On 2 February 2012, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission
(BCCSA) handed down judgment in a series of complaints lodged by a
number of viewers of the e-News and e.tv channels. The complaints
were sparked by the broadcast of footage relating to the attack on
former Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi which led to his
death. The crux of these complaints was that e.tv had violated
clause 3(a) of the BCCSA Code which prohibits the broadcast of
"violence which does not play an integral
role in developing the plot, character or theme of the material as
a whole". The complaint also concerned the lack of
audience advisories with respect to some of the broadcasts and the
The respondents argued, amongst other things, that the footage formed an integral part of the news item; that the photographic material was already in the public domain; that it was their duty to inform the public what had happened, and that the broadcast of the footage was in the public interest. The BCCSA held that the repeated screening of the gruesome attack on Gaddafi could not be seen as integral to the news item. In any event, held the BCCSA, the fact that the images were already in the public domain did not negate the protection afforded to television viewers. Further, it was held that no public interest purpose was served by the repeated screening of the footage as it was not necessary for a better understanding of the news in relation to Gaddafi's death. The respondents were ordered to pay fines to the total of R35 000 to the BCCSA. e-TV has appealed the decision.
With respect to audience advisories, the BCCSA held that there had been a breach of the Code with respect to the headlines preceding the news bulletin where the footage was shown without a prior advisory. This aspect of the decision represents a new development in the case law of the BCCSA as it means that where violent footage appears in headlines, there must be audience advisories before the headlines are shown.
In our view, the BCCSA's reliance on the number of times that the footage was repeated during the broadcast as part of its determination of whether the footage was an "integral" part of the report may not be the correct approach. Firstly, the question whether the footage is an integral part of the report should be determined with respect to the content of the footage in relation to the rest of the report, and not the number of times that the footage is shown. Secondly, the approach adopted by the BCCSA fails to take into account editorial discretion with respect to the number of times that violent footage should be shown during a broadcast. Thirdly, the ruling results in uncertainty for broadcasters on this issue as it is unclear how many times violent footage can be included in a broadcast before it exceeds the acceptable maximum. The ruling indicates that when it comes to violent footage, the BCCSA may take a somewhat conservative approach and broadcasters should accordingly be cautious when utilising such footage.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.