In autumn 1993 there was a fierce and acrimonious debate under way about single mothers. The "Babies on Benefit" programme set out to examine the claims of John Redwood that some single women were encouraged by the benefit system to have babies. Connoisseurs of these types of programmes know that they inevitably end up suggesting the minister is callous and cavalier; Panorama's film, by contrast, seemed to offer some support for his assertions.
Enter Sue Slipman, a doughty and articulate champion of the single parent. She attacked Panorama in print, she attacked it on the radio, she attacked it on television. The programme was inaccurate and unfair, she said. She then submitted her case to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission for consideration - and stepped over an entirely new line.
The BCC was set up under the provisions of the 1990 Broadcasting Act. The important idea behind its establishment was that members of the public, who were "directly affected" by the contents of a programme, should have redress against ill-treatment or distortion by powerful broadcasters. The decision by the BCC to entertain Ms Slipman's complaint, on behalf of all single parents, always looked like a stretching of the law. In the event, the BCC adjudication lambasted Panorama. The programme, it said, had been editorially flawed and irresponsible.
The setting aside of this adjudication in the High Court establishes clearly that the purpose of the BCC is not to comment on the editorial nature of a programme, but to ensure that individuals are fairly treated. Ms Slipman's response that this effectively prevents the powerless from complaining is disingenuous - there would be nothing to stop an aggrieved parent using the National Council to frame or present a complaint.
The judge, Mr Justice Brooke, in his ruling was guided by Article Ten of the European Convention on Human Rights. This states that the right to freedom of expression "shall include freedom to hold opinions, or receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority ...."
Mr Justice Brooke got it right. But this does not absolve broadcasters (nor print journalists for that matter) from the responsibility to get things right. The power to shape and inform the national agenda is great. Since this power cannot be externally regulated without infringing freedom, it follows that journalists need to regulate it themselves. Such regulation does not spring from memoranda or guidelines (though they may help), but from a culture; a willingness continually to question journalistic assumptions and to correct errors.Reuse content