Guidance: Working with vulnerable contributors or contributors at risk of vulnerability
Editorial Guidelines issues
This guidance note relates to the following Editorial Guidelines:
- Fairness to Contributors and Consent
See Editorial Guidelines Section 6 Fairness to Contributors and Consent
See Editorial Guidelines Section 7 Privacy
- Working with Children and Young People as Contributors
See Editorial Guidelines Section 9 Working with Children and Young People as Contributors
This guidance applies to vulnerable contributors in any genre, including contestants in talent searches and factual entertainment formats. It also applies to contributors in output where the nature of the contribution and/or format might lead to vulnerabilities. There is additional guidance for Working with Children and Young people and for working on Charitable Appeals.
(See Guidance: Working with Children and Young People as Contributors; and Charitable Appeals)
Summary of key points
- Contributors who are vulnerable may have particular needs according to their physical, emotional or mental state at the time of recording and afterwards. These require a carefully considered approach by production staff and commissioners. It is important to take advice both from professionals with the relevant expertise and from those responsible for their care, if appropriate. Potential contributors may sometimes be psychologically assessed by an independent expert before final decisions are taken as part of the pre-production/selection process for choosing contributors. An assessment after recording and ongoing support after transmission may also be appropriate.
- We should consider the psychological impact (including psychological assessment and support) for all contributors when the format / nature of the programme means they’ll be put in highly pressurised or exposed situations, for example talent searches and reality immersive shows, even though they may not appear to have pre-existing vulnerabilities.
- Vulnerable adults may not always be in a position to give informed consent. In such cases, in addition to the consent of the vulnerable person, someone over eighteen with primary responsibility for their care should normally give consent on their behalf, unless it is editorially justified to proceed without it.
- If a vulnerable contributor is deemed to have capacity to consent information should be given in a way that they can understand.
- When contributors are unable to give informed consent or their condition is unstable and subject to sudden deterioration, with the possibility that they may become incapable of giving informed consent, we have an ongoing duty, together with those responsible for their care, to consider the impact of broadcast on the individual.
- Production should be tailored to suit the likely needs of vulnerable contributors. It may not be apparent until part way through pre-production/selection process that a likely contributor/contestant is vulnerable. Once this is established this guidance should be followed when assessing whether to proceed and how to meet their likely needs
- We should pay attention to the expectations of privacy and have due regard for the dignity of vulnerable people before putting any sensitive facts about their condition or experience into the public domain
- Aftercare is important. Any aftercare needs to be proportionate to the ongoing risks identified and have clear boundaries and time frames.
Guidance in full
- Contributors at risk
- Assessing the Suitability of Vulnerable Contributors
- Informed Consent
- Capacity and Consent
- Assessing the impact of production and broadcast
- Working with vulnerable contributors
- Privacy and Security
The BBC aims to reflect the world as it is, including all aspects of the human experience. In our output we can offer a voice to people confronting complex challenges arising from extreme poverty, illness, learning difficulties or forms of dementia, bereavement, old age, mental health or other issues and enable them to communicate their experience to a wide audience, within the framework of the editorial guidelines. We aim to make our content in all genres as accessible and inclusive as possible. In doing so the BBC can help inform public debate about the most vulnerable in society and ensure that our output offers opportunities to all and portrays the lives and experiences of as wide a cross section of our audience as possible.
This guidance does not apply to individuals who appear in our news coverage because they are caught up in current events. It is concerned with contributors to BBC content as we owe due care to contributors or potential contributors who may be caused harm or distress as a result of their contribution.
Production staff should not attempt to provide personal advice or recommend therapy to contributors. In a case where there are immediate and clear concerns in relation to serious harm to the contributor themselves or a third party, it may be necessary to direct them to the emergency services, or arrange it on their behalf, preferably with their consent. BBC Safety, Security and Resilience have produced Guidance on Supporting Contributors in Crisis. 
Assessing the Suitability of Vulnerable Contributors
Even when a person gives informed consent to contribute, we should consider whether it is in the interests of that person to take part.
The safety of the vulnerable person should be considered. Would their life be in danger or would they be at risk of additional violence, for example within their community? Seek advice from BBC Safety Advisors (for in-house productions). BBC Safety can also advise on potential risks to BBC staff. Independent companies should seek advice from suitably trained professionals.
We should normally establish with the professionals responsible for their medical care as well as their day-to-day carers that vulnerable contributors are medically fit and psychologically robust enough to take part in production It is sometimes advisable to ask for a statement of health from their family doctor or consultant.
Where this is not possible, for example, in some cases internationally, it can be helpful to consult with appropriate organisations, such as health services, NGOs or other agencies, working in country and with an area of expertise relating to the contributor, in order to make a judgement about the risks to an individual, including medically or psychologically, if we you involved them in our output. There is additional guidance in relation to contributors and charitable appeals.
