Artillery Row

Ofcom threatens diversity of opinion

Is it actually the function of our cultural institutions to reflect society as divided into arbitrary interest groups; and, even so, is it any business of the state, acting through Ofcom?

Watching select committees in operation is in most cases a toe-curlingly dull activity reserved for chronic insomniacs. But sometimes they can turn up gold dust. Last week’s grilling by the parliamentary Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee of Ofcom’s new head Dame Melanie Dawes was a case in point. The insight it gives the listener about the way the great and the good see the arts is fascinating and depressing in equal measure.

By way of background, Ofcom regulates all over-the-air broadcasting in the UK. Not only does it divide up the spectrum and license stations, in addition – and rather more importantly – it has taken over the supervisory powers that used to be exercised by the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Independent Television Commissions and expanded them.

Ofcom now has very extensive – some might say dictatorial – power to monitor content and regulate the way broadcasters are run, including for example their employment practices. Coupled with that it has the right to penalise or fine them (or in extreme cases drive them off the air) if they break the rules: a right which in recent years it has shown little compunction in exercising. It was these functions that exercised the Committee.

The parliamentary charge was led by John Nicolson, an ex-BBC staffer with achingly right-on views, now SNP MP for South Perthshire and the Committee’s most pugnacious member. He made no bones about the fact that he was worried about the way Ofcom was exercising its supervisory powers. It wasn’t that the organisation was intervening too much, or in the wrong way, or being heavy-handed. Far from it. The difficulty was, in his view, the opposite: for all its recent activity, Ofcom wasn’t doing enough. There had to be a great deal more control over what broadcasters said and did, and hence over what the rest of us were allowed to hear and see on our screens. 

There is much to be said for reducing the control over broadcasting exercised by a narrow metropolitan elite

Two things particularly concerned him. One was Ofcom’s failure to take steps to ensure diversity in the broadcasting industry, both front and back of house. It was a matter of representation, he said. Wasn’t it shocking that we didn’t see more disabled and BAME people on screen and in broadcasting management, or that someone might find themselves the only BAME person in a newsroom? Wouldn’t it be a brilliant coup, he went on, if an obviously trans news anchor could be appointed? “You’re absolutely right,” cooed Dame Melanie in agreement. To her too, what mattered was how people felt portrayed. Disabled people were calling out for more people like them on their screens; there was, she said, a crying need for representation of BAME people throughout broadcasting, and broadcasters needed to go into the highways and byways to recruit more of them at all levels. As regards trans representation, it was the same: the numbers might be small, but he could rest assured Ofcom were working on it. 

Mr Nicholson’s other bugbear was that broadcasters, legally bound as they were to be broadly neutral on matters of political and social controversy, were being – wait for it – too even-handed. In his own words: “The BBC seems to be under the impression that it’s got to balance out all its reports about trans issues now by calling in transphobic groups like the so-called LGB Alliance to give a counter-argument. I mean, I think this is absurd.”

In his view the BBC had committed the serious sin of “buckling” to a well-funded campaign to attack trans people; its practice in allowing those not signed up to the full programme of trans rights airtime was equivalent to asking head-banging racists to comment on stories about race relations. And this wasn’t only true of trans matters. In the same way, he regarded as outrageous any attempt in a programme about anti-gay attitudes to allow publicity to people or organisations not properly committed to full gay equality.

As before, he found himself pushing on an open door. These were very good points, agreed Dame Melanie. Even as they spoke, she went on to assure him, the organisation was in personal contact with Stonewall, so that broadcasters could “steer their way through these debates without causing offence and without bringing inappropriate voices to the table,” and that balance was not seen as an excuse for allowing the airing of unsuitable views.

This may sound a reassuringly grown-up and non-confrontational way of administering the airwaves. Looked at more closely, however, it raises a number of problems.

Is it actually the function of our cultural institutions, to reflect society as divided into arbitrary interest groups?

First of all, when everyone politely agrees with everyone else and largely come from the same background in media or administration, a number of important questions apt to go unasked. For one, apart from BBC focus groups (a self-selecting bunch at the best of times), is there really a spontaneous cry from disabled people up and down the kingdom demanding to be able to look at more disabled people on screen, or to be told in the credits that a back-of-house producer is disabled and so presumably feels their pain? One doubts it, if only because most of us watch television as a means of educating ourselves and escaping our own small world rather than looking back at it; and whatever they may say in answer to well-meaning surveys, there’s not much reason to think disabled people are any different.

