The Society of Editors (SoE) is to write to broadcast regulator Ofcom to urge caution over proposed new duty of care requirements for news journalists.
In particular, the SoE fears possible new rules that would require programme editors and journalists to warn interviewees of any potential negative consequences of agreeing to an interview will have a deadening effect on journalism.
Ofcom are seeking to beef up its Broadcast Code following the deaths of two former reality TV show contestants. Although the regulator says the measures are not intended to impede news gathering, broadcast companies say a requirement to obtain “informed consent” from participants will prove impractical and deter interview subjects.
The new measures might also require broadcasters to provide interviewees with a contact on the production team, offer support in certain situations, and provide advice on any potential negative social media responses if there is a risk of this happening.
The existing Broadcasting Code requires broadcasters to “avoid unjust or unfair treatment of individuals or organisations in programmes” and be fair when dealing with potential contributors. .
Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors said the proposals posed a real risk of making hard-hitting interviews and investigations impossible to achieve and would enable those wishing to evade scrutiny to hide from their actions or intent. Of particular concern was the lack of any provision for considering whether an interview or undercover reporting was in the public interest.
“Of course, there should be an onus on editors and journalists to consider the impact of their questioning on subjects, but this appears too much like an attempt to wrap interviewees in a thick comfort blanket that may well prove impenetrable. As a way of emasculating the media it will prove very useful for those wishing the evade difficult questioning,” said Murray.
“Everyone in journalism knows it can often prove difficult, at times very difficult indeed, to persuade someone to face the cameras and while all efforts should be made to ensure no one is put under undue stress there are times when it is important some subjects are put on the spot.
“It is difficult to imagine how the proposed new regulations could be applied when carrying out covert reporting and undercover filming as well as when interviews are taking place at times of an emergency or disaster when time is critical”
Broadcast companies have provided evidence to Ofcom on the proposals, expressing their concerns, as reported by Press Gazette.
The Commercial Broadcasters Association (CBA) has urged Ofcom to make it clear in the guidance that the rules cannot be applied to someone who agrees to take part in a news interview that then turns out to be a tough ride.
“This rule must not be used to prevent the transmission of news, current affairs or documentary programming that meets the other rules of the [Broadcasting] Code (fairness, accuracy etc.) because of distress in the context of news and documentaries, if due care has been taken as to the participant’s welfare.”