If broadcasters needed yet another stern warning about the grave dangers of transmitting ‘confessions’ by individuals without carrying out reasonable checks first, then Ofcom has provided it. The regulator has upheld a complaint by a Qatari intelligence officer, Hamad Al-Hammadi (pictured), against the Abu Dhabi Channel (ADC) in Bulletin 415 (23 November 2020) and plans to impose a sanction on the service.

ADC is as the name suggests based in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and is funded by the official media organisation of that state. Ofcom will no doubt consider this sanction together with another against the Channel for a similar breach which the regulator published a fortnight before on 9 November.

Both cases have taken Ofcom a quite remarkable TWO YEARS AND EIGHT MONTHS to decide from the date both complaints were made in March 2018. The regulator provides no explanation for the long delay.

The complaints have their background in the diplomatic crisis (which started in 2017) between the UAE and other states on the one side and Qatar on the other over Qatar’s alleged support for Islamic terrorism. In June that year ADC broadcast two programmes. The first was called Confessions of Qatari intelligence agent to damage the reputation of the UAE. It featured clips of an interview with Mr Al-Hammadi in which he confessed to being involved in a secret operation controlled by Qatari intelligence to set up fake social accounts purporting to be of Emirati citizens criticising the UAE.

The second programme was about Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational Sunni Islamist entity. A number of countries (Abu Dhabi) regard the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, and the Muslim Brotherhood was described in this way in this broadcast, which included clips of an interview with Dr Mahmoud Al Jaidah confessing to being involved with the funding and organisation of the Brotherhood in the UAE.

Mr Al Jaidah and Mr Al-Hammadi had been arrested in Abu Dhabi in 2013 and 2014 respectively and sentenced to long periods in prison, but had released in 2015. They complained to Ofcom in March 2018 (nine months after the broadcasts) that they had been tortured and their ‘confessions’ obtained under duress. As a result the broadcast on ADC of extracts from their ‘confessions’ was not only unfair to them, but the obtaining of this material and its broadcast was an unwarranted breach of their privacy.

In the two carefully reasoned decisions, Ofcom found the Abu Dhabi broadcaster unequivocally in breach of both Section Seven (Fairness) and Section Eight (Privacy) of the Broadcasting Code.

The lesson is clear. Whenever a broadcaster wishes to transmit a ‘confession’ by someone of a crime or act which has the potential to adversely and materially affect that person’s reputation, and they have been given that interview by a third party, the broadcaster must take reasonable steps to ensure the interviewee gave ‘informed consent’. If they fail to do this, and the interviewee complains later to Ofcom that the ‘confession’ was given under duress, the licensee may well be found to have breached the fairness and privacy rules and face a sanction.

I predict Ofcom will impose a hefty fine in six figures on the Adu Dhabi Channel, as it will on the Chinese state broadcaster, CGTN, for – in particular – showing the ‘forced confession’ of British former journalist Peter Humphrey (see my earlier blog of 8 July 2020.) Unlike the vast majority of fairness and privacy breaches, Ofcom takes these type of cases very seriously. Broadcasters beware.