence’ consultation about any research which validated the changes to BBC local radio.  If Ofcom has, as it suggests, leaned on research, why has the relevant detail not been shared in the statement?

 

78.   There are several references, however, to research which is to be carried out: “(Ofcom) will be commissioning new research to understand what audiences value from local services”; and “more research into what audiences expect from local content”.  That very sentence begs a large question.

 

79.   Both Ofcom and the BBC glibly suggest that there has been much research of relevance to these changes. Amidst all the criticism of the decisions, however, neither has produced much of relevance to the key issue of decimating local radio’s character, save for data which suggests news is being consumed online. Given that one imagines both bodies would wish to back up their conclusions, are we to presume that nothing satisfactory exists?

 

80.   Breach of Ofcom Consultation Principle 5.

 

Engagement and public meetings (35)

 

81.   You say: “Consultation Principle 1 highlights that we will first seek to engage with relevant people and organisations through informal talks and will only hold open meetings should we not have time to engage informally. As the Team undertook the engagement detailed above, I consider that point 1 of the Consultation Principles was upheld and an open meeting was not required”.

 

82.   The engagement you detailed above was scant and simply not representative of BBC local radio’s audience at large.  Ofcom thus failed to engage with “relevant people”.

 

83.   Unless you can assure that there was significant and satisfactory engagement of this sort, it is clear Ofcom should have held open meetings. It failed to.  That would have been an appropriate route to reach larger numbers of people.

 

84.   Breach of Ofcom Consultation Principle 1.

 

CONCLUSION

 

85.   It is evident that this consultation was fundamentally flawed, resulting in a highly damaging impact on public service broadcasting – the most devastating blow to BBC local radio since 1967.

 

86.   Implementation of the local radio policy began a year ago, with incremental changes to localisation, news, a change of direction and associated redundancies. Early evidence indicates a loss of 3/4m listeners already in the last year. Whilst your role is not to consider that damage, it is more evidence of the failure of consultation. The listeners’ likely behavioural response to the changes would have been clear before implementation had it been conducted properly.

 

87.   The consultation was too broad to achieve its purpose. The whole of the Operating Licence revision exercise was framed in the most appropriate way for the BBC and regulator not for the consultees.

 

88.   In terms specifically of the significant local radio changes, the consultation failed to reach appropriate people and engage. Ofcom, therefore, was unaware of the depth of opinion on the topic and made the wrong decisions about radio stations on which many people depended.

 

89.   There is a self-evident breach of the both the Ofcom and Gunning consultation principles.

 

90.   There are many ways that this work could have been better discharged and I would have expected the Consultancy Champion to identify those. If Ofcom regards this as a satisfactory consultation, maybe it can suggest what might constitute an unsatisfactory one.

 

91.   At odds with the underlying narrative of the document, linear radio still reaches 92% of BBC local radio’s 55+ demographic weekly – predicted at 99% across the course of a month. Radio matters.

 

92.   It is now appropriate for you to revisit your conclusions or concede if Ofcom is to be seen as having a review process fit for purpose.

 

93.   I look forward to hearing of the timings for a more considered investigation. I also await details of when I might hear about the second and separate investigation into Ofcom’s serious failures in drafting the First (original) Operating Licence which impacts too on the process above.

 

Yours faithfully,

 

David Lloyd

 










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