It is sometimes advisable to assess potential contributors psychologically as part of the pre-production/ selection process, particularly with regard to constructed and immersive content or other types of content in which contributors, some of whom may be vulnerable, will be recorded outside of their normal living environment or face challenges of a new kind.
We should also consider the psychological impact (including psychological assessment and support) for all contributors when the format / nature of the programme means they’ll be put in highly pressurised or exposed situations, for example talent searches and reality immersive shows, even though they may not appear to have pre-existing vulnerabilities.
This assessment should be carried out by appropriately registered and qualified health professionals, for example psychologists, psychiatrists or psychotherapists, who if possible also understand how the media works, have experience of working with specific genres/ types of contributors/contestants and understand the potential impact on contributors. They should be contracted with a clear commitment to provide advice which is in the best interests of contributors/contestants irrespective of whom they are contracted to. They can advise both the content-makers and the individual about the impact – if any – of taking part on their personal welfare and condition.
There is more information on this from BBC Safety Security and Resilience in the Guidance on the use of External Psychological Specialists for BBC Programmes; and Psychological Well-Being: Guidance for Protecting Contributors.  An assessment after recording, and ongoing support after transmission may also be appropriate.
However, even after seeking professional advice, it remains the BBC’s responsibility to choose whether to go ahead with a particular contributor.
Think about whether there are personal events or behaviours which it might not be in the vulnerable person’s interest to reveal to a wider public but which may be integral to telling a true and accurate story about their experience, and which might therefore make it difficult or sometimes impossible to feature a particular contributor/contestant.
Vulnerable contributors need all the information given to contributors generally as part of the consent procedure.
It is also necessary to:
- consider if the person has the capacity to give properly informed consent. The vulnerability may mean that they are unable to make a judgement, either through trauma, severe illness, bereavement or lack of understanding
- engage professional expert opinion, where appropriate
- discuss potential consequences in detail, including possible social media intrusion, keeping a contemporaneous note of conversations Further guidance on social media safeguards is available from Editorial Policy. There are social media guidelines templates for parents and young contributors on the Working with Children site from BBC Safety, Security and Resilience 
- assume more responsibility for the contributor's welfare, as affected by their taking part; which may include offering help and reassurance up to the point of transmission and beyond
- consider including family or friends in the negotiations
- manage expectations. Be clear that we cannot intervene personally in an individual’s situation. Also be clear about how their contribution will fit within the whole content.
We do not normally rely on third parties to gain consent from an adult but it is sometimes sensible to approach a vulnerable contributor via a third party in the first instance.
In developing a working relationship with potential contributors, a clear description of the content and it’s aims should be given. This may need to be repeated at subsequent meetings and written down, and the contributor should be given the opportunity to ask questions. The same applies to any responsible adults and intermediaries: parents, care agencies, medical advisors etc.
It may sometimes be advisable to have vulnerable contributors assessed by a professional with expertise in their particular condition or area of disability to determine whether they have the capacity to consent to recording and/or the broadcast of the material. This expert should normally be independent of Production and the BBC. 
Questions about capacity and consent are about whether the individual understands the nature of the question being asked and the implications of the decision that is to be made. People are unable to make an informed decision for themselves if they are unable to understand the information relevant to the decision, retain that information, weigh that information as part of the decision-making process and communicate their decision effectively. A person’s capacity (or lack of it) refers to their capacity to make a particular decision at the time it needs to be made.
Vulnerable Contributors with the Capacity to give Informed Consent
If a vulnerable contributor is deemed to have capacity:
- information should be given in a way that they can understand. It is sometimes helpful to ask the person to say back what they believe their participation would involve to check they have understood
- sometimes this explanation may best be given by an independent expert, or with the help of such an expert, in the presence of a programme maker and the person responsible for their care
- make clear that there is no obligation to take part and, if they are undergoing treatment of any kind, this will not be affected one way or another. Equally, that the contributor should act and speak as they would normally.
Consent for broadcast can only be confirmed when it is clear that the vulnerable person has the capacity to give informed consent on the issue of broadcast. A professional will sometimes be required to assess whether this is the case and it may be useful to get written confirmation that the person has the capacity. It may sometimes be appropriate to give a vulnerable contributor the opportunity to view/listen to their story so that they may understand how it is being told and can discuss any concerns before broadcast.
For contestants on talent searches/reality immersive shows: the BBC aims to make such content as accessible as possible to potential contestants. In order to achieve this additional support may be required for informed consent. This may involve the use of independent experts working with production and commissioning teams.
