In a wide-ranging talk with Cathy Newman, Ofcom CEO Sharon White insists that broadcasters must act on ethnic-minority targets
Q Cathy Newman: Under the BBC’s new Charter, the BBC is in charge of governance, Ofcom is in charge of regulation. It sounds simple. Are you clear about where the dividing line is?
A Sharon White: There are three new areas of responsibility for us. First, we will now be overseeing news and current affairs on the BBC for impartiality and accuracy.
Nick Robinson used to be political editor of ITV News – that used to be Ofcom. When he moved to the BBC we didn’t, in the past, have a role. That was the Trust. In future, we’re going to be able to oversee all of that.
Q Cathy Newman: Does Nick Robinson have more to fear from you?
A Sharon White: I don’t want to single out Nick. As a regulator, whether it’s on ITV or the BBC, you take your decision independently, without fear or favour. We will do a good job and a fair job. This brings consistency to the way we think about ITV, Channel 4, Sky and the BBC, all under one roof.
Q Cathy Newman: Will you have slightly sharper teeth than the BBC Trust did?
A Sharon White: For us, it’s broadly recognised that merging the role of being the advocate and cheerleader for the BBC, with that of being the people who are holding the BBC to account, is a tough gig.
I completely see the logic of why the Government decided to unlink those two. The Trust did a good job in a system where it almost had one hand tied behind its back. I think we’ll do a good job with the advantage, I hope, of a clearer delineation between us and the new board.
Q Cathy Newman: The BBC gets 10 times the number of complaints that all its rivals put together get. Do you have the resources to manage that?
A Sharon White: The BBC gets about 250,000 complaints a year. The rest of the system combined gets about 25,000. We’re obviously doing a very good job! For a first line of defence, the complaints will go first to the BBC, not directly to Ofcom. We are there as the appeals body and also as the set of people who, if we worry that something isn’t quite right, can then step in.
Q Cathy Newman: Isn’t it a cop-out to describe yourself as a backstop?
A Sharon White: I don’t like the word backstop. It is important to be clear that, under the new system, the primary responsibility is to ensure that the BBC meets its public purposes: the aims and objectives [of]great news and current affairs, great, distinctive, high-quality programmes.
That job is principally the BBC’s. The job of regulator is not to be running the BBC. My job is not being chair of the board, it is to ensure that the BBC is held to account, and we will do that job to the best of our ability. Now, whether you call that a backstop or a second line of defence, I don’t know.…
Q Cathy Newman: Have you got the resources?
A Sharon White: We’re in that happy process of hiring new people. We’re an organisation of about 800 colleagues. About 50 are employed in content and media work. We’ll broadly double the number of people we have working on the TV side. We are recruiting like mad. The good thing is that there are lots of great people who want to work for us.
Also, now that the Charter agreement is out in draft, we are designing a new rule book. There will be a broadcasting framework – rules on how we’re going to assess the impact of BBC changes on the rest of the market. It’s a big job and it’s a big intervention, but we don’t start from scratch. I am confident that we’ll get there by 3 April 2017.
"Do I think that Ofcom ought to be regulating Twitter, Facebook and Google? No, I don’t"
Q Cathy Newman: Great stress is put on “distinctiveness” in the BBC Charter. How well do you think BAME audiences are represented by the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV?
A Sharon White: We’ve spent a lot of time talking to audiences about what they love about program-
ming and the areas where they feel there is a gap. Overall, people think that the BBC is doing a pretty good job. Public service broadcasting generally is doing a pretty good job – with some very important exceptions.
Roughly speaking, the exceptions are in the areas of diversity. If you are – I don’t like the term BAME – from an ethnic-minority background, you don’t see yourself represented.… If you’re an Asian [or if] you’re from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, you don’t feel your stories are being told.…
It’s broadly true that all public service broadcasters are not yet doing a good enough job to reflect diversity. There are some fantastic exceptions – Channel 4’s coverage of the Paralympics this year beat what it did in 2012. Disability is probably the area that all broadcasters do least well. So, here was a demonstration that, with commitment, we can do better – but we are not where we should be.
Q Cathy Newman: What should broadcasters do to tackle this?
A Sharon White: Definitely, in the year and a half I’ve been at Ofcom, there have been more discussions and a sense that there is a greater willingness to go beyond warm words to action.
I’m personally interested in harder diversity targets. They are not the whole answer. At the moment, we’ve got quotas on spending money in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, but whether that money is actually devoted to sustaining the creative economy in those countries is a question.
I think targets have to be combined with commitment from the commissioners – particularly from those in the commercial sector. There is a strong commercial imperative. Targets are not the whole answer....
The BBC has talked about beating the best of the public service broadcasters in terms of not just what you see on your screens, but, crucially, the make-up of the people who are commissioning and sitting behind the camera.
