OMG: Painted, Pierced and Proud (Channel 5)

“It was just like a normal day, except I chopped my finger off between dinner and bedtime ha ha…”

There is a lot for broadcasters to learn from Ofcom’s ‘in breach’ findings of this observational documentary transmitted on Channel 5. Featuring people with extreme body modifications in the name of body art, the programme ran into trouble over the contribution of a woman called Torz who cut off her finger with a bolt cutter. The bone of contention – no pun intended – between regulator and regulated was whether and how (Rules 2.42.4 Programmes must not include material (whether in individual programmes or in programmes taken together) which, taking into account the context, condones or glamorises violent, dangerous or seriously antisocial behaviour and is likely to encourage others to copy such behaviour. and 2.52.5 Methods of suicide and self-harm must not be included in programmes except where they are editorially justified and are also justified by the context.) applied.

The Good

There were many good things about the programme. For me, personally, if a programme shines a light on a swathe of society hooked on self-mutilation as body art, then in my book, that’s a story and one worthy of the attention grabbing OMG title. Also, the fact it went out well after the watershed with a prominent, appropriate warning“…strong highly offensive language and extremely graphic scenes of surgery and other procedures which may distress some viewers right from the very start and throughout.” is a compliance plus.

The Bad

Some of Channel 5’s arguments felt a little flawed at times. One was that Rule 2.4 (shown above) did not apply because Torz’s behaviour was directed at herself, not at other people. But Ofcom argued that there is nothing in the wording of this Rule to suggest that it does not capture violent or dangerous behaviour directed against one’s self, or carried out alone, as in the case of extreme sports or stunts. Ofcom considered that Torz’s self-amputation was a clear example of dangerous behaviour, as Channel 5 appeared to acknowledge in its representations. The procedure was carried out at home, with readily available items and was not performed by a medical professional.

“…I had a mat on the floor and everything, just in case there was a lot of blood, and then, I used this bit of ribbon to just do a little tourniquet. After that, got my trusty bolt cutters. I just sat down, I had them, like this, and it took a little while before I could work up the courage. And then I had that f*** it moment. And then just… crunch, that horrible crunch”

In the programme, Torz describes and reconstructs amputating her finger using a bolt cutter. In TV compliance terms this means that, whatever the transmission time and warning, the editorial stakes are high, and imitation could be an issue for vulnerable viewers. Torz seemed unrepentant, verging on the nonchalant. Her father, Rich, seemed a little unfazed although Channel 5 said “…it was perfectly clear to any reasonable viewer that Torz’s father [Rich] did not approve of what his daughter had done, even though he was careful to express his support for her generally” and that this helped discourage anyone from potentially copying Torz’s behaviour.

For me, it felt as though viewers would have had to read between the lines of Rich’s apparent acceptance of Torz’s amputation as self-expression. Subtlety really isn’t enough. The voice of reason has to be pitched at the same volume as that of the folly so that the two are commensurate. What the programme needed was a horrified parent, or a medical expert providing a reality check and unequivocal spelling out of the folly of such an action.

The Ugly

At one point Channel 5 seemed to be arguing that they felt it necessary to show that bolt cutters were used, that they were not typical, easily accessible household items, and just in case anyone watching the programmes sought to imitate Torz’s behaviour with a possibly more dangerous instrument – carving knifes, meat cleavers, electric knives, paper guillotines, home meat slicers! But they seemed to be also saying that the programme would not have prompted imitation.

“all appropriate steps, given the particular context of the broadcast, were taken to ensure that Torz’s self harm was not portrayed in a way that was inappropriate, imitable, glamorised or promoted” and no breach of the Code had occurred.

The Lessons

As a TV compliance consultant, I always advise clients to be conciliatory rather than combative in dealings with Ofcom; to consider their programme from the perspective of viewers; to have a dissenting voice commensurate to the level of harm/offence and definitely, don’t try to redefine Ofcom’s Code to Ofcom. They wrote it!

Click here to contact Liz Munro for broadcast compliance advice