Making trouble

Broadcasting law/ OFCOM guides

Radio producers, like any other professional working in the media, have to abide by a set of legal restrictions when broadcasting live. This is partly to ensure a person’s reputation is not damaged by what you say on air.

The Office of Communications (Ofcom), which is the media regulator in the UK, also has advertising and programme guidelines that cover the broadcast of sex, violence, offensiveness, religious programming etc. Each station has a copy of the guidelines, some are on the website, and you can find them on Ofcom’s website at

Besides the official restrictions and guidelines, good broadcasting practice indicates how you should present material on air, who you should interview, and what topics you should cover. Most importantly, be sure to present as many sides of a story as possible, challenge commonly held ideas, and try to remain neutral in any debate.

Finally, what may be good broadcasting practice in commercial radio or as a public broadcaster may not be appropriate for community radio. Working with the local community and local issues requires a high level of sensitivity, diplomacy and tact.

LEGAL RESTRICTIONS (a brief guide to the bits of law that affect radio):


Generally speaking, defamation is either slander or libel. Put simply, slander is spoken defamation and libel is broadcast or published defamation.

Basically, you can say what you like about someone unless it makes other people think less of him or her. There’s a huge difference between:

“That Phil Korbel got sacked from his job as a footie commentator”


“That Phil Korbel is so dim he reckons Beckham’s a German beer.”

So, you can tell jokes about someone or say that their record is crap (which is just an opinion) but if you say that they are less than honest in their business, no good at their profession or that they are carrying a contagious anti-social disease, it is possible that you will get a call from their lawyers. In other words, – unless you can prove it – avoid negative comments about people that sound like fact.

Before you go on air (!) ask yourself whether the piece you are about to broadcast or that you have responsibility for:

–      unjustifiably exposes a person to public hatred or ridicule.

–      causes a person to be shunned or avoided.

–      lowers public estimation of a person.

–      damages the business or professional capacity of a person.

Generally, ‘the public’ is taken to mean the average person and there has to be some proven damage to a person’s reputation for defamation to be claimed.

CHECK BEFORE YOU GO TO AIR – if you are in doubt then speak to the programme organiser at your station. Remember: if there is defamation the station can get sued and YOU can get sued.



This comes from the fact that the only people who can influence a court of law are those people in the courtroom. Any attempt by anybody to influence a judge or a jury is in “contempt of court” and is viewed very dimly by the powers that be (we’re talking jail terms here folks!). A person accused of a crime who is standing at trial is innocent until proven guilty.

So … you are allowed to say what happened in court (e.g. “The prosecution claimed the accused was seen by a van-load of police officers leaving the pharmacists with a large bag marked stolen drugs”)

But …

You cannot ever state an opinion about those events (e.g. “Well he’s guilty as *#@~ isn’t he?”) until the accused is well and truly pronounced guilty by the judge or until the innocent person is acquitted.

The basic rule is to use your common sense when broadcasting so as not to cause offence to anyone, not to bad mouth anyone and not to comment on a court case unless you are sure that you understand what you can and can’t say.



  1. The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 makes it unlawful to discriminate on grounds of sex or marriage.
  2. The Race Relations Act 1976 makes it unlawful to discriminate on grounds of colour, race, and nationality, ethnic or national origin.
  3. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 makes it unlawful to discriminate on grounds of disability.
  4. The Equal Pay Act 1970 makes it unlawful to discriminate between men and women in their contracts of employment including pay, holiday entitlement, pension etc.
  5. The Employment Relations Act 1999 gives working parents the right to unpaid parental leave and time off to deal with emergencies.

Advertising and programming

The Office of Communications (OFCOM), which is the media regulator in the UK, has advertising and programme guidelines that cover the broadcast of sex, violence, offensiveness, religious programming, etc.


The gratuitous use of offensive language, including blasphemy, must be avoided.  Bad language and blasphemy must not be used in programmes aimed at young listeners or when audience research indicates they might be listening in significant numbers.

Where lyrics in songs might cause offence, licences must make considered judgements based on scheduling, particularly bearing in mind listener sensitivity to ‘school run’ times as revealed in research such as RAJAR (the listening research body), station remit, re-mixes, editing possibilities and the like.


