Producers Handbook

Preserving Human Dignity, Scenes Showing Humiliation and Distress

Care needs to be taken when showing or portraying people in circumstances where they are being humiliated or are in a state of distress, even where they have consented, as this, in turn, may cause distress and offence to viewers. Such scenes are most likely to be included in news and factual programmes, although of course they may also be portrayed in drama and film and still have the potential to cause serious upset and offence. In all cases, the inclusion of such scenes needs careful thought and must be justified editorially and by the context.


News & Factual Programming

Many stories in the news, by their very nature, involve people who are victims of one kind or another for example victims of war, terrorism, crime, natural disaster, illness or accident. Any references to such stories require care and sensitivity and must have regard to the feelings not only of the victims and their families (who may or may not be watching) but also of the wider viewing public. For example, broadcasting images of seriously injured, identifiable people in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack may well cause serious offence to many viewers who may consider such images to be both intrusive and distressing. Programme-makers and broadcasters must also have regard to the individual privacy rights of those they film. See also 'Privacy, Confidence and Data Protection'.

Broadcast of footage that actually shows individuals about to die or dying, being killed or murdered that is around or at the actual point of death, require exceptional justification for obvious reasons. The inclusion of any such material will require reference up in accordance with Channel 4's Internal Procedures for Reference Up & Compliance and flagging in advance to viewers.


Entertainment Programming and Topical Humour

Many entertainment programmes base humour on and around stories in the news. Such programmes are entirely legitimate but, again, where stories involve victims, programme-makers must have regard to the feelings not only of the victims and their families (who may or may not be watching) but also to the general viewing public who are likely both to empathise and sympathise with the victim(s) and those close to them.

Obviously there will be certain news stories in respect of which any attempt at humour will be problematic, for example a joke about hostage taking around the time that British citizens were being held hostage and murdered in Iraq would almost certainly cause widespread offence and be unacceptable. Similarly, jokes concerning major natural disasters or serious accidents that involve loss of life, around the time of these events, would also be problematic.

However, there will be other stories in the news involving victims which are not so clear-cut. Generally, the more serious the plight of the victim(s), the less likely that humour or flippant comment based on the story will be permissible. For example, common sense dictates that it would be much more difficult to base humour on or around a story about the brutal mugging of a pensioner than it would be about a story concerning a businesswoman who managed to fight off or outwit her attackers. In addition, some news stories that involve victims may be so unusual or absurd that some humour is acceptable, for example some stories appearing in the tabloids.

When considering whether it is acceptable to refer to or base humour on such stories, programme-makers and broadcasters should also have regard to the amount of time that has lapsed between the event in question and the comments being made.

Geographical location may also play a part in deciding whether particular comments can be broadcast. For example, viewers are likely to be more tolerant of humour based on a story about someone who has been the victim of a crime or accident in a country on the other side of the world, than they would about a similar story involving a victim in the UK. With the latter, not only may the victim or his/her friends and family be watching but the British viewing public are more likely to feel empathy and sympathy for a victim that is close to home.

Similar considerations apply when people in the public eye die. The vast majority of viewers expect broadcasters to display a degree of respect for those that have recently died and for those close to them. Consequently, humour based around a recent death is unlikely to be acceptable.


Intervening Events

Real life events, or 'intervening events' as they are often referred to, which could not reasonably have been anticipated when a programme was commissioned or scheduled, may render a programme inappropriate for its planned transmission and, accordingly, the programme may have to be edited or postponed to a later date.

Intervening events are generally real-life tragedies generating widespread public concern. Examples of intervening events might include:

  • a terrorist attack involving loss of life or limb, especially if it is close to the UK or significantly involves British people;
  • a large scale accident such as a plane crash or a natural disaster like an earthquake or tsunami involving substantial loss of life, again especially if it is close to the UK or significantly involves British people;
  • the recent death or serious illness of an individual featured in, referred to or criticised in a programme, who may be but is not necessarily a celebrity or in the public eye.

For example, it may well be appropriate to postpone a disaster movie about a plane crash in the days following a real life domestic plane crash, or to re-edit an earlier recorded programme which features humour at the expense of an individual who by the time of intended transmission is seriously ill or has just died.

Decisions about whether or not to re-edit or postpone the broadcast of programmes because of 'intervening events' are dependent on the particular circumstances and are rarely clear cut. For this reason they should be referred up in accordance with Channel 4's Internal Procedures for Reference Up & Compliance.

More generally, programme-makers and commissioning editors should always keep an eye on what is happening in the news and consider carefully whether that could have any effect on the suitability of their programmes for broadcast.

Note: intervening events may also render programmes unsuitable for broadcast for legal reasons. See 'Defamation' and 'Contempt and Reporting Legal Proceedings'.

To Top