Producers Handbook

Areas of Potential Concern where Specific Procedures Apply

i) Viewer Trust

Channel 4 has a duty to ensure that viewers are not materially misled by our programmes or portrayals of factual matters (including factual programme trails and other promotional/press tapes). Programmes must be truthful, accurate and fair and must not mislead the audience. This means that programme-makers must never stage, construct, reconstruct, re-enact or otherwise fake any scenes of actuality and pass them off to viewers or to Channel 4 as the real thing.

The importance of viewer trust is not limited to current affairs, documentaries or conventional factual programmes. It also applies to factual entertainment series and programmes. Simply because a factual programme is primarily designed to entertain or is 'formatted' does not mean that there is a licence to mislead the audience.

Commissioners and programme-makers must collaborate honestly and openly on the basis of mutual trust. If a project is not working and programme-makers are struggling to deliver programme content, this must be shared with Channel 4's commissioning staff. It is vitally important that everyone involved in a programme, whether at the production company or at Channel 4, avoids even inadvertently making anyone involved in the production feel they are under pressure to deliver 'results' or to 'hype' the story at the expense of the truth. On rare occasions, halting a project which is not working out (perhaps because the story does not stand up) is the right course of action. Inventing the story is never an option. This applies equally to footage obtained from a third party as to footage shot by Channel 4-commissioned programme-makers.

The Viewer Trust Guidelines, which must be read and followed, sets out further practical guidance to ensure truth and accuracy in programmes and explains what constitutes acceptable/unacceptable practice. The guidelines contain more detail on these areas, including:

  • Fact-checking and accuracy
  • Editing interviews fairly
  • Hoaxes
  • Filming criminals or criminal behaviour
  • Other areas where authenticity issues can arise:
    • Use of secret filming
    • Use of disguised or anonymous interview
    • Drawing on anonymous sources
    • Reliance on uncorroborated claims
    • Advertising for contributors
    • Payments to participants, especially criminals


ii) Offensive Language

The most offensive language i.e. the words 'fuck' and 'cunt' and their derivatives (e.g. 'fucking' and 'motherfucker'), must not be broadcast before the 9pm watershed, as this would amount to an automatic breach of the Ofcom Code.

Before 9pm, these words must be removed or obscured entirely by bleeping or dipping (or blurring if visual, e.g. graffiti or if the word is said to camera). This includes the words in written form (including subtitles) and gestures.

In addition, the transition from pre-watershed content to more adult content must not be abrupt after 9pm. Ofcom has warned that the use of strong language in opening title sequences just after 9pm requires exceptional editorial justification and is generally to be discouraged.

Any proposed broadcast of the word 'fuck' and/or 'cunt' and any of its derivatives after the watershed must be editorially justified, agreed by the commissioning editor, and arrangements for an appropriate on-air warning must be made in advance of broadcast.

Commissioning editors or their programme co-ordinators are responsible for completing online programme certifications for their programmes – this includes completing a strong language form which, if required, must be completed in full and copied to the programme lawyer, setting out the frequency and strength of the language, the editorial justification for the inclusion of such language and, if known at the time of completing, the proposed warning.

Strong language may be signed-off by the commissioning editor or editorial head, but because of its greater potential to offend, any proposed use of the word 'cunt' must be referred up in writing by the commissioning editor following advice from the particular programme lawyer, to the Director of Programmes and to the Controller of Legal and Compliance (copied to the Editorial Head) for approval before transmission. As a general rule the use of 'cunt' is limited to programmes broadcast after 10pm. Any exception to this rule requires exceptional editorial justification approved by the Director of Programmes.

Remember: these words and their derivatives must never be broadcast before 9pm in any form.

Note: If the word 'cunt' is to be included within a programme, the warning must refer to "very strong language", rather than merely "strong language".


iii) Scheduling and On-Air Warnings and 'Flaggings'

The Ofcom Code stresses the importance of viewers' expectation which includes appropriate scheduling and providing the audience with the necessary clear information to enable informed viewing choices. Commissioning editors are responsible for ensuring that their programmes are appropriately scheduled, edited for their slot (including repeats at an earlier time) and preceded by any appropriate announcements to warn viewers about, for example, strong language, violence, explicit sexual content, flashing images. They must consult with a programme lawyer in the legal & compliance department and with channel management and the continuity team as appropriate.

