Thursday, May 24, 2007

Big Brother - Thorough and fair adjudication from Ofcom

Ofcom have imposed a very heavy penalty on Channel Four regarding last year’s Big Brother. Channel Four will have to broadcast an agreed summary of the Ofcom adjudication not once, but three times. Having seen these sorts of adjudications roll up on the screen several times, I can vouch for the fact that they are thoroughly humiliating for the broadcaster. You sit there waiting for your programme and then have to sit through this very serious declamation rolling up in very sombre looking text on the screen. So, this is not a "slap on the wrists", nor is it a heavy-handed swipe by Ofcom.

The adjudication is a fascinating read. It is thorough and balanced. I think Ofcom have done a remarkably sound job here.

In essence, Ofcom is saying that Channel Four failed to deal with the offensive remarks properly. This was what I thought at the time. If only they had taken the three recalcitrants into the Diary room early enough and given them a good ticking off, this controversy wouldn't have mushroomed into just over 44,500 complaints to Ofcom.

The items of the Ofcom broadcasting code relevant to the adjudication are:

Rule 2.3 – Broadcasters must when applying generally accepted standards ensure that material which may cause offence is justified by the context; and

Rule 1.3 – Children must also be protected by appropriate scheduling from unsuitable material.

Interestingly, Ofcom accepts that, under the code, potentially harmful of offensive material can be broadcast, but, in summary, it depends on the context and how it is handled:

In considering whether there had been breaches of the Code, Ofcom recognises that material that is potentially offensive or harmful may be properly broadcast in compliance with the Code so long as its inclusion is justified by the context so as to provide adequate protection to members of the public. The Code does not prohibit the broadcast of potentially offensive or harmful material in any circumstances. What is essential for compliance with the Code is the way in which such material is transmitted by the broadcaster. Accordingly, in considering whether Channel Four has breached the Code in this instance, Ofcom’s starting point is not that material which is potentially offensive or harmful has been transmitted, but whether such material has been appropriately handled by Channel Four.

Ofcom took exception at three events transmitted from the Big Brother House:

Ofcom has considered whether a number of events in the House were in compliance with the Broadcasting Code. It has found that there were three events which were broadcast during the series which were in breach of the Code (see paragraphs 8.1 – 8.38 below for a full explanation of the breach findings). Ofcom has found that in relation to the following three incidents, Channel Four failed to appropriately handle the material so as to adequately protect members of the public from offensive material:

-Remarks about Cooking in India (transmitted 15 January 2007)

-“Fuck off home” comment (transmitted 17 January 2007)

-“Shilpa Poppadom” comment (transmitted 18 and 19 January 2007)

Again, the problem was not the actual broadcast of those events, but that Channel Four did not adequately handle them within the framework of the Big Brother programme:

Channel Four in the Big Brother programme format has established various editorial mechanisms through which inappropriate behaviour in the House can be challenged. For instance, through discussion in the Diary Room, Big Brother can confront and reprimand housemates about their behaviour thereby acting as an important arbiter to what the public may perceive to be offensive language or behaviour. Reactions by housemates, Big Brother interventions and the Diary Room are all part of the well understood architecture of the programme and the context within which Channel Four is able to appropriately broadcast potentially offensive material.

Essentially, Ofcom say that this framework failed in relation to the three quoted incidents:

1.15 However, in relation to the incidents outlined in 1.11 above Channel Four failed adequately to apply generally accepted standards by justifying the inclusion of the offensive material by its context. It is Ofcom’s view that when these three incidents were broadcast, Channel Four failed sufficiently to address the potential for offence or left this behaviour unchallenged. This resulted in offence being caused to a very large number of viewers

As Stephen Tall points out in a typically thoughtful and articulate piece, Ofcom were particularly concerned that Channel Four was not aware of untransmitted footage when it made decisions about the three incidents:

The events from this untransmitted footage occurred before the broadcast of two of the incidents (one of which was broadcast twice) which Ofcom has found to be in breach of the Code. This material included conversations between housemates which were instructive of the relationships, tensions and attitudes in the House at this particular time and were logged as “racist” at the time by Brighter Pictures, the producer.

Channel Four was not aware of this material at the relevant time and therefore was not able to take account of it when making its editorial decisions as to how to handle the broadcast of these two incidents. Channel Four has submitted that this was due to a breakdown in communications between itself and Brighter Pictures, which the broadcaster consider
s resulted from a failure by the producer to follow established procedures and therefore draw the material to Channel Four’s immediate attention. Whether this was the case or not, this does not excuse Channel Four from its obligations under its licence to comply with the Code. Ofcom considers that Channel Four’s compliance processes were clearly not adequate in light of this failure and that Channel Four should have been more proactive at this time in ensuring that it was aware of all relevant material.

1.19 Ofcom has found that there was a serious failure within Channel 4’s compliance procedures for the series which meant that it was not fully aware of the events in the House so that it could handle potentially offensive material through its editorial mechanisms. In our view, if Channel 4 had seen this material, at the time it was recorded, it would have handled the unfolding situation in the House very differently in order to ensure compliance with the Code.

1.20 Ofcom also considers that Channel Four failed in its handling of the incidents broadcast to take account of the cumulative effect of the events in the House. The audience’s understanding of the events in the House and, in particular, the alleged racist bullying, was changing as the series developed and therefore comments which may in other circumstances have been interpreted as “borderline” in terms of offence became much more offensive given what was happening in the House, as well as beyond the House, in the outside world

While calling the breaches of the code a “serious failure”, Ofcom. Accept that this was not the result of “deliberate, reckless or grossly negligent actions” by Channel Four.

The detail of the adjudication includes transcripts from the show which look quite stark when written down.

As a footnote, Ofcom clears up the Jermaine Jackson/”White Trash” issue. What Jackson said was:

“She’s [Jade’s] a star and so she has a following and a fan base; her
mother doesn’t. She does not care and I don’t want to… feel like
this. It was referred to her… They brought up the word ‘white trash’
[the word ‘trash’ is mouthed by Jermaine – not actually spoken] and I
don’t want to bring that up but… and I wouldn’t call her that because
she’s a human being, but the fact is, she doesn’t care."

Ofcom state that Jackson was not guilty of a racist remark because he didn’t call Jackiey Budden “White trash”:

Channel Four said that Jermaine Jackson’s ‘white trash’ comment was clearly
something he was uncomfortable with – he used it carefully and cautiously, mouthing
the word ‘trash’ rather than speaking it; making it clear he did not approve of such
terms. He was using it as an illustrative tool to try to explain the class differences
between Shilpa Shetty and Jackiey Budden as he perceives them. Channel Four
went on to say that it was very important to note Jermaine Jackson’s specific mention
of the issue of ‘colour’ at that point, particularly that he was very clear to distinguish
this issue from things going on in the House, clearly saying “it has nothing to do with
anything”. Channel Four also noted that this scene had been widely misrepresented
in the press with many reports erroneously stating that Jermaine Jackson himself had
called Jackiey Budden ‘white trash’, which led to a number of viewer complaints.

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