Media: No death, please, we're British

Global TV and radio broadcasting from the UK is becoming ever harder to police. By Ed Shelton
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The Independent Culture
SENSITIVE SCHEDULING it was not. Sunday evening family viewing time may not have been the best choice to broadcast the stoning to death of two Iranian police officers.

It was certainly effective. Two Iranians accused of adultery were shown being bound from head to toe in linen like Egyptian mummies, and then wedged in holes in the ground so that their torsos made rigid targets for the stone-throwers. A large crowd was then seen surrounding them and hurling stones that were specially chosen not to be too large to kill outright.

"We only showed a little bit and we warned viewers before that it was coming," says PTV's director, Mahmood Taghi Sarabi.

The broadcast led to complaints and, two weeks ago the Independent Television Commission upheld them. Guy Phelps, senior programme officer at the ITC, said the programme was "disturbing", "too violent" for the time of day, and "too extended in its treatment of the punishments".

The clash highlights the difficulty the ITC faces as it attempts regulation of the dozens of non-English-language channels based in this country. With digital transmission about to flood the airwaves, it is a problem that will get worse.

Phelps, who has a team of four, says the ITC is already responsible for more hours of satellite and cable TV than officers could ever watch.

"In this day and age, we could not watch all the channels without a massive army of people doing it - there will be more channels when digital comes. The key is to be in touch with the companies and to be reasonably confident that they understand the codes. The onus is on them to comply," he says.

The ITC must monitor the 41 UK-based foreign-language channels regularly, employing two translators (one for checking) each time it reviews a broadcaster.

The ITC works by investigating viewers' complaints and random testing of potentially contentious channels, but more channels will mean that such testing inevitably becomes less frequent, and transgressions like PTV's could go unpunished.

In future, Sarabi has said he would respect the 9pm watershed, but PTV was not just upbraided on its scheduling - it also breached the ITC programme code which states that footage of people being killed or dying requires exceptional justification.

The ITC will not tolerate exceptions at any time, and says that if the channel repeats the offence it could face a fine or even lose its licence.

The Radio Authority is in a similar position and is this year launching a special initiative to combat the problem. Asian, Greek and Turkish stations are among those that must be monitored, and the Authority is now putting extra money behind its efforts.

Janet Lee, deputy-head of programming and advertising at the RA, says: "London attracts a lot of people who are fleeing from conflicts in their homeland. They are here because they are outlawed back home, and they want to discuss the situation back home on the radio. We have identified it as something we want to spend time monitoring this year, and to put aside a budget for doing so."

For local radio, the issue is further complicated in that news broadcasts must be impartial in the same way as TV broadcasts, but general items must only meet the lesser requirement of not giving "undue prominence" to a particular view. For example, Cyprus could be discussed on London Greek Radio from the Greek point of view, but a news story would have to be balanced. "It is a difficult one to police," admits Lee.

Many of the complaints the RA receives relate to Spectrum Radio - a local London station that broadcasts to a total of eight ethnic groups. Spectrum has been fined five times in the last four years. The RA is currently looking into complaints that the station broadcast material that was "anti- Western" in its Arab broadcasting, and is seeking assurance that the material, which accused the West of collusion with Israel, was balanced with opposing views.

Hilmet Tabak, the managing director of Med TV, the Kurdish channel, is aware of the difficulty of the regulators' task. "At the beginning, it was very difficult for the ITC to monitor us because they were not familiar with Kurdish background and culture. Now they understand who we are and why we must broadcast politics as well as music and dancing," he says.

Med TV broadcasts to Kurds, most of whom live in Turkey. As the Kurdish language is banned in Turkey, the channel is not allowed there and diplomatic pressures have been applied to get the channel off the air here. The difficulty is that London is an international centre for broadcasting, in part because the UK has more relaxed regulations than other countries.

The flip side is that some channels available here are licensed overseas, as they would not be acceptable to the ITC. In the past, cable channels for Spaniards living here have shown bullfights, for example.

Generally, the foreign channels in the UK say that they respect the ITC's efforts. "If there were a regulator as honourable as the ITC in Turkey, all the Turkish television channels would be closed down immediately," says Tabak.