A loophole in the BBC’s new governance arrangements means the British broadcaster could theoretically be free to start supporting political parties or promoting commercial products on its news website, Business Insider can reveal.
Under the BBC’s new 11-year operating agreement, known as its royal charter, its governing body — the BBC Trust — will be axed next year and regulatory powers will be handed to UK media watchdog Ofcom.
But industry sources have told us that this has presented a dilemma around online news, which has become a focus of recent discussions between the BBC, government, and Ofcom.
Abolishing the BBC Trust will effectively create a loophole in regulatory powers, meaning the BBC will not be accountable to an independent body for the text articles it publishes on bbc.co.uk/news.
This would theoretically free the biggest news website in Britain from its strict impartiality rules, which means it could take sides in political debates, or promote certain commercial products.
A Department for Culture Media & Sport (DCMS) spokesman said the BBC’s draft charter will “make clear how we are addressing this issue” when it is published later this month.
How the loophole works.
The BBC Trust, the broadcaster’s governing body, currently polices impartiality, accuracy, and commercial references across the BBC’s television, radio, and online services. It assesses audience complaints and decides whether content has breached BBC editorial policy.
But the Trust will be closed next year and its regulatory powers will be handed to UK media watchdog Ofcom, which will become the final arbiter for all editorial complaints relating to the BBC. This includes online video.
Ofcom, however, does not have the power to regulate online news text and, in the case of the BBC, is reluctant to do so. It has no experience of regulating online text and is only set up to regulate video content.
It has also made clear to the government that taking on this task for the BBC could set a tricky precedent. Sources have expressed concern that if Ofcom begins regulating bbc.co.uk/news, the door is then open for these powers to be extended to other broadcasters and publishers.
“Would you end up with Ofcom regulating Mail Online?” asked one person with knowledge of the matter.
A senior BBC official acknowledged: “It is an area where there is a gap in Ofcom’s regulatory powers across the board. It’s for Ofcom and the government to debate. The question for Ofcom and the government is: would it be appropriate to regulate BBC online text?”
Ofcom: Discussions with the government are ongoing.
Discussions are ongoing and no decisions have been made. An Ofcom spokesman said: “We’re still in discussions with the government on how the content of the white paper will be delivered.”
A BBC spokesman said: “This is a matter for DCMS and Ofcom.”
The BBC website is the biggest news site in the UK. A SimilarWeb study in February found that BBC News has a 30% market share, with 18.9 billion page views.
BBC News is also the most trusted source of news for 53% of people in the UK, according to a YouGov survey commissioned by campaign website 38 Degrees.
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