Ofcom: forewarned is forearmed

30th January 2023

TV or radio broadcasters of religious, advice or discussion programming had better take care over the coming weeks and months. Ofcom has just revealed that it will be monitoring services carrying this sort of content for potentially harmful material. Former Ofcom Legal Director and SMB Consultant, Trevor Barnes, explains why all broadcasters of this kind of material should take note of Ofcom’s warning.

Ofcom does not normally give advance warning of its monitoring, so broadcasters potentially in the firing line would be well advised to see Ofcom’s Note to Broadcasters as a wake-up call to check their teams are up to speed and date with their compliance responsibilities.

The monitoring will focus on identifying harmful content relating to:
• health or wealth advice and claims;
• hate speech;
• abusive or derogatory treatment of individuals, groups, or religious communities; and/or
• incitement to crime or violence.

Samaa TV

A good example of the sort of content Ofcom will be on the lookout for was shown on the Pakistani channel, Samaa TV, in May 2020. In two discussion programmes, the service broadcast various comments in Urdu programming which the regulator decided amounted to hate speech against Jewish people and the minority Muslim Ahmadiyya community. Ofcom fined the channel £40,000, even though it had surrendered its UK broadcasting licence shortly beforehand.

It was during earlier targeted monitoring in 2016 that Ofcom spotted part of a ‘suicide’ video produced by an Islamic State terrorist, Muhammad Riyad (before he carried out an attack on a train in Germany where he injured five people) shown in a news programme on the Afghanistan channel, Ariana International.

Ariana Television

Ofcom decided the video was not placed in sufficient context, potentially glorified Riyad’s terrorism, and so encouraged crime in breach of Rule 3.1. To contravene this rule is always regarded very seriously by Ofcom, which imposed a swingeing £200,000 financial penalty on Ariana.

The regulator has been carrying out targeted monitoring of particular sectors or services where there was a record of compliance issues for some years now – such as religious or certain ethnic minority channels. To avoid accusations of discrimination against ethnic minority services, Ofcom ensures it has robust and objective criteria to focus on specific channels or broadcast areas.

It is noticeable that Ofcom is focussing on harmful content. Without any public announcement, the regulator has decided to ‘lean in’ more in this area in the past year or two, and spend less time investigating offence issues (unless they were clear cut – like the broadcast of the ‘most offensive language’ before the watershed with TV or when children are particularly likely to be listening with radio: see Rule 1.14). This has enabled Ofcom to use its resources more effectively and helped keep it more distant from controversial ‘culture war’ issues.

Religious channels in particular must take care to balance their right to freedom of religion and right to freedom of expression (e.g. to express their beliefs about homosexuality or other religions) against their duties under the Broadcasting Code. These obligations include not to cause unjustified offence (Rule 2.3), not to abuse the religious views of people belonging to another religion (Rule 4.2), and not to improperly exploit the susceptibilities of the audience (Rule 4.6).

A still from a Loveworld TV ‘healing’ programme

The evangelical Christian channel Loveworld TV for example broke Rule 4.6 by soliciting donations on the basis of religious faith with claims they would improve the donor’s health, wealth and success without providing adequate protection to viewers – in particular regardless of affordability. In December 2022 it was fined £15,000 for this Code breach.

So Ofcom has given notice to TV or radio broadcasters of religious, advice or discussion programming. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.