Media: The terrible bother of making a fuss: You don't like what you see on TV. But who will listen to your protest - the BSC, the ITC, the BCC or the station itself? Martin Rosenbaum on the clash of the regulators

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The Independent Online
Is it in order for a television programme to feature a live demonstration of nipple piercing?

No, says the Broadcasting Standards Council (BSC), which last month reprimanded the LWT programme Dial Midnight for breaching 'acceptable boundaries of taste'. It ruled that the American rock singer Geni's interest in body adornment 'could have been adequately discussed without the need for a nipple to be pierced in the context of a live studio interview'.

Yes, says the Independent Television Commission (ITC). Like the BSC, it is a statutory body whose responsibilities include investigating viewers' complaints, but it rejected the three protests it received about the same incident.

This is only one of several recent examples of regulatory clash, in which the BSC has condemned broadcasts approved by the ITC. Others include World in Action's use of tapes of police interviews with the boys who killed Jamie Bulger, and the Cutting Edge programme that revealed Graham Taylor's enthusiasm for swearing.

Each year thousands of complainants make their protests to broadcasting's regulators: the BSC, the ITC, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission (BCC), the Radio Authority (RA) and the Welsh Fourth Channel Authority. The outraged include Sir Norman Fowler, provoked by a World in Action report on tax increases; Norman Lamont objecting to Denis Healey's credit card commercial with its shot of a Thresher's off-licence; individuals annoyed by sexist ads or by a puppet of Jesus in Spitting Image; those concerned about violence and those almost driven to violence themselves by the rescheduling of their favourite programme.

According to the Citizen's Charter, complaints procedures should be easy to use and understand. However, the complex and overlapping remits of broadcasting regulators annoy broadcasters and bewilder the public.

'In customer satisfaction surveys, television comes out worst of all public services,' says Diana Whitworth of the National Consumer Council. 'But the individual viewer has no idea where to go with a complaint. It is a major problem. An enormous proportion of inquiries to the BCC and BSC do not fall within their remit.'

In 1992/93, 88 per cent of the 928 complaints received by the BCC were outside its remit. The same was true for 33 per cent of the 2,023 received by the BSC.

In January the BBC made it easier to register serious complaints by creating a special Programme Complaints Unit (PCU). The effect has been partly negated, though, by a promotional trailer in which Julie Walters searches in vain for the complaints department. As a BBC spokesman acknowledges: 'It's quite amusing and points out what you get for the licence fee, but unfortunately it does give the impression that if you want to complain to the BBC you will be completely ignored.'

The task of countering this impression falls to Peter Dannheisser, head of the PCU, who says: 'We are offering a service to licence payers for a quick and fair response to serious complaints. We are independent of programme-makers and give clients an impartial investigations service. There are some happy customers already who have written back saying they are glad someone took them seriously.'

The BBC expects the 10-strong unit to deal with 4,000 complaints a year, but will not say how many it has handled in the two months of its existence so far, in spite of its oft-stated commitment to openness. In the past the BBC has refused to publish complaints statistics, but says it will soon start to issue regular bulletins.

There is nothing to stop complainants to the PCU also approaching the BCC or the BSC. The BCC, a quasi-judicial body described by its chairman, Canon Peter Pilkington, as 'a poor man's libel court', deals with certain individual wrongs. It was set up in 1981 to provide an independent safeguard against unfair treatment on the recommendation of the Annan Committee on the Future of Broadcasting.

The BSC is a Thatcherite creation. The proposal to establish it was included in the 1987 Conservative manifesto at Margaret Thatcher's insistence and was aimed at stemming what she saw as the rising tide of sex and violence on television. When originally chaired by Lord Rees-Mogg, former deputy chairman of the BBC, it proved to be less censorious than most broadcasters feared and it was praised for some of its research work. Now, since he was replaced by Lady Howe, it is finding more to condemn.

