BSC Code of Guidance Revisions 2003

In December 2002 the Broadcasting Standards Commission invited mediawatch-uk to comment on final revision to their Code of Guidance. Our detailed response sent on 28 January is set out below:


1. The BSC refers to the right of broadcasters to experiment and to challenge conventions by presenting controversial work. This right seems to have been unofficially granted by broadcasting regulators rather than the general public. Therefore, care should be exercised to ensure that such work is not used as an excuse for presenting programmes that contain offensive and/or obscene material such as swearing, explicit sexual material or scenes of violence. Similar care should be taken when striking a balance between creative freedom and responsibility to diverse audiences. At the present time, after the Watershed, there is little consideration given for people not wishing to be confronted by swearing, explicit sexual material or scenes of violence.

2. The BSC states that the purpose of the Code is to provide guidance on how to strike the correct balance. However, it should be noted that the Broadcasting Act should be observed for all channels and that the BBC is required in the Agreement associated with its Charter not to broadcast programmes which 'includes anything which offends against good taste or decency'. The BSC also states that the Code is based on extensive independent research by the BSC into audience views and expectations and ways in which these shift over time. It should be noted that the present Code does not adequately reflect the public's dislike for swearing, and for the words that cause the most offence. It should be further noted that the words that cause the most offence have not changed significantly over the years.

3. Past experience has shown that broadcasters do not always appear to reflect the general effect of the BSC's Code in their own codes or guidelines. Therefore, in an effort to reduce the ever-increasing number of complaints and, thereby, reduce the possibility of time being wasted unnecessarily by regulators, it is recommended that broadcasters file a copy of their own codes with the BSC for inspection, approval and as evidence that the appropriate requirements have been fully understood.

4. It is noted that the BSC states that it is the responsibility of the programme-makers and broadcasters to explain their policies clearly for the audience and that the most frequent reason for offence being caused is when expectations have been flouted. Research, however, does not support such statements. It has been ascertained that expectation does not mean approval and it has been clarified that swearing is not alright even when broadcast on a subscription channel simply because of content awareness. Furthermore, although it is stated that programme-makers and broadcasters should explain their policies it should be remembered that in the report 'Platforms and Channels' it is stated that the same rules about programme content carried in the BSC's Code, the ITC Programme Code and the BBC's Producer's Guidelines apply across all channels, regardless of delivery platform. This should be firmly emphasised in the BSC's revised Code.

5. As noted in the previous paragraph, media literacy certainly does not give broadcasters the right to broadcast offensive material and as mentioned in the previous paragraph, research has indicated that swearing is not alright even on a subscription channel just because of content awareness. Furthermore, broadcasters and regulators should guard against what research has described as 'negative empowerment' where there is only a choice of what not to view. This could lead to people not wishing to experience explicit sex scenes, swearing and acts of violence having to switch off their television sets every night at 9.00pm. The BSC's Code should protect the public from ensuring that the provision of pre-broadcast warnings do not exclude people from being able to view any programmes especially after the commencement of the Watershed.


7. The BSC's proposed Code states that research shows that the majority of parents accept that they are expected to take greater control over the choice of their children's viewing after the watershed. However, it should be noted that research has revealed that 50% of respondents have indicated that they were strongly against unrestricted broadcasts with parents controlling their children's viewing. This view indicates that a shared responsibility with all relevant parties should be taken into account within this latest revision of the Code, in the same way as it is society's responsibility to deal with disruptive children within the community as opposed to just being a police responsibility. It is either naÔve to believe that, under the present arrangements, children are not being exposed to totally unsuitable and corruptive material that is currently being broadcast on a daily basis - or merely just a convenient omission.

The Watershed

The BSC's comments are noted in respect of broadcasters having a clear duty to inform. However, research shows that a significant number of parents do not wish to be the sole controller of restricting their children's viewing and broadcasters need to take this into account both before and after the Watershed. Account should also be taken of the research that has revealed that respondents were of the opinion that programmes shown after the watershed should not automatically be unsuitable for children and it was acknowledged that children would still be viewing up to 10.00pm. Consideration should also be given to the research indicating that 76% of respondents felt that television should demonstrate a greater regard for taste and decency. Furthermore, broadcasters should not view the provision of pre-broadcast warnings as an excuse to broadcast offensive or obscene material. Here, it should be noted that research has indicated that a majority 55% has stated that swearing and offensive language was not alright when broadcast even on a subscription channel simply because there was content awareness.

10. No comments in addition to what has already been noted above.

11. It should be clearly noted that research has indicated that children will still be in the audience up to 10.00pm and this must be considered by broadcasters. Furthermore, during school holidays and especially during the Christmas and New Year holiday period bad language, explicit sexual scenes and scenes of violence should be avoided at all times.

