The 25 July 2005 marked a new phase in the regulatory history of the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). It was the day the Corporation, in common with all UK broadcasters, had to ensure its television and radio output complied with the relevant sections of the Broadcasting Code published by the UK's new media and telecommunications regulator ? the Office of Communication (Ofcom).
The BBC has an external content regulator with teeth for the first time in its eighty two year history (October 1922).
But this isn't a simple story - the BBC is a unique but complex organisation from the point of view of its governance, regulation and funding.
Funding first. The BBC is funded by a licence fee levied on all households in the UK owning a television. The annual cost set by the government is ￡126.50 for a colour licence, ￡42 for a black and white one. This unique funding means the BBC is owned by the British people and is independent of political and commercial interests.
Next its governance, (and some regulation). The BBC has a Board of Governors - a varied group of, currently, eleven people, from a wide range of backgrounds. They are appointed by the Queen following advice from ministers. In some ways they're like the Board of a commercial company, they appoint the Director General and, with him, Executive Directors, to run the BBC day to day. They monitor and supervise their work and make sure they run the Corporation properly. In other ways, they're like a regulator, making sure the BBC does what it's obliged to by its Royal Charter and Agreement and Statute.
This Agreement specifies the BBC should do all it can to treat controversial subjects with“due accuracy and impartiality” in its news services and other programmes dealing with matters of public policy or of political or industrial controversy. It also states that the BBC is forbidden from expressing its own opinions on current affairs or matters of public policy other than broadcasting. In addition, the Agreement forbids any BBC service funded by the licence fee or grant-in-aid from carrying advertising or sponsored programmes.
Up until 25 July 2005 the Board of Governors was responsible for regulating the content of BBC radio and television programmes. That responsibility is now split between the Governors and Ofcom.
Ofcom regulates the BBC in six key areas: Protecting the Under Eighteens, Harm and Offence, Crime, Religion, Fairness and Privacy. It can impose a variety of sanctions for breaches of its Code including:
- broadcasting a correction or statement of finding;
- ordering that a programme is re-edited before re-broadcast;
- in the case of the BBC, fines of up to￡250,000 for serious or repeated breaches and for others percentages of qualifying revenues; and
- ultimately the withdrawal of a licence.
The BBC Governors regulate licence-fee or grant-in-aid funded BBC television and radio services in matters of accuracy and impartiality; politics and public policy; and other issues relating to programme content, for example, commercial references and undue product prominence.
The BBC's Commercial Services (excluding online) must comply with the whole of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code, including the Sponsorship and Commercial References sections.
The BBC recognises Ofcom's value in setting common standards across broadcasting in many areas, but because of its unique mission and unique funding mechanism we believe delivering its remit should be the responsibility of its own unique governance body, currently the Board of Governors but soon to be the BBC Trust. The Governors ensure a strong BBC, independent of Government, other political and commercial pressures and personal interests. The BBC's biggest editorial crises, the Gilligan-Kelly affair, re-emphasised to our audiences both in the UK and overseas, just how they value a strong and independent BBC ?a BBC which constantly tests itself and stretches for excellence.
The BBC Editorial Guidelines are key to this, they provide a framework of nine Editorial values within which challenging content can be produced and risks taken. They are our editorial ethics and values and the standards we set for ourselves, over and above the requirements of the new Ofcom Broadcasting Code.
The BBC Editorial Guidelines, revised to reflect the requirements of the Ofcom Code and updated for the first time in five years, were launched in June 2005. They are available at www.bbc.co.uk/editorialguidelines and, like the Ofcom Code, officially came into effect on 25 July. They apply to all BBC content whoever creates or makes it, and wherever and however it is received. They are approved by the Board of Governors and are kept under constant review by the BBC's Editorial Policy team.
As well as reflecting the relevant sections of the Broadcasting Code of the BBC's new regulator, they are different from previous versions in several other ways. First, they are shorter and clearer and, hopefully, easier to use. Second, they have a new name, no longer are they the BBC Producers' Guidelines but Editorial Guidelines, to reflect the full range of our content production. Third, they are designed for the multimedia world, and finally they are available in a fully searchable form online to anyone who wishes to access them.
