Broadcasting Regulation Newsletter

April 3, 2014
Broadcasting Regulation Newsletter

January-March 2014

Bringing you news of regulatory findings and developments


The Traveller Movement, a charity supporting gypsies and travellers, has obtained permission for a judicial review of decisions made in November 2013 by Ofcom about Channel 4’s series Big Fat Gypsy Weddings and Thelma’s Gypsy Girls. The original complaints to Ofcom were made by the Traveller Movement and others, who said that the programmes perpetuated racist stereotypes, breached broadcasting regulations concerning consent, sexually exploited traveller children and caused untold harm to social cohesion by reinforcing misconceptions and prejudices towards gypsies and travellers. The application for judicial review is based on the fact that, under Ofcom’s Procedures for Investigating Breaches of Content Standards, only the broadcaster is allowed to see and challenge Ofcom’s Preliminary View, which the Traveller Movement contends is unfair. Ofcom has said that it will defend its actions and contends that the Traveller Movement’s case is unarguable.

Sponsorship of Channel 4 Racing by Dubai, Channel 4, various dates and times

Sponsorship credits broadcast around Channel 4 Racing featured individuals waxing lyrical about life in Dubai. Ofcom found this to breach Rule 9.22 of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code (Code), which requires sponsorship credits to be distinct from advertising. Ofcom gave short shrift to Channel 4’s argument that the credits featured a series of individual viewpoints made by the protagonists, stating that “many of the statements … were less about the individuals concerned than they were positive testimonials about Dubai”.  In combination with the images of Dubai shown on screen, Ofcom considered that the statements “were essentially promotional advertising messages that served to highlight positive attributes of life in Dubai”.

Ofcom’s finding

Sex scene inappropriately scheduled in repeat of period drama: Mr Selfridge, ITV3, 30 September 2013, 20:00

Under Rule 1.20 of the Code: “Representations of sexual intercourse must not occur before the watershed … unless there is a serious educational purpose.”  A sex scene shown in a pre-watershed repeat of an episode of the fictional period drama series, Mr Selfridge, would have breached this rule but for the facts that the scene was relatively brief, limited to some extent in what it showed, and scheduled on ITV3, which Ofcom noted typically broadcasts dramas with a greater appeal to adults.  In concluding that the matter should be resolved, Ofcom also took account of ITV’s undertaking to edit the scene for any future pre-watershed showings of the programme.

Ofcom’s finding

News coverage of the Woolwich incident on 22 May 2013, various broadcasters

Ofcom received almost 680 complaints about the broadcast news coverage of the killing of Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich on 22 May 2013.  But it concluded that none of the broadcasts breached Code Rules 1.3 (material unsuitable for children must be appropriately scheduled) or 2.3 (offensive material must be justified by the context).  Although the coverage was detailed and at times distressing, Ofcom did not consider that it was too offensive for broadcast, given the context in which it appeared.  Ofcom also considered that the coverage was appropriately scheduled, after taking particular note of freedom of expression, on the basis that news programming has a duty to inform the public when incidents such as this occur.  Ofcom has, however, set out some guidance to broadcasters about the need (among other things) to give explicit warnings to viewers before broadcasting challenging material before the watershed.

Ofcom’s finding and guidance

Privacy: Complaint by Ms A, Scott & Bailey, ITV, 22 May 2013

In an interesting decision concerning an episode of the fictional crime drama, Scott & Bailey, which drew heavily on a real-life murder for inspiration, Ofcom has found that the privacy of the (real-life) murder victim’s daughter was unwarrantably infringed.  This was because the broadcaster failed to take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure that any potential distress to her was minimised.  Under practice 8.16 of the Code, broadcasters are required to try to reduce the potential distress to victims and/or relatives when making or broadcasting programmes intended to examine past events that involve trauma to individuals unless it is warranted to do otherwise.  Although, on the face of it, that applies to “dramatic reconstructions and factual dramas, as well as factual programmes” and Scott & Bailey did not fall into any of those categories, this decision confirms that the practice extends to fictional dramas that draw on real-life trauma to individuals for inspiration.

Ofcom’s finding

Privacy: Complaint by Mr G, 999: What’s Your Emergency, Channel 4, 10 September 2012

Ofcom has found that the privacy of Mr G, a 17-year-old, was infringed by the broadcast of footage of him being cared for by paramedics and hospital staff after taking an overdose of Valium and smoking cannabis.  Although the programme makers had obtained consent from Mr G’s stepfather and/or mother to film him, it was not reasonable for the programme makers to conclude that this meant that they had informed consent to broadcast such footage, either from Mr G or from his mother and/or step-father.  This was because of Mr G’s age, the fact that he was shown receiving medical attention while in a vulnerable state, and the fact that he was clearly identifiable from the broadcast material. 

Ofcom’s finding

Privacy: Complaint by Mr John Lewis, Sky News, 26 and 27 September 2013

Ofcom has found that the broadcast of footage of the former home of Samantha Lewthwaite (for whom a worldwide arrest warrant had been issued for her alleged involvement in terrorist activities) did not infringe the privacy of the current resident, Mr Lewis.  Although the location of the property, house number and street name were disclosed, no connection was made in the reports between Mr Lewis and the property shown.  Furthermore, the footage appeared to have been filmed openly and on the side of a public highway, and it had already been reported (in 2005) that Ms Lewthwaite had lived at the property and this information remained in the public domain.  Both Sky and Ofcom were sensitive to the fact that Mr Lewis was concerned about his and his family’s safety: indeed, Sky had undertaken not to feature the footage of the house already broadcast or any similar footage of the property in any future report.  Ofcom, however, found that Mr Lewis did not have a legitimate expectation of privacy in relation to the footage, and so his privacy was not infringed by its broadcast.

Ofcom’s finding


BBC Trust

Fairness: Panorama: North Korea Undercover, BBC One, 15 April 2013

The BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee (ESC) has found that a number of the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines (principally, certain of the Guidelines relating to Fairness, Contributors and Consent, and Conflicts of Interest) were breached in relation to an edition of Panorama for which reporter, John Sweeney, “spent 8 days undercover inside the most rigidly controlled nation on Earth”.  To gain entry to North Korea, Mr Sweeney and a producer joined a group of current or former LSE students and post-graduates led by Tomiko Newson (Mr Sweeney’s wife), and pretended to be part of their trip.  Although there was a strong public interest in the programme and the BBC’s internal referral procedures had been followed correctly, the ESC found that the BBC had failed to consider a number of important issues and risks and/or had failed to deal with them appropriately. In particular, the provision of information to the students who took part in the trip was inadequate, which resulted in unfairness to them; the use of the LSE’s address on visa applications was inappropriate and risked linking the LSE with the trip, which resulted in unfairness to the LSE; and from the moment the BBC had become involved in the trip, Tomiko Newson had a conflict of interest, which was further compounded when she became employed by the BBC.

ESC finding


BBC Editorial Complaints Unit

Failure to explain danger to viewers: The House That 100k Built, BBC Two, 22 October 2013

The BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) has upheld a complaint made in relation to a sequence featured in an episode of The House That 100k Built, in which a used liquid petroleum gas (LPG) cylinder was cut with an angle grinder.  As initially broadcast, the programme did not make it clear that all LPG cylinders remain the property of LPG distributors, and the ECU was also concerned that the dangers involved in the exercise were not appropriately explained to viewers.

ECU finding


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Eleanor Steyn

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