Why are Britons complaining more about what’s on TV?

Culture wars in modern Britain can be explained by analysing complaints to BBC and media regulator Ofcom

Every time a woman of colour appears on a BBC television channel, an employee in the corporation’s complaints department prepares to write a polite response to a disgruntled viewer.

“It’s always the same words – ‘rude, opinionated etc’ – but it’s very clear why people are complaining,” said one individual who works in the sprawling department. They said that every appearance of the BBC Breakfast host Naga Munchetty now prompts formal complaints from viewers. “The amount of people who genuinely are just complaining about the presence of a person of colour on screen and, to a lesser extent, a woman, is incredible.”

If you want to understand the culture wars that rile some segments of modern Britain, you could do worse than study the feedback received by the BBC’s complaints department or its commercial equivalent at the media regulator Ofcom.

Both organisations receive thousands of complaints every week from members of the public. Some are detailed complaints from subject experts about alleged on-air statistical inaccuracies or people furious their local town wasn’t labelled on the weather forecast map. Others are angry as hell about the state of society and just want someone – anyone – to listen. Some even complain about it being too easy to complain.

This week the BBC received a record 110,000 complaints that its wall-to-wall coverage of Prince Philip’s death was excessive. Even as viewing figures for traditional television channels decline, the number of complaints about their coverage continues to rocket, with people from across the political spectrum using the UK’s tough broadcast regulation code to register their dissatisfaction with the direction of the country.

“The psychology of complaining is a fascinating topic,” said Adam Baxter, Ofcom’s director of standards. “Some people clearly want redress. Other people just want to be listened to. Others just want to change things. We have seen over recent years much more polarisation in public debate, so it would be surprising if we, a body that is a receptacle for views of the general public, didn’t reflect that heightened debate.”

Baxter is the man who ultimately sits as the top judge in what has inadvertently become a quasi-judicial arbitration system for culture war disputes. He said his team of 40 had seen an explosion of feedback during the last year, fuelled by Covid-19 and social media campaigns. Whereas in the 2019-20 financial year they received 34,545 complaints from members of the public about alleged breaches of the broadcasting code, during 2020-21 it had more than 145,000 complaints – and these figures exclude BBC content.

He said feedback increasingly touched on issues around racial bias. “You get people taking a viewpoint that there’s content that’s detrimental about racial minority. We also get people who make comments that could be characterised as ‘all lives matter’. That’s a reflection on the debates at a wider level.”

Although Baxter is clear his role is to ignore the noise, favour freedom of expression, and ensure compliance with the high standards of the UK broadcasting code – 95% of complaints are quickly assessed and dismissed – the decisions produced by him and his team have wider cultural significance.

Last summer his team declined to investigate 24,500 complaints about a Black Lives Matter-inspired dance performance by the group Diversity on the ITV talent show Britain’s Got Talent. Ofcom’s lengthy explanation of why the performance did not break any broadcast rules discussed societal issues such as anti-white racism and whether racism is an appropriate topic for children.

This case also showed that complaints are increasingly made by people who didn’t watch the programmes. Just 4% of the 24,500 complaints about the performance were made in the immediate aftermath of Britain’s Got Talent being aired. Instead, the majority followed news stories about the relatively small number of original complaints to Ofcom, which in turn prompted even more complaints, and in turn more news stories, producing a self-perpetuating media outrage cycle.

The Guardian has learned that, following this and similar incidents, Ofcom has decided to stop providing journalists with daily running totals of the complaints it has received about major shows, partly due to concerns about stoking such coverage and also due to the amount of staff work required.

Although it’s easy to dismiss complainers as green ink letter writers, they can have real power over the operation of our media. Analysis by the Guardian has previously found that the BBC received more complaints from rightwingers than leftwingers during the last general election. Programme makers may be tempted to ignore topics which will leave them tied up in knots with lengthy investigations. In 2019 a single persistent complainant who objected to Munchetty’s comments about Donald Trump created a major BBC scandal and open rebellion among the BBC’s staff.

It also provides simplicity in a world of chaos. Compared with the largely unregulated online media, a complaint about a TV broadcast will ultimately result in a binary yes or no decision about whether it broke any rules.

Peter Lunt, a professor of media and communication at the University of Leicester, said the rapidly increasing number of complaints pointed towards a clash of online and offline political media cultures. On the internet individuals get attention for their political arguments by shouting louder and asserting their opinions in ever stronger terms. By comparison, the BBC believes its duty is to give a balanced commentary of different views that are circulating.

He said the BBC’s complaints system – designed for people who take issue with specific programming decisions – had been appropriated for a different purpose by people who want to vent and express indignation. “The logic of the complaints system is not fit for purpose because it’s based on a consumer satisfaction model rather than a citizenship concern model.”

He said the record number of complaints about coverage of Prince Philip’s death obscured why they were complaining: “You could say they didn’t like it because they couldn’t watch the final of MasterChef. But if you look at the citizenship side, people were concerned about the blanket coverage. What was being questioned was something deeper – why did the BBC think they had to do that?

“This was not just consumer dissatisfaction, it was an expression of currents of public opinion.”


Jim Waterson Media editor

The GuardianTramp

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