Again, imagine a black person in a newsroom among a sea of white faces. Does he really feel happier if there is an Indian person (just as much BAME) in the same room, or for that matter is he likely to be very interested in skin colour anyway (whatever he may say when filling in the inclusivity questionnaires so thoughtfully provided by his employer)? Is it actually the function of the BBC, or any cultural institution, to reflect society as divided into arbitrary interest groups; and, even more to the point, is it any business of the state, acting through Ofcom, whether it does or not? The answers to these questions are by no means obvious. 

Secondly, the exchange on the subject of neutrality is distinctly worrying. It’s all very well for Mr Nicolson to talk dismissively of “transphobic groups like the so-called LGB Alliance”, and for Dame Melanie to nod her civil service head smilingly and intone the necessity to deny airtime to “inappropriate” groups. But neutrality can’t be dismissed as easily as that. Grant that even given obligations of neutrality the murmuration of flat-earthers don’t deserve to be taken seriously; grant also that we rightly refuse to air crude assertions in the nature of “I can’t stand black people” or “God hates f**s” which don’t reflect any attempt at rational persuasion. But that’s not the issue here.

Mr Nicolson may personally think that the LGB Alliance is wrong-headed when it questions whether trans women are women, or whether biological sex is an arbitrary social construct. But these are matters of intellectual controversy among open-minded people, and the LGB Alliance is a respectable organisation prepared to engage in rational argument. Using words like “transphobic” in order to shut it up does no service to the idea of a BBC, or broadcast media generally, open to a diversity of ideas. 

Again, even an assertion of the need for some aspect of gay equality is not automatically something to be given a free run. Whether or not you accept them, there are respectable arguments held by large numbers of Catholics on the morality of sexual behaviour outside marriage. Again, these are views which can be asserted in the course of an open-minded discussion, and which cannot properly be excluded from being aired, merely by uttering the word “homophobia” or something similar as a kind of talisman to get rid of views you don’t like. 

Yet despite this Ofcom is apparently being encouraged, with every evidence of enthusiasm on its part, to exclude particular opinions from the airwaves on the basis that they are offensive or inappropriate. This looks far removed from an aim to promote open argument or neutrality.

Indeed, Ofcom inadvertently lent a good deal of credence to this conclusion with its assurance to the Committee that it was enthusiastically engaging with experts and advisers from Stonewall. Now, Stonewall is no doubt a very worthy institution; but it is very much a pressure group which a definite stance on what views are and are not acceptable. That its advice should be followed by an institution whose job it is to hold the ring of impartiality between different strongly held views does not engender great confidence.

In short, Ofcom and the DCMS seem quietly united in promoting a view of broadcasting that, far from promoting a diverse and argumentative airwave culture, is curiously dirigiste. The BBC and other broadcasters are being gently pushed by the state into drearily uniform outlook; one that concentrates on representational identity politics rather than producing content that viewers might actually want and appreciate. Its social message appears to promote a consistent liberal, egalitarian and cosmopolitan worldview, with the audience carefully protected from any ideas which might seriously contradict it. 

Why is all this happening? Oddly enough the reason may be a lack of diversity, though in a slightly different sense from how Ofcom likes to use the word. Interestingly, all the players in the described exchange come from a pretty homogeneous metropolitan background. The chairman of the Committee, Julian Knight, also impressed on Dame Melanie his view that there was a need to keep inappropriate views off air. Now he was no radical, but a middle-to-left Tory: but his sharing of the consensus becomes less surprising when one discovers that he too has done time at the BBC. Dame Melanie came up through an impeccable new Civil Service cursus honorum, including spells as (perhaps inevitably) ‘gender champion’ and ‘diversity champion’. In other words, all come from much the same background as the media they are supposed to control.

If we want serious commitment to a different view of broadcasting, one that values spontaneity, originality and free speech, there is much to be said for reducing the control over it exercised by a narrow metropolitan elite. The first stage, as I have argued before in The Critic, might be to deprive Ofcom of its oversight over what is broadcast. That might at least start the process of allowing broadcasters to give us, their viewers, the kind of programmes we would choose to watch rather than those some well-meaning regulator thinks will be good for us.

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