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BBC falling short on reflecting older women

10 October 2016

The BBC is “falling short” on its obligations towards older women and minority communities, the head of the UK’s media watchdog has said.

Ofcom chief executive Sharon White said that although the BBC had “special status” in public life, it would not be getting special treatment from the regulator.

White was critical of the BBC’s portrayals of people from different regions and communities. She said: “I would expect the BBC to be more distinctive, to have high-quality programming and to be investing in great drama, great news production and stories that really reflect the country with all its diverse makeup.

“All the research we have done broadly shows that people think the BBC is doing a good job, but it is falling short on those stories that reflect all of the nation and its communities.

“We have done an awful lot of research, talking to people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and they do not feel the stories being told sufficiently reflect their stories.

“On minority communities, older women, it is not doing as good a job as it should be. There is a gap there and it is a gap I would like to see closed over time,” White told the Financial Times.

A 2015 Ofcom report, which examined BBC channels as well as ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, found that one in five Scottish viewers and one in four in Northern Ireland said they were negatively portrayed on the UK’s public service channels. Researchers found that 55% of respondents from black and ethnic groups felt they were under-represented in public service programming.

Ofcom is set to replace the BBC Trust as the corporation’s regulator from next April, taking over the role of ensuring it upholds the public commitments set out by the government’s new BBC charter. Ofcom already monitors the rest of British television, radio and video on-demand platforms, and is accountable to parliament.

A BBC spokesman said: “Ofcom are clear that the research they are referring to is for all public service broadcasters not just the BBC but, despite that, we’re always happy to debate what we do on screen and we don’t think any broadcaster does better than in representing older women than the BBC.

Citing Mary Berry, Anne Robinson, Felicity Kendal and Gloria Hunniford, he added that the BBC was “proud of the fact that the BBC of today has a huge range of women presenters across TV and radio”.

In April, the corporation set out ambitious new diversity targets, including 50% of women on air across all genres from news to drama by 2020. It has plans to address the portrayal of audiences in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and to increase the spending of licence fee funds in those nations.

White set out the four priority areas Ofcom will measure to ensure the corporation is meeting its obligation to be distinctive, which is a key part of the charter.

White said that Ofcom was still working out the details of how it would measure the BBC’s distinctiveness, but it would initially focus on its delivery of drama, UK-made content, children’s programming and news and current affairs. These are regarded by the public as the “cornerstones of public service broadcasting,” she said.

The move to becoming regulated by Ofcom comes at a time when the corporation is under intense political and financial pressure, needing to make £800m a year in savings due to the government’s policy of making it finance free TV licences for the over-75s.

Television programmes regulated by Ofcom must comply with the rules and principles of the Ofcom broadcasting code, which includes directives on taste and decency standards, fairness and privacy. Decisions about breaches of that code are made by a board. The watchdog will also be responsible for monitoring the effect on the private sector of BBC services and channels.

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