Ofcom’s tough line on hate speech is illustrated in its latest Bulletin (2 July 2018). A number of Ofcom-licensed channels aimed at Muslim viewers in the UK have in recent years seriously breached the Broadcasting Code by televising material encouraging hatred against Ahmadis. This religious community has adherents around the globe including the UK. They consider themselves Muslims but a number of orthodox Muslims think they are heretics. This has led to religious persecution of Ahmadis, especially in Pakistan.
In this case an Urdu TV service, Channel 44, broadcast two programmes in December 2017 which contained comments which Ofcom considered hate speech and abusive and derogatory treatment of Ahmadis, and so breached Rules 3.2 and 3.3 of the Code. One comment for example said that the elected leader of the Ahmadiyya community would be “ripped limb from limb”. Encouraged by the Home Office, Ofcom revised Section Three of the Code (Crime) a couple of years ago to give it more flexible regulatory tools to intervene in just these sorts of cases. Despite apologising and improving its compliance Channel 44 now faces a sanction from Ofcom. I predict it will be a strong one.
A second interesting case shows how careful channels must be which are funded by wealthy Arabic states to put forward their view of the world. With an Ofcom licence they must comply with the due impartiality rules. The Abu Dhabi channel as its names suggests is funded by that United Arab Emirates (UAE) state and in February 2018 it broadcast a programme which strongly criticised the government of Qatar and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for its report into human rights in that country. The previous year several Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, had cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and ordered their citizens to leave that country. This programme clearly reflected Abu Dhabi’s critical view of Qatar but did not include the alternative viewpoints of either Qatar or the OHCHR, and so contravened Rule 5.5. The Abu Dhabi channel will have to take care in future. Sources tell me that the Al Arabiya channel (Saudi financed) decided it could not, or did not want to, comply with Ofcom’s due impartiality rules, and this was why it recently handed back its Ofcom licence.
There are also two decisions which will undoubtedly lead to accusations in some quarters of “Nanny Ofcom”. In my view with one case the accusation is not justified, with the other perhaps it is. The first involved the local TV service for Oxford showing a 1944 children’s cartoon which included a character Mr Cloud, described as a black person from the deep south of America with
exaggerated facial features, and indolent with slow, slurred speech. Not surprisingly this crude racial stereotype shown in this context (ie without any meaningful context) breached both rules 1.3 (children must be protected from inapropriate material) and 2.3 (offence must be justified by context).
The other case involved the local TV service for Newcastle. At 6.20pm it showed a programme called North East Live which included a live segment with an agony aunt. A female viewer asked for advice because her husband was no longer interested in having sex with her. The agony aunt offered what was (in my view, but not Ofcom’s) some light-hearted advice in a jokey way. Ofcom said it “acknowledged that much of the discussion was euphemistic, however in our view, the overall tone and language used meant that many children in the audience would have understood the sexualised nature of the discussion” . I doubt it myself, and I doubt if many parents would have been concerned either. In my view this was a classic case where Ofcom should have contented itself with giving the Licensee some informal advice, and not recording a Rule 1.3 breach.