Broadcast media and regulation

Broadcast media in the UK is divided into two categories: public service broadcasting (delivered by corporations such as the BBC), and commercial broadcasting (produced by private media companies such as ITV).

Public service broadcasters like the BBC are funded by license fees paid by anyone who watches live television, so they don’t have private owners or shareholders.

Private media companies are owned by individuals, families or shareholders. These commercial media companies, which often produce both broadcast and print media, are run to make a profit.

Both public service broadcasters and private ones are overseen by a regulator called Ofcom (Office of Communications) which was set up under the Communications Act 2003.

This means that broadcast journalists must follow ethical guidelines set out in the Ofcom Broadcasting Code. Ofcom deals with any complaints against broadcast journalists.

Newspaper journalists have no legal regulator like Ofcom, but follow ethical codes such as the Editors’ Code of Practice and the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) Code of Conduct.

Legal and ethical issues

When writing a story, all journalists must consider both legal and ethical issues.

Laws are in place to restrict journalists from reporting things which may damage or harm other people or organisations. Ethics means doing what is ethically and morally right, regardless of what the law might say.

Ethical issues

Journalists follow codes of conduct which set out good, ethical practice.

Good practice detailed in the codes includes:

  • the double-checking of sources
  • giving those criticised a ‘right of reply’
  • respecting people’s privacy, particularly in times of grief, illness or shock
  • protecting the vulnerable, e.g. children
  • avoiding subterfuge, e.g. using hidden recording devices

Journalists are entitled to breach these guidelines only in cases of overwhelming public interest (public interest itself being a strong ethical principle).

Public interest includes:

  • Detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety.
  • Protecting public health and safety.
  • Preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.

Using secretly recorded audio or video in a story

Journalistic codes all recommend that secret recording is done only when absolutely necessary - if there is no other way to get the story - and only if it is in the public interest.

Covert, or secret, methods can be used to expose wrongdoing. A BBC Panorama undercover investigation into abuse at a care home led to the prosecution of 11 care workers.

Panorama used secret filming to uncover abuse in elderly care homes