Section 5: Harm and Offence


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  1. Generally Accepted Standards
  2. Context

The BBC aims to reflect the world as it is, including all aspects of the human experience and the realities of the natural world.  In doing so, we balance our right to broadcast innovative and challenging content, appropriate to each of our services, with our responsibility to protect the vulnerable and avoid unjustifiable offence.

Creative risk-taking is a vital part of the BBC's mission.  However, in all our output, the greater the risk, the greater the thought, care and planning required to bring creative content to fruition.  We must be sensitive to, and keep in touch with, generally accepted standards as well as our audiences' expectations of our content, particularly in relation to the protection of children.  Audience expectations of our content usually vary according to the service on which it appears.

When our content includes challenging material that risks offending some of our audience we must always be able to demonstrate a clear editorial purpose, taking account of generally accepted standards, and ensure it is clearly signposted.  Such challenging material may include, but is not limited to, strong language, violence, sex, sexual violence, humiliation, distress, violation of human dignity, and discriminatory treatment or language. 

Generally Accepted Standards

The Agreement accompanying the BBC Charter requires us to apply "generally accepted standards so as to provide adequate protection for members of the public from the inclusion of offensive and harmful material". The understanding of what constitutes 'generally accepted standards' will evolve over time and will be informed by relevant research.  Applying 'generally accepted standards' is a matter of judgement, taking account of the content, the context in which it appears and editorial justification.

(See Section 2 Using The Guidelines: 2.4)


Context includes, but is not confined to:

  • the surrounding editorial material
  • the service on which the content is available
  • the time at which it is available
  • other programmes or content that are available around the programme or content concerned
  • the likely size and composition of the potential audience and likely expectation of the audience
  • the harm or offence likely to be caused by the inclusion of the particular content in output generally, or in output of a particular nature or description
  • the extent to which the nature of the content can be brought to the attention of the potential audience, for example, by signposting and content information
  • the effect of the content on audiences who may come across it unawares.

When making our judgements, these factors will not necessarily carry equal weight.

For new series on television and radio (or when existing series change channels) where content may raise issues of generally accepted standards, there should normally be a discussion early in the production process with the commissioning executive and the production team, including presenters and performers, to establish parameters of tone and content appropriate to the platform, context and slot.  A returning series which has established expectations of strong language and content should have a similar discussion before the start of each run.

Those planning online content should also consider whether there will be issues of generally accepted standards and determine, early in the process, whether the content is likely to appeal to a significant proportion of children or younger people and select material appropriately.

For the purposes of the Editorial Guidelines and unless stated otherwise, a child is someone under the age of 15 years.  Young people are those aged 15, 16 and 17.  It should be noted that these are not legal definitions.

(See Appendix 1: Ofcom Broadcasting Code)

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