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Adjudication of Ofcom Content Sanctions Committee - Channel Four Television Corporation in respect of its service Channel 4

24|05|07

Ofcom Content Sanctions Committee

Consideration of sanction against

Channel Four Television Corporation in respect of its service Channel 4.(-1-)

For

Breaches of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code:

  • Rule 2.3 – Broadcasters must when applying generally accepted standards ensure that material which may cause offence is justified by the context; and
  • Rule 1.3 – Children must also be protected by appropriate scheduling from unsuitable material.

On

15, 17, 18, 19 January 2007

Decision

To direct Channel Four (and S4C) to broadcast a statement of Ofcom’s findings in a form determined by Ofcom immediately before the start of the broadcast of the first programme of the eighth series of Big Brother on Channel 4; immediately before the start of the broadcast of the first re-versioned programme of the eighth series of Big Brother on Channel 4; and immediately before the start of the broadcast of the programme in which the first eviction from the eighth series of Big Brother occurs on Channel 4.

Summary

1.1 On the basis detailed in the Decision, under powers delegated from the Ofcom Board to Ofcom’s Content Sanctions Committee (“the Committee”), the Committee has decided to impose a statutory sanction on Channel Four (and S4C) in light of the serious nature of the failure by Channel Four to ensure compliance with Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code.

1.2 This adjudication under the Broadcasting Code relates to the fifth series of Celebrity Big Brother. (Celebrity) Big Brother is produced by Brighter Pictures, part of Endemol UK plc (“Brighter Pictures”), and is broadcast by the Channel Four Television Corporation (“Channel Four” or “the broadcaster”) on its Channel 4 service. The Channel Four Big Brother series are also broadcast by S4C on its service. It started on 3 January 2007 and ran 26 days until 28 January 2007.

1.3 Big Brother is a reality based television show where celebrity contestants are confined together in a controlled environment (“the House”), for a set amount of time. Every room (with the exception of the toilets and shower rooms) and every contestant is recorded by cameras and microphones. Recording of all actions and conversations occurs 24 hours a day. Each week, contestants are nominated for eviction from the House. The ultimate decision as to who is to be evicted is then left to the public by means of voting via telephone or text. The last housemate left at the end of the series is the winner of the show.

1.4 As the fifth series progressed, disagreements began to develop between some of the housemates, in particular, between Shilpa Shetty on the one hand and Jade Goody, Jo O’Meara and Danielle Lloyd on the other. Viewers, and others who were aware of the events in the House, became increasingly concerned that Shilpa Shetty was being subjected to bullying, some alleging that the bullying was racist. Ofcom received just over 44,500 complaints about Celebrity Big Brother 2007.

1.5 Under the Communications Act 2003, Ofcom has a statutory duty to set standards for the content of broadcast television programmes in a Code with which broadcasters must comply. Ofcom must ensure broadcasters comply with the Code and perform its duties in light of the European Convention of Human Rights which provides for the right to freedom of expression. Ofcom must exercise its duties in light of these rights and not interfere with the exercise of these rights in broadcast services unless it is satisfied that the restrictions it seeks to apply are required by law and necessary to achieve a legitimate aim.

1.6 In setting standards for the content of broadcast television programmes, Ofcom requires broadcasters to ensure that “generally accepted standards” are applied to the content of television programmes so as to provide adequate protection from the inclusion of offensive or harmful material. Under Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code (“the Code”), broadcasters are required in applying these generally accepted standards to ensure that material which may cause offence is justified by the context. Context includes such matters as the editorial content of the programme, the service on which it is broadcast and the likely expectations of the audience.

1.7 In making its adjudication, Ofcom has taken account of representations made by Channel Four.(-2-)

1.8 Channel Four is a public service broadcaster with a unique statutory remit to provide a broad range of high quality and diverse programming which, in particular: demonstrates innovation, experiment and creativity in the form and content of programmes; appeals to the tastes and interests of a culturally diverse society; makes significant contribution to meeting the need for the licensed public service channels to include programmes of an educational nature and other programmes of educative value; and exhibits a distinctive character(-3-).

1.9 Channel Four’s representations are fully considered and addressed in this adjudication below. In summary, Channel Four submitted that: the incidents broadcast were responsibly handled; appropriately scheduled and edited and justified by the context being within the expectations of the Big Brother audience. It maintained that the series had been in keeping with its statutory remit. It accepted and regretted that many viewers had been offended but submitted that important freedom of expression issues were at stake. Channel Four considered the debate stimulated by what occurred had been of “undeniable public value” regardless of the fact that it had not set out to create a national debate about racism. It believed that the broadcasts had been fully in compliance with the Code.

1.10 In considering whether there had been breaches of the Code, Ofcom recognises that material that is potentially offensive or harmful may be properly broadcast in compliance with the Code so long as its inclusion is justified by the context so as to provide adequate protection to members of the public. The Code does not prohibit the broadcast of potentially offensive or harmful material in any circumstances. What is essential for compliance with the Code is the way in which such material is transmitted by the broadcaster. Accordingly, in considering whether Channel Four has breached the Code in this instance, Ofcom’s starting point is not that material which is potentially offensive or harmful has been transmitted, but whether such material has been appropriately handled by Channel Four.

