Disability Federation of Ireland Submission to The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland

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On the Draft Code of Programme Standards

August 2014

The Disability Federation of Ireland (DFI) is the national support organisation for voluntary disability organisations (129 members) in Ireland who provide services to people with disabilities and disabling conditions:

  • Hidden
  • Intellectual
  • Mental Health
  • Physical
  • Sensory
  • Emotional
  • Neurological.

DFI works to ensure that Irish society is fully inclusive of people with disabilities and disabling conditions so that they can exercise fully their civil, social and human rights.  In pursuit of this vision, DFI acts as an advocate for the voluntary disability sector and supports organisations to further enable people with disabilities. 

Introduction

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) Code of Programme Standards aims to promote responsible broadcasting in which access to information, entertainment, education and a range of views is enhanced, undue offence or harm is reduced, and the diversity of tastes and interests in Irish society is catered for.  While DFI welcomes the development of this new draft Code and the opportunity to respond to it, the principles and guidelines set out underneath it must be extended and reinforced in order to secure the full inclusion and equality of all, including people with disabilities.

People with disabilities must be afforded equal access to all aspects of broadcasting, fair and accurate representation, and the respect of their rights and interests; the draft Code, as it stands, fails to adequately achieve this.  Due consideration must therefore be taken by the BAI in recognising the different needs and expectations of people with disabilities and in enacting measures to accommodate and protect them.  The BAI has previously re-examined and expanded its policies and interests to strengthen their bearing for other groups in society; the same action is now required to ensure that this Code relates to and safeguards people with disabilities as closely as it does for all other persons and social groups.

The rights and interests of people with disabilities have been secured under the National Disability Strategy (NDS) and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), both of which directly apply to the work and remit of the BAI.  In particular, Objective 1(d) of the NDS specifies that people with disabilities have equal access to public services, across all areas of policy and practice.  Moreover, Article 30 of the UNCRPD, which Ireland signed in 2007, states that people with disabilities must “enjoy access to television programmes, films, theatre and other cultural activities, in accessible formats”, while Article 8 addresses the portrayal of people with disabilities in the media.  The BAI must ensure that the principles and guidelines of the Code fall in accordance with these policies from the outset, rather than being retro-fitted to meet them later.

DFI holds a number of concerns in relation to this Code, primarily around the issues of accessibility, the fair representation and portrayal of people with disabilities in programming, and respect for their rights.  These concerns are explored in depth in the following submission document.

Response to Principles of the Draft Code

1.      Principle One: Respect for Community Standards

While DFI welcomes the obligation on broadcasters to respect programme standards, Principle One remains insufficiently clear in outlining what this entails and what is required to fulfil it.

The principle states that there are “general community standards”, that would largely be deemed unacceptable to the public, which broadcasters must take into account when making programmes.  Further explanation of these standards, as well as of who and what influences or defines them, is needed in order to ensure that they represent, as fully as possible, the values and expectations of the whole of Irish society, including people with disabilities. 

The principle also affirms that, in some cases, programmes which cause offence to many people may be justified “for creative, editorial or other reasons”; this is to allow for the representation of diversity and the realities of contemporary Irish society.  However, stronger clarification of such reasons and justifications is required to avoid the risk of ambiguity in the event of such a case arising.  While DFI acknowledges that broadcasters must be afforded the scope to defend and validate their content, this must be done in a fair, transparent way which reassures the public of the Code’s objectivity.

Furthermore, the list of guidelines for broadcasters under this principle should include provision for the participation and representation of people with disabilities in programming: a key requisite of respecting community standards involves providing a full, equal and honest depiction of all who live and participate in it.  Broadcasters must therefore work to promote the meaningful inclusion of people with disabilities, ensuring that due care is taken to avoid the use of offensive language, stereotypes or caricatures in their portrayal. 

The guidelines also compel broadcasters to guard against the use of coarse and offensive in live programming; while this is a welcome step, more could be done to safeguard the respect of community standards during live transmissions.  For example, broadcast presenters should receive an appropriate level of disability awareness training, strengthening their interaction and communication with disabled people in live settings.  This would work not only to reduce the risk of causing harm or offence to the viewing and listening public, but also to enhance the participation and representation of people with disabilities in programming.

2.      Principle Two: Importance of Context

Context plays an important role in relation to broadcasting and programme standards, and this principle goes some way to setting its application and relevance.  While the principle is relatively clear, it could be improved with additional guidelines.

The BAI must hold on to a firm sense of the factors and issues it takes into account when considering context in the assessment of a complaint under this Code.  For this reason, it should clarify whether the list of outlined factors is finalised and exhaustive, or whether others will also be deliberated on.  Both broadcasters and the public should have full knowledge of the issues informing decisions on context, so that expectations are met and matters which may be fairly judged as harmful or offensive can be easily identified by all.

