Draft Code of Guidance

A response to the BROADCASTING STANDARDS COMMISSION consultation by mediawatch-uk


tephen Whittle, the Director of the Broadcasting Standards Council, was a studio guest on the Channel 4 programme 'Right to Reply' 28th March 1998. When discussing taste and decency issues he said that the Commission is an advisory body and when pressed on standards said that such matters are:

"difficult and, from time to time, extremely subjective judgements about which there is general disagreement in the community. I think what the BSC is saying to broadcasters at that point (when a complaint is upheld) is 'this is where we believe at this moment the line runs .... now, the line keeps moving'".


he National Viewers' and Listeners' Association believes that this non-interventionist attitude is completely at variance with the whole purpose of the Commission and out of step with Parliament's intentions when setting up the Broadcasting Standards Council originally. It was certainly not the ideal that inspired those who fought for so long to establish an independent forum for dealing properly with complaints about programme standards from the public. Before the BSC was established it was self evident, from dealings with those in the broadcasting industry, that public criticism about taste and decency issues was not being taken seriously. It was hoped that an independent body would take such criticism seriously and bring about a restoration of "good taste and decency" thus representing the public interest in a meaningful way against the powerful media interest.

The task, set by Parliament, to draw up a Code of Practice was of critical importance. Such a Code was seen to be the means through which programmes could be judged and the broadcasters taken to task if necessary over breaches of the Code. In order to do this a well defined Code of Practice is essential.

In setting up the Council in 1988 the Government of the day called it a Broadcasting Standards Council clearly implying, by the choice of title, that there are "standards" and that there was a need to maintain "standards" or bring about an improvement in "standards" that were deteriorating. It is evident from the results of the BSC's annual public surveys that there remains, despite the functioning of the Commission, widespread public concern about broadcasting standards. The 5th annual monitoring report of public opinion, published in September 1997, revealed that 64% of respondents believe that there is too much violence on television, 55% too much sex and 41% too much bad language. As such the Commission, and the Council before it, is plainly not having the desired effect.

Analysis by this Association of complaints upheld and not upheld shows that there is a general inconsistency and that the outcome of making a complaint to the Commission is akin to a form of lottery. Complaints about brutal violence or obscene or profane language in one programme may be upheld whilst the same or similar material in another programme is not upheld and is excused on a range of grounds not related to the concerns of complainant.

In correspondence with the Chairman of the BSC in November 1995 on this critical matter Lady Howe described how members of the Council make their judgements:

"They do so on the basis of their own experience, their own knowledge of the world, the evidence of the Council's research, and such factors as the time of the broadcast, the nature of the programme, the Channel concerned and the amount of advance information available to the audience so that an informed choice can be made".

Curiously, the BSC Code of Practice was not a factor taken into account.

In July 1996 the BSC published its Annual Report for 1995/96. This showed that in the previous two years the number of complaints to the Council had risen by 45%. This Annual Report nowhere referred to the use of the Code of Practice nor was there any assessment of the broadcasters' compliance with it. The monthly Bulletins issued by the Council/Commission rarely, if ever, refer to the Code either.

This Association sought clarification from the then Secretary of State for National Heritage as to the purpose and status of the Code of Practice.

In his response Lord Inglewood, the Minister of State, said

"Section 154 of the (Broadcasting) Act requires the Council to take into account 'any relevant provisions of the Code' in considering a complaint. The Code, therefore, serves two main purposes: acting as an input into broadcasting regulation, and as an aid to the Council in reaching findings on complaints."

The Code of Practice, therefore, should play a significant role in determining standards and it should, accordingly, be well defined and well understood by broadcasters and, above all, the public who the Commission is meant to be of service.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines 'Code' as meaning a

"systematic collection of statutes, body of laws so arranged as to avoid inconsistency...."

'Standard' is defined as meaning "weight or measure to which others conform or by which the accuracy of others is judged" and "degree of excellence etc. required for particular purpose".

Comments on the Draft Code



s with the First and Second editions of the Code of Practice it is evident that it lacks definition and as such fails to meet the purpose of a Code and, therefore, fails to meet the required need to establish standards. The new Code, rather than setting out to establish "standards", pushes the Commission further into the quagmire of imprecision and subjective judgement that is a long way short of public expectation. The public, which after all pays for the Commission, has a right to expect value for money and a discernible improvement in programme standards as a result of the Commission's existence. Not the opposite. From the numerous findings so far published since the Council/Commission was established it is difficult not to conclude that it is the broadcasters' interest that is being best served rather than the public interest.


