Opinion: Is Ofcom Really a Witch-Hunter?

In the Daily Mail (Tue Jan 5) Dominic Sandbrook argues that Ofcom is a pious witch-hunter, stamping on free speech and he likens it to the Thought Police in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

I fear his fears are justified.

The trigger for Sandbrook’s ire is the new ruling involving ‘hate speech’ which he says could have a devastating effect on radio and television’s ability to reflect free speech … and consequently will act as a wrecking ball. He says Ofcom ‘chills me to the core.’ Dominic Sandbrook is right.

This is why:

The old Radio Authority’s mantra was that with sensible regulation in place there should be fewer and fewer reasons for intervention. What Ofcom appears to be doing is creating as many opportunities for intervention as possible. This is not the act of a responsible regulator.

I have a tendency to plump for ‘cock-up’ rather than ‘conspiracy’ as a likely reason when crazy things happen. I hope that optimism is justified in this case. But I, like Mr Sandbrook, have grave worries in this instance.

Good regulation steers away from woolly words. Words like could, should, might and try. It should also steer away from creating rules which stand or fall entirely on matters of opinion.

Material is banned if it ‘directly or indirectly’ amounts to a call for disorder. And its definition of hate speech : All forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify hatred based on intolerance on the grounds of disability, ethnicity, social origin, gender, sex, gender reassignment, nationality, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation, colour, genetic features, language, political or any other opinion membership of a national minority, property, birth or age.

It if this doesn’t open a crate of worm cans then both Dominic Sandbrook and I will be asked to sit on Ofcom’s Content Board.

Sandbrook believes thought-provoking opinion pieces and controversial views will now start to attract the regulators’ gaze to an extent that is unhealthy. And that is what should worry our broadcast media.

What Ofcom appears to have done is to abdicate its necessary position from where it can take a grown-up, behind-the-scenes common-sense approach. It has plunged itself fully into the unreal cyber-world created by social media, where thinking is only ever binary. “You are with us or you are agin’ us”. “I am right and you are wrong”. Worse still …. “I am offended” or “You can’t say that.”

The propensity of the BBC to immerse itself in woke issues is bad enough. We do not need the regulator to blindly follow. No-one believes the area of free speech is easily regulated. What is happening at Ofcom, however, could make it even more difficult than it should be.

In the present political maelstrom it is as important as ever that stones are upturned and decisions queried. Moves like this by Ofcom do not sit well with such media values. Nor with audience expectations.

Ofcom’s rules do need to change as culture and technology and, indeed, thinking, move on apace, but the rules should not lose sight of the regulator’s raison d’être.

Ofcom has a duty to facilitate and help media, not to lurk around the corner ready to pounce.

There are issues which need tough regulation. The recent tragedies involving reality show participants demonstrate a case in point. Ofcom have issued guidelines about ‘duty of care’ and the like, but they don’t grasp the problem of the formidable march forward by programmes which clearly set out to make hay and exploit people who so obviously should never be allowed anywhere near the studio set.

Dabbling with such issues and trying to gain street-cred (which, any self-respecting regulator would understand, could and should not be attained) is a dangerous game. It means other issues for which it was created might go by the board. I give you on simple example.

It has taken weeks – and I mean weeks – to get an answer from Ofcom to one simple question. “Have you ever upheld a complaint against BBC Online?” I have still not had an answer. Just e-mails telling me someone else in the chain is being asked the question. If they cannot answer straight-forward questions like this, how on earth do we expect them to unravel the sort of problems they are creating for themselves with the woke world?

Take the phrase ‘political or other opinions.’ If ever there was an attempt to grow the swelling number of people looking to be offended, looking to make mischief or, worse still, determined to shut down opinion with which they disagree, then I have yet to come across it.

The best regulation is simple regulation. Yes, modern culture has created a problem for the media in which the regulator has a part to play. Yes, it is an area which is rightly of grave concern to Ofcom. So yes, they do need to address it. I fear this is not the solution, however.

It needs far more sensible consultation with the industry and a true team effort to work out if present rules are really not enough to achieve a practical outcome. Otherwise, this muddying of the waters helps no-one.

The shopping list of issues laid out in the new changes to which broadcasters must adhere mean our radio and television services will be flying blind in areas which have been difficult enough to tackle in the past. The future has not been made easier.

Martin Campbell is a Media Adviser with Media Objectives and a former chief adviser to Ofcom.

This article first appeared in eRADIO – the regular radio e-newsletter from RadioToday. Subscribe to receive the next edition here.