Section 5: Harm and Offence - Introduction

Section 5.1

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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, especially young people, and to avoid unjustifiable offence [1]

The BBC’s right to freedom of expression is protected under the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998. Freedom of expression includes the audience’s right to receive creative material, information, ideas, and content that may be contentious or offensive without interference but subject to restrictions prescribed by law and necessary in a democratic society. 

Creative risk-taking is a vital part of the BBC’s mission. However, in all our output, the greater the risk of causing harm or offence, the greater the thought, care and planning required to bring creative content to fruition. 

We must ensure our audiences have clear information on which to judge whether content is suitable for themselves or their children.

We must be sensitive to, and keep in touch with, generally accepted standards [2] as well as our audiences’ expectations of our content, particularly in relation to the protection of children. 

When our content includes challenging material that risks offending some of our audience we must be able to demonstrate a clear editorial purpose taking account of generally accepted standards, and ensure it is justified by the context. Such challenging material includes strong language, violence, sex, sexual violence, humiliation, distress, violation of human dignity, and discriminatory treatment or language. 

Generally Accepted Standards

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 into account the content, the context in which it appears and editorial justification.

The assessment of whether material meets ‘generally accepted standards’ is a broader consideration than whether it meets the expectations of the intended audience. ‘Generally accepted standards’ also reflect the opinions of people who are not the intended audience, but who would have an expectation of what is acceptable based on the context, such as the channel, time of broadcast, platform and signposting.

We must ensure that material that might be unsuitable for children is appropriately signposted and scheduled – in television, observing the 9pm watershed and, in radio, having regard to times when children are particularly likely to be listening.

At the same time, we must balance our responsibility to protect children and young people from unsuitable content with their rights to freedom of expression and freedom to receive information. We must not publish material which might seriously impair the physical, mental or moral development of young people [3].

The use of strong language must be editorially justified and signposted, if appropriate, to ensure it meets audience expectations, wherever it appears. Context is crucial in deciding whether strong language is editorially justified. 


In assessing context, we should bear in mind the following:

  • the editorial purpose and content of the output
  • the service on which the content is available
  • the time at which it is broadcast
  • audience expectation of the content, taking into account any signposting
  • 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 specific nature, such as religious programming
  • 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 likely effect of the material on audiences who may come across it unawares.

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

For material available on demand, context also includes the nature of access to the content, – ie whether appropriate measures are in place to safeguard children from viewing and/or listening to the content and whether signposting and content information is given.

Those planning online content should also consider whether there is a risk that content may not meet generally accepted standards and determine, early in the process, whether the content is likely to appeal to a significant proportion of children or young people and select material appropriately. Guidelines for handling harm and offence issues in BBC online content are set out in detail below.

For the purposes of the Editorial Guidelines and unless stated otherwise, a child is someone under the age of 16 years. Young people are those aged 16 and 17 [4]. It should be noted that these are not legal definitions.

[1] The sections of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code that relate to this are 1: Protecting the Under Eighteens and 2: Harm and Offence.

[2] Consideration of generally accepted standards derives from the 2003 Communications Act and applies to television and radio content and on-demand programme services.

[3] Article 27, Audiovisual Media Services Directive, (AVMSD).

[4] This is a higher standard than the Ofcom Broadcasting Code requires in protecting the Under-Eighteens. That says ‘Children are people under the age of fifteen years’.

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