12. The abrupt viewing change should be viewed more seriously than at the present time and this point should be emphasised more forcefully in the revised Code.

14. It should be clearly emphasised that in respect of bad language research has revealed that expectation does not mean approval. As outlined above, a majority 55% of respondents stated that swearing and offensive language was not alright when broadcast even on a subscription channel simply because there was content awareness.

15. This point should be further emphasised by ensuring that caution is exercised at all times due to the ease at which radio can be tuned into and, therefore, accessed by children.

16. In addition to the point mentioned, special care should be taken in the scheduling of evening radio programmes, which can be accessed easily by children.

Programme repeats, trails and advertisements

19. In addition to the proposals, it should be remembered that there should be nothing broadcast that is offensive or in bad taste.

Informing and warning

20. Whilst pre-broadcast information and warnings may be helpful, it should not be used as an excuse to broadcast increasingly offensive programmes. Therefore, such warnings in reality would be rare as these warnings may be merely an indication that the requirements of the Broadcasting Act are about to be breached. Furthermore, the following points should also be carefully observed:

(1) As previously indicated, research has revealed that bad language is not alright on a subscription channel simply because there is pre-broadcast information available;

(2) Informing and warning does not prevent the desensitising, corrupting or exploiting of audiences; and

(3) There is no need to prevent 'negative empowerment' where the viewer is left only with the decision of what not to watch - or even whether to watch!

Respect and Dignity

21. The proposal to include the following words should be excluded: 'Challenging or deliberately flouting the boundaries of taste in drama and comedy is a time-honoured tradition'. This statement can only serve to send out the wrong signals to broadcasters and, in any event, regulators should not be in the business of providing encouragement to broadcasters to show offensive or otherwise unsuitable material.

23. Broadcasters should not broadcast material which may cause viewers and/or listeners to feel verbally abused. This can occur when viewers/listeners hear swearing against their wishes or against their beliefs.

Swearing and Offensive Language

30. Research has indicated the words which provide the greatest concerns. Research has also shown that these words do not significantly change over the years. There is a list of these words available and the top fifteen or so words are found to be severe swear words by over 50% of respondents in research and should, therefore, be considered the strongest swear words. These words should be avoided. Furthermore, research has revealed that swearing is not even accepted even when used in a light-hearted manner and that it did not make any difference if such words were used literally.

32. The comment included in the proposed revision in respect of research indicating that swearing and offensive language is preferred at a later transmission time rather than editing should be viewed with extreme caution. It must be made perfectly clear that the research related to films only and that there was still a significant number of respondents in disagreement. In fact, 46% of respondents over 55 years of age disagreed with this view. This is a significant point as it is the over 55s who view television more than any other age group. This is an extremely good example of the BSC seizing and emphasising an area of research, which appears to benefit the broadcaster, whilst ignoring other research such as a majority vote for the non-acceptance of swearing in serious drama. There should, therefore, be no special case made for the inclusion of swearing in films, which would seem to benefit the broadcasters and filmmakers in reducing the extra work and costs involved in ensuring the exclusion of offensive material.

33. The research in respect of children should be respected and is as follows:

89% of respondents were against watching a programme containing bad language with children present;

71% of respondents were strongly in favour of all programmes before the Watershed being suitable for children. Research also revealed that respondents did not expect chidren's programmes to contain any bad language and were of the opinion that programmes shown after the Watershed should not automatically be unsuitable for children. Furthermore, whilst respondents were aware that programme content became progressively less suitable for children across the evening it was acknowledged that children would still be viewing up to 10.00pm and that the later hour did not condone the use of offensive language;

50% of respondents were strongly against unrestricted broadcasts with parents controlling their children's viewing; and 75% of respondents indicated that bad language in documentaries about a role model broadcast after the Watershed should be toned down.

34 - 35. Research has shown that swearing is not wanted at all before the Watershed and this should be respected. Furthermore, swearing found to be severe by a significant number of respondents should be avoided at all times.

Offences against Religious Sensibilities

38. Holy names should never be used as expletives or linked with any swear words.

Lyrics and Music Videos

39. The content should conform to all other regulatory broadcasting requirements.

People with Disabilities or Mental Health Problems

44 - 45. No further amendments except that there should be no ridiculing of disabilities or mental health problems or towards the sufferers of such conditions.


Ethnicity and Race

46 - 47. No further amendments except that broadcasters should recognise the ethnic view in respect of swearing and offensive language. For example, research has indicated that respondents from an Asian background are extremely concerned at their children and the female members of their family being exposed to swearing on the television.

Portrayal of Violence

Under the present arrangements, such a section is a complete waste of time when consideration is given to the serious amounts of violence shown in many films that have been broadcast in recent years. Such excesses appear to be increasing in frequency and in the graphic depictions of violence shown. Any revision in the Code should deal adequately with this most serious of problems.

