Ofcom has criticised the processes that led to a radio news bulletin describing comedian Barry Humphries as being in a stable condition three days after he had died.
The broadcast regulator has summoned Coast and County Radio owner Scarborough Radio to a meeting to “discuss its approach to compliance” after the station decided it would be unnecessary to correct the mistake due to the volume of reporting about Humphries’ death over the previous days.
Coast and County Radio, which primarily broadcasts in North Yorkshire and is licensed by Scarborough Radio, made the “significant error” during The Mid-Day Show on 25 April last year.
A reporter said: “A hospital in Sydney says the entertainer Barry Humphries, best known for his character Dame Edna Everage, is in a stable condition. A spokesperson for St Vincent’s also described reports the 89-year-old had gone into an unresponsive state as not accurate. He’s been suffering with health issues following hip surgery.”
Humphries had in fact died on 22 April, aged 89, following complications after undergoing hip surgery.
The error was not noticed until it was reported by a listener via text and it was then removed, with presenters told to be more vigilant when compiling news updates.
Scarborough Radio said its news service had been supplied by Independent Radio News since 2021. The broadcaster said the supplier had been experiencing problems with an online upgrade at the time of the error and “had not updated this particular streamed segment” to its new website.
IRN told Ofcom it “did experience an outage” as it transitioned from its old to its new website, and advised clients to temporarily switch back to the old one, but that this happened on 28 April, three days after the error was broadcast.
It added that it could not “find any story on [its] logs after 23rd April which was sent which mentions Barry Humphries” and that if Scarborough Radio was potentially using its own news capture system to scrape its website, IRN could not be held responsible.
Ofcom acknowledged these conflicting accounts and said it “remained of the view that reporting that someone is alive, when they have in fact died three days earlier, was a significant error”.
It added that the ultimate responsibility for ensuring content complies with the Broadcasting Code lies with the licensee, even when it has taken content from a third-party supplier.
Scarborough Radio said it did not experience many compliance issues, making this a “rarity”, but Ofcom responded that it was “concerning” the error was not identified by any in-house procedures before going out on air.
The broadcaster also told Ofcom it had decided to “let the error pass without comment” as news of Humphries’ death would have been widely known by listeners by that time.
Ofcom said in response it “considered this was a significant mistake and, given news of Barry Humphries’ death had been covered widely across media in the UK in the three days preceding the broadcast, we would therefore have expected this incorrect report to have been noticed by the licensee and an on-air correction provided quickly”.
Finding a breach of accuracy rules in the Broadcasting Code, Ofcom said: “While we acknowledged that the licensee said it has taken steps to prevent errors of this nature recurring, we have concerns about its compliance procedures.
“We are therefore requesting that the licensee attends a meeting with Ofcom to discuss its approach to compliance.”
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