Vulnerable Contributors who Lack the Capacity to give Informed Consent
Where vulnerable contributors are not in a position to give informed consent, someone over 18 with primary responsibility for their care should normally give consent on their behalf, unless it is editorially justified to proceed without it. In particular, we should not ask someone who is unable to give their own consent for views on matters likely to be beyond their capacity to answer properly.
When contributors are unable to give informed consent or their condition is unstable and subject to sudden deterioration, with the possibility that they may become incapable of giving informed consent, we have an ongoing duty together with those responsible for their care to consider the impact of broadcast on the individual.
We may decide to offer a viewing/listen of the edited story to the vulnerable person and/or those responsible for their care so that we can discuss issues such as the pertinence of private information to their story, and allay any concerns they may have about context or portrayal. If their concerns cannot be resolved satisfactorily, Editorial Policy may be consulted.
It is often useful to provide a letter which explains the purpose of the content, which may be referred to by the vulnerable person, their carer or family members later. On occasion, it may be appropriate to ask them to sign to say they have received this letter. Friends and/or relatives may also be given written information about the content. They may be asked if they would like to participate in the content, but should be under no obligation to do so and should not normally be recorded without their consent.
In exceptional circumstances (for instance, when recording with people suffering from a serious mental illness, when their condition may change dramatically during the course of production), it may be useful to think of consent as a two stage process – recording and transmission. The primary consideration should be the vulnerable contributor’s welfare during recording and on transmission. It is important to maintain a dialogue with contributors, their legal guardians and their carers throughout the period of recording and editing in order to consider their interests. All recordings should be kept securely before broadcast. It may be appropriate, at a later stage, to destroy content that is considered unsuitable for broadcast.
A vulnerable contributor may have specific and individual needs, according to their disability or condition at the time of recording and transmission. As much information as possible should be sought and carefully appraised in advance but ongoing assessment will also be needed. Where necessary, expert advice should be taken and any potentially negative impacts on the contributor thoroughly discussed. We should look out for contributors/contestants who may not appear to have vulnerabilities at the outset but may develop/reveal vulnerabilities during the process.
There may be issues which come to light during recording that are important to the story, but which might on broadcast put the vulnerable person potentially at risk (or further at risk), either from within their extended family, or from their community. A final judgement on whether to include such material will depend on an assessment of how the vulnerable person may be affected, how well known these facts are in their immediate community, what support they have in place and what support is available going forward.
Revealing aspects of their personalities may expose some vulnerable contributors to malicious gossip locally or public scrutiny of their character and behaviour in the media or on the internet, especially on social media. Such contributors could become psychologically vulnerable. Psychological assessment may be required to ensure they are robust enough to cope with any likely consequences of the experience.
(See above: Assessing the Suitability of Vulnerable Contributors)
Guidance can also be given to contributors about using social media in order to help protect them.
(See above: Informed Consent for more detail)
Production staff may sometimes require appropriate training or guidance in order to deal sensitively and practically with the challenges that arise when working with vulnerable contributors. Production should be tailored to suit the likely needs of vulnerable contributors/contestants. It will often be necessary for a pre-agreed protocol to be put in place for productions to follow, in discussion with Commissioning, Editorial Policy and other relevant experts. Where appropriate this may be done in collaboration with the contributor themselves and their family/carer, who will know what support and adjustments may be required.
Some conditions affect the way people think and feel and their reactions may be unpredictable to those around them. Some vulnerable contributors may display certain behaviours which others find disconcerting. Staff will need to understand and manage their own responses in relation to these unusual behaviours and should take advice where necessary from those who are familiar with the contributor and the nature of their condition.
Due care should be applied in ensuring vulnerable contributors have sufficient support throughout recording and around the time of broadcast. We should find out what support they already have in place and, where necessary, liaise with these people during recording and particularly when the programme is broadcast. It is advisable to stay in close contact with contributors, their carers and their families in order to monitor their situation and offer support or help where necessary; however, we also need to be clear about the limits of any assistance we can offer and the time frame within which we can offer it. When the content has been edited it may be useful to show it to contributors, as well as to the people who support or take care of them, so that they have the opportunity to absorb its impact, discuss any concerns and prepare themselves for broadcast.
Technicians and crew should be briefed on how to work sensitively with the contributor. In some circumstances, such as victims of gender based violence, it may be less stressful to the individual to have a team who are all one gender.
It is good practice to document how the vulnerable contributor is treated as evidence that their safety and welfare has been appropriately taken into account.