Q Cathy Newman: Are you passing the buck to broadcasters? Could you not do more to ensure that they live up to their promises?
A Sharon White: I think that diversity is an area where Ofcom probably hasn’t in the past done as much as we might have. Certainly, we’re keen for this to start to rise further up the priority list. I do think that, if you’re in a world where the regulator is punishing the broadcasters for failing to deliver diverse programmes, then you’re in a second- or third-best world.
The idea is that all of us sitting in the TV industry recognise it’s not just because the regulator is saying, “You haven’t done your homework”.… You want to be where diversity in the broadest sense is reflected on our TV screens and, ideally, not in a world where I’m issuing fines to ITV or Tony Hall because their programmes are failing to meet their [diversity] targets.
Q Cathy Newman: But are you ready to issue fines if the broadcasters don’t get their act together?
A Sharon White: I’d like to feel that, with the commitment and with the regulator working constructively with the industry, we can do this because we think it is the right thing to do.…
As we take on regulation of the BBC, which now has much stronger public purposes around diversity, we will want to look quite closely at how we can make those quite hard-edged. [For example,] whether you have specific targets for employment or spending; whether you try to parallel the sort of arrangements that we have had for the nations in terms of specific budgets or people.…
I know that there is some discussion over whether you [should] have some ring-fenced spending or not. We will want to look at all of this closely; this is going to be an area where I personally want to give a harder edge than we have had in the past.
Q Cathy Newman: Turning to The Great British Bake Off, do you understand the anxiety people have about the shift from the BBC?
A Sharon White: What we’ve seen by Bake Off moving to Channel 4, is that there’s a thriving market for the independent sector.
I do think that there is an important conversation [to be had] about the entirety of the BBC’s output in terms of its distinctiveness. Similarly, too, for Channel 4, which has got very, very clear, very, very distinctive purposes in terms of diversity and encouraging the ecosystem and encouraging new ideas to come through.
Q Cathy Newman: Bake Off is an old idea re-heated on Channel 4. Is that consistent with Channel 4’s remit to innovate?
A Sharon White: I’m fascinated to see what Channel 4 does with The Great British Bake Off. I will be interested to look at not just a single programme but the entirety of Channel 4’s output. Is it still doing what it’s done in the past – nurturing great talent? The last time that we gave Channel 4 a health check, other than concerns about programmes for older children, actually Channel 4 was doing a pretty good job.
Q Cathy Newman: So, invest some of the profits from Bake Off in distinctive programmes?
A Sharon White: The more that Channel 4 is able to invest in new talent, new ideas, diverse communities, new drama – great drama, at the moment, but the spend on drama is falling across the sector – I think that would be a good outcome…
Q Cathy Newman: So, you would look favourably on the BBC broadcasting a replacement Bake Off?
A Sharon White: I will not be making a judgement on individual programmes or the timing of individual programmes.… I don’t think you want your regulator to be getting into micromanagement of the schedules. Our job is to look at a channel as a whole.
Q Cathy Newman: Do you think it is fair that TV shows are subject to tough regulation but that it is still a free-for-all online?
A Sharon White: All our rules apply, as you know, to the TV in your front room. Some of our rules, in a much lighter form, apply to catch-up TV. Poldark on catch-up, we still regulate, but in a much lighter way than when you watch it live....
At the same time, we do have a role, which we work very hard at, to ensure that very difficult material on the internet – encouragement to extremism, abuse of images, pornography and so on… (and we work very closely with the Facebooks of this world)… that the net is clear of that sort of material…
I worry about creeping regulation. But, while Facebook and Twitter may not have a legal obligation, they have a very moral obligation to ensure that the material that is effectively on their airways doesn’t cause harm or offence.
Q Cathy Newman: But, arguably, without getting myself into legal difficulties, Facebook and Twitter are failing. Take misogynistic abuse. Isn’t that a case where the regulator should be stepping in?
A Sharon White: I agree with you that, as a regular Twitter user, there is a real issue in terms of how it balances freedom of expression with some very difficult material. There are criminal proceedings and so on that are taking place.
Do I think that Ofcom ought to be regulating Twitter, Facebook and Google? No, I don’t.
Q Cathy Newman: Isn’t that because you don’t want the extra workload and hassle? Isn’t there a consumer interest in you having more of a role?
A Sharon White: My concern is that it is fairly difficult on the internet to have a clear cut-off line between where you’ve essentially got material that is a bit like TV and everything else.
That’s why we’ve got this very particular definition of TV-like material that we do regulate.
My worry is about the slippery slope and whether you get regulation where, actually, regulation shouldn’t be. But the companies do need to do more.
Sharon White, CEO of Ofcom, was interviewed by Cathy Newman, Channel 4 News. The session was produced by Denise Bassett and Nigel Warner.