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Background

Regulatory framework

The BBC’s Board is responsible for ensuring the delivery of the BBC’s mission and public purposes. Moreover, the Royal Charter and the accompanying Framework Agreement establish that it is a duty of the BBC Board to set the standards for the BBC’s editorial and creative output and services. The Editorial Guidelines and Standards Committee is responsible for advising the Board on whether the BBC’s editorial standards are being upheld. Separately, the Executive’s Editorial Standards and Complaints Committee reports to the Executive Committee on editorial standards, risks, complaints and compliance.

The BBC is externally regulated by Ofcom.

BBC

The BBC’s constitution is set out in a Royal Charter (PDF) which is granted by Statutory Order in Privy Council and renewed around every ten years. The rules under which it operates are set out in a Framework Agreement (PDF) between the BBC and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

The current Royal Charter was approved in December 2016 and began on 1 January 2017, following a lengthy review process. It runs until 31 December 2027.

Upon the expiry of the BBC’s Royal Charter, “no recommendation may be made to His Majesty in Council” to grant a further charter until the review requirements laid out in article 59 of the current Royal Charter have been fulfilled. This includes consultation with the public, the BBC, Ofcom and any person the Secretary of State “considers appropriate”. A draft of the proposed charter and framework agreement must be laid before Parliament and debated by each House, although the renewal of the Royal Charter does not require Parliamentary approval.

Impartiality and the Charter

Under the BBC’s Royal Charter, the BBC’s object is “the fulfilment of its mission and the promotion of the public purposes” (Article 4). Its mission “is to act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain” (Article 5). The public purposes are set out in Article 6 and include the following references to impartiality:

6. The Public Purposes

The Public Purposes of the BBC are as follows.

(1) To provide impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them: the BBC should provide duly accurate and impartial news, current affairs and factual programming to build people’s understanding of all parts of the United Kingdom and of the wider world. Its content should be provided to the highest editorial standards. It should offer a range and depth of analysis and content not widely available from other United Kingdom news providers, using the highest calibre presenters and journalists, and championing freedom of expression, so that all audiences can engage fully with major local, regional, national, United Kingdom and global issues and participate in the democratic process, at all levels, as active and informed citizens.

[…]

(5) To reflect the United Kingdom, its culture and values to the world: the BBC should provide high-quality news coverage to international audiences, firmly based on British values of accuracy, impartiality, and fairness. Its international services should put the United Kingdom in a world context, aiding understanding of the United Kingdom as a whole, including its nations and regions where appropriate. It should ensure that it produces output and services which will be enjoyed by people in the United Kingdom and globally.

BBC Editorial Guidelines

The Royal Charter and the accompanying Framework Agreement establish that it is a duty of the BBC Board to set the standards for the BBC’s editorial and creative output and services. This is fulfilled by producing and upholding its Editorial Guidelines.

Complaints procedure

The Charter and the Framework Agreement allow the BBC to define the details of how its complaints process works in practice. This is referred to as the ‘BBC First process’ for resolving editorial complaints:

  • Stage 1A: Initial response from BBC Audience Services.
  • Stage 1B (if the complaint is progressed further): A response with input from a BBC Manager or member of the editorial team.
  • Stage 2 (if the complaint is progressed further): A response from the BBC Executive Complaints Unit.
  • Stage 3 (if the complaint is progressed further): Escalation to Ofcom.[5]

From stage 1A to 2 the complaint is assessed against the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines and Standards. At stage 3, it is assessed against Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code (unless it is in regard to online material, and then the Editorial Guidelines apply).

Ofcom

Ofcom regulates the BBC and has responsibility for all areas of BBC content standards, including the accuracy and impartiality of news, and the impartiality of any programme covering matters of political or industrial controversy and issues relating to current public policy.

Further information about how the Ofcom regulates the BBC is available on its Regulation of the BBC webpages.

The BBC must comply with the regulatory conditions in its licence. If Ofcom is satisfied that the BBC has failed to comply with a condition, and has given the BBC a reasonable opportunity to make representations about the matter, Ofcom can:

  • direct the BBC (or accept undertakings from the BBC) to take such steps Ofcom consider will remedy the failure to comply, and ensure that the BBC complies with their requirements properly in future.
  • serve on the BBC a notice requiring it to pay to Ofcom, within a specified period, a specified penalty up to a maximum of £250,000.

Ofcom publishes an annual assessment of the BBC’s compliance against its regulatory requirements and of its performance against Ofcom’s performance measures. In addition, Ofcom must conduct at least two in-depth periodic reviews of the BBC’s performance during the Charter period, and it can carry out additional reviews where it feels it is appropriate to do so.

In its most recent annual report on the BBC’s performance, Ofcom said that the BBC “must continue to challenge and ask difficult questions of itself as it embeds its impartiality recommendations”. It completed three standards investigations in 2022/23 (two of these concerned content broadcast in 2021); all three concerned BBC’s obligations in regard to due impartiality. One breach was recorded, and in the other two instances Ofcom concluded that was no breach of impartiality rules.

Government role

The BBC is operationally and editorially independent of Government and there is no provision for the Government to intervene in the BBC’s day-to-day operations. However, the Secretary of State does regularly meet with the Director General of the BBC and has previously used these meetings to raise concerns around the BBC’s coverage of particular events.


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