Ofcom (the Office of Communications) regulates most content on television (excluding content broadcast during a commercial break) and UK video on demand services.
Channel 4, like other commercial broadcasters, is licensed by Ofcom to broadcast, subject to compliance with its codes.
The main code applying to the content of television programmes and on-demand content which broadcasters must comply with is the Ofcom Broadcasting Code ('the Code'). Accordingly, independent production companies and programme-makers have contractual obligations to comply with the Code and the Handbook.
The Code acknowledges the importance of freedom of expression but points out that with those rights come responsibilities. The Code has 9 key sections containing "Principles" and "Rules":
- Section 1: Protecting the under-eighteen's;
- Section 2: Harm and offence;
- Section 3: Crime;
- Section 4: Religion;
- Section 5: Due impartiality and due accuracy;
- Section 6: Elections and referendums;
- Section 7: Fairness;
- Section 8: Privacy;
- Section 9: Commercial references in TV programming; and
- On Demand Programme Service Rules.
Ofcom also publishes and regularly updates guidance on areas of the Code. Ofcom also publishes a Broadcast and On Demand Bulletin every two weeks reporting on the outcome of investigations into potential breaches of the Code.
It is the responsibility of all programme-makers together with Channel 4’s editorial staff, taking advice from the lawyers in the legal and compliance department where appropriate, to ensure that programmes comply with the Code and can be robustly defended to Ofcom after broadcast.
Failure to comply with the Code is likely to result in details of the breach being publicly published by Ofcom. In the case of serious or persistent breaches, Ofcom has the power to issue a direction to broadcast a summary of its adjudication on air; impose a fine (which could be substantial) and even shorten or remove a channel’s licence to broadcast (with certain exceptions). The publication of a finding against a programme or the imposition of a sanction, along with the resulting adverse press, can damage the reputation of both the broadcaster and the programme-makers.
Ofcom Standards Complaints
If a 'standards complaint' (complaints concerning sections 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 9 of the Ofcom Code) is made to Ofcom about a Channel 4 programme or trail, Ofcom may contact the Channel for an explanation of how the material complies with the Ofcom Code. This may relate to the programme's or trail's scheduling as well as its content and any warnings that did or did not precede it.
In most cases, a member of the legal & compliance department will draft the response to Ofcom with input from the commissioning editor (or marketing and 4creative, if a trail) and the programme-makers. However, the commissioning editor (or marketing and 4creative, if a trail) must be able to provide a defence of editorial or creative decisions taken and assist in preparing the response.
Ofcom Fairness and/or Privacy Complaints
A programme contributor (which can include a person or a company) or a person/company with a "direct interest" in the subject matter of a programme may make a 'fairness and/or privacy complaint' to Ofcom alleging unfair treatment and/or unwarranted infringement of privacy. Responses to fairness and/or privacy complaints generally entail a significant amount of work and the programme lawyer is likely to require the full co-operation and assistance of the programme-makers and commissioning editor in compiling Channel 4's responses, and they may also be required to attend an Ofcom hearing.