Steve Warr: Common sense is being ignored in the nightmare of compliance

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The Independent Online

Most people would think that with the growth of the internet and digital channels, just about anything goes on television. The truth is that the medium is more highly regulated than ever before and the self-imposed rules are being enforced with an alarming alacrity.

Compliance is a bureaucratic nightmare ranking alongside health and safety and political correctness, and like these, it's a self-serving growth industry which has replaced common sense with nonsense and is now attempting to change the law.

So what has gone wrong? A few years ago, producers were trusted to make key decisions on their programmes. This included the suitability of content for the time slot and audience including the levels of violence and bad language. They worked closely with programme lawyers to ensure they kept within the law and programme codes. Lawyers saw it as their job to get the show the producer wanted on to the air with as few changes as possible.

That consensus has been turned on its head by many broadcasters. Instead of lawyers overseeing the shows, an army of compliance officers has been recruited to watch each show with a critical eye and then demand changes. By and large they have neither formal legal qualifications nor any programme-making background.

It's led to increasingly bizarre conversations. My production company, Raw Cut Television, was asked to remove statistics on road deaths from a programme that highlighted the dangers of appalling driving. The reason given was in case we offended the families of people who had been killed in road deaths. There was no debate as to whether the figures were accurate, or whether the driving was bad enough to warrant the warning.

We were asked to remove a voiceover about "divine intervention being pointless" about a car thief who screamed "Oh God" when she spotted the police in her rear-view mirror. The line was cut in case it offended religious sensibilities.

At the heart of this compliance problem is a debate on the Ofcom code – the good book for all programme-makers. The code offers sensible advice to all in television. The problem comes with the interpretation.

In one case we were banned from likening a convicted drunk driver to one of the Chuckle Brothers. When the edict first came in we assumed it was to protect the feelings of the comedian and to avoid any libel proceedings. The lawyers who viewed the show said it was fit for broadcast on both legal and compliance grounds. It turned out the ruling had been made to protect the feelings of the convicted drunk.

Each time we have defended our programmes by quoting the Ofcom code we have been firmly put in our place and told the watchdog has carried out briefings with the broadcasters (that we were not party to) and any new interpretation is as a result of these.

The guardians of a broadcaster's morality appear to believe in the primacy of privacy and political correctness over freedom of expression. It's something that has never been fully tested in the UK courts, yet compliance officers act as though Britain has a fully fledged privacy law. I've heard Ofcom are investigating a complaint from a criminal who was shown on television being caught red-handed. He claims his privacy was invaded.

Steve Warr is joint managing director of Raw Cut Television

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