51. To avoid the desensitising of audiences to violence or to the victims of violence, there should be no scenes which show graphic scenes of violence. Such scenes should be implied rather than graphically shown.

Violence in News, Current Affairs and Documentary Programmes

54 - 56. No further amendments except to note that the extra point made at 51 should be consistently applied.


The following proposed requirement should be deleted:

'Only in the rarest circumstances should broadcasters show moments of death'

The following, however, should be used to substitute the above deletion:

'Moments of death should never be shown'

Reconstruction of Violent Crimes

60 - 61. No further amendments except that such programmes should also conform to all other regulatory broadcasting requirements.

Violence in Drama

62 - 63. No further amendments except that such programmes should adhere to all other regulatory broadcasting requirements.


Graphic scenes of rape should never be shown.

Incest and Child Abuse

Programmes dealing with this kind of material should not be sufficiently graphic or explicit to require pre-broadcast warnings. Warnings do not adequately prevent viewers from being desensitised from such serious and potentially offensive and corruptive output.

Genre Movies

The notes contained in the draft proposals appear to give special dispensation for movies to be excluded from other parts of the Code. There should be no special regard for movies and other parts of the Code should apply. This is necessary to prevent audiences from being desensitised by being continually subjected to unsuitable material. Furthermore, trails used before the Watershed and at other times when children may be expected to be in the audience should not encourage children to wish to view inappropriate adult material.

Children and Drama

All programmes should take into account research requirements as detailed in other parts of the Code. In addition, it should be remembered that 83% of respondents in research agreed that television should show more programmes that reflect traditional family values and that 71% of respondents were strongly in favour of all programmes before the Watershed being suitable for children. In future, 'soaps' should also conform to this requirement as at the present time many of the 'soaps' are of an adult nature and should be shown only after the commencement of the Watershed.


67. No further amendments except that no acts of cruelty should be shown or suggested which could be copied. Furthermore, real-life cruelty should not be encouraged.

Portrayal of Sexual Conduct

69. Research has indicated that expectation does not necessarily mean approval and, therefore, explicit sexual scenes should be avoided. Furthermore, bearing in mind the present serious increase in the spread of the AIDS virus and other STI's, television and radio should not glamorise casual sex or promote or encourage marital breakdown, such relationships or normalise such sexual encounters.

70. Normalising casual, sexual acts can occur when famous actors or role models are seen, albeit only in fictional situations, to view casual sexual relationships as being expected, desirable and/or part of a glamorous lifestyle. Such scenes should therefore be avoided. It is most important for the general public not to be exploited by explicit sexual scenes or sexual remarks and to guard against the public from being desensitised from the connection between sexual acts and genuine loving relationships. There is never a case for explicit sexual acts or the suggestion of sexual acts other than those relating to loving sexual relationships, bonded by time, being broadcast before the Watershed. 'Soaps', in particular, should either conform to this requirement or be broadcast after the Watershed.

71. Clear concise warnings may be helpful but broadcasts should conform to the above criteria and to the criteria outlined in the section on informing and warning. Television is not the medium for pornography, including soft pornography, and there should be no scenes showing sexual penetration of any kind or the display of aroused sexual genitalia. Furthermore, explicit sex scenes should not be incorporated into programmes that are not primarily of a sexual nature. For example, a detective programme about hunting down a missing person should not suddenly provide the opening for a specific explicit sex scene. Likewise, where, for instance, a bedroom scene is necessary to a specific plot, that particular scene should not be unnecessarily drawn out merely as an excuse for an explicit sex scene.

Factual Programmes

72. Factual programmes should conform to the previous paragraphs and to the Code in general. Producers should not only ask themselves whether an explicit representation is justified but should also ensure that any such representation is not dwelt upon.

Discussion and 'Phone-in Programmes

73. No further amendments except that such programmes should conform to the aforementioned paragraphs and to all other aspects of the Code.


Research showing that all programmes shown before the Watershed should be suitable for children should be respected and, therefore, there should be no broadcast of sexually explicit scenes, either visually or verbally before this time.


No further amendments except that broadcasts of the nude human body should not take place before the Watershed and should only be featured in programmes dealing with serious medical subjects.


The proposed draft revisions to the Code state that coarse humour and sexual innuendo may cause offence. Here, it should be clearly noted that under the Broadcasting Act there should be nothing included in programmes that is offensive.

28 January 2003

Click here for mediawatch-ukís submission on Ofcomís Broadcasting Code

Click here for submission Being Media Literate 

Click here for A Fair Deal for Stakeholders

Click here for A Chip Too Far?

Click here for Parliamentary Briefing on Clause 319 of the Communications Bill

Click here for mediawatch-uk response to previous revisions to BSC Code of Guidance

Click here for Joining Form

For information on the Broadcasting Standards Commission visit where there are links to legacy regulators websites.