Meeting with Ofcom discusses social workers in the media

SWU General Secretary John McGowan at the Ofcom office on May 8th, 2024.

As part of the SWU Campaign Fund activity on the media portrayal of social workers, SWU met with broadcast regulator Ofcom last week to discuss media portrayal of the profession.

The meeting covered both the reputation of social workers being portrayed in fictional dramas and soaps as well as the risks individual social workers face due to inaccurate reporting.

So far in the campaign, the Union has already hosted training sessions with press regulator IPSO, met the National Union of Journalists, launched guidance with the other press regulator IMPRESS and written to the broadcast industry.

SWU General Secretary John McGowan attended the meeting in London and commented:

“In the fast-paced world of journalism, adhering to regulation is an important part of upholding standards and this is just as important in broadcast journalism as well as print media.

“This is where regulation plays a significant role – in protecting individual rights. But we also need to highlight that fictional programming which depicts social workers inaccurately can have an equally damaging impact.”

For programming Ofcom can only intervene after a programme has been transmitted and if it is seen to be “materially misleading” and the content was unjustified. Breaches of this rule are generally considered under Section 2 of the broadcast code on harm and offence.

For news reporting, Ofcom has editorial standards similar to the press regulators. Clearly they require news output to be accurate (Section 5 of the code), but for them to investigate a complaint about how the media has handled a social workers’ case, it must breach their fairness or privacy standards.

The news article must demonstrate unjust or unfair treatment of individuals or organisations in programmes to breach the fairness rule (Rule 7, read more here). 

Broadcasters must also avoid any unwarranted infringement of privacy in programmes and in connection with obtaining material included in programmes (rule 8, read more here). But, as with print media, broadcast reporters have a get out clause. The rules state that any breach of privacy must be “warranted”. 

Warranted in this context has a very particular meaning: “It means that where broadcasters wish to justify an infringement of privacy as warranted, they should be able to demonstrate why in the particular circumstances of the case, it is warranted. If the reason is that it is in the public interest, then the broadcaster should be able to demonstrate that the public interest outweighs the right to privacy. Examples of public interest would include revealing or detecting crime, protecting public health or safety, exposing misleading claims made by individuals or organisations or disclosing incompetence that affects the public.”

Complaints have to also follow a set process (download a pdf of the process for non BBC stations here and for BBC stations here).

Any breaches of the Ofcom code should be reported via the website within 20 days of broadcast: Where coverage contravenes the SWU guidelines on media reporting, social workers can also report this to so that the Union is aware of the incident and can build it into its ongoing campaigning in this area.

Ofcom also has a new duty to regulate social media and with the rise of self-publishing, this is an area SWU will keep under review.