The portrayal of, or allusion to, sexual behaviour should be defensible in context and presented with tact and discretion.

Humour relying on sexual innuendo should take account of the likely audience and should not be gratuitous.

No portrayal of sexual activity between humans and animals or between adults and children may be transmitted and these can be referred to in programmes only after consultation at senior management level.

Gratuitous sexual stereotyping and degradation must be avoided.

The same considerations apply here as to bad language.  Entertainment and comedy have often relied on sexual innuendo but this does not justify gratuitous crudity, the portrayal of perversion, sexism or the degradation of either sex.  Music and art are often concerned with love and passion, and it would be wrong (and impossible) to require writers or lyricists not to shock or disturb, but the aim should be to move, not offend.


Licensees must avoid humour that offends against good taste or decency.  There is a danger of offence in the use of humour based on particular characteristics like race, gender or disability.

Even when no malice is present, jokes can all too easily, and plausibly, exploit or humiliate for the purpose of entertainment.  This not only hurts those most directly concerned but can also repel listeners.  Racist terms should be avoided.  Insensitive comments or stereotyped portrayal may cause offence.  Their inclusion is acceptable only where it can be justified within the context of the programme.

Careful account should be taken of the possible effect upon the racial minority concerned, as well as the population as a whole, and of changes in public attitudes to what is, and is not, acceptable.


Items not used immediately must be checked before transmission to ensure that jokes or scenarios are not rendered tasteless by intervening events, such as death, injury, or other misfortune.


Violence must never be glorified or applauded.  The degree of violence portrayed or described must be essential to the integrity and completeness of the item.

Violence must not be described solely for its own sake, or for the gratuitous exploitation of sadistic or other perverted practices.  In particular, descriptions of sexual violence should be treated with extreme care.


Very occasionally when material is broadcast that is likely to disturb in the extreme, a short factual statement must be given about the nature of that material immediately in advance.  However, the statement must be straightforward and not invite listeners to be shocked.


All interviews with children require care.  They must not be interrogated to elicit views on private family matters, nor asked for expressions of opinion on matters likely to be beyond their judgement.


Listeners may elect to have their names, telephone numbers and/or addresses passed to third parties, either on or off air, for example, to arrange meetings or to sell or exchange goods.  However, if information of this kind is to be passed on to third parties, Licence Holders must ensure that the listener to whom the information relates has given express permission that he or she wishes this to occur and that, as far as is reasonably practical to ascertain, the safety of the party or parties is not at risk.


Licence Holders’ attention is drawn to the Public Order Act 1986 which makes it an offence to publish or distribute written material which is threatening, abusive or insulting, with an intention to start racial hatred or in circumstances where racial hatred is likely to be stirred up by such publication.  The same prohibition applies to the playing a recording of sounds that are threatening, abusive or insulting, or including such material in a programme service.


When coverage is given to events in public places, Licence Holders must satisfy themselves that words or spoken actions taken by individuals are sufficiently in the public domain to justify their broadcast without express permission being sought.


Telephone interviewees and participants must have given consent to the use of their contributions prior to broadcast and telephone conversations may not be broadcast without the permission of the participants.


The use of hidden microphones to record or broadcast the words of people who are unaware that they are being recorded or broadcast is acceptable only when it is clear that the material so acquired is essential to establish the credibility and authority of the story, and where the story itself is equally clearly of important

public interest.  It such cases, permission to proceed with the recording and broadcast must be given by senior radio station management.


The ‘wind up’ call is a technique that, if it is to be used, requires care.  The general idea behind ‘wind ups’ should be that they are good humoured and that ‘victims’ should not be exploited in an unacceptable way.

OFCOM expects that permission to broadcast ‘wind up’ calls will be sought in a proper manner.  The person being ‘wound up’ should be both fully able to realise what has taken place and fit to grant permission with his/her wits about him/her and without feeling s/he has be put on the spot or is being a ‘bad sport’ for refusing permission to broadcast.  Additionally, when a person is ‘wound up’ in his/her professional capacity, that is, when s/he are representing an organisation or employer, then broadcasters must be clear that the permission of that organisation has also been given before the call my be broadcast.  No ‘wind up’ scenarios should distress or upset callers or offend.


Defamation and libel