Producers Handbook

Harm & Offence

[See Section 2 of the Ofcom Code]

Editorial Justification & Context

Broadcasters are encouraged to think carefully about the expectations of their audiences and providing viewers with information, so they are able to make their own informed choices about what they watch.

Material that may be harmful or cause offence must be justified by the context, which is determined by a number of factors, including:

  • the editorial content of the programme(s) or series - that is what it is the viewer is seeing and hearing, the tone, the genre.
  • what channel the material is on - generally viewers expect to see more challenging material on Channel 4 given its particular remit than on say BBC1 or ITV but their expectations of, for example, MTV may be different.
  • when the material is broadcast - is it before or after the watershed, or well after the watershed? Is it during school time, school holidays or on a day of particular religious or cultural significance?
  • what programme precedes or follows the programme in question - for example, does the programme in question follow an animation, which is likely to have attracted large numbers of young children?
  • the degree of potential harm or offence likely to be caused by the material - this, of course, is not an exact science but editorial and legal & compliance department staff must take a view, based on experience, precedent and common sense.
  • the likely size and composition of the potential audience - this can be estimated from both research and experience.
  • what the audience's expectations are likely to be - again, estimated from experience, research and common sense.
  • the extent to which viewers can and have been informed of the content in advance - clear on-air announcements are the best way of forewarning viewers about difficult or potentially offensive content, though pre-publicity and listings may also be taken into account.
  • the effect of the material on viewers who come across it unawares - no matter how clearly viewers are warned, some are always going to switch on their television sets with no prior knowledge of what they are watching and not having seen any on-air warnings or announcements.

Regulatory rules exist in relation to potentially harmful or offensive material, including those relating to programmes broadcast before the watershed, specifically in order to protect younger viewers in the audience. See 'Protecting Under 18s' and 'Scheduling and the watershed'

In addition, content makers must provide adequate protection for all members of the public from the inclusion of potentially harmful or offensive material. This can include the treatment of people who take part in a programme especially if the viewer is concerned that they appear to have been put at risk of significant harm. This means ensuring that material which may cause offence is justified by the context. If necessary, appropriate information or context should be broadcast where it would assist in avoiding or minimising potential viewer concerns. This may require, adding footage that provides context, voice over, on-air pre-transmission warnings and/or support information. 


Viewer Trust: Truth, Accuracy & the Importance of not Misleading the Audience

Channel 4 takes the issue of viewer trust very seriously. Viewers are entitled to expect that factual programmes are accurate and true and the audience must not be misled.

This obligation can apply to all types of programming - including entertainment, with factual elements. Portraying real events, whether in documentary, features, factual entertainment, drama or any other programme, which the viewer is entitled to take at face value, must respect truth and accuracy.

Programme-making is a creative rather than literal medium and has always been more sophisticated than the simple recording of action in real time. However, though the editing process will inevitably condense events which have occurred over a period of time, this must not be at the expense of distorting reality and misleading viewers.

The accuracy and truthfulness of programmes has been the subject of significant media and regulatory scrutiny and raises issues of the utmost importance. If it is claimed or suggested that footage is actuality, then that is what it should be; if it is not, then that should be made clear to viewers.

In non-fictional programmes, it is never acceptable to represent as having happened something that did not. It is the responsibility of broadcasters and producers to ensure that viewers are not misled. Ofcom can impose the most serious sanctions for programmes that materially mislead audiences and Channel 4 will not hesitate to take appropriate action against programme-makers who mislead our viewers.

Never stage, construct, reconstruct, re-enact or otherwise fake any scenes of actuality and pass them off to the broadcaster and / or viewers as the real thing.

Accuracy in relation to all aspects of factual programming is vital to ensure we maintain viewers' trust. For example, in addition to scrupulous fact checking and labelling, where necessary, the qualifications, experience and other credentials of contributors, presenters and experts who appear in factual programmes must be checked and properly verified. Potential contributors should not be taken at face value. If they claim to have particular qualifications or expertise this must be corroborated.

All of Channel 4's programme-makers are required to read and follow the 'Viewer Trust Guidelines'.

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