What used to be called "family viewing time" starts at 5.30am and ends at 9pm. Therefore, the 9pm watershed is designed to ensure that material unsuitable for children should not, in general, be shown before 9pm or after 5.30am. As noted above, the transition to more adult material must not be unduly abrupt, especially within the 15 minutes after the 9pm junction. In addition, if there is +1 service the start and end time of the original broadcast must take this into account. Specifically, care must be taken with scheduling programmes between 4.30am and 5.30am.

Warnings are not restricted to post-watershed programmes. Sometimes, it will be necessary to provide viewers with information flagging up the content of programmes transmitted before 9pm where, notwithstanding its acceptability for family viewing, some viewers may not wish to watch or wish their children to watch e.g. medical programmes involving surgery, food programmes that show animal slaughter or scenes that very young children may find upsetting. In such cases, commissioning editors should arrange through the online programme certification system or with the continuity team for the content to be 'flagged up' to viewers and a draft announcement should be agreed with a programme lawyer.

In certain limited circumstances, some programmes, pre- or post-watershed, may require a flagging or warning into each part or into the part where the potentially offensive material occurs. Viewers' expectations are key and the programme lawyer will advise on whether an 'into-part warning' is necessary.

All on-air introductions for contentious or sensitive programmes, e.g. Dispatches, must be approved by the commissioning editor and the programme lawyer before transmission.

Warnings or 'flaggings' must be clear and explicit. They can be customised but not to the point of losing clarity. They are not a substitute for appropriate scheduling.

Live programmes expected to contain, for example, strong language, adult humour or flashing images (such as flash photography or strobe lighting effects) should also be preceded by an appropriate warning. Please see the Live Programme Guidelines and section (vi) below.


iv) Surreptitious or Secret Filming or Recording

All secret filming and recording (including covertly recording telephone conversations for broadcast) must comply with the relevant section of the Ofcom Code and be warranted, unless it is for entertainment purposes, in which case there are other rules that must be met. The term 'secret filming' is used for ease of reference but it is intended to cover all covert or surreptitious filming or recording.

Please refer to and follow the Secret Filming Guidelines. In outline the following procedure must be followed:

a) Other than in exceptional circumstances, programme-makers must give commissioning editors and programme lawyers at least 3 working days' notice of an intention to secretly film.

b) All secret filming will require a written request to be made to and approved by the Head of News and Current Affairs (or her appointee) at two crucial stages: (1) before it is undertaken; (2) before it is broadcast.

  1. Before filming – Before any secret filming is undertaken, the commissioning editor must request permission in writing from the Head of News and Current Affairs, any such request having been seen and approved by the programme lawyer. A pro forma for this written request is appended to the Secret Filming Guidelines. Advice from the Controller of Legal and Compliance or her designate should also be sought before submission where appropriate on high risk undercover investigations.
  2. Before broadcast – Later, if the secret filming has been 'successful' and it is to be included in the broadcast programme, the commissioning editor must again request written permission in writing from the Head of News and Current Affairs before it can be broadcast - once again, acting on the advice of the programme lawyer and the Controller of Legal and Compliance or her designate. A pro forma for this written request is appended to the Secret Filming Guidelines

Note: all written requests to secretly film and Stage I and Stage II approvals must be copied to the programme lawyer, the relevant editorial head and the Controller of Legal and Compliance, who reviews all requests and keeps a central record.

In addition to this guidance, commissioning editors and programme-makers must read and follow the Secret Filming Guidelines, which commissioning editors should also send to programme-makers contemplating undertaking any secret filming.


v) Subterfuge, Deceptions, Entertainment Set-Ups and Recordings for Covert Purposes

Programmes which involve subterfuge, entertainment set-up situations or wherever a subject has consented to be recorded for a purpose other than that intended covertly by the programme-makers, must comply with the relevant sections of the Ofcom Code.

