Firearms Control - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Written evidence from Ofcom

Thank you for your letter of 24 November, seeking Ofcom's perspective in relation to the Home Affairs committee's current Inquiry into the important area of Firearms Control. Ofcom takes the depiction and reporting of violence in the broadcast media very seriously, and maintains an obligatory Broadcasting Code dealing very specifically with what may and what may not be broadcast.

All broadcasters who have an Ofcom licence, as well as S4C and the BBC (with the exception of impartiality and accuracy requirements) are required to comply with Ofcom's Code. Failure to comply with these rules can result in sanctions against the broadcaster.

This Code is kept under constant review. Ofcom regularly conducts research to ensure that the Code remains evidence-based and reflects public attitudes. With this in mind, we are keenly interested in this Inquiry's examination of a possible link between broadcast coverage of gun crime and an increased proclivity for criminal behaviour. We remain able to consider amending the Code and/or issue guidance to reflect any such evidence and ensure that coverage of such crimes is appropriate. In line with our statutory duties, Ofcom must seek to protect members of the public from harmful and offensive material, but in a manner that best guarantees freedom of expression. This encompasses the broadcasters' right to transmit and the audience's right to receive creative material, information and ideas without interference by a public authority but subject to restrictions prescribed by law and necessary in a democratic society.

The Communications Act 2003 requires Ofcom to set standards for programmes on television and radio in areas such as harm and offence, fairness and privacy and impartiality and accuracy. These standards are set in a Code. After a full public consultation Ofcom published its first Broadcasting Code[36] in 2005. This Code contains the rules that broadcasters must abide by and is revised regularly and when necessary.

In terms of the areas which the Committee is investigating, Ofcom considers the following Rules and Sections in the Code to be key to ensuring that broadcasters coverage of gun crime is responsible and appropriate:


Rule 2.4: "Programme 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".

More generally, the following Rules require broadcasters to maintain 'generally accepted standards' in the area of harm and offence:

Rule 2.1: "Generally accepted standards must be applied to the contents of television and radio services so as to provide adequate protection for members of the public from the inclusion in such services of harmful and/or offensive material".

Rule 2.3: "In applying generally accepted standards broadcasters must ensure that material which may cause offence is justified by the context".

As well as the above, news programmes are further required to comply with rules concerning due impartiality and due accuracy (Section 5):

Rule 5.1: "News, in whatever form, must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality".

Finally, Ofcom has rules set out to ensure that those that participate, or somehow otherwise involved in programmes, are treated fairly and their privacy is not infringed without justification.

Section 7 of the Code requires that broadcasters must avoid unjust or unfair treatment of individuals or organisations in programmes. Meanwhile Section 8 requires that, broadcasters must avoid any unwarranted infringement of privacy in programmes and in connection with obtaining material included in programmes.

It is an editorial matter for broadcasters what they include in their programming, as long as they comply with the Code. Therefore, Ofcom does not decide the editorial agenda of any broadcaster, or the level of coverage which particular stories receive. Such decisions rest with the individual broadcasters in the first instance.

As stated above, Ofcom must interpret and apply these rules in line with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights—the right to freedom of expression.

Your letter refers to the evidence of Professor John Ashton, Joint Director of Public Health, Cumbria PCT and Cumbria County Council. Professor Ashton appeared to make two points in relation to the media:

(1)  The Cumbria shootings would not have happened if there had not been "mass media sensationalist coverage of the Columbine shootings and these other things". He added that the media coverage of the Cumbria shootings "will have sown the seeds for another event somewhere else in the world".

Ofcom takes any such suggestion that there is a linkage between the reporting of this or other incidents and further gun crime extremely seriously. We are constantly alert to evidence of allegations that broadcast content may have negative impacts on society. Where such evidence exists, Ofcom will ensure that the regulations reflect the evidence.

For instance, there appears to be some evidence that the portrayal of suicide can have a negative effect on those people who may be considering harming themselves. Ofcom took such factors into account when drafting its Code and accompanying guidance. Rule 2.5 states:

"Methods of suicide and self-harm must not be included in programmes except where they are editorially justified and are also justified by the context". (See Rule 1.13 in Section One: Protecting the Under-Eighteens.)

In our Guidance[37] to the Code we state the following in relation to Rule 2.5:

"This rule reflects a continued concern about the impact of real or portrayed suicide, and self-harm, on those whose minds may be disturbed. Whilst it is always difficult to prove causality, various studies have shown that there may be a short-lived increase in particular methods of suicide portrayed on television. Broadcasters should consider whether detailed demonstrations of means or methods of suicide or self-harm are justified".

We are therefore very interested in the conclusions and recommendations the Committee reach in this area.

(2)  There should be a "code of practice" for the media regarding coverage of mass shootings

As stated above, Ofcom's Code currently covers such areas as "copycat" and the unjustified and inappropriate glamorisation of violence. Further we are aware that broadcasters take these issues very seriously. ITN, who produces news for Channel 4 and ITV1, has its own guidance on violence and privacy to ensure compliance with our Codes. The BBC also has its Editorial Guidelines and says it took particular care with the material it broadcast about the Cumbria shootings to help protect the privacy of victims and their families, and the general public from material which might be regarded as unduly intrusive or offensive.

Nevertheless, we will, of course, consider any evidence. In light of this evidence, and if we consider it helpful to broadcasters to ensure compliance with the Code, Ofcom would issue further guidance to accompany of Code.

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Prepared 20 December 2010