Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin Review 6 August 2018 – Trevor Barnes

The due care of young people when making programmes is a tricky compliance area. Rule 1.28 of the Ofcom Code requires broadcasters to take ‘due care’ of the welfare of under 18s who are involved in programmes. What if the programme is investigatory current affairs, where the reporter is observing and recording material where young people are being mistreated? This is the issue at the core of an interesting breach Decision against an edition of BBC1’s Panorama published in the latest Ofcom Bulletin (6 August 2018). Former Ofcom manager and SMAB Consultant Trevor Barnes analyses what this decision and two new ones about sponsorship/product placement in sport mean for broadcasters.

The Panorama programme was broadcast on 11 January 2016, so it has taken a scarcely credible two years and eight months to conclude. It was underway while I was still working at the regulator. But a reading of this exceptionally clear and well-reasoned decision clarifies why it has taken so long, not least the need for third party representations, for two preliminary views, and a doughty defence by the BBC.

The programme was an undercover investigation of the mistreatment of young people held in the Medway Secure Training Centre (MSTC), managed by G4S. It resulted in four guards being sacked. So there was a clear public interest. The main problem was that the BBC brought the broadcast date forward and in the rush to prepare the programme for transmission the real name of a 14 year old boy in MSTC and featured in the Panorama was included three times in the programme. A 16 year old was also featured. The local authorities responsible for the care of these two young people expressed various concerns about their appearance in the broadcast.

Ofcom carefully works through the various duties on the BBC, before, during and post-production. Very properly in my view Ofcom takes account of the current affairs context and finds the BBC fulfilled all its Rule 1.28 obligations with just one exception – the broadcast of the real name of the 14 year old. This was a mistake and should not have happened, as the BBC admits. The Decision should help to ensure that broadcast journalists can report on important stories involving distressing treatment of young people, by setting a realistic and sensible standard of Rule 1.28 ‘due care’ against which to judge the broadcaster in cases of this type.

The other interesting decisions in this Bulletin are about sponsorship of, and product placement in, the Singapore Grand Prix by Rolex in September 2016 (yes – it WAS 2016!) There is a breach decision against Channel 4 for giving undue prominence to Rolex in a highlights programme (Rule 9.5) and a Resolved against Sky Sports for the same problem with product placement of Rolex in a live feed (Rule 9.10). The difference was that Sky was contractually obliged to show the live feed as received from Formula One (FO), and had a mechanism for raising problems with that live feed with FO as and when they occurred. Channel 4 on the other hand had the opportunity to edit the highlights. As with so much else in the Broadcasting Code, undue prominence also depends on context. Unlike with the Panorama investigation, it is not clear though why it took Ofcom almost two years to conclude these two sponsorship/product placement cases. Ofcom has KPIs for a purpose and broadcasters should not need to wait this long for a decision.