The guidelines under this principle must also reflect the diversity of the viewing and listening public, which includes people with disabilities, and accommodate the full range of needs they live with as such.  Warnings for programme material that is likely to offend or cause distress, for example, should therefore be provided in a variety of formats – including through voiceovers, captions and sign language – to ensure that they are available to all those with different communications accessibility requirements.  This stipulation must also be applied to the provision of evaluative or descriptive classification systems for programme materials.  In the case of the sharing of help-line numbers where relevant, supplementary information, such as e-mail addresses, websites and postal addresses, must also be offered by broadcasters, in order to guarantee that people with different needs can access appropriate services.

The timeliness and efficiency of the delivery of such information must also be considered in relation to context, at the risk of otherwise discriminating against people with disabilities.  Broadcasters must ensure that, at the same time as providing general information to their viewing and listening public, they supply it in a variety of appropriate formats in recognition of people’s different accessibility needs.  With regards to live programming, for example, presenters should be equipped with the broadest possible range of contact information (such as telephone numbers, e-mail and postal addresses, and websites) for any help-lines or services they are providing details for, so that people with different accessibility needs are equally accommodated.  

In addition, broadcasters should enact measures to ensure not only that news and information is available in accessible formats on their websites, but that their websites and applications are fully accessible in themselves to people with disabilities.  Article 21 of the UNCRPD affords equal access to information for disabled people through, in part, “encouraging the mass media, including providers of information through the Internet, to make their services accessible to persons with disabilities”; the BAI should adhere to this requirement through the framework of this Code. 

3.      Principle Three: Protection from Harm

DFI welcomes the protection from the BAI against programme material that can cause a physical reaction to those with photo-sensitive epilepsy, for example, or those who are susceptible to hypnosis.  However, the guidelines under this principle must go further in order to fairly and fully guard people against harm.

The guidelines state that notice is to be given to audiences when demonstrations relating to exorcism, the occult, the paranormal, divination and fortune-telling are for entertainment purposes.  This proviso, as it stands, is extremely limiting and must be extended to apply to demonstrations which feature in films, drama or other fictional programming, which it is currently excluded from.  Films, drama and other fictional programming represent a significant portion of broadcast content, and failing to give notice of such demonstrations within them leaves a considerable number of people open to harm.  The BAI must acknowledge the different capacities of people to fully recognize and understand the realism of the content they are watching or listening to, and take the necessary measures to protect them. 

The guidelines should also stipulate that due care is taken and warnings provided for content which may affect people susceptible to hypnosis or who have photo-sensitive epilepsy.  These warnings must be provided in the full range of accessible formats – such as clear voiceovers, captioning and sign language – to guarantee that every person with a different accessibility requirement is sufficiently safeguarded against harm. 

4.      Principle Four: Protection for Children

DFI welcomes the obligations placed on broadcasters to safeguard children under this Code.  The BAI must also consider that there are other vulnerable groups in Irish society, distinct from children, who would benefit from similar protective measures.

Although this principle affirms that broadcasters are encouraged to reflect and respond to the diversity of children’s experiences, its guidelines remain inadequate in ensuring that broadcasters fulfil this condition.  They must require broadcasters to represent the full diversity and composition of society, by taking steps to fairly and accurately include and portray people and children with disabilities, in both children’s and wider programming. 

Children should be able to watch and listen to programmes and material which echo their lived experiences, bear relevance in their lives, and progress their social development; it is vital that people and children with disabilities are involved in these.  Objectively and proportionately representing people and children with disabilities in children’s programming increases disability awareness, supports inclusion, and fosters a greater sense of equality which lasts into adulthood.  The animated series Punky, which follows the everyday life of a young girl with Down Syndrome, provides a strong example of the full and fair inclusion of people with disabilities in children’s programming, and the strong social impact that this results in.

5.      Principle Five: Respect for Persons and Groups in Society

Showing respect for persons and groups in society through programming remains crucial in ensuring fairness and equality; however, this principle is not adequately clear in setting out exactly what it entails, and the allocated guidelines are similarly lacking.

The guidelines state that attributes such as age, race and disability are only to be emphasised when such references are justified within the principles of the Code and the context of the broadcast.  This should not mean that members of these different groups are not included or proportionately represented in programming. 

A key necessity in demonstrating respect for people and social groups is fairly and accurately depicting their lives, cultures and situations.  The guidelines should be expanded to compel broadcasters to take steps to ensure that this happens, and to secure the meaningful inclusion and participation of different groups, including people with disabilities, in all areas of programming.  This entails not only the objective portrayal and active involvement of the whole spectrum of people and groups in society, but also the full accommodation of their accessibility needs.

