What to do if you think something you have seen in the media
has been harmful.
What is happening to standards in the
The media is a powerful force. In some ways it mirrors the
changes that are occurring in our society; in other ways it shapes
our society by "normalising" certain values, attitudes and
Many people have the sense that standards, particularly on
television, have changed over the past couple of decades.
Some of these changes have been positive. You are unlikely to see
programmes which casually use racist or sexist language that were
common in the 1960s and 1970s. Language used towards people with
disabilities has also changed as our society has become more
sensitised towards the rights and needs of minority groups. Not all
changes in standards have been negative.
However there are still concerns about the increased use of bad
language, graphic sexual behaviour and violence on our television
screens. Other people are concerned about programmes, particularly
of the "reality TV" genre, which are manipulative and promote
values of greed and disregard for human relationships or
Who regulates standards in the media?
Our country is at a time of change in the regulation of
standards in the media. The 2003 Communications Act created a new
super-regulator for the media called Ofcom. Ofcom has the
responsibility of protecting the under 18s, ensuring that
programmes are impartial, and ensuring standards within
broadcasting. Crucially the test of standards in broadcasting has
shifted from "taste and decency" to "harm and offence" within
"generally accepted standards"
At the same time the BBC is going through the process towards the
renewal of its Charter. It is talking in terms of how the BBC can
build public value - ie what public service broadcasting can add to
society. In the wake of the Hutton Inquiry, the BBC has also
introduced a new complaints procedure.
What will regulators take into account?
As stated above Ofcom and the BBC have published codes of what
is acceptable in broadcasting. They will look at these when
considering accusations of breaches of standards. However the
regulators of standards will also take other considerations into
account when looking at whether a programme has broken rules on
harm and offence, for example
How many children were likely to be watching? The "watershed" of
9pm still applies. However there must not be a "cliff top" with
strong adult content being broadcast immediately after the
Was the programme properly labelled? Was there a warning broadcast
before the programme was shown that there would be strong
What were the audience's expectations? A programme or strand that
is generally regarded as suitable for "family viewing" cannot
suddenly start showing graphic violence or sexual behaviour.
Is it worth complaining, or am I wasting my
If you have a specific complaint where you feel that the
broadcasters have broken their standards codes, it is worth making
a complaint. It often only takes a single complaint to start an
investigation by the regulator. If a broadcaster is found to have
been in breach of the codes, the regulator publishes their findings
and can impose sanctions leading up to financial penalties and the
revoking of a licence.
Even if sanctions are not imposed, published judgments set
precedents for broadcasters: other broadcasters will then be aware
that they will be breaking the code if they act in this way.
Sometimes you will receive a "thank you for your interest" letter
which suggests no further action will be taken - even this can be
valuable. Regulators look for trends in audience opinions and
standards, and may have an unrecorded conversation with
broadcasters raising these concerns.
So how do I go about complaining?
These are some recommendations if you want to complain about a
television or radio programme.
- First of all, make sure that you watched the programme. The
media coverage about some controversial programmes is spun to
ensure they receive maximum publicity: often the programme does not
turn out to justify it.
- Be as specific as possible. Letters to the regulators accusing
them of allowing standards to decline generally or denouncing the
television schedules will not provoke an investigation. Instead
refer specifically to particular incidents within the programme
that caused harm and offence to you or your family. For example "on
Monday 6 December 2004 an edition of the six o'clock news showed an
item at about 6.20pm….." and then go on to explain precisely why it
was harmful or offensive.
- Refer to the broadcasting codes where possible. Both Ofcom and
the BBC produce codes which outline the standards they expect from
programmes broadcast on television and radio - for example what is
expected of "family viewing", human dignity, violence,
impartiality, the treatment of children or the portrayal of
suffering. These codes are available via the websites for Ofcom and the
- You can find out the addresses to write to here for Ofcom
- www.ofcom.org.uk/complain/ or
BBC - www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/ and
can even make your complaints online.
- Make sure that your complaint is written in temperate, polite
language, but that you make clear the depth of your concern. Avoid
writing in capitals, underlining or quoting the Bible.
- You should receive a reply within a given number of days. If
you do not think that the reply is satisfactory, write back.
A table showing the different contact details for Ofcom and the
BBC, together with the British Board of Film Classification, the
Advertising Standards Authority and the Press Complaints Commission
can be found here .
For further information Contact: Toby Fairclough, Media Officer,
Methodist Church House, 25 Marylebone Rd, London NW1 5JR
Tel: 020 7467 5208