Many broadcasters regard it as a restraint on cultural freedom. Earlier this year Channel 4's chief executive, Michael Grade, attacked the BSC as 'the new Puritans'. He said: 'The BSC only exists to repress freedom of expression, to curb the artist, the writer, the director. It belongs on the scrap heap with the Lord Chamberlain's blue pencil.' Mr Grade was particularly angered by a recent BSC ruling condemning the use of 'fuck' in The Camomile Lawn immediately after the 9pm watershed - the notional time when children are supposed to stop watching.

The current confused situation has few supporters. Whereas many broadcasters tolerate the BCC but want the BSC to be abolished, consumer groups such as the Voice of the Listener and Viewer are pressing for the BSC and BCC to be subsumed into a 'Broadcasting Consumer Council'. This would have a positive remit of boosting consumer influence in broadcasting as well as handling complaints. The proposal is keenly supported by the BSC, and would be accepted by the BCC, provided its quasi-judicial role was kept distinct within the new organisation.

Last December the Select Committee on National Heritage joined the debate by arguing that the 'present tangled skein of complaints bodies . . . should be replaced by one overall body that deals with all complaints of every kind relating to radio broadcasts and television transmissions'.

The Department of National Heritage has been examining the issue of merging the BSC and BCC, and may make proposals in the forthcoming White Paper on the BBC. However, any change would require legislation, since the remits of the BSC, BCC, ITC and RA are all laid down in the 1990 Broadcasting Act. So for the moment, viewers and listeners with complaints will have to understand how to operate the current convoluted system.

----------------------------------------------------------------- PROTESTING: WHO COVERS WHAT ----------------------------------------------------------------- You can always take your complaint up directly with the makers or producers of the programme concerned. Who else can you complain to, and about what? ----------------------------------------------------------------- BBC TV ITV, S4C Independent and Channel 4, radio radio cable and satellite ----------------------------------------------------------------- Unfair treatment or BCC BCC BCC BCC infringement of privacy PCU ITC WFCA ----------------------------------------------------------------- Sex, violence, bad BSC BSC BSC BSC taste, indecency PCU ITC WFCA RA ----------------------------------------------------------------- Other serious PCU ITC WFCA RA complaints ----------------------------------------------------------------- BCC Broadcasting Complaints Commission; BSC Broadcasting Standards Council; ITC Independent Television Commission; PCU BBC Programme Complaints Unit; RA Radio Authority; WFCA Welsh Fourth Channel Authority -----------------------------------------------------------------


IF YOU want an immediate on-air correction, for example over a factual error, phone the station and ask for the duty or information officer. General comments on programmes are also best phoned in: the log of phone calls receives wider and quicker circulation than letters.

Serious complaints requiring investigation should be put in writing. Present your full case in your initial letter, as you may not get the chance to come back with further argument. If necessary you can ask the broadcaster for a tape or transcript. According to BBC, ITC and RA guidelines such requests will normally be granted to those with a proper interest.

You can usually complain to more than one body, and it is best to complain to everyone possible straight away. This ensures that you don't fall outside any time limits. Even if one body rejects your complaint, another may uphold it.

Broadcasting Complaints Commission (BCC), 35/37 Grosvenor Gardens, London SW1W OBS (071-630 1966).

You can complain to the BCC if:

(a) you have been affected by unfair or unjust treatment in a programme in which you participated or in whose subject you have a 'direct interest'; or

(b) your privacy has been infringed.

Complaints can be made by a person or an organisation. You can also complain on behalf of someone who died less than five years ago.

Complaints must be in writing and sent within a 'reasonable time'. Your complaint will be rejected if it is already the subject of legal proceedings, and may be rejected if a possible legal remedy is open to you. It takes on average four months to settle a complaint.

The BCC's sole form of redress is to require broadcasters to transmit a summary of a complaint and its findings, and publish them in the press.

Broadcasting Standards Council, 7 The Sanctuary, London SW1P 3JS (071-233 0544).

The BSC considers complaints about:

(a) the portrayal of violence or sex; or

(b) matters of 'taste and decency'. These include swearing, racial and religious offence, the dignity of individuals, stereotyping, and encouragement of alcohol use, drug-taking or smoking. Anyone can make a complaint, but it must be in writing. Complaints about television should be made within two months of the broadcast and about radio within three weeks.

