Is Ofcom fit for purpose?

Is Ofcom fit for purpose?

By Narinder Minhas,
Thursday, 6th May 2021
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Narinder Minhas finds much to enjoy in a new collection of essays examining the role of the communications regulator.

I can confirm that, growing up as a kid in south-east London, I never once dreamt about becoming a regulator. You know – running organisations that begin with the letters “Of...”. To be honest, I’m not sure that I know anyone who did.

And I’ve certainly not met anyone who had photos of great regulators – if there are any – on their bedroom walls. Me: I just wanted to play for Spurs and open the batting for India. Before you complain, it is possible to feel Indian and British, even English, all at the same time, especially if you weren’t born here.

Talking of complaints and not wishing to fuel our bitter culture wars, are we turning into a nation of TV complainers, offended by the slightest remark that doesn’t fit our rigid view of the world? What’s happened to freedom of speech? Curiosity? Tolerance?

Take, for example, the case of presenter Jeremy Vine, who received numerous Ofcom complaints for asking whether the lack of diversity at Prince Philip’s funeral was a “problem”. Or Good Morning Britain’s Dr Hilary Jones, who prompted complaints after she told a Covid-denying pub landlord that he should “stick to pulling pints”.

Strangely, the number of complaints is on the increase as audiences for traditional television channels decline. Perhaps it’s a sign of our increasingly divided and tribal society.

But how seriously should these complaints be taken, given that many appear to be politically motivated and charged? Who should adjudicate and can they really be objective? More widely, what kind of regulatory system does Britain need?

At the heart of this debate is Ofcom, Britain’s broadcasting and communications watchdog. As it approaches its 20th anniversary, it seems right to query its role and remit in our rather polarised society.

In a fascinating book of essays, What’s the Point of Ofcom?, those fundamental questions are explored in an unapologetic tone. As John Mair, the editor, writes: “Ofcom is one of the key regulators in 21st-century Britain. It is at the intersection of technology, culture and politics… [but] is it fit for purpose?”

This crucial question is given added spice as we build up to the announcement of the new Chair of Ofcom. Who­ever is appointed in the coming weeks – some are suggesting it could be Paul Dacre, the former editor of the Daily Mail – will police the entire communications sector, which includes the BBC, and “soon the giant tech platforms, too”.

‘Ofcom uses its powers to banish from the airwaves viewpoints it does not like’

The book, thankfully, has a rich range of voices across the political spectrum. Each essay is carefully crafted, from those who believe Ofcom is hopelessly weak to those that think it has assumed too much power. In the end, all of the writers wrestle with that most difficult of questions for any society: what is the right balance between freedom and constraint?

Sir Alan Moses kicks off with a strong critique of our current system. He was the first Chair of the Independent Press Standards Organisation and argues that self-regulation is the only way forward. Ultimately, the best checks and balances on any content provider, he says, are the consumers: “It would be worth trying a period without regulation. No regulation for anyone, neither broadcasters, nor the press. I doubt whether they behave worse, they are far too conscious of the need to attract readers, listeners and viewers.”

Moses believes that the current rules governing the public broadcasters have nurtured, in a memorable phrase, a stifling culture that “leads to the bland leading the bland”. In his view, it is the narrow interpretation of the concept of “fairness” that is to blame: “Balance leads all too soon to lack of controversy and lack of controversy to a world of master-cooking and mistress-dancing; there is often a feeble imprecision in the BBC’s ability to hold politicians to account.”

However, BBC journalist Clive Myrie begs to differ. In his essay, he compares the British regulatory framework, with its emphasis on impartially, with the much more laissez-faire US system.

As Myrie points out, “similar rules did exist in America, but were thrown out more than 30 years ago, when Ronald Reagan was President, and attempts since to revive the legislation have always stalled on the altar of the First Amendment – the right to free speech”.

As a result of the more “liberal” system in the US, Myrie argues that there is a “trust deficit at the heart of American democracy”, something he witnessed first-hand during last year’s extraordinary presidential election.

Not surprisingly, he says, the BBC is the most trusted news brand across America: “In the US, you can say what you like – your opinion is protected, and you can use all your power and might to beam that opinion right across the land, without giving any counterarguments, without reporting the opposing point of view.”

But others contest the idea that Ofcom is a neutral regulator, presiding over broadcasting like some giant referee equipped with VAR for all those instant replays (forgive the football analogy).

Ofcom, for Robin Aitken, a former BBC reporter, is a deeply political organisation – a biased referee, if you like – and should be recognised as such. It may not censor, but it controls public debate: “Whether one calls that ‘censorship’ or not is a semantic argument, but there is no doubt that Ofcom uses its powers to banish from the airwaves viewpoints and ideas it does not like”.

‘One of the biggest market failures is the lack of diversity’

To make his point, Aitken reminds us of the Overton window, a concept in social theory that there is a restricted range of ideas that the public finds acceptable for mainstream debate. He uses the example of Ofcom’s ruling against a broadcaster for interviewing David Icke about his views on how the pandemic “was a ruse by a New World Order to impose its will”. Whatever your take on Icke, Aitken argues, there is no doubt that “Mr Icke’s, and others’, rights to “free speech” were compromised” and Ofcom overstepped its remit.

Some think that Ofcom is too powerful, narrowly framing the national conversation along a broadly “woke” agenda. Others feel that it doesn’t intervene enough and should show its sharp teeth. Marcus Ryder, an academic and former head of current affairs at BBC Scotland, argues that Ofcom’s main job is to fix market failures. And, for him, one of the biggest market failures is the lack of diversity.

As an economist, he gently introduces us to “monopsony theory” as a way of explaining this lack of diversity: “A monopsony is when you have lots of sellers of a product but only one buyer. In these circumstances, it is the buyer who can dictate the price and how the market works.”

I had never viewed the lack of diversity as a market failure, but now it makes sense. “It is no coincidence,” says Ryder, “that both the tech and television industries seem to suffer… both have the problem of a few large companies dominating their industries.” He adds: “Monopsonies mean that companies will more likely hire their friends, promote people that look like them and retain people that they like, rather than people who might be the best person for the job.”

This is a book packed with insight. I’ve not even mentioned the brilliant essay by David Elstein on the decline of public service broadcasting, or Steven Barnett’s eloquent reminder of Ofcom’s cultural mission. OK, I won’t be sending in a late application to be Chair of Ofcom, but I’ve got to say that I’ve learnt so much from this absorbing book.

I do hope there are people out there dreaming of becoming a regulator. We definitely need you – if only to widen the choice.

Narinder Minhas is Co-Managing Director of Cardiff Productions.

What’s the Point of Ofcom?, edited by John Mair, is published independently, priced £7.99. ISBN: 979-8742003441

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