“In a perfect world, the BBC's Editorial Guidelines would consist of one sentence: use your own best judgement. No set of rules or guidelines can ever replace the need for producers, editors and managers to use the wisdom that comes from experience, commonsense and a clear set of editorial values when confronted with difficult editorial challenges.” So writes the BBC's Director-General Mark Thompson in his foreword to the latest edition of the BBC Editorial Guidelines.
Indeed the BBC Editorial Guidelines are a distillation of the experience, commonsense and values of BBC practitioners built up over many years. They are not abstract or theoretical, but based on real cases and the lessons learned from real successes and real failures.
Complementing the BBC Editorial Guidelines are the BBC Online Services Guidelines which place increased emphasis on the labelling of difficult content ?of increasing important in the non-linear digital environment.
It should be noted that the Ofcom Broadcasting Code available at www.ofcom.org.uk regulates BBC TV and radio programmes, however it does not regulate our online services or any of our audio-visual content on the Web.
The BBC Editorial Guidelines contain sixteen key sections which clearly lay out our editorial principles. These sections include Editorial Integrity and Independence which seeks to emphasise the way the BBC's global reputation and unique value are based on the Corporation's editorial integrity and independence and that our decisions are neither influenced by political or commercial pressures, nor by any personal interests. This section brings together issues surrounding product placement, product prominence, props, game shows, conflicts of interest, social action programmes, charitable initiatives, support services and help lines.
There's a section on External Relationships which brings together advice about the many kinds of external relationships the BBC undertakes, including co-productions, public value partnerships, joint editorial initiatives, charities, the National Lottery, and sponsored events. And another - Interacting with our audiences which reflects the changing media landscape in which the BBC operates and establishes a set of editorial principles to inform our editorial judgements about the creative possibilities interactivity offers as it continues to evolve, particularly on mobile devices. The section brings together advice about all kinds of interactivity from voting, to taking part in our competitions and contributing to radio phone-ins as well as user generated content.
Oddly Ofcom's Code does not seem to be informed by the potential offered by new and evolving technologies including those that make it possible to record people for broadcast in ways they would not necessarily imagine until now, for example, mobile phones and web cams. The broadcast coverage of the London bombings was marked by the emergence of“citizen reporters”armed with mobile phone cameras and a media-savvy sense of what to do with the images they created. The emergence of these citizen reporters poses big questions for broadcasters in terms of establishing the veracity of the images but also about issues of privacy.
The BBC Editorial Guidelines are designed to support creativity and innovation, many are advisory but some are mandatory and have the force of instructions.
The Guidelines, for example, set a higher standard than the Ofcom Code in relation to Secret Recording and Door-stepping and detail the BBC procedures to be followed when using these methods to gather and broadcast material, including the fact that all proposals to record secretly must be approved in advance.
In the section on Privacy the Guidelines emphasise that the BBC must not infringe privacy without good reason wherever in the world it is operating. They also say that in order to exercise our rights of freedom of expression and information it is essential that we work within a framework which respects an individual's privacy and treats them fairly, while investigating and establishing matters which it is in the public interest to reveal. This section also sets out updated advice on the reporting of suffering and distress following our experiences in the reporting of the Asian Tsunami, Iraq War and 9/11.
The Guidelines reflect the new approach in the Communications Act 2003 which sets the higher test of harm and offence rather than taste and decency. Ofcom includes as examples of material that may offend: offensive language, violence, sex, sexual violence, humiliation, distress, violation of human dignity, and discriminatory treatment or language.
And finally the guidelines continue to place great importance on maintaining the highest editorial and ethical standards in relation to children.
If BBC content producers work within the Editorial Guidelines, they will automatically comply with the Ofcom Broadcasting Code. Now that Code is effective, everything depends on the way in which our new regulator chooses to interpret it through the complaints it considers. We will be keeping a close eye and ear on developments.