In all such cases, commissioning editors should seek the early advice of the Legal & Compliance department and in high profile cases refer-up for approval, both before the recording takes place and again before it is broadcast.


vi) Live Programmes

Channel 4 has specific rules for live programmes, contained in the Live Programme Guidelines, including an apologies procedure for where a problem occurs live on air. These procedures must be followed.

Commissioning editors should ensure that presenters of live programmes are capable of dealing with the particular demands of the programme and that arrangements are made at an early stage for Legal & Compliance briefings and advice from the Legal & Compliance department. With few exceptions, all live programmes must be viewed and monitored by an editorial representative of Channel 4.

If any inappropriate material is inadvertently broadcast live which might be in breach of the Ofcom Code, an appropriate apology should be made immediately, in consultation with the duty lawyer. The Controller of Legal and Compliance, Editorial Head and the Director of Programmes should also be notified as soon as possible thereafter, and, in the most serious cases, a written report of the incident prepared by the commissioning editor without delay. Where material which is potentially legally problematic is inadvertently broadcast, the programme lawyer advising on the show will direct what action, if any, should be undertaken. In the event that there is no programme lawyer watching the show, the editor must call the duty lawyer immediately for advice, i.e. while the show is on air.

If there is any use of premium rate services in connection with a live programme, there must be an agreed contingency plan in place, as referred to in the Live Programme Guidelines, detailing what is to be done if the technology fails.

There are additional procedures governing the '+1' time-shifted broadcasts for C4 and the digital channels set out in the Live Programme Guidelines. The guidelines cover situations where live programmes are relying on premium rate telephone services that close within the live programme or within an hour of it or where a potentially serious legal issue or potentially serious breach of the Ofcom Code occurs, which needs to be edited before the '+1' repeat.


vii) Programme-Makers Travelling to a Hostile Environment

Whenever programme-makers are working overseas, whether on a Channel 4 (which includes E4, More4 and Film4 where appropriate) funded development or commission, careful consideration must always be given by the commissioning editor to the safety of the team and local fixers/crew before any member of the team departs.

Just because the filming is un-contentious, or the fact that tourists still travel to parts of the foreign country in question, does not mean that the project is risk-free. It is the responsibility of the commissioning editor to exercise appropriate editorial scrutiny at an early stage. It is essential that they satisfy themselves that the risks to be undertaken are editorially justified and proportionate, and do not place the team (including local fixers and crews) at unnecessary risk.

If a project (either at development or commission stage) entails travel to a potentially hostile or dangerous country, the team must read the Hostile Filming Guidelines and complete a security protocol (a pro forma is attached to the guidelines). Programme-makers, with input from the commissioning editor, are required to complete the security protocol and have it reviewed and approved in advance by the nominated commissioning editor in news and current affairs responsible for advising on such projects, the programme lawyer and, where appropriate, on the most high risk projects, by the Head of News and Current Affairs and the Controller of Legal and Compliance before departing. In the case of the most high risk projects, these must be referred-up to the Director of Programmes and the Director of Commercial Affairs who will brief the Chief Executive.

Please bear in mind that compliance with the Hostile Filming Guidelines may be required across all genres of programming. Completion of a security protocol is not just for current affairs and documentary programmes.

In the event of a kidnapping, arrest or detention of a programme-maker or team overseas, the agreed emergency procedures set out in the security protocol should be followed and, if out of office hours, the current affairs duty executive and duty lawyer should be contacted immediately.


viii) Undertakings of Anonymity to Sources

If a programme-maker wishes to give, or has given, an unequivocal undertaking of anonymity to a source or interviewee, prompt advice must be sought from a programme lawyer. The matter should also be referred up to the Controller of Legal and Compliance as appropriate. If the undertaking might ultimately bring the programme maker into conflict with the law and he/she is expecting Channel 4 to be bound by the undertaking, this must be referred up to the Director of Programme, Director of Commercial Affairs, the Chief Executive and ultimately the Channel 4 Board.