(This is a cut-down summary. The full legislative background to the Broadcasting Code can be found here).
All UK broadcasters have to have a licence from Ofcom, and all are required to operate within the rules (and guidance) set out in the Ofcom Broadcasting Code.
Unlike the Editors’ Code for newspapers, the Ofcom code has the force of law*.
All UK broadcasters are covered by the Code as a condition of their licence, including BBC UK On Demand (the BBC iPlayer, for instance), and community stations on radio and the internet. There are special arrangements for the BBC and Welsh-language service S4C.
No part of the code applies to the BBC World Service because it is established to broadcast outside of the UK, in countries where UK law has no force. But as part of the BBC, it has to comply with the BBC’s own Editorial Guidelines – which are based on the Ofcom code.
The code is taken very seriously by major broadcasters.
It takes into account several parts of the European Convention on Human Rights, including (paraphrased):
- Article 8 – respect for privacy and family life
- Article 9 – freedom of thought, conscience and religion
- Article 10 – freedom of expression, and
- Article 14 – freedom from discrimination on grounds such as sex, race and religion.
Importantly, Article 10 encompasses “the audience’s right to receive creative material, information and ideas without interference but subject to restrictions prescribed by law and necessary in a democratic society.”
The code also embraces parts of the equality laws in the UK.
When the code is breached, Ofcom will normally investigate and publish a report setting out its findings. When a broadcaster breaches the code deliberately, seriously, repeatedly or recklessly, Ofcom can impose statutory sanctions – that is, punishments backed up by the law.
In some cases, it levies fines running into tens of thousands of pounds. It occasionally takes away a licence to broadcast – shutting the station down.
The BBC used to police its own output – various arrangements were tried over the years – but in 2016 the job passed to Ofcom under the BBC Agreement. The BBC still investigates complaints about its own services, but Ofcom can step in and judge whether it acted properly.
Adjudications on complaints to Ofcom used to be published in monthly bulletins, but the system is changing in early 2020.
See the full Broadcasting Code here.
*The Communications Act 2003 (as amended) and the Broadcasting Act 1996 (as amended) required Ofcom to draw up a code for television and radio, covering standards in programmes, sponsorship, product placement on TV, fairness, and privacy. It also draws on the Representation of the People Act 1983, which covers elections (and sets very tight rules on broadcasters).