Ofcom is considering launching a wide-ranging probe into Government-funded TV documentaries after it emerged that the Home Office has spent £1.2m over three years sponsoring factual programmes for PR purposes.
The Central Office of Information this week defended its decision to give money to television production companies to make eight documentaries highlighting various aspects of government policy, from policing to business development, food safety and health.
While there is nothing stopping a Government department from sponsoring a television programme, they are governed by a strict set of guidelines by the media regulator designed to ensure editorial and advertising are not confused.
An Ofcom spokeswoman told Press Gazette that the regulator was looking into claims that two series of an ITV1 documentary on police community support officers, Beat: Life On The Street, did not make it clear to viewers that the programme was sponsored by the Home Office to the tune of £800,000.
‘We’re looking at the relationship between the sponsor and the broadcaster,’she said.
‘The general principles that broadcasters need to adhere to are that broadcasters ensure the transparency of sponsorship arrangements, that editorial independence is retained by the broadcaster and that the sponsor is clearly identified.”
She added: ‘We’re initially investigating Beat: Life On The Street. Once that’s complete we can then make a decision as to whether other programmes in this area need to be considered.”
The Central Office of Information, which handles advertising for government departments, said it always ensured the commissioned programmes were editorially independent.
‘Ultimately any programme that’s made has to follow Cabinet Office sponsorship guidelines and anything has to meet Ofcom’s guidelines,’a COI spokeswoman said.
‘When the programmes are made, those issues are considered in the production.”
Twofour, the independent production company behind Beat: Life On The Street, said in a statement: ‘As with all advertiser-funded programming, Beat: Life on the Street, is subject to Ofcom’s broadcasting code on sponsorship.”
Another government-funded documentary, looking at the work of the UK Border Agency, is due to be transmitted on Sky One in September – produced by Steadfast TV and made with £400,000 of Home Office money.
A Sky spokeswoman told Press Gazette: ‘In an effort to clarify that this is a co-funded production our end credit will read: ‘A Steadfast Production co-funded by Sky One and Central Office of Information’.