The Introduction of the Code, in Section 1.1, refers to "respect for the audience". This is clearly the prime consideration for all who work in the broadcasting industry.

In Section 2.1 it states "There is an implied contract between the viewer, the listener and the broadcaster about the terms of admission to the home".

What is the nature of an "implied contract" and what is an "expectation of that contract"? Using terms like this suggest that there is a "contract" which everyone understands and is familiar with.

In Section 2.3 the duty, set out in the Broadcasting Act 1990 and BBC's Royal Charter, upon broadcasters not to offend "good taste or decency" or "offend public feeling" is strangely omitted. The onus in the Code to provide "enough information about the nature of programmes" is insufficient. Anything can be justified by the clause as presently formulated.

In Section 2.5 the Commission seems to accept, without question, the concept of the "Watershed" despite mounting evidence that it is failing in its efficacy. The Commission's own research, published in October 1997, concluded that the number of sex scenes in 'soaps' had trebled in three years and that parents are worried about the amount of sex, bad language and violence shown before the 9pm Watershed.

In Section 2.16, 'Labelling and Warnings', the Commission again seems to side with the broadcasters rather than with the public. If "warnings" about programmes are to be used at all it is important that they convey the true nature of what is to follow in the programme.

Examination of the "warnings" currently in use are inconsistent and the rationale for prefacing some programmes and not others is obscure. Phrases such as "hard hitting" or "gritty action" or "tough mood" or "disturbing" lack definition and seem contrived to convey very little of the true nature of what follows. More often than not they serve to attract viewers rather than the opposite. In any event the inclusion of a "warning" before a programme should not be used by the Broadcasting Standards Commission as a reason for not upholding a complaint.

Trials conducted in America of programme ratings systems suggest that viewers are critical because such schemes have not been specific enough. Indeed parent's groups are demanding content-based ratings that will indicate profanity, sex or violence. Vague and inadequate or misleading warnings are clearly not sufficient.

This clause itself lacks sufficient definition. For example, what is "bad" language? Is that different from "strong" language as referred to in 'Bad Language - What are the Limits?'

Why is a later transmission time for programmes containing "bad" language a more acceptable tool than editing? And what is a "later" transmission time? How late is late? 9.05pm, 10.00pm, midnight? The wrong assumption here is that "bad" language becomes less "bad" simply if it is transmitted "late". It is not clear what "standard" is being established in this clause.

In Section 3 - Taste and Decency

3.1 Why should "challenging or deliberately flouting the boundaries of good taste and decency" have a "rightful place in broadcasting". Parliament, in enacting legislation on these matters, has made no provision for this approach and it is, therefore, inappropriate that a "Standards" Commission should encode such a notion.

3.2 Why should comedy have a "special freedom to confront boundaries of good taste ...."? Who has granted such a "freedom" and when? What "standards" are being applied here?

3.4 What is a "breach of decency"? How does anyone know what is a breach if it is not first defined in the Code? And more especially if "the line keeps moving". Why talk of a "breach"?

3.5 The assumption here is that 'signalling and editorial context' are the primary considerations of the broadcasters rather than the expectations of the audience. These priorities are the wrong way round.

3.6 Since it is well known, from the BSC's own research, 'A Matter of Manners', that some words cause considerable offence to some people in some areas, is it not sensible to avoid "offending public feeling" by not transmitting offensive words at all?

Surely the Commission ought to set "standards" rather than attempt to minimise their coarsening effect on language. Broadcasting, as presently arranged, takes little account of different parts of the country, different generations or tones of voice. This clause in the Code could be used to justify any use of "bad" language.

3.7 This clause would seem to indicate understanding of how deep offence is caused and provides an adequate reason for omitting all language which is "bad". Why not set a "standard" here?

3.10 This clause refers to "conventions". It would be helpful to know what these are and how they are defined. Since 86% of respondents are said to "dislike" repetitive use of bad language this surely is sufficient reason for the Code of Practice to state that such usage should not be permitted.

3.11 This clause would seem to be a further argument for disallowing the repetitive use of "bad language". If so, why not say so? And, more importantly, why does the Commission not uphold complaints about programmes which do contain the repetitive use of "bad language"? Like, for example, the film 'TRAINSPOTTING' screened on Channel 4, 26.11.97, (BSC Bulletin 9).

3.12 This clause states that the Commission does not lay down rigid rules or a list of banned words. Surely the Commission, which has the word "standards" in its title, ought to do precisely that?