1.11 Ofcom has considered whether a number of events in the House were in compliance with the Broadcasting Code. It has found that there were three events which were broadcast during the series which were in breach of the Code (see paragraphs 8.1 – 8.38 below for a full explanation of the breach findings). Ofcom has found that in relation to the following three incidents, Channel Four failed to appropriately handle the material so as to adequately protect members of the public from offensive material:

  • Remarks about Cooking in India (transmitted 15 January 2007)
  • “Fuck off home” comment (transmitted 17 January 2007)
  • “Shilpa Poppadom” comment (transmitted 18 and 19 January 2007)

1.12 Ofcom has also found that in relation to a number of other incidents, Channel Four was either not in breach of the Code and on one occasion, Ofcom has found that the issue was resolved. See paragraphs 6.1 to 7.12 for Ofcom’s reasoning on these incidents.

1.13 Big Brother is an entertainment programme and viewers therefore perceive what happens in the House as “entertainment”, they also view it as “reality” i.e. they view the events as real events happening to real people. This means that the audience can genuinely become concerned for the welfare of housemates, but in the knowledge and expectation that any serious problematic or anti-social behaviour will be appropriately dealt with. This has become one of the generally accepted standards of Big Brother.

1.14 Channel Four in the Big Brother programme format has established various editorial mechanisms through which inappropriate behaviour in the House can be challenged. For instance, through discussion in the Diary Room, Big Brother can confront and reprimand housemates about their behaviour thereby acting as an important arbiter to what the public may perceive to be offensive language or behaviour. Reactions by housemates, Big Brother interventions and the Diary Room are all part of the well understood architecture of the programme and the context within which Channel Four is able to appropriately broadcast potentially offensive material.

1.15 However, in relation to the incidents outlined in 1.11 above Channel Four failed adequately to apply generally accepted standards by justifying the inclusion of the offensive material by its context. It is Ofcom’s view that when these three incidents were broadcast, Channel Four failed sufficiently to address the potential for offence or left this behaviour unchallenged. This resulted in offence being caused to a very large number of viewers.

1.16 Exceptionally, in the circumstances of this case, Ofcom judged that the relationship between the broadcast incidents and Channel Four’s overall awareness of the events within the House was relevant in terms of compliance. We therefore asked Channel Four to submit any relevant untransmitted material. In deciding whether to impose a sanction, Ofcom has taken into account, in addition to the incidents broadcast, this footage from the House which was not transmitted.

1.17 The events from this untransmitted footage occurred before the broadcast of two of the incidents (one of which was broadcast twice) which Ofcom has found to be in breach of the Code. This material included conversations between housemates which were instructive of the relationships, tensions and attitudes in the House at this particular time and were logged as “racist” at the time by Brighter Pictures, the producer.

1.18 Channel Four was not aware of this material at the relevant time and therefore was not able to take account of it when making its editorial decisions as to how to handle the broadcast of these two incidents. Channel Four has submitted that this was due to a breakdown in communications between itself and Brighter Pictures, which the broadcaster considers resulted from a failure by the producer to follow established procedures and therefore draw the material to Channel Four’s immediate attention. Whether this was the case or not, this does not excuse Channel Four from its obligations under its licence to comply with the Code. Ofcom considers that Channel Four’s compliance processes were clearly not adequate in light of this failure and that Channel Four should have been more proactive at this time in ensuring that it was aware of all relevant material.

1.19 Ofcom has found that there was a serious failure within Channel 4’s compliance procedures for the series which meant that it was not fully aware of the events in the House so that it could handle potentially offensive material through its editorial mechanisms. In our view, if Channel 4 had seen this material, at the time it was recorded, it would have handled the unfolding situation in the House very differently in order to ensure compliance with the Code.

1.20 Ofcom also considers that Channel Four failed in its handling of the incidents broadcast to take account of the cumulative effect of the events in the House. The audience’s understanding of the events in the House and, in particular, the alleged racist bullying, was changing as the series developed and therefore comments which may in other circumstances have been interpreted as “borderline” in terms of offence became much more offensive given what was happening in the House, as well as beyond the House, in the outside world.

1.21 Ofcom considers that the breaches by Channel Four of the Broadcasting Code when taken together show a serious failure to apply generally accepted standards.

1.22 In light of Ofcom’s findings and having taken into account the representations made by Channel Four, and all the evidence before it, the Committee has concluded that it should impose a statutory sanction on Channel Four (and S4C).

1.23 The Committee has taken into account in its decision as to the appropriate sanction to be applied both the fact that Channel Four acted promptly as soon as it became aware of the untransmitted material in exercising control over subsequent events in the House; and has carried out a full review of its compliance programme and put in place more comprehensive compliance procedures and guidelines.

1.24 The Committee has also taken into account the fact that the breaches did not result from deliberate, reckless or grossly negligent actions by Channel Four but rather represents a serious error of judgment in relation to material that requires the most careful handling.

1.25 The Committee has a range of statutory sanctions available to it. In this case the Committee considers that the most appropriate sanction is to require Channel Four (and S4C) to broadcast a statement of Ofcom’s findings in a form determined by Ofcom. Furthermore, the Committee decided that this should be broadcast on three separate occasions when it would reach the highest number of viewers. That is, at the start of the first programme of the new series of Big Brother and at the start of its re-versioned programme the following morning and also at the start of the first eviction show.

1.26 The Committee would take very seriously any future failure of compliance leading to a similar situation as that which the Committee has dealt with in this case.

Footnotes:

1.- This sanction also applies to Sianel Pedwar Cymru (“S4C”) which transmits Channel 4’s (Celebrity) Big Brother series on its service.

2.- S4C has relied on Channel Four’s representations to Ofcom.

3.- 3 Section 265(3) Communications Act 2003

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