Handling of Complaints
A response from mediawatch-uk to an Office of Communications (Ofcom) Consultation
mediawatch-uk is aware that the Office of Communications will be receiving complaints about programme and advertising content from 8 December 2003 onwards.
We have already sought, without success, clarification from the Chief Executive of Ofcom, whether or not there will be a dedicated telephone line or 'Hotline' and e-mail address for the public to communicate directly with the regulator about harmful or offensive broadcast content that they do not find generally acceptable. We are pleased, however, to have ascertained from another source, that these facilities are being provided and we very much welcome this as the key to involving the viewing and listening public in determining standards.
Section 4 of this Consultation states that the complainant will be asked if he/she "has considered contacting the relevant broadcaster". It would be helpful to know if Ofcom intends that complainants do this first and if the response is not satisfactory then to seek relief from Ofcom.
mediawatch-uk believes that the public should be encouraged to take up these matters with Ofcom since no monitoring of correspondence with the TV and Radio companies seems to be envisaged. This section assumes a high level of public knowledge of the Codes and what might constitute a breach. What plans does Ofcom have to ensure that viewers and listeners are aware of the Codes especially in the light of the declared aim to ensure that consumers are informed?
mediawatch-uk believes that every household in the UK should be provided with a fact sheet, or similar, for example a 'factfile' as produced by the ITC and Radio Authority, setting out contact details and the terms of the Codes.
Section 5 has good provisions but why have different time limits for complaints applying to terrestrial channels and satellite channels? Why not 60 or 90 days for all? This would make sense and overcome any public confusion.
Section 7 seems to suggest that complaints will not be considered if there is no suggestion in that complaint that a Code has been breached. Most people complain about programmes if they have been offended in some way or the content is in bad taste or is indecent or perceived to be harmful or just not acceptable. These judgements tend to be subjective and are not dependent on whether the complainant believes that a Code has been breached. Is it proposed that complaints not suggesting a breach be rejected without consideration?
Section 10 does not indicate what happens in the event of a complaint being upheld by Ofcom. Is it envisaged, for example, that Ofcom will require the broadcaster to transmit the finding and require remedial action to be taken by the broadcaster?
Section 11 does not explain what will happen in the event of complaints not being resolved and in what circumstances a formal intervention will be necessary. Nor does it explain what a "formal intervention" will amount to in practice. What are the terms of the "discretion" available to Ofcom? Such discretion puts viewers and listeners at a disadvantage if this is not known.
Section 15 seems to suggest that there will be two hurdles for the complainant to overcome (the case officer and a line manager) to establish if a Code has been breached. This would seem to suggest a requirement that any complaint sent into Ofcom by a member of the viewing and listening public must always be couched in terms stating that a breach of the Code has occurred. Again this suggests an intimate knowledge of the Code that most people lack. The task before Ofcom to improve the overall level of media literacy in this regard is enormous and this surely ought to be taken into account in this present Consultation Paper. It would be helpful to know, therefore, what proposals Ofcom has to improve media literacy?
Section 17 does not state how frequently findings will be published. Is it envisaged that there will be monthly bulletins of both programme and advertising complaints and findings as presently published by the ITC and the BSC?
Section 18 does not indicate the full range of sanctions although we certainly welcome the possibility of direction that a programme or advertisement may not be repeated if a breach of the Code has occurred. The failure to stop repeats of programmes in breach of the Codes has been a central weakness of the regulatory regime Ofcom replaces.
Section 19 establishes the possibility of a review where dissatisfaction is apparent. We welcome this proposal which, for the viewing and listening public, has not previously been a possibility (except within BBC procedures).
Section 22 provides for separate review and we welcome this.
Section 23 sets out surprisingly limited circumstances in which the Content Board will be involved in the overall scheme of content regulation. The Content Board was established as part of the structure of Ofcom to be a representative body advising the main Board. If it is envisaged that the Content Board will do more than conduct reviews of decisions made by Case Officers and Line Managers it should perhaps be stated as being one of its numerous functions.
We set out below, as an appendix, a news release summarising our paper 'A Fair Deal For Stakeholders' on how the position of viewers and listeners could be strengthened.
Ten point plan
NEWS RELEASE 5/11/2001
mediawatch-uk today launches a ten point plan to strengthen the position of viewers and listeners. "In the new regulatory regime called 'OFCOM' there should be far more emphasis on involving the public in determining programme policy", said John Beyer, the Director of mediawatch-uk.
'A Fair Deal for Stakeholders' is published as the Communications Bill progresses through the House of Lords. The plan calls for:
· Broadcasters to present the public with far-sighted plans that demonstrate a real passion for excellence.
· A new definitive Code of Practice that will apply to all licensed TV and Radio services.
· A system of content regulation based on clearly defined principles ensuring that standards of taste and decency in programmes will progressively improve.
· Powers to impose sanctions and a new offence of bringing broadcasting into disrepute.
· An independent consumers panel, (or one-stop-shop) with a high profile and strong links to the viewing and listening public.
· Regular promotional TV and Radio programmes about the work of Ofcom, the Content Board and the Consumers Panel.
· Publication of regular reports on monitored programme content, TV and Radio channel performance reviews and analysis of complaints.
· The distribution to every household of a 'Factfile' or 'Directory' giving contact information of all TV and Radio services and inviting comment about programmes.
· The appointment of a 'Compliance Officer' for every licensed TV and Radio service to secure that programmes comply with the Code of Practice.
· Retention of existing powers to recommend Proscription Orders against unacceptable foreign satellite channels.
9 December 2003