Press Regulation: Codes of Conduct, Practice and Ethics

While the law establishes a framework for journalism to operate in, and puts into place legal limitations (laws regarding defamation, contempt and copyright etc.), it is also important to have other bodies, outside of the law, to operate as regulators to direct journalists and provide ethical guidelines. These regulatory bodies are almost the conscience of journalism, upholding certain moral standards in the industry.

Another advantage of having outside regulatory bodies, is that the law is very specific and limited in it’s scope; having outside bodies allows for more precision and detail.

There is a large contrast currently, between the regimes for regulating broadcast and those regulating print. In the wake of the News of the World phone hacking scandal, and the resulting Leveson Inquiry, print regulation is now the subject of constant, frantic debate; whereas broadcast is fairly settled.

It is still unclear exactly how print regulation is going to work in the aftermath of Leveson, with the newly formed IPSO (Independent Press Standards Organisation) replacing the former regulatory body, the Press Complaints Commission.

But the powers of IPSO are still vague and contested; some have called for heavier regulation of print based media, while others have argued that it is going to far and that we risk censoring free press. It raises the debate about whether the benefits of having a truly free press are worth the potential for journalists to conduct immoral or illicit acts in the pursuit of stories.

It seems easy to argue that regulation on journalists should be heavier, to clamp down on this sort of behaviour; but the only body with real power to enforce ethical conduct is the government, and do we risk handing control of the press to the state? If so, are we not consenting to a press akin to that in George Orwell’s 1984?


Although the press regulation lies in shambles; the regimes relating to broadcast regulation, the BBC Charter and Ofcom, are firmly established and generally undisputed. They have been largely unaffected by Leveson, which is likely because there have been no major breaches of audience trust by broadcasters, on the scale of the phone hacking scandal.

How much an audience trusts a journalist is ultimately what makes or breaks them; no-one will read/watch reports by a journalist they don’t trust. It is for this reason that sticking closely to the law and regulation is so important – it builds trust.

On the other side, the public, as well as the press, must respect the regulatory bodies in place. They must believe that said bodies actually have power to enforce their codes of conduct, and reprimand those who breach them – for example, the now defunct PCC had no legal backing, and membership was completely optional; as a result it wasn’t considered to be highly effective.

So what powers do they have?

Ofcom

Ofcom is a government-approved body, which regulates TV and radio broadcasts (as well as others services, such as postal and telecommunication).

Ofcom, unlike other regulatory bodies, has statutory powers; meaning they have legislative powers delegated by parliament.

Powers:

  • issue a direction not to repeat a programme
  • issue a direction to broadcast a correction or a statement of Ofcom’s findings
  • impose a financial penalty (of up to 5% of qualifying revenue or £250,000, whichever amount if greater) and/or:
  • revoke a licence (although this does not apply to the BBC, S4C or Channel 4)

They can impose sanctions when a broadcaster “deliberately, seriously or repeatedly breaches the code” although what qualifies for a breach of the code varies on a case-by-case basis.

The Channel 4 documentary series, Benefits Street, first broadcast in 2014, caused widespread controversy for it’s allegedly misleading portrayal of welfare claimants.

Hundreds of complaints were received by Ofcom after the first episode was broadcast, regarding the show’s depiction of criminal activity, use of foul language, and it’s exploitive nature; with some describing it as ‘poverty porn’.

In one scene two men are seen taking security tags off of stolen items, in an almost boastful manner. It could be argued that in showing this, the programme makers are endorsing criminal activity, which clearly would be inappropriate. The programme makers argued that all their reporting was purely observational, in which case, would it not be more dishonest to hide criminal activity from the viewers? If journalism is reporting truth, then not fully reporting a situation as it is, is surely bad journalism?

If Ofcom were to find that the content was inappropriate then perhaps the programme makers could avoid breaching ethical codes by including a commentary which explains the severe nature and heavy legal ramifications of the displayed criminal activity.

As for the accusation that the programme was exploitive/misleading, this could also amount to a breach of conduct regarding ‘fair and balanced’ reporting. Channel 4 could have gotten around this by making sure they showed examples of the residents on the street who were not on benefits or engaging in criminal activity. If there were none, then they cannot be accused of unfair portrayal.

In the final instance Ofcom ruled that the programme, while certainly controversial, had not in fact breached any rules.

There is an absolute requirement under Ofcom regulations, for ‘due accuracy and due impartiality’, which is absent for print media.

While a lot of the Ofcom code applies to the BBC, some elements (impartiality, inaccuracy, election provisions) do not. These elements are covered by the BBC’s own independent regulatory body: the BBC Charter.

BBC Charter

The BBC Charter is designed to offer a benchmark for programme makers and journalists, covering a wide-range of areas from issues of taste and decency (what kind of language can be broadcast at certain times etc.), to how to report on political events.

It also sets out guidelines for good practice when considering complaints, which the BBC handles internally.

An example of this would be the uproar caused when singer Rita Ora wore a blazer which revealed her cleavage on The One Show. Over 400 complaints were received, claiming that the low-cut outfit was inappropriate for a pre-watershed programme.

The outcome was that the BBC issued an apology for the outfit (although it’s notable that Rita Ora didn’t do the same), which was a decision made by the BBC, not one enforced by Ofcom.

Tweet showing BBC's apology for singer Rita Ora's outfit
BBC issues apology for singer Rita Ora’s outfit

The BBC has no statutory powers to impose sanctions for breaches of conduct, however in most cases Ofcom’s powers still apply, e.g. in the Sachsgate scandal, the BBC were fined £150,000 by Ofcom after comedians Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross prank called actor Andrew Sachs and left a voicemail message which Ofcom ruled to be “gratuitously offensive, humiliating and demeaning”.

The watchdog also described the heavy fine as a result of the “extraordinary nature and seriousness” of the BBC’s failures and the resulting breaches of the broadcasting code – another demonstration of the ineffectiveness of self-regulation.


While the government does not technically have power over all broadcasters, it does own what is known as the ‘spectrum’; in other words, the frequency/airwaves which are used by broadcasters. The government is responsible for auctioning off the spectrum, so they can choose to deprive broadcasters of it, and in this way retains an element of control.

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