The TV regulator investigated 57 programmes in response to allegations that Scottish Television had given undue prominence to Scottish Government initiatives and failed to exercise proper editorial control. Fair communication or non-compliant propaganda? Nick Johnson reports.
Who: Ofcom, STV and the Scottish Government
When: July 2010
Law stated as at: 27 July 2010
Following newspaper reports about the Scottish government’s use of television sponsorship and advertiser funded programming to promote key policy messages, Ofcom investigated 57 programmes broadcast on STV, the Scottish channel 3.
In 39 cases, the regulator found no breach of the Broadcasting Code. However in 18 others, compliance issues were identified, resulting from the editorial content being too closely linked with the sponsor and/or a lack of transparency as to the sponsorship arrangement. For instance:
- The series Time for Change was sponsored by Learn Direct Scotland and focused on the benefits individuals (particularly older individuals) could gain from attending courses to learn new skills. Two of the programmes referred specifically to the funding available for people on low incomes.
- The series The Great Scottish Meal was stated as being sponsored by “Specially Selected Pork” but made no reference to the fact that “Specially Selected Pork” is an initiative of Quality Meat Scotland, who STV accepted were in fact the sponsor of the series. As Quality Meat Scotland is the public body responsible for promoting Scottish red meat, and the series contained various positive references to red meat and references to (non-meat) produce as being of Scottish origin, Ofcom considered that the relationship between the series and Quality Meat Scotland had not been adequately disclosed to viewers. The red meat references were also held to be promotional.
The adjudication also suggests that it would inevitably be a breach of the Code for a third party to provide programme funding to create programmes that promote the third party’s interests. (By contrast, in the case of the 39 programmes held to be compliant, the programmes had already been made by the time that government funding was sought and offered.)
Why this matters:
Ofcom has here taken an unnecessarily restrictive line on editorial independence. They appear to have taken the view that any creative input by an advertiser in relation to a programme is inconsistent with a broadcaster’s editorial independence. This flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which has generally assumed – consistent with previous Ofcom guidance – that it is acceptable for advertisers to pitch their own self-originated format ideas to broadcasters, but that input into editorial decisions such as choice of presenters/talent, script content etc would not be. Given the near-religious zeal with which broadcasters enforce their editorial independence when dealing with advertiser funders, that is an approach which has worked well to date in encouraging advertiser investment while maintaining high quality output, consumer protection and Ofcom compliance.
However will this latest ruling from Ofcom, together with proposed new rules on “thematic placement” (see here) mean advertiser funded programming (AFP) will only now be permissible if the broadcaster can show the advertiser had no input at all into the format or the commissioning process? If so, it is hard to see how AFP can survive in the UK as anything other than a trading mechanism.