British Regulatory Commission

Television has been described as a battle ground for rival sets of moral perspectives and disputed assessments of the medium's power to influence its audiences. It enters the home, may trade in vivid and unexpected images, and appeals greatly to children. It presents both reassuring and disturbing impressions of values and behaviors prevalent in society. The propriety of its program standards is therefore continually debated in many countries.

In Britain, the government responded to perceived public concerns of this kind by establishing a Broadcasting Standards Council, on a pre-statutory basis in 1988 and as a statutory body under the Broadcasting Act of 1990. Its remit covers the portrayal in television and radio programs and advertising of violence, sexual conduct and matters of taste and decency. The Council has five main tasks:

  • To draw up a code of practice in consultation with the broadcasting authorities and others, which broadcasting organisations must "reflect" (not adopt) in their own codes and program guidelines. Initially published in 1989, the Code was revised in 1994.
  • To monitor programs and make reports in the areas of its remit.
  • To commission research and enquiries in those areas.
  • To consider and make findings on complaints about programs and advertisements.
  • To represent the United Kingdom on international bodies involved in setting standards for broadcasting.

The BSC is not an instrument of censorship, for it has no authority to consider programs before transmission. Since its findings are essentially subjective judgments (not determinations of fact within a framework of law), neither is it a judicial body. Its powers are relatively limited. It may require broadcasters to supply tapes of programs and statements in response to complaints about them. It publishes its findings in a Complaints Bulletin (which is widely reported in the press) and in serious cases may require the offending broadcaster to do so on air or in print as well. The council is made up of eight members, including a chairman and deputy, appointed by the secretary of state for the Department of National Heritage. It has been served by a staff of 15 full-time posts, including a director and deputy; and had a budget of 1,375,000 in 1994-95.

The council's role and approach may be summarised in five features: First, its remit is more wide-ranging than might be supposed. Although it covers the three main areas of violence, sexual conduct and bad language, its 56-page Code of Practice also deals with the stereotyping of women, men, the elderly, and ethnic minorities; disparaging treatments of the disabled and mentally ill; depictions of death, grief and bereavement, suicide, disasters, respect for victims and intrusions into privacy; and responsible presentations of alcohol, drugs and smoking.

Second, the council's "philosophy" of standards is not one-sidedly illiberal. It aims to balance the claims of creativity and explorations of contemporary reality against those of respect for audience sensitivities.

Third, the council does not apply the simple precepts of a black-and-white morality. Its Code of Practice reads more like a guide to editorial responsibility than a set of proscriptions. Very little is ruled out per se, and most code provisions and findings are couched in a spirit of context-sensitivity. Conditioning factors may include the time of scheduling, the program genre and viewers' expectations of what it tends to present, likely audience composition at the time, whether advance warnings of sensitive material have been given, and the role of such material in the overall flow of the story or report. Among the contextual influences, much weight is given to a 9:00 P.M. "watershed", before which nothing that is unsuitable for children should be shown and after which it is acceptable to move to a more adult type of material. But even after 9:00 P.M., carte blanche is not envisaged, and broadcasters are expected to move only gradually into more challenging waters.

Fourth, although the council has had to deal with an increasing volume of complaints (rising from 512 in 1990-91 to 1,473 in 1993-94 and 2,032 in 1994-95), its approach has not been draconian. In most years, only about 20% of complaints have been upheld.


Fifth, the council has largely based its work on an understanding of the broad limits and tolerances of British public opinion (including how these are evolving). To that end, it consulted approximately 100 organisations when drawing up its Code of Practice. Its Members periodically travel on "road shows" to meet diverse groups in different parts of the country, exchanging views on broadcasting standards. Above all, it has commissioned and published the results of a great deal of high-quality, often cited and well-regarded research.

This has included broad surveys over time of both program content and audience attitudes in the key remit areas. The results have drawn attention to the diversity of public opinion about the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable treatments of violence, sex and other matters and have done justice to the complexity of people's views. This has supported the council's emphasis on "context" when dealing with complaints. Other projects have included a review of research findings on violence and pornography effects, an enquiry into the future of children's television, an international review of approaches to media education, a study of delinquents' media use patterns, and in-depth studies of interpretations of screened violence by women, men and victims of actual violence; children's cognitive and emotional responses to diverse program materials; the portrayal of ethnic minorities; and perspectives on the portrayal of disabilities by both disabled and able-bodied viewers. The council has also co-sponsored a large-scale enquiry into children's uses of the television screen in the new media environment and commissioned an independent analysis of the representativeness of those who submit complaints to it. On the whole, the latter suggested that complainants come from a relatively broad spectrum of the audience.

Critics occasionally object to the council's role on one of three grounds: for inducing caution among broadcasters; for imposing fuddy-duddy restrictions on a medium of expanding diversity and choice; and for a confusing overlap of jurisdiction with other authorities like the Independent Television Commission and a Programme Complaints Commission. Such objections do not seem widely shared or politically weighty, however, and much of the early suspicion of the council as a prospective agent of right-wing or puritanical control has been disarmed by its record. Indeed, Mary Whitehouse (past leader of the Viewers' and Listeners' Association and once a forceful lobbyist for a body of standards control) has complained about its failure to stand up to broadcasters' permissiveness.

In 1996, a bill was introduced into Parliament to merge the BSC with the Programme Complaints Commission, which, since its statutory establishment in 1982, had considered complaints arising from alleged unfairness toward people appearing in or dealt with in programs and alleged invasions of privacy. The new body is to be called the Broadcasting Standards Commission.

-Jay G. Blumler


Annual Reports. Broadcasting Standards Council, 1990-91 to 1995-96.

Annual Research Reviews (numbers 1-6). London: John Libbey and Broadcasting Standards Council, 1990-96.

Blumler, Jay G. Television and the Public Interest: Vulnerable Values in West European Broadcasting. London, and Thousand Oaks, California: Sage, 1992.

A Code of Practice. London: Broadcasting Standards Council, 1994.

Coleman, Francis. "All in the Best Possible Taste: The Broadcasting Standards Council, 1989-92." Public Law (London), Autumn 1993.

Gauntlett, David. A Profile of Complainants and their Complaints. (Research Working Paper 10). London: Broadcasting Standards Council, 1995.

Shaw, Colin. "Taste, Decency, and Standards in Television." In, Smith, Anthony, editor. Television: An International History. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.


See also British Television