As with the BCC, your complaint will be rejected if it is already the subject of legal proceedings, and may be rejected if a possible legal remedy is open to you. The council's only power of redress is to require broadcasters to transmit a summary of a complaint and its findings, and publish them in the press. Copies of the BSC Code of Practice are available free, along with standard complaint forms.

BBC, Broadcasting House, Portland Place, London W1A 1AA. Viewer and Listener Information, BBC, White City, 201 Wood Lane, London W12 7TS (081-743 8000 for television; 071-580 4468 for radio).

If your complaint is about a 'specific and serious injustice or inaccuracy, or a serious breach of accepted broadcasting standards', write to Peter Dannheisser, head of the new Programme Complaints Unit. You should be sent a full response or an acknowledgement within 10 working days. The unit covers all BBC output except the World Service.

A complaint will be considered serious if it appears to breach the Producers' Guidelines. Copies are available in BBC bookshops for pounds 6, or by post for pounds 7.95 from BBC Shop, PO Box 1QX, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE99 1QX (091-222 0381).

If your complaint is upheld then 'appropriate redress', such as an apology or on-air correction, will be considered. If you are dissatisfied with the outcome you may be able to appeal to a sub-committee of the Board of Governors. For less serious complaints you can write to or phone Viewer and Listener Information. Complaints about regional TV or local radio are probably best put to the regions or stations concerned.

Independent Television Commission, 33 Foley Street, London W1P 7LB; 071-255 3000.

Complain here about programmes or advertisements on commercial television - ITV, Channel 4, and satellite and cable stations originating in Britain (including BSkyB). It does not regulate satellite and cable channels receivable in the UK but originated elsewhere, such as Eurosport. Complaints against these channels must be made to the Department of National Heritage, who will take it up with the foreign government concerned. All ITC-regulated services have to comply with codes of practice, and copies are available free. Each service also has to abide by the terms of its licence. You can get this from the commission for a fee - usually pounds 10.

The ITC can tell broadcasters to transmit an apology or correction, or not to repeat a programme. It can also fine a company, or shorten or in extreme cases revoke its licence to broadcast.

You can also complain to the television company that made or transmitted the programme: and for less serious matters this would probably be more appropriate. Companies licensed by the ITC have to inform the ITC when the number of complaints about a particular issue reach a specified level.

Radio Authority, Holbrook House, 14 Great Queen Street, London WC2B 5DG (071-430 2724).

If you have a complaint about a programme or advertisement on independent radio you can complain to the Radio Authority. Complaints should be made in writing to the Head of Regulation within 42 days. They will be acknowledged within three days of receipt.

If your complaint is within the remit of the BCC, the authority will not conduct its own investigation but will pass it on to the BCC. The authority will, however, investigate itself complaints which could also be made to the BSC.

The authority publishes two codes on programmes and one on advertising and sponsorship, which independent radio stations must comply with. These can be obtained free from the authority, as can each station's 'promise of performance' which it must also abide by.

If your complaint is upheld, then, like the ITC, the RA can require an apology or a correction, prohibit a repeat, impose a fine or shorten or revoke a licence.

S4C, Parc Ty Glas, Llanishen, Cardiff CF4 5DU (0222 747444); Viewers' Hotline: 0222 741414.

The Welsh fourth channel falls outside the remit of the ITC. Its governing body is the Welsh Fourth Channel Authority. Complaints can be made to the viewers' hotline or to the chairman of the authority at the S4C address.


You can also contact the following programmes, which report grievances:

Right to Reply, Channel 4, 60 Charlotte St, London W1P 2AX; 071-631 4444. Covers TV on all channels.

Biteback, PO Box 2855, London W6 OZH, and Points of View, BBC TV Centre, London W12 7RJ; tel/fax 081-576 4560. Both BBC TV only.

Feedback, BBC, Broadcasting House, London W1A 1AA (071-580 4468). BBC radio only.