Media Complaints

What to do if you think something you have seen in the media has been harmful.

What is happening to standards in the media?

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 behaviours.

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 dignity.

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 watershed.
Was the programme properly labelled? Was there a warning broadcast before the programme was shown that there would be strong language?
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 time?

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 BBC 
  • You can find out the addresses to write to here for Ofcom - or BBC - 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
E-mail: Toby Fairclough 
Tel: 020 7467 5208

  • Sign up for e-newslettersKeep in touch with what interests you
Methodist Media graphic RHS

020 7467 5191