Submission to the Ofcom Impacts Assessment Review
Over the past few weeks, we at Better Media have been working on putting together a submission to the Ofcom’s consultation on the proposed changes to their Impact Assessment guidance. The existing guidance dates back to 2005 and is severely in need of updating to bring it in line with current legislation and best practice on equality impact assessment. Our submission was completed and submitted on 11th May.
You can read the full submission here, or read a shorter summary below.
Thanks and credit to Rob Watson, Better Media member and host of Decentred Media, who led on this work. Thanks also to colleagues at the Voice of the Listener and Viewer and the Media Reform Coalition, who we worked in collaboration with during this process.
Summary of response
In our view, the most important task of the new Impact Assessment guidance should be to fully incorporate the Equality Act (2010), and comply with its requirements regarding the participation of minority and disadvantaged communities.
Ofcom, like all public bodies, has a statutory duty to include representation of these communities in the regulatory process, but it has failed to meet this duty over the years. Disadvantaged and minority communities are repeatedly overlooked in the operation of communications regulation in the UK. In the worst cases, this gives the impression to members of those communities that Ofcom is happy to maintain an uninformed, stereotypical view of their experiences of communications and media, preserving structural disadvantage.
Impact Assessment is an area of Ofcom’s work which contains clear opportunities to start addressing this neglect. Ofcom must take action to engage with people with protected characteristics, as defined in the Equality Act, not wait for those people to come to it.
In our members’ experiences of Ofcom’s work, we have encountered a number of prevailing attitudes that we think are antithetical to the effective operation of a public service regulator. Foremost among these is Ofcom’s tendency towards passivity and inaction. Ofcom consultations tend to take the form of a call for submitted evidence, without any effort to directly commission evidence-gathering and analysis work. As a result, the evidence that Ofcom bases much of its work on comes from the same sources – often those with commercial interests in the sector. This creates a dangerous cycle that compounds the invisibility of minority concerns in Ofcom’s operations: citizens and media communities that feel disenfranchised by Ofcom’s lack of engagement tend not to submit evidence, meaning Ofcom reflects their views less and less over time, exacerbating their disenfranchisement. Ofcom must take a more active approach to information gathering and engagement, and where it chooses to take a passive approach this must be publicly and transparently justified.
This passivity is compounded by a paternalistic attitude on the part of Ofcom, which frequently seems to assume that the public cannot follow or come to a valid view about complex issues. The issues on which Ofcom acts are not just academic matters of policy, but real areas of citizen interest that have real impact on media consumers, producers and communities. More rigourous public engagement with a wider range of stakeholders, including those from civil society, public services and the education sector, would allow Ofcom to develop a clearer understanding of where there is need for more information-sharing to facilitate effective participation in the processes of regulation.
We recommend an adjustment of Ofcom’s priorities to redress the imbalanced representation of certain stakeholders in its work. Firstly, Ofcom should introduce a hierarchy of interests that prioritise the citizen first, then the consumer, then the content producer, then the platform and technology supplier. Secondly, Ofcom should introduce a hierarchy of needs that anticipates impact at the lowest level first, starting with the local, then the regional level, followed by the national level, and only then the international level.