Select Committee on Home Affairs Written Evidence

38.  Memorandum submitted by the Office of Communications (Ofcom)


  The Home Affairs Committee ("the Committee"), sought information concerning the prevalence of complaints made to Ofcom about music (or music videos) where the lyrical content included references to violence.

  My colleague Neil Gardner previously forwarded the relevant sections of our Broadcasting Code, against which complaints are judged (namely Sections One and Two, "Protecting the Under-Eighteens" and "Harm & Offence" respectively), together with our published "Guidance" for both these sections.

  Compliance with the requirements of these two sections of the Broadcasting Code is mandatory for all UK broadcasters licensed by Ofcom and the BBC and S4C; adherence to the accompanying Guidance is advisable as best practice, but is not mandatory.

  The Committee asked us to provide the following quantitative information:

    —  the number of Ofcom rulings relating to violent lyrical content in music, or the portrayal of violence in music videos in each of the last five years; and

    —  the numbers of public complaints in this area over this time.

  Colleagues here have undertaken a thorough search of our complaints databases, encompassing not only Ofcom's own records (since its vesting in December 2003), but also those of the three legacy broadcasting regulators (the Broadcasting Standards Commission, the Independent Television Commission, and the Radio Authority).

  As complaints are not catalogued against the category violent lyrical content in music or the portrayal of violence in music videos we have checked our data base using key words.

  The number of complaints that the regulators have received specifically on this matter during the last five years is small—five complaints, all made since 2004. Four complaints were not upheld and one was resolved. A complaint is resolved when Ofcom considers it would have upheld the complaint had it not been for mitigating action by the broadcaster. In this case the matter was resolved following the admission of an error by the broadcaster in the scheduling of the video given the nature of its content.

  The complaints were as follows:

    —  Resolved: Music video for "Smile" by Lily Allen broadcast on Smash Hits!, 24 June 2006, 13:00, The Hits, 7 July 2006, 15:50 and The Box, 19 July 2006, 08:14.

    A viewer found this video, which told the story of a woman taking revenge on her ex-boyfriend, offensive—in part, because it showed the woman "paying thugs to beat up her ex-boyfriend". We felt that the narrative of the song related to the singer's personal feelings and were presented in the stylised world of a pop video, thus creating a distance from real life events. We felt that it would be unlikely to encourage any adult viewer to copy such behaviour, but the content was too strong for broadcast at these times when children might be watching. The broadcaster apologised and addressed our concerns in subsequent screenings.

    —  Not Upheld: Brit Awards, ITV1, 17 February 2004, 20.40. A viewer complained that the presenter mentioned that the artist 50 Cent had been shot nine times.

    —  Not Upheld: Choice FM, 7 January 2005, 22.00 approx. A listener's primary concern was the use of racist terms however the listener also mentioned that in the listener's view a track had glamorised gun crime and anti-social behaviour.

    —  Not Upheld: Westwood Rap Show, BBC Radio 1, 17 March 2006, 21.00 approx. The complaint focused primarily on the use of racist terms. It also alleged that the lyrical content had advocated the indiscriminate murdering of African people.

    —  Not Upheld: BBC Radio 1Xtra, 27 September 2005, 23.00 approx. A listener felt that there was racist language and in that context mentioned "violent vitriol".

  The lyrical content that the Committee wishes to investigate is, of course, largely (if not wholly) confined to certain specific genres of music, such as "hip hop" and r'n'b. Looking at complaints in this area in order to assist the Committee it appears that, amongst the largely self-selecting audience for this type of music, there is still much greater concern about the use of racially abusive terms (eg "nigger"), misogynistic terms (eg "whore" and its derivatives) and, to a lesser extent, strong profanity generally, than there is about potential incitement to violence.

  It is worth noting that there is a long standing tradition of music companies providing radio edits—that is versions of the main track from which potentially offensive material has been removed—so that the track may be played for broadcast. The same editing technique applies to videos. Therefore, for example, a video played pre-watershed may well be different to a video for the same track played post-watershed. For this reason concerns regarding the lyrical content of music or the portrayal of violence in a video may not necessarily apply to tracks and videos as broadcast. The legacy regulator for radio—the Radio Authority—had a series of meetings with the music companies to discuss how this worked. At the time the Radio Authority was satisfied that the companies were taking significant steps to meet broadcasting standards.

  As discussed previously, our Code contains a number of Rules concerning the portrayal of violence and dangerous behaviour which we require broadcasters to adhere to. For example:

    2.4  Programmes must not include material (whether in individual programmes or in programmes taken together) which, taking into account the context, condones or glamorises violent, dangerous or seriously antisocial behaviour and is likely to encourage others to copy such behaviour.

  The following Rules are specifically applied to protect under-eighteens:

    1.3  Children must ... be protected by appropriate scheduling from material that is unsuitable for them.

      —  Meaning of "children": Children are people under the age of 15 years.

      —  Meaning of "appropriate scheduling": Appropriate scheduling should be judged according to:

—  the nature of the content;

—  the likely number and age range of children in the audience, taking into account school time, weekends and holidays;

—  the start time and finish time of the programme;

—  the nature of the channel or station and the particular programme; and

—  the likely expectations of the audience for a particular channel or station at a particular time and on a particular day.

    1.4 Television broadcasters must observe the watershed.

    1.5 Radio broadcasters must have particular regard to times when children are particularly likely to be listening.

      —  Meaning of "when children are particularly likely to be listening": This phrase particularly refers to the school run and breakfast time, but might include other times.

    Violence and dangerous behaviour

    1.11 Violence, its after-effects and descriptions of violence, whether verbal or physical, must be appropriately limited in programmes broadcast before the watershed or when children are particularly likely to be listening and must also be justified by the context.

    1.12 Violence, whether verbal or physical, that is easily imitable by children in a manner that is harmful or dangerous:

      —  must not be featured in programmes made primarily for children unless there is strong editorial justification; and

      —  must not be broadcast before the watershed or when children are particularly likely to be listening, unless there is editorial justification.

    1.13 Dangerous behaviour, or the portrayal of dangerous behaviour, that is likely to be easily imitable by children in a manner that is harmful:

      —  must not be featured in programmes made primarily for children unless there is strong editorial justification; and

      —  must not be broadcast before the watershed, or when children are particularly likely to be listening, unless there is editorial justification.

  Our Rules make it clear that broadcasters should always make considered judgements as to whether the material that they broadcast can be adequately justified by the context. Context might include (but is not limited to):

      —  the editorial content of the programme, programmes or series;

      —  the service on which the material is broadcast;

      —  the time of broadcast;

      —  what other programmes are scheduled before and after the programme or programmes concerned;

      —  the degree of harm or offence likely to be caused by the inclusion of any particular sort of material in programmes generally or programmes of a particular description;

      —  the likely size and composition of the potential audience and likely expectation of the audience;

      —  the extent to which the nature of the content can be brought to the attention of the potential audience for example by giving information; and

      —  the effect of the material on viewers or listeners who may come across it unawares.

  I hope this information is of use to the Committee. If we can be of any further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact us again.

Fran O'Brien

Senior Standards Manager, Content and Standards

December 2006

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