Many local, community and hospital radio stations (and local TV channels) in the UK rely on volunteers for their broadcasting. These volunteers are of varying ages and backgrounds. Many carry out essential roles producing and hosting programmes.

All UK broadcasters however small operating under an Ofcom licence must ensure their content complies with the Ofcom Broadcasting Code. Volunteers working for community and hospital radio stations are no exception. They need to be familiar with the main points of the Code and must therefore be given appropriate training before they go on air – and this training should be kept up to date. If this not happen there can be serious consequences – both for the station and the person involved.

Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire (pictured below) is best known for its renowned National Spinal Injuries Centre rather than its hospital radio. But this radio station received some unwelcome attention from Ofcom over recent months.

Some racially discriminatory language was included in a request show, broadcast on Tuesday, 18 April from 8pm. During the programme, there was a quiz for listeners. One of the questions posed by Presenter 1 was who wrote the song Dynamite by Mud, to which Presenter 2 suggested the answer was “ching chong chinaman”. It was later revealed that the answer was Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman.

Towards the end of the show, about 30 minutes later, Presenter 2 said: “I hope I haven’t offended anybody”. Presenter 1 commented, “Hopefully not”, to which Presenter 2 replied “Hope I have”and laughed. Presumably both presenters were unpaid volunteers, like the vast majority of people who staff hospital radio in the UK.

Ofcom received complaints about Presenter 2 using the words “ching chong chinaman” and investigated under Rule 2.3 (potential offence – including racially discriminatory language – must be justified by the context). Ofcom’s decision was published on 11 September.

The Stoke Mandeville Hospital NHS Trust (which holds the licence for the hospital radio station) apologised, suspended the presenter concerned and said it was providing him and all other presenters with “additional guidance and training about standards and broadcast content”.

Ofcom not surprisingly found the presenter’s remarks did breach Rule 2.3. The regulator relied to a great extent on its latest September 2021 research about offensive language:

This specifically included the epiphet “ching chong”, which research participants regarded as strong offensive language: “Highly offensive, requiring clear contextual justification.” The term however – interestingly – only had a “Medium level of recognition.” In other words, a number of people would not immediately recognise or understand it as highly offensive. This may well have included the second presenter, who presumably thought he was being humorous when he used the term.

The important point is that what is offensive language evolves over time, sometimes rapidly. Broadcasters of all shapes and sizes must keep up to date with these changes and ensure their volunteers and staff are too. Understandably many older people for example are not aware of all new sensitivities and trends, and individuals from specific ethnic or religious backgrounds may not be familiar with certain words or phrases.

An excellent starting point is for all radio volunteers (new and existing) to have a quick read of the Ofcom offensive language Quick Reference Guide (see link above) – if they have not done so already. It is not only interesting in itself, but may save them and their station some trouble later down the line.