The guidelines also set out that terms, references and images which could be considered offensive to persons and groups in society must be editorially justified if they are to be included in programming.  This provision again highlights the need for closer inspection of the “general community standards” referred to in Principle One and a clear definition of what they encompass.  People and groups in society must be made aware of the criteria which may allow for editorial justification of potentially offensive content, so that they can be assured that the Code will be observed in a transparent, impartial manner.

The upcoming outcomes and expertise of the ongoing BAI committee and working groups on the representation and portrayal of people with disabilities in Irish broadcasting must be examined and integrated into this principle, and the wider Code in general.  While DFI welcomes and supports the work of these groups, the continuing delays in their progress are extremely disappointing, especially given the input and influence their conclusions and development could have borne on the Code.  The fact that the guidelines for broadcasters which were envisioned to have emerged from this committee have been diluted to a Statement of Intent is also discouraging, demonstrating a lack of commitment to achieving the full inclusion and respect of people with disabilities in Irish programming. 

6.      Principle Six: Protection of the Public Interest

As the BAI itself acknowledges, ‘public interest’ is very difficult to define, and, therefore, it is critically important that this principle is as strong and clear as possible.  As it stands, this has not been realised.

DFI welcomes the recognition that the public interest can be adversely affected by the omission of material and the inadequate representation of information or viewpoints.  The guidelines, however, should be stronger in inducing broadcasters to provide as much relevant material as possible, and to adequately and impartially represent information and opinions.  Bias or prejudice in programming exposes the viewing and listening public to harm and offence, and may impact on public support for the various social groups or causes involved.

As well as protecting against programming which tends to undermine the authority of the State, the autonomy and rights of the individual must be safeguarded in the guidelines.  Given that they have a different focus, these provisions should be separated from the rule against broadcasts likely to promote or incite to crime, in order to guard the rights and sovereignty of the government and individuals, including those living with a disability.  The independence and rights of people with disabilities, which should be bolstered by this guideline, are set out under the UNCRPD.

The guideline on the conducting of competitions and voting should be expanded to include warnings of the cost of participation in such events.  It stands in the public interest to provide such information, as many people lie vulnerable to accumulating high levels of debt if this information is not provided.  These warnings should be clear and easy to understand, and offered in a range of accessible formats to ensure that people with varying needs can avail equally of them.

Further clarity around the provision to “protect the interests of audiences where the broadcasting service has as one of its principle objectives the promotion of the interests of an organisation” is also needed.  The specific aim of this guideline and the means by which broadcasters are expected to meet it remain very vague; a firmer determination of its intention is necessary to ensure that the public interest is safeguarded.

7.      Principle Seven: Respect for Privacy

Privacy is a human right, and the viewing and listening public must, at all times, remain confident that it will be firmly upheld by broadcasters.  The guidelines set out under this principle must be reinforced to guarantee that people with disabilities are afforded full respect of this right.

In this regard, multiple methods of complaining against breaches of privacy must be made available to people with disabilities, including by phone, email, post or in person.  These methods should cover all of the differing accessibility needs that a person may have, and should be adequately explained in a clear and transparent manner. 

The BAI must also recognise that, in certain circumstances, a person with a disability whose privacy has been encroached may not be able to submit a complaint themselves: provision must therefore clearly be made to allow advocates or guardians of such a person to make complaints against breaches of privacy on their behalf.  This is in line with the measures of the Assisted Decision-Making Bill, due to be enacted later on this year.  The guidelines currently allow such a process “where appropriate”, but confirmation of the conditions where this may apply is required.

In relation to consent, the BAI must ensure that the guidelines issued under this principle fall in line with the measures of the Assisted Decision-Making Bill, in order to guarantee that people with disabilities’ right to consent is protected.  Broadcasters must be obliged to take the necessary steps to ensure that people with all types of disability are supplied with as many clear and accurate details as they need to make an informed decision on whether to participate in a programme.   In order to gain an understanding of what such participation would involve and the impact it may bear, a person with an intellectual or learning disability, for example, may require a more detailed description and explanation than a person with a physical disability; broadcasters should always acknowledge and accommodate such needs.  Failing to do so may infringe on an individual’s right to privacy. 

Further to this, the BAI must be mindful of differences of opinion between people with disabilities and their families in relation to issues of consent and complaints.  For instance, a parent or family member of a person with a disability may wish to object to an apparent breach of privacy against that person, despite the fact that the individual themselves does not want to complain.  Equally, a parent or family member may feel they have the right to consent to participation on behalf of a person with a disability.  The BAI must require broadcasters to act in accordance with the Assisted Decision-Making Bill, placing the wishes and the rights of the person with a disability first. 

The guidelines also currently provide that encroachments on privacy should be limited to the minimum degree that is required to inform the audience.  This should be extended to ensure that the privacy of residents and participants of disability services is sufficiently safeguarded; for some people with disabilities, the personal impact and understanding of an invasion of privacy may outweigh even this minimum degree.  The BAI should consider the different needs and circumstances of some groups in society, and make special provision to protect them.

