OFCOM reports on the BBC complaints procedure

On October 24th OFCOM – which in April 2017 became the BBC’s external regulator – published its second annual report on the BBC.

“The Royal Charter requires Ofcom to publish a report each year that sets out how we have carried out our functions as the BBC’s independent regulator, and assesses the BBC’s compliance with the requirements of our Operating Framework and associated documents.

Separately, we are required to report at least annually on the BBC’s performance against the measures we set alongside the Operating Licence. This forms the evidence base for our assessment of the BBC’s performance against its public purposes.”

Given the nature of OFCOM, the report is predictably UK focused but it does include some notable insights into the communications regulator’s view of the BBC complaints procedure – especially for the many members of the public who hoped that external regulation would bring about much needed improvements in that system.

As readers may be aware, the first two stages of the BBC’s complaints system are outsourced to a private company and responses to complaints submitted are all too often not received within the designated time frame of 20 days. In fact in late August this year, BBC Watch received an e-mail from BBC Audience Services concerning three unanswered complaints which appeared to suggest an insufficiently staffed system:

“Many thanks for the complaints you have sent since the beginning of August (attached) with apologies for evidently yet-to-come replies due to the volume of correspondence and (un)availability of relevant staff. I hope you will understand…

More to the point, the complaints are all with the appropriate editorial staff and I hope to have responses to them in due course.”  

Replies received at Stage 1a not infrequently give the impression that they are intended to fob off the complainant.

The accessibility of the complaints procedure is in itself an issue: BBC Watch regularly receives e-mails to our ‘contact us’ address from members of the British public who have difficulty navigating the BBC’s complex and tedious online complaints form.

However on page 49 of its report we discover that OFCOM is of the opinion that the outsourced system is up to standard.

“When a BBC viewer or listener has a complaint, it is important that there is a fair and transparent process in place to hear their views. We believe the current BBC complaints system achieves this at the early stages of the complaints process, but we have some significant concerns […] about the later stages. […]

The BBC’s complaints statistics for 2018/19 indicate that ‘BBC First’ continues to work effectively and most complainants are satisfied with the BBC’s final response to their complaint.”

How OFCOM came to that conclusion regarding complainant satisfaction is not explained.

OFCOM does however have “significant concerns” about the later stage of the complaints procedure – the stage handled by the BBC itself.

Page 53: “However, […] we consider the BBC should provide more transparency on the reasons for its findings from the Executive Complaints Unit on compliance with the relevant requirements in the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines which reflect the Ofcom Broadcasting Code. We will be addressing the BBC’s lack of transparency in this area as a matter of urgency.”

Page 21: “Transparency is important for public confidence in the operation and effectiveness of the BBC’s complaints process. While we consider, generally, that the BBC First process is working well […] a recent case has given us significant concerns that the way in which the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit (‘ECU’) currently publishes its decisions does not give transparency to this part of its complaints process and the reasons for the decisions it reaches on compliance with relevant requirements in the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines which reflect the Ofcom Broadcasting Code.”

As for OFCOM’s own handling of complaints concerning BBC content (page 49):

“Between 1 April 2018 and 31 March 2019, Ofcom received a total of 1,539 content standards complaints about the BBC. However, of these: 1,272 complaints were referred back to the BBC under ‘BBC First’. Although these complaints were about BBC programmes, after an initial assessment we found that these complainants had not completed the BBC’s complaints process before submitting their complaint to Ofcom; and 236 complaints had completed the BBC’s complaints process, but the complainant was not satisfied with the outcome. In all but two of these complaints we did not consider that the complaint raised a substantive issue under the Code which warranted further investigation.” [emphasis added]

OFCOM does not specify how many of those 1,272 complaints it referred back to the BBC reached it because BBC Audience Services regularly refers complainants to OFCOM:

Regrettably, in the two and a half years since OFCOM became the BBC’s external regulator BBC Watch has been unable to discern any meaningful improvement in the BBC’s handling of complaints which, in contrast to OFCOM’s opinion, we consider to be far too slow in comparison to other media outlets, cumbersome and lacking transparency.  

BBC ECU publishes ‘Alternativity’ complaint finding

In July the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit (ECU) informed BBC Watch that it had upheld one of the three points made in a complaint concerning a BBC Two Christmas 2017 programme titled ‘Alternativity‘.

BBC’s ECU upholds part of BBC Watch ‘Alternativity’ complaint – part one

As noted at the time:

“According to further communication with the ECU, that finding “will be published in due course on the complaints pages of bbc.co.uk“. BBC Watch does not know what the BBC considers to be “due course” after it has taken over six months for a point rejected at stages 1a and 1b to be upheld by the ECU.”

Two months later – and over nine months after the complaint was originally submitted – that finding now appears on the BBC News website.