Rules and Procedures for Best Practice & Compliance
The Executive Producer (or Series/Programme Producer where there is no Executive Producer) for each piece of Channel 4 content is responsible for ensuring that this document is circulated to every member of the production team and that every team member follows the procedures and guidance it contains.
These guidelines apply to all factual programmes or items or portrayals of factual matters across all genres.
We hope these guidelines are helpful but they are only a general guide which cannot foresee every scenario - different cases will depend on their individual facts. If you are in any doubt, or if you have any concerns, please seek advice from your Channel 4 commissioning editor or programme lawyer.
Channel 4 has faith in the honesty and integrity of our programme-makers and, in the overwhelming majority of cases, that faith is justified.
Channel 4 has a bond of trust with its audience and a duty to ensure that viewers are not deceived or misled by our programmes. This bond must not be broken and, if it is, the most serious consequences will follow. Channel 4 will not hesitate to take appropriate action against production companies and programme-makers who deceive our viewers and/or the Channel and this may include refusing to work with them.
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 Responsibilities of Broadcasters and Programme-Makers
The importance of viewer trust is not limited to current affairs, documentaries and conventional factual programmes. These guidelines apply equally across all genres of programming where there is a factual element, for example, to an entertainment show with factual elements. Our viewers must feel confident that they can take what they see or are told in a programme at face value.
The use of a dramatic reconstruction, sometimes involving real people rather than actors, is a perfectly acceptable technique, provided viewers are not misled and clearly understand or are informed, for instance, by labeling on screen or in voice over, the true nature of what they are seeing. Reconstructions must not, however, distort the known facts.
At the heart of the commissioning system, which is central to Channel 4's broadcasting remit, is the relationship between the commissioning team and independent producers. To be effective, and to achieve the highest quality programmes, the relationship must operate with honesty, openness and trust. It is important that the commissioning process does not act as a disincentive to programme-makers at any level, inhibiting them from telling Channel 4 if a project is not working.
In addition, it is important that everyone involved in the programme, whether at the production company or the Channel, 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. If anyone on the production team has any concerns about a viewer trust issue they should refer this up immediately to a senior person at the production company and if the concerns are justified Channel 4 must be promptly informed.
Channel 4 will have far more respect for and trust in any member of a programme team who is prepared openly to identify problems in the production or development stages of a programme than in an individual who conceals such problems. More often than not, problems or issues brought to the Channel's attention can be resolved and the commission can proceed, albeit possibly in a different direction to that originally envisaged. On many occasions, it may be simply a case of labeling material and explaining to the viewer that there is an element of legitimate artifice. This could include a pre-broadcast announcement, a line of commentary or an on-screen caption.
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.
Since the early days of factual film-making the making of programmes has always been more sophisticated than the simple recording of action in real time. It is a creative, rather than literal, medium, often reflecting the style of the film-maker in a similar way to a writer. The structuring and compression of experience is inherent in the making of a programme. However, although the editing process will inevitably condense events which have occurred over a period of time, this process must not distort reality and mislead viewers. The truth must not be sacrificed for the sake of a more entertaining programme if the effect is to cheat the viewer. Similarly, viewers must not be misled about the nature of material they are watching. If it is claimed or suggested that footage is actuality, then that is what it should be; if it is not, then that must be made clear to viewers.
The Ofcom Broadcasting Code
Compliance for a programme must be a shared and collaborative process between the broadcaster and the production company. Although Channel 4 is ultimately accountable to Ofcom for compliance with the Ofcom Broadcasting Code ("the Ofcom Code") and all our programme-makers (from the most junior to the most senior) have a contractual responsibility to have read and to comply with its provisions and with all the guidelines and procedures set out in the Channel 4 Producer Handbook. Ofcom will not hesitate to impose the most serious sanctions, including substantial fines, for failure to ensure that programmes are accurate and truthful or where viewer trust is breached.
Rule 2.2 of the Ofcom Code states that:
"Factual programmes or items or portrayals of factual matters must not materially mislead the audience."
This rule is designed to deal with content that materially misleads the audience so as to cause them harm or offence. Whether a programme or item is ‘materially’ misleading depends on a number of factors such as the context, the editorial approach taken in the programme, the nature of the misleading material and, above all, either what the potential effect could be or what actual harm or offence has occurred.
Programme-makers should also refer to Rules 2.13-2.16 and associated Ofcom guidance, to ensure that audiences are not materially misled when invited on air to participate in broadcast competitions and voting schemes.
Like all best practice documents these Viewer Trust Guidelines identify important areas but do not replace the Ofcom Code and guidance or the Handbook.
The remainder of this document sets out further practical steps and guidance concerning Viewer Trust.
Practical Steps to Ensure Truth and Accuracy in Programmes
i. The Production Team
It is the responsibility of the Executive Producer (or most senior production executive) on every programme to ensure that:
- The entire production team is adequately staffed and resourced to deal with the demands of the programme concerned - including training, experience and supervision. Any trainees or interns must be closely monitored, especially if they are dealing direct with any members of the public, including contributors.
- The production team is aware of the importance of compliance with these guidelines, the Ofcom Code and the Handbook.
- The production team is adequately supervised at a senior level in the production company.
- The production company has in place effective procedures to ensure that any concerns about viewer trust, programme veracity or any other important issue is escalated swiftly within the team to the Executive Producer and then to Channel 4 as expeditiously as possible and that these are communicated to and understood by the team.
- When a decision is made on a viewer trust issue it is clearly communicated to and understood by the production team.
ii. What is Acceptable Practice?