Conclusion

The rights of people with disabilities are delineated and protected under the NDS and the UNCRPD, affording this group, amongst others, the rights to equal access and participation, privacy, freedom of expression and opinion, and freedom from exploitation.  Much stronger identification and implementation of these values must be reflected throughout the principles and guidelines set under the Code of Programme of Standards.

The principles-based approach provides a good framework for the Code.  The BAI must ensure that the principles fully and fairly apply to all persons and groups in Irish society, recognising their diversity and accommodating their different needs as such. 

The Code of Programme Standards must deliver strong and consistent guidelines to broadcasters to uphold the identified principles.  Currently, the given guidelines provide insufficient direction to broadcasters, leaving too many ambiguities and significant cope for unaccountability.  As explained previously, much more robust guidance around ensuring accessibility, disability awareness and respect for people with disabilities in programming must be presented to broadcasters under this Code.  Furthermore, the BAI must instigate a monitoring mechanism so that broadcasters can demonstrate their compliance with the Code, applying general sanctions for those found to be lacking in their fulfilment of it.  For example, funding for BAI schemes, such as the BAI 'Sound and Vision' fund, could be made dependent on subscription and adherence to the Code.

In addition, clearer and sturdier guidance on the standards that should be observed in broadcasting must be defined for broadcasters and the public under this Code.  Broadcasters should be equipped with a distinct set of parameters and standards within which they can operate, and the public must be confident that their values and expectations of content are respected.  It is therefore imperative that further elaboration of the “general community standards” referred to, as well as who and what influences them, is provided.

In relation to grievances against the Code, DFI welcomes the indivisibility of its principles and the subsequent consideration of all complaints against each of these.  This allows for the fairer and comprehensive assessment of complaints.  However, a significant weakness of the draft Code lies in its failure to provide the public with sufficient guidance on how a complaint would be evaluated.  No information is offered on the methods available to the public in lodging a complaint, the details that should be included in any submission, or the response time that can be expected in the wake of making a complaint.  Further clarification is also vital on the means by which the BAI judges a complaint, the consequences for broadcasters in the case of it being upheld, and the availability of any appeals processes.  Such material should be provided within the Code itself to guarantee that everyone has access to full and convenient knowledge of the complaints procedure.

It remains critical that the Code is completely accessible to every individual in Irish society, including people with disabilities, regardless of their different needs or requirements.  The guidelines under each of its principles must therefore reflect this, obliging broadcasters to make their programming accessible to the whole of the listening and viewing public, and to take steps to strengthen the representation and participation of people with disabilities within it.  A Plain English version of the Code must be developed and published so that it can be understood in as clear and straightforward a manner as possible.  Whether in print, online or in other forms, the Code must be made available in fully accessible formats, following established guidelines to achieve this.  In addition, multiple methods of contacting the BAI to learn more about the Code or to lodge a complaint against should be provided.  The BAi should also consider offering staff disability awareness training so that they could efficiently and considerately discuss and explain the Code with a disabled person if needed.

As previously noted, DFI is disappointed at the continued delays to the progress of the BAI committee and working groups on the portrayal and representation of people with disabilities in Irish broadcasting.  The Code should reference the work of these groups, and their outcomes must be considered and integrated into its principles and guidelines.

The Code of Programme Standards intends to enrich access to information, entertainment, education and viewpoints in broadcasting, reduce undue offence and harm, and serve the diversity of tastes and interests in society.  The BAI must now take the necessary and recommended measures to strengthen this Code, in order to ensure that people with disabilities are fully included in this vision.                                        

The Disability Federation of Ireland (DFI) represents the interests and the expectations of people with disabilities to be fully included in Irish society.  It comprises organisations that represent and support people with disabilities and disabling conditions.

The vision of DFI is that Irish society is fully inclusive of people with disabilities and disabling conditions so that they can exercise their full civil, economic, social, and human rights and are enabled to reach their full potential in life.  DFI’s mission is to act as an advocate for the full and equal inclusion of people with disabilities and disabling conditions in all aspects of their lives.

There are over 120 organisations within membership, or as associates, of DFI.  DFI also works with a growing number of organisations and groups around the country that have a significant disability interest, mainly from the statutory and voluntary sectors.  DFI provides information, training and support, networking, advocacy and representation, research and policy development / implementation, and organisation and management development.

DFI works on the basis that disability is a societal issue and so works with Government, and across the social and economic strands and interests of society.

Disability Federation of Ireland, Fumbally Court, Fumbally Lane, Dublin 8

Tel: 01-4547978    Fax: 01-4547981

Email: info@disability-federation.ie  Web: www.disability-federation.ie

Disability Federation of Ireland is a company limited by guarantee not having share capital, registered in Dublin. Registered No. 140948, CHY No 6177.

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