Channel 5’s OMG: Painted, Pierced and Proud in breach

Ofcom has found that Channel 5’s observational documentary on extreme body modifications is in breach of the regulator’s rules against glamorising violent or dangerous behaviour, and the inclusion of unjustified methods of self-harm.

The programme OMG: Painted, Pierced and Proud was broadcast on Channel 5 on 2 July 2017. One of its contributors was a woman called Torz, who had deliberately cut off part of one of her fingers. The broadcaster included a warning preparing viewers for extremely graphic scenes of surgery.

Torz, who said that she had ‘always kind of identified as a bit of a freak’ described how she amputated part of her little finger. She referred to the ‘horrible crunch’ and reconstructed how she had cut off her finger by placing it between the blades of a bolt cutter. The narrator of the programme explained how she had ‘controlled the blood loss and didn’t contract a serious infection’.

The programme also included statements made by Torz and her father, Rich, about her decision to cut off her finger. Torz was happy with her decision, saying that the amputation was ‘just cute as fuck!’. Rich was described as having accepted the amputation and referred to the fact that he would, ‘hate for you to be a bit vanilla and boring and normal if you like. Chip off the old block really’.

The programme then showed Torz and her father watching home-video footage of the amputation on a mobile phone. This showed Torz kneeling with her finger between the jaws of a pair of bolt cutters. Torz’s finger was blurred out and the precise moment that she cut off her finger was not shown. However, the immediate aftermath was shown, with Torz holding her severed finger and with small amounts of blood on a sheet.

Ofcom considered that the material raised potential issues under Code rules 2.4, which prohibits the inclusion of material which ‘condones or glamorises violent, dangerous or seriously antisocial behaviour and is likely to encourage others to copy such behaviour’; and rule 2.5 which prohibits the inclusion of methods of suicide and self-harm ‘except where they are editorially justified and are also justified by the context’.

Ofcom acknowledged that the programme’s narration made clear that the behaviour included within it was ‘extreme’. However, it did not consider that the programme’s narration provided sufficient counter to Torz and her father’s view that Torz’s actions were a positive act of self-identity. It also took account of the broader context of the programme.

Ofcom decided that insufficient context was provided to counter the degree to which this example of dangerous behaviour was condoned. Considering the instructional nature of the content and that the amputation was presented as having no negative consequences for Torz, Ofcom concluded that the programme was likely to encourage others to copy Torz’s behaviour and was in breach of Rule 2.4.

Ofcom’s concern in relation to Rule 2.5, which Channel 5 had argued did not apply, was whether the methods by which suicide or self-harm has been depicted in a programme were editorially justified and also justified by the context. It considered that it did apply in this case and went on to consider whether this material was editorially justified and justified by the context.

While Ofcom acknowledged that this was a programme about people who undertake extreme body modifications and therefore it may include some examples of what could be considered to be self-harm, it was concerned by the level of detail provided in the programme as well as its instructional nature. It took account of other contextual factors such as the time of broadcast (22:05) and the inclusion of a warning for ‘extremely graphic scenes of surgery’, but did not consider that these provided sufficient protection to vulnerable viewers to provide justification for the broadcast of this method of self-harm. The programme was also in breach of Rule 2.5.

Ofcom noted that should it record similar breaches against the Licensee in the future, it may consider they warrant the imposition of a statutory sanction. Rulings under Rules 2.4 and 2.5 are unusual, and breaches have previously been found in respect of programmes that condoned or glorified death or violence in the context of political protest, and of violent behaviour towards women. The finding against this very different type of programme indicates how widely the two rules may be found to apply.