This is worrying time for broadcasters when they are making numerous programmes – news, current affairs or documentaries – against the clock about this unprecedented and controversial health and economic emergency. When Senior Standards Manager at Ofcom for a decade I was proud to provide pragmatic and timely compliance advice to licensees.
Ofcom will not be publishing any Guidance to Broadcasters about the pandemic. So what would I be advising broadcasters if they were phoning me now at Ofcom? Here’s a summary.
First, DON’T PANIC. Yes – the UK and the world is facing a very serious Covid-19 crisis. There is a fair amount of misinformation and even fake news circulating. But broadcasters have a central role to play in informing viewers and listeners about the current emergency.
And yes, inevitably there will be complaints to Ofcom about some output. But I can assure you, having worked at Ofcom from its creation until the start of 2017, the regulator will fully support the important role broadcasters have informing viewers about the emergency.
Remember that under Rule 5.1 of the Ofcom Code broadcasters have a duty to report the news only with DUE accuracy, and present it only with DUE impartiality. Provided news journalists report Covid-19 developments in good faith and have carried out any appropriate checks before transmission, Ofcom is very unlikely to penalise them if they broadcast information or speculation which turns out with the benefit of hindsight to be mistaken. The right to freedom of expression is an important one.
The same is true of impartiality. Boris Johnson’s government has already been attacked from some quarters for its policies and (in)actions since the crisis began to unfold. Broadcasters however must feel free to report both support and criticism in the coming weeks and months without fear or favour.
There is no doubt in my mind that if Ofcom were to investigate an impartiality complaint against a broadcaster for its Covid-19 coverage (whether of the UK Conservative government, or one abroad like the Trump administration), the regulator would classify it as a “major matter” (see Rules 5.11 and 5.12). The practical effect is that Ofcom requires a higher level of impartiality – to make sure the opposing view is included in the same programme or one that is “clearly linked and timely”.
For example if a doctors’ leader is lambasting the government for some alleged failure of policy or action, the broadcaster must include the government’s response or explanation of its position. But remember due impartiality does not require 50/50 balance in any programme, even with a “major matter” – just reflecting the alternative viewpoint appropriately.
Broadcasters must take special care in one particular area: medical advice about how to avoid or cure infection by Covid-19. Ofcom has always and rightly penalised programmes which could potentially cause harm by transmitting dubious medical information.
This is true both of news, and of current affairs and other factual programming. This second type of broadcasts – if about Covid-19 – must “not MATERIALLY mislead the audience” by example discussing potential and quack cures for coronavirus without appropriate context or warnings. See Rule 2.2.
Broadcasters may appreciate a helping hand in the challenging weeks ahead. At this difficult time for everyone I am offering FREE and confidential advice by e-mail to all Ofcom licensees (however large or small, from community radio stations to established TV channels) with their Covid-19 compliance from now until 5 April 2020. Just go to my website, https://www.barnestvcompliance.com/ , and send me an email.