BBC in Ofcom breach over accidental naming of 14-year-old

The BBC has been found in breach of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code over a Panorama programme which exposed the alleged mistreatment and use of excessive force on young people by G4S staff at Medway Secure Training Centre, in Rochester, Kent.

The programme, which won a Bafta and led to a police investigation into the conduct of staff at the centre, featured secretly filmed footage of the alleged mistreatment. Footage shown included two young people referred to by the pseudonym’s Billy and Lee in order to prevent them from being identified. Their faces were also blurred, although their voices were not disguised, and an interview with Billy’s mother was shown in which her face was not blurred.

Although generally referred to as “Billy” in the programme, Billy’s real first name was audible on one occasion and on two other occasions the name was said but was “almost inaudible”; his surname was never used.

The BBC said that this was a genuine error which came about because the broadcast of the programme had been brought forward by a week, which limited the opportunities for pre-broadcast review of the programme. The error was only spotted as the programme was being transmitted, and the BBC immediately removed the programme from iPlayer in order to remove the references.

Whilst acknowledging the clear and significant public interest in the programme, which resulted in G4S dismissing four members of staff from the Centre, and that errors can occur, Ofcom found the BBC to be in breach of rule 1.28. Rule 1.28 says that Due care must be taken over the physical and emotional welfare and the dignity of people under eighteen who take part or are otherwise involved in programmes’. In the decision it was noted that ‘this failure by the BBC could have seriously compromised the care of Billy and was avoidable’.

The BBC had apologised to Billy, his mother, and the children’s services department for the error, and Billy’s mother confirmed that he had not been identified by anyone who did not already know him.

Ofcom found no breach in relation to the process of undercover filming. The BBC had briefed the reporter, given him training in restraint techniques and care, and instructed the reporter to intervene if there was significant risk of imminent serious harm to an individual. Filming was reviewed regularly by senior editorial staff, and advice taken from two independent experts in particular on the issue of whether there was an imminent risk of serious harm such that safeguarding concerns needed to be reported immediately. Ofcom said that: ‘these steps taken before and during production demonstrated: a clear threshold for intervention; an appropriate level of ongoing scrutiny and senior oversight; and the engagement of appropriate experts.’