Fairness & Non-Contributors
Care needs to be taken with all references within programmes to identifiable individuals and organisations, to ensure they do not cause unfairness. As noted above, allegations or statements of fact need to be accurate, otherwise they are likely to result in unfairness.
Opportunity to Respond
Seeking an appropriate response in a reasonable timeframe from the subjects of significant allegations or criticism is an essential part of the fact-checking process and is a cornerstone of responsible journalism. It is also a regulatory obligation. Section 7.11 of the Code states:
"If a programme alleges wrongdoing or incompetence or makes other significant allegations, those concerned should normally be given an appropriate and timely opportunity to respond".
See also 'Defamation'.
Programme-makers should always seek advice from their programme lawyer when seeking a response on contentious matters.
A response can be sought by seeking an on-camera interview; requesting a written response for inclusion in the programme; or even simply by telephoning the subject, noting the response and fairly including it in the programme. The important points to note are that they are given sufficient information about the arguments and allegations in order to respond properly; all material allegations are put to them; they are given a proper opportunity in which to respond and what they say of relevance is fairly included in the programme. Advice on the content of any letter (or other communication) sent to the subject of the allegations must be sought in advance from the programme lawyer.
In some circumstances, it may be appropriate to seek a response by 'doorstepping' an individual or a representative of an organisation. See 'Doorstepping'.
When seeking a response, in most cases, the subject of the allegations should be given:
- a summary of the nature, format and content of the programme (including the title or working title if that is significant);
- information about where the programme is to be broadcast and when (if known);
- a summary of all material allegations and/or criticisms or statements to be included in the programme that could result in unfairness to them; and,
- an invitation to respond by a particular date.
Generally, approaches for a response do not need to set out or explain all the evidence upon which the allegations or criticisms are being made, although in some circumstances it may be appropriate to include some or all of this information and certainly there will be cases where it would be unfair not to. Note: there is no obligation to hand over evidence or, in the case of secret filming for example, to show it to the subject of the allegations, prior to transmission. A proper description of the evidence and the allegations it gives rise to will be acceptable.
There is no set amount of time that individuals or organisations must be given in which to respond to allegations that are made about them, other than it should be fair, in the circumstances. The following factors may be considered:
- the nature of the programme and how long the producer has known what the allegations are. Is it a programme that's been many months in the making or a daily news programme reacting to a very recent story?
- the nature of the allegations and their complexity. The more detailed and complex the allegations, the longer the subject may need to be able to respond properly; and,
- the resources of the subject to respond to the particular allegations - an ordinary member of the public may need longer than a large organisation with many personnel at its disposal.
Including a Response within Programme
Where a 'right of reply' has been offered and a response provided, programme-makers and broadcasters are not obliged to include everything the subject of the allegations says in that response. Clearly, to be fair, it is only necessary to include what is relevant to the allegation(s) or criticism(s) being made. Irrelevant material can be disregarded. Exactly what is included in the final programme is a matter for the programme-makers and broadcaster who are obliged to act fairly.
Often the best way to represent a response within a programme will be to pick out key quotes and reproduce them either orally, visually or both, rather than paraphrasing, although the latter is perfectly acceptable as long as the meaning is fairly represented.
Where an individual or organisation submits but then withdraws their proposed response, there is still an obligation on the broadcaster to ensure fairness. This does not mean that the response should be included against the person's or organisation's wishes. However, if known, the programme should reflect any material facts about the position of the subject of the allegations and explain the absence of a formal contribution, if it would be unfair not to do so.