Downing Street denies Government is pursuing agenda against BBC

Downing Street has denied that the Government is pursuing an agenda against the BBC following a raft of reforms proposed as part of a mid-term review into the corporation.

Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer announced on Monday that media regulator Ofcom could gain enforcement action over BBC News website articles it does not believe meet relevant broadcast standards.

Currently, the communications regulator is only able to issue an opinion, but Government recommendations say Ofcom will be given increased oversight over the BBC’s online public services, including its YouTube channel.

Ms Frazer also said she believes the BBC has been biased “on occasion” when discussing these new measures.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman replied “no” when asked if the Government is pursuing an agenda against the corporation.

He added the proposed measures were “rightly about ensuring the BBC is able to continue to thrive long into the future”.

The spokesman declined to say whether Rishi Sunak believed the BBC is biased and also said: “It’s for Ofcom to hold the BBC to account against its responsibilities in the charter.”

In December, the Government announced that the increase in the television licence fee would be lower than expected, putting more pressure on its finances after a two-year freeze.

On Monday, Ms Frazer said: “I think that on occasion it (the BBC) has been biased,” citing coverage of a hospital attack in Gaza.

The Culture Secretary refused to say which other broadcasters she believed might be impartial, saying they were in “totally different positions” from the publicly funded corporation.

She told Sky News that “evidence” suggested there was a “perception amongst audiences” that there was some bias at the BBC.

When it was put to her that perceptions are not necessarily reality, Ms Frazer said: “There are only perceptions and perceptions are important.

“What’s important about the BBC is that it’s funded by the public, so the perception of audiences of the public are important.”

Her remarks were criticised by shadow culture secretary Thangam Debbonaire on X, formerly Twitter.

Ms Debbonaire, Labour MP for Bristol West, called Ms Frazer “just the latest in a long line of Secretaries of State for Culture Wars”.

She also said the Government should stop using the BBC as a “punching bag” and instead support it “to create wealth, jobs and joy”.

Ms Frazer had previously told MPs on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee that she would not go into “any specific examples of the examples of bias” at the BBC.

In a separate Monday interview, the minister declined to say whether she thinks it is right for someone on a six-figure salary to pay the same TV licence fee as someone on minimum wage, suggesting it was not a “simple question” when the review is ongoing.

Ms Frazer told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’m putting together an expert panel to look at how the media market is changing.

“That’s a very, very complex issue which will require expert evidence on… what revenues does the BBC need, what can it do commercially that it’s not doing at the moment?”

She said she would be “led by evidence” in her review.

Lucy Frazer
Lucy Frazer said ‘the perception of audiences of the public are important’ (James Manning/PA)

The Government said its recommendations are expected to be implemented in a timely manner, following talks with the BBC and Ofcom.

Ofcom, which has authority over TV, radio and video-on-demand services through a broadcasting code, has also been given a new legally binding responsibility to review more of the BBC’s complaints decisions.

Alongside the Ofcom reforms is a legal responsibility for the BBC board to actively oversee its own complaints process.

The review also recommends that the BBC considers how diversity and opinion could be better represented, as the Government says some audience groups, including disabled viewers and people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, feel underrepresented by the corporation.

Ms Frazer said the corporation “needs to adapt” to the reforms or risk “losing the trust of the audience it relies on”.

The BBC’s complaints process, called BBC First, was introduced at the last charter review in 2017, and the mid-term review concluded that it does allow licence fee payers to hold the BBC directly accountable, but said impartiality continues to be an ongoing issue for audiences.

Under BBC First, audience complaints are normally addressed by the corporation before they can be escalated to Ofcom.

To improve the complaints process, the BBC board, which previously had a responsibility to oversee only the establishment of a complaints handling process, will now oversee the process as a whole.

Non-executive board directors and external advisers on the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines and Standards Committee will also be given greater powers to scrutinise and challenge BBC senior management’s complaints handling.

Furthermore, the job role that has responsibility for complaints handling will now report directly to the director-general rather than the director responsible for editorial policy, to separate pre-broadcast editorial policy and post-broadcast complaints resolution.

The review has also recommended the BBC develop a public strategy that outlines its intended partnerships with others and said the impact of commercial changes, including the introduction of a BBC Commercial Board in 2022, needs to be closely monitored.

A BBC spokesperson said “no other organisation takes its commitment to impartiality more seriously” and it has “well-established and detailed plans to sustain and further improve standards”.

They added: “We know this matters to audiences and the BBC continues to be the number one source for trusted news, with the highest scores for impartiality and accuracy.

“During discussions over the mid-term review, we proposed and implemented a number of reforms, including strengthening our complaints procedures, which now form part of the conclusions.

“We are pleased the Government has fully taken our proposals onboard. We remain committed to continuous improvement to ensure we deliver for all licence fee payers.

“The BBC is operationally and editorially independent and we will continue to engage constructively with Government, and our regulator Ofcom, over the second half of this charter and as we look ahead to a new charter in 2028.”