What the Regulators Say 3

Created on 13 Dec 2011

Regulation under the spotlight

With one witness telling the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press that he’d like to see Ofcom as a backstop regulator for newspapers, here’s our latest summary of recent key broadcast regulatory findings.

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Care with Competitions

Ofcom: Popstar to Operastar, ITV1, 5 June 2011, 20:00

This programme suffered a technical error at its telecoms provider, meaning viewers entries to the competition by premium rate text were rejected with an incorrect confirmation message - telling them they’d entered the now closed “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” competition.   ITV spotted the problem around an hour after the launch of the competition, and promptly put in place a series of measures to refund entrants and help them have another go.  The rapid and comprehensive action by ITV led Ofcom to resolve the complaints, but it took the opportunity to “reiterate once again to all broadcasters that we expect them to exercise the utmost care in the conduct of audience competitions and votes, in particular where broadcasters invite viewers or listeners to pay to participate”.

Use of Skype

Ofcom: Sky News, 26 July 2011, 18:30

A ten minute interview on Sky News carried the words “VIA SKYPE”, almost continuously, in a caption in the top right-hand corner.   Ofcom believed there was little editorial justification for displaying the brand name and was concerned about undue product prominence.  Sky said it would reduce the prominence of references to services such as Skype in future, with a view to ensuring compliance with Rule 9.5 of the Code.  Ofcom considered the complaint resolved, but reminded broadcasters that references to material broadcast “via webcam” or “via video link”, for example, are unlikely to raise issues under Rule 9.5 of the Code, but any visual and/or oral brand reference should be both editorially justified and brief.  The BBC isn’t bound by this Ofcom rule, but has its own Guidelines on product prominence.

Fairness and the Public Interest

Ofcom: Two findings on portrayal of real people in drama: The Palestine Papers, Al Jazeera English, 23-26 January 2011 and Five Daughters, BBC4, 20 January 2011.


These two findings show how Ofcom balances the public interest and fairness.  In the first, Dr Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s peace negotiator complained that he wasn’t consulted about these programmes in advance.  He, and other senior members of the PLO, were portrayed in dramatic reconstructions of Middle East peace negotiations, based on leaked documents.  Ofcom considered the public interest in a programme about Middle East peace negotiations was sufficient to outweigh his concerns.

The second complaint followed the repeat of a drama series about the murders in 2006 of five young women working as prostitutes in the Ipswich area. It included scenes showing the activities of a man arrested on suspicion of murder, and subsequently released.  Another man, Stephen Wright, was subsequently convicted of all five murders.

The complainant, said the programme makers were not fair in their dealings with him because,  unlike other main characters portrayed in the programme, he was not contacted in advance and given an opportunity to have some input at the programme making stage. He also claimed he was unfairly portrayed as a result of inaccuracies in the programme and, given the deviation from the truth about him, his name should have been changed and a caption included to explain the character was loosely based on a real person.

Ofcom found that the programme makers were not unfair in their dealings with the complainant, the scenes he complained of did not contain any material inaccuracies, and the character was not merely “loosely” based on him, but was a dramatisation of the role he played in the investigation.  The complaint was not upheld. 

Privacy and the Public Interest


Ofcom: The Rise and Lies of Tommy Sheridan, BBC Scotland, 23 December 2010 and Motorway Cops, Deadly Distractions, BBC1, 11 January 2011.


Ofcom has affirmed broadcasters’ rights to freedom of expression when they can demonstrate they have properly reported on matters clearly in the public interest in two findings relating to law and order.  In both cases, Ofcom had to balance the legitimate expectations of privacy of people in a vulnerable position with the right to broadcast.

The first programme examined the events leading up to Tommy Sheridan's  conviction for perjury.  Mr Sheridan, the former Scottish Socialist Party Member of the Scottish Parliament was on trial over statements made during a libel action.  The programme included footage taken from police CCTV recordings of Mr Sheridan and his wife, Mrs Gail Sheridan, being interviewed by police officers. Some of this material was not used in court (and was therefore not already in the public domain) and, although Mr Sheridan had been jailed for three years for perjury, Mrs Sheridan had not been convicted. Both Mr & Mrs Sheridan complained, separately, that the programme was an unwarranted breach of privacy.  Ofcom agreed that they both had a legitimate expectation that the footage of them in a vulnerable and sensitive situation would not be broadcast without their consent. However, on balance, Ofcom concluded that the BBC’s right to freedom of expression and the genuine public interest in examining the details of the trial and conviction for perjury outweighed the intrusion for both Tommy Sheridan and his wife.

The second prorgramme showed the driver of a 44 ton articulated lorry being pulled over on a motorway by the police for using a mobile phone.  He was breathalysed and found to be well over the limit.  Filming continued in the police station.  The driver asked the cameraman to stop filming, but he refused.  The driver was later convicted, fined and banned from driving for 18 months.  Ofcom considered the particular circumstances of this case meant there was a sufficient public interest in the work of the police and how they deal with potentially lethal behaviour to outweigh the driver's legitimate expectation of privacy.

Reporting Dale Farm

BBC Trust: The One Show, BBC One, 14 February 2011


Basildon Council complained that a report about the proposed clearance of the unauthorised Travellers’ site at Dale Farm was inaccurate, misleading and biased in favour of the Travellers.

The Trust concluded that the three aspects of the complaint alleging inaccuracy, one alleging unfairness and one alleging bias should not be upheld.  However, it found that the report had been unfair to the Council in respect of a serious allegation made in the item which gave the impression the Council had failed in its statutory obligations to house or help relocate the Travellers facing eviction. It also found that the studio discussion following the item created an overall impression which was unfair to the Council.  Finally, the Trust judged that the cumulative effect of the filmed item combined with the live studio discussion  left the overall impression the programme had failed to achieve due impartiality. The due impartiality of the content as a whole was also undermined by the two upheld complaints of  unfairness to the Council.


And finally...

One of the recommendations of the Bailey Review of the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood was the creation of single point of contact for complaints about -programmes, adverts products and services.  It's called ParentPort, and has been up and running since 11 October.

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