Many established programme-making techniques are unproblematic and viewers would not find them surprising or troubling. For example, the use of a cutaway shot, 'noddy' or a 'set up' shot to establish an interviewee. Often, a contributor might legitimately be asked to repeat an insignificant action, e.g. to walk into a room again, shake hands with the presenter or to do for the camera what they do normally or a brief 'pick up' shot of their interview to assist editing. Contributors should not however be asked to repeat or re-enact significant actions or events, e.g. to re-enact a row with their partner because the director didn't like the camera angle when it originally happened or because it wasn't being filmed, unless this is clearly sign-posted to the viewer, e.g. by calling it a 'reconstruction'.
People may behave differently when they know they are being filmed, although many will relax when they get used to the cameras. You must not, however, deliberately provoke or encourage behaviour which would not have occurred naturally, without making it clear to the audience that you have done so.
The broad distinction is this: it is not acceptable to incite someone to take or recreate an action which will have a bearing on the outcome of the programme's narrative and to present this action as something of significance observed as it happened on camera (even if it is something which actually happened in the past). This is an unacceptable intervention which is entirely different to the legitimate creation of a filmed sequence representing insignificant everyday activity which has no bearing on the outcome of the programme's narrative.
Inevitably, there are areas of ambiguity including occasions where the style and idiom of the film is intentionally heightened. This is often the case in deliberately light-hearted films. An obviously stylised documentary might be visually inventive, for example, filming shots of the same thing from several camera angles and intercutting them. But there is a world of difference between an imaginative film where the audience understands the nature of what it is they are seeing and methods which mislead the audience, and claim evidential validation of a sequence which would not have happened without the intervention of the programme-maker.
The artifice of such imaginative documentaries is unproblematic, so long as it is clear that they do not seek to misrepresent contrivance as observed actuality. It is legitimate to innovate and take creative risks. There is, however, a duty to be clear about the terms on which we engage a programme's participants and its viewers and to ensure that viewers are clear about what they are watching and that they are not misled.
Chronology and the compression of Time
The compression of time is a common programme-making technique and will generally be unproblematic. However, where the programme narrative places emphasis on the importance of a strict timescale, care needs to be taken not to mislead the audience. For example, where a contributor is shown achieving a goal within record time, when in fact it took him several attempts over a prolonged period, this should be made clear to the viewer. In addition, it may not always be necessary to reflect the actual chronology of events strictly where this is not material to the narrative but if events appear out of sequence, e.g. to tell the story more clearly, this must not mislead viewers. Inevitably there will be occasions when a fine judgement will need to be taken as to where the line is drawn but the cardinal rule is that when in doubt ask the question and refer up to senior staff and Channel 4.
Viewers are now more media literate than ever and they will understand many conventions of television, but they must be equipped, by appropriate sign-posting, to properly understand and make an informed judgement about what they are watching. Sometimes it may involve simply being upfront about the techniques used. The proposition of a programme and its genre will dictate what is acceptable and what the audience needs to be told. In an undercover investigation it should, for example, be clear when any footage is not shot covertly. On the other hand, a history programme will use archive and stylised reconstructions of events, at least some of which will self-evidently not be contemporaneous or real. Viewers generally expect that in entertainment programming some degree of artifice is legitimate for comic effect. However, this does not mean that ‘anything goes' and audience expectations will vary from programme to programme.
Tell your commissioning editor anything he/she should know about the provenance or authenticity of any footage, including techniques used to get it, so that a judgement can be made about whether to include it and, if so, whether any sign-posting is necessary for the viewer. Take advice as appropriate from the legal & compliance department. We have an equal responsibility for footage obtained from a third party as footage we shot ourselves. Your programme must be truthful, accurate and fair. Use your common sense and good judgement. If you have distorted reality and the viewer has been misled, you have crossed the line of acceptability.
iii. Fact-checking and Accuracy
A corner stone of maintaining viewer trust is ensuring that programmes are factually accurate. You must have checked all facts and allegations in your programmes and be able to substantiate their accuracy, as appropriate. This includes claims by interviewees which may sometimes need to be corroborated.
iv. Editing Interviews
As well as not misleading the viewer, it is vital that interviews and other contributions, including observational filming, are edited fairly and that you do not distort or misrepresent the person's known views, position or experience. Many programmes, especially in 'life style' and ‘formatted documentary' genres, are driven by the strong, sometimes colourful, characters that feature in them and the audience enjoys sharing their journey or transformation. However, in representing characters and their journey in order to tell their experience in an interesting and entertaining way, care must be taken not to distort the truth and mislead viewers or be unfair to the contributor.
Members of the public have been the subject of hoaxes by programme-makers since programmes like Candid Camera started. Hoaxing has become increasingly sophisticated as technology has developed, and so has the viewing audience. Sometimes the tables are turned. Look out for signs that you may have been hoaxed by a contributor. Their motive may only be to attain their 15 minutes of fame. Hoaxers can be very convincing. Don't take everything at face value - make appropriate checks to establish whether people are who they say they are and whether they have done what they claim to have done. If it seems too good to be true perhaps it is. Make further enquiries as to their authenticity to ensure that you, and consequently Channel 4 and the viewer, have not been fooled.
If you are in any doubt about any of your contributors or what they are saying you must share your concerns with your commissioning editor at the earliest possible opportunity.
vi. Filming Criminals or Criminal Behaviour
This is an area fraught with difficulty and can lead to authenticity problems. If people talk about their crimes openly or are prepared to let you film them carry out an apparently criminal act you must tell your commissioning editor and programme lawyer straight away and get advice.
Someone admitting to or carrying out a criminal act could well be prosecuted after transmission and your footage could be obtained by the police under a court order. Ask yourself why they are doing it if they are incriminating themselves. Do they understand the consequences? Or are they trying to have you on? Remember criminals tend not to be truthful and they will have a vested interest for their own self-preservation to deny it if challenged later.
Early legal advice from Channel 4's legal & compliance department must be obtained before filming or as soon as reasonably practicable.