When, if ever, is reference made to "the most senior levels of management"? Can the Commission name instances of this and describe the outcome?

3.13 What is "the most offensive language"? And why is it acceptable after the "Watershed"? And why should the rule be broken at all?

3.14 Perhaps it is time to introduce a "Watershed" on Radio.

3.16 Broadcasters are required not to offend public feeling. If it is known that "the casual use of names, words or symbols regarded as sacred" causes hurt as well as offence why sanction it? Why does the Commission not urge that such language not be used at all?

3.19 The portrayal of illegal drug abuse in fictional drama and film is something which has increased in recent years. If "nothing should be done to encourage" such behaviour why not set a standard which excludes such portrayals?

In Section 4.1 the Codes states: "For the last six years two thirds of respondents, when asked to comment upon the amount of violence on television, have said there is "too much"".

This, regrettably, demonstrates how ineffective the Council/Commission has been in alleviating public concern. It also demonstrates how determined the broadcasters are to continue to broadcast violent material. This reinforces the public's perception, identified by the Commission, that the media has "its own agenda".

This Section fails, adequately, to distinguish between violence portrayed in fictional programmes and violence portrayed in news and current affairs programmes. Clarification is needed in Sections 4.1 and 4.2.

In 4.3 why should a "particular director" make so much difference. This, again, excuses violent material for the wrong reason and other more objective tests ought to apply rather than just a "particular director". Any violence, no matter how brutal or sadistic, can be excused on these grounds. And who is to make the necessary choices over which directors are 'in' and which are 'out'?

In Section 4.11 it is stated that "the moment of death itself" should be shown only in the "rarest circumstances". What are "rarest circumstances"? These should be defined.

4.12. Why show hanging or judicial executions at all? What is to be gained by showing them even after the "Watershed"?

4.31 Whilst it may be true that "violence is a legitimate ingredient of drama" why qualify this by "but should seldom be an end in itself"? What is "seldom"? And who determines whether violence is an "end in itself"? Who is to make such sophisticated judgements? Many films monitored by this Association include explicit violent imagery of a cruel and brutal nature. That it may not be an "end in itself" does not alter the nature of the imagery transmitted. And what are the "conventions" that audiences have an ability to appreciate? Since such "conventions" "will be key" should they not be defined?

4.35 Why should violence in "genre" films be acceptable? What is the difference between the portrayal of violence in a 'genre' movie and a 'non-genre' movie? Who decides what is a 'genre' movie and what is not? Is this, in future, to be part of the "information" provided to audiences?

4.36 What are the "unacceptable limits of violence" and when are these breached? This needs clarification and definition.

4.41 Instead of the use of weapons "readily available in the home" being "carefully considered" why not set a standard and state that such should not be portrayed at all?

In Section 5, Portrayal of Sexual Conduct, it is stated, without verification, that "audiences in Britain have generally become more liberal and relaxed about the portrayal of sex..."

As an Association we believe that the sex act, or the simulation of sexual activity, is a private matter and not one for a mass medium. In our monitoring of programmes we have identified a trend for the editing points of such scenes to be further and further delayed. There is no provision in the draft Code for broadcasters to be held to account when programmes go beyond "the universal climate of tolerance". Clearly the Commission, again, could set a standard in these matters and at least attempt some definition of what is meant in, Clause 5.5, by "reference to a set of moral values".

5.4 refers to "the law relating to hard-core pornography and obscenity" and that its depiction being "bound" by it. This Association, along with others, believes that the Obscene Publications Act 1959 is itself in need of radical overhaul and strengthening. Whilst we acknowledge that it is not the role of the Commission to effect a change in this law it is nevertheless a pivotal factor in determining what is legal and illegal in this field. A weak and ineffective law will permit the most obscene material which will, inevitably, affect broadcasting standards.

Dependency upon this Act to fulfil a role in setting a limit on the transmission of sexually explicit material is misplaced. Indeed the Independent Television Commission, which has licensed a number of so-called "soft" pornography channels, recently recommended that a proscription order be issued by the Secretary of State against the satellite channel 'Eros TV'. The ITC stated that "The output of this channel consists almost entirely of unacceptable pornography". The "law relating to hard-core pornography and obscenity" was not invoked neither was it stated why the pornography was "unacceptable". This implies that the ITC regards some pornography as acceptable.

The Commission could, again, set an objective standard in this section too.

Click here for extract from the BSC Code of Guidance in 'Monitoring: Helpful Hints'.

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