Dealing with Stressful or Conflict Situations
Recording will, in most cases, be a new experience for vulnerable contributors and there may be risks to their welfare arising from it. These can be managed by:
- taking advice from those with specialist knowledge of their condition
- having a clear understanding of how to minimise the chance of harm or distress
- tailoring any questions or situations to be appropriate for their condition
- having strategies in place should a stressful situation occur, such as having breaks in recording.
Ahead of production, it can be advisable to discuss with the experts or those responsible for their care possible scenarios which could unfold during production, particularly those in which the welfare of the contributor may be compromised.
If it is clear that the presence of the crew is causing distress to a vulnerable contributor, recording should normally be halted or moved to a different area, as appropriate. We should take advice from and work closely with carers who are likely to be able to anticipate difficulties before they happen.
If a vulnerable contributor indicates (by any means) that they do not wish to participate, or if they become distressed, such communication should normally be respected, and no pressure brought to bear on them or their carers to continue.
In documentary content, if a particularly stressful situation develops during an important sequence, for example if a vulnerable person has to be restrained, we should record sensitively and be guided by any relevant professionals. Options include filming from a distance, focusing on the staff involved rather than the contributor (if at an institution for example), recording in a way that does not identify the person or with a film, recording only the audio.
In other content such as talent searches/reality immersive programmes if a particular stressful situation develops during an important sequence, production teams should follow their pre-agreed protocol which might include for example adjusting running orders appropriately, granting a “time out” and making other suitable adjustments.
Having taken expert advice at the outset, if during production we become aware that a vulnerable person is at risk of imminent and significant harm, we should take action to inform the relevant authorities in good time. For example, this could be where life is at risk, or a contributor needs immediate medical treatment, or if a vulnerable person communicates in some way that they are a victim of sexual or other physical abuse.
We should pay attention to the expectations of privacy of people who are vulnerable. In featuring them as individuals we will be putting personal information about their condition into the public domain. We should point out to potential contributors that their condition will become known to a wide audience including family, friends and work colleagues, and we must ensure that they are happy to proceed on that basis.
It may be appropriate to have measures in place to protect information concerning vulnerable contributors, their carers, friends or relations which could reveal the vulnerable person’s identity or location. On occasion, it may be necessary to ensure that the precise whereabouts of contributors is kept confidential throughout production and their location is not revealed in any content.
The victims and alleged victims of some offences, including rape and most offences with a sexual element, have a lifelong right not to be identified as victims of those offences. This right exists whether or not the alleged crime has been reported to police. The victims and alleged victims of female genital mutilation, forced marriage and human trafficking are also afforded automatic anonymity by law in relation to those alleged offences. Particular care will have to be taken over jigsaw identification in cases where it is the victim’s own family members who are accused of offences. Individuals aged 16 and above can waive their anonymity, but they must do this in writing. Further advice is available from Programme Legal Advice.
There is also a lifelong right to anonymity for teachers where they are accused of a criminal offence against a registered pupil at their school. The anonymity in relation to such an allegation will end or can be lifted in a number of circumstances, including if the teacher is charged with the criminal offence. The teacher may also waive their anonymity in writing.
Further advice is available from Programme Legal Advice. The situation may differ in Scotland and advice is available from the Legal Director, Scotland.
The collection of personal information must be handled in accordance with data protection legislation and the BBC’s data protection policies. 
It may be appropriate to grant a contributor anonymity to protect them from harm and we must agree the extent of anonymity we will provide.
Aftercare is important. Any aftercare needs to be proportionate to the ongoing risks identified and have clear boundaries and time frames.
At the outset the need for aftercare for vulnerable contributors and for all contributors when the format / nature of the programme means they’ll be put in highly pressurised or exposed situations should be discussed by Production and Commissioning with input from Editorial Policy and other relevant experts where necessary.
An agreed plan should be drawn up with an outline of how aftercare will be delivered and for what period of time it should be available. This aftercare plan may need to be adjusted if any contributor develops a vulnerability during the production. A psychological assessment or conversation may be advisable post-production.
(See above: Assessing the Suitability of Vulnerable Contributors for more detail on psychological assessments)
If a contribution has evolved during production and post-production, it may be advisable to let them know before transmission where we may have any concerns about how this may affect them.
It may also be necessary to limit the period of time that content could be repeated for. However, the contributor and their families should be made aware that third party websites may reproduce the content without our knowledge or consent.
See also Psychological Well-Being: Guidance for Protecting Contributors from BBC Safety Security and Resilience: Advice for Journalists and Presenters
And Psychological Well-Being: Guidance for Protecting Contributors from BBC Safety Security and Resilience
 See Social Media and Online Safety on the Working with Children site: available on Gateway for BBC staff or via commissioning editors for independent producers
And Psychological Well-Being: Guidance for Protecting Contributors from BBC Safety Security and Resilience
Last updated December 2019