Pulling Together


Is Ofcom fit for purpose?

The BBC seemed to take some delight in Ofcom’s announcement it has launched an investigation into GB News’ “Don’t Kill Cash” campaign on the basis licenced public service broadcasters should not embrace “controversial” causes.

This seems odd to the casual observer. What could be controversial about supporting a public right to pay in the national currency which has existed for centuries? Coins of the realm and Bank of England notes are legal tender, a term ordinary people have always understood to mean they must be accepted as valid money by anyone requiring payment for anything.

It seems possible the general understanding of this legal term might be off a bit, which is often the case with legal technicalities, otherwise cashless shops would be breaking the law, but this has come as a shock to most of us. We have always had confidence that the pound in our pocket would get us out of trouble if we needed to spend money. Now, it seems, that confidence is gone and many are becoming concerned. However convenient it might be to pay by card or phone, the idea that people without access to those technologies might be unable to pay for things, that ordinary money might prove worthless, especially in this era of “debanking”, is terrifying.

However, Ofcom seems to consider GB News’ action controversial. Evidently Ofcom finds something about this issue politically contentious, which is odd when one considers what it allows the BBC to get away with.

What, exactly, does Ofcom find objectionable here? Is it that the broadcaster has dared to embrace a cause? Yet the BBC runs an annual Children in Need appeal and another one for the homeless charity run by St Martin’s-in-the-fields. It runs weekly appeals for funds for various charities at 4:25 pm every Thursday. These are not just embracing causes. They appeal for money. Why then, is a broadcaster running a petition so objectionable? One could object these are charities, but the distinction between charities and politics has worn thin in modern society. Many a partisan political organisation trying to change public understanding of a legal, social, or moral issue has charitable status these days.

So the objection does not seem to be to a broadcaster running an appeal, so much as to the fact the particular cause is controversial. So what is so controversial here? Is it that some people dislike cash so much they think others should not be permitted to use it? Would that be enough to make supporting its retention controversial? If that be the case, why does the same not apply to the unproven niche causes so ardently supported by the BBC. After all, the BBC uses neologisms many might find objectionable to report on issues, assuming one side to be obviously true despite the lack of hard empirical evidence. The BBC reports from a distinctively pseudo-liberal perspective, assuming the tropes of American Identity Politics are objectively real and rarely challenges those ideas. Many of us find these ideas highly controversial, so Ofcom ought to rein in the BBC and remind it of its duty of neutrality but it doesn’t. Although the population at large does not support their World View, most of the political class from which journalists, businessmen, and MPs are drawn have been formed within it and therefore cannot see the bias. Sadly, that seems to include Ofcom, who likewise will pounce on an organisation which shares not their understanding while letting those who do abuse their position with impunity. As a result, Ofcom cannot protect the public from misinformed prejudice because it is doomed to be instead the instrument imposing it.

What is to be done? There is no doubt we need a regulator for the communications industry, because much of it is dominated by near-monopoly companies. Unfortunately, it does sometimes seem as if Ofcom acts in their interests rather than the public’s. Telecoms services are often poor with support desks which take hours to answer the phone, engineers who don't turn up, or services cancelled without a refund. A few years ago I had a telephone company who failed to interact with arbitration or to do what the arbiter required as redress. It dragged on for years until the company finally claimed it had sent the refund to a previous address and the arbitration was summarily closed. I never got my money back, but the company continues to operate despite ignoring the regulatory requirements for over a year. So the first thing we need is a regulator which acts in the Public Interest rather than the industry’s. Then we need a regulator which is more aware of the diversity of views held by the public and less likely to assume that some political biases are more acceptable than others. We need a regulator which maintains fairness rather than imposing censorship or privilege. That requires careful attention to its remit and its governance. A reformed regulator is necessary, but it needs to be one which is demonstrably impartial and acts on evidence rather than its own opinion.

There was a time when such a requirement for public service would be taken for granted. Why would we expect anything less now?

About the Author

K J Petrie has a Full Technological Certificate in Radio, TV and Electronics, an HNC in Digital Electronics and a BA(Hons) in Theological Studies.

His interests include Christian and societal unity, Diverse Diversity, and freedoms from want, from fear, of speech, and of association. He is a member of the Social Democratic Party.

The views expressed here are entirely personal and unconnected with any body to which he belongs.

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