Dial T for trouble? Phone numbers in TV drama

An article in Radio Times made me chuckle because it was about viewers trying to call the mobile number which the character of David Budd read out in the penultimate episode of the Bodyguard. As a broadcast compliance consultant, I know phone numbers shown on TV can be a problem. However subliminal the reference to a telephone number in a TV soap or drama is, you just know you can count on an eagle-eyed percentage of the audience calling the character it belongs to. Unluckily for Bodyguard fans, there was no reply because the programme used one of Ofcom’s numbers for drama.

There is a serious downside to using random numbers in television dramas, as Eastenders found out in September 2009. In an episode broadcast on BBC1 and later repeated on BBC3, Sid Owen’s character, Ricky Butcher, received a text message from his ex-wife, Sam Mitchell (Danilla Westbrook), who arrived in Albert Square unexpectedly, having been ‘on the run’ in Brazil. Surprised by her visit and wary that she may be re-arrested after being seen by regulars drinking in the Queen Vic, some members of her family pretended that she had flown back to Brazil that evening. However, viewers were made aware that this was a “cover up” when Ricky was shown reading a text message from Sam, indicating that she was still in the country.

To explain this part of the storyline, a close up shot of Ricky’s mobile telephone showed Sam’s message. Immediately above her message, two further messages were visible, along with the mobile telephone number they were from. This number was seen on screen for approximately four seconds.

The telephone number shown was the business mobile of Lisa Edwards, a beautician from the West Midlands. Mrs Edwards received received 2,800 text messages and calls – some of them obscene or abusive – asking if she was Sam from Eastenders. Her husband made a privacy complaint on her behalf to Ofcom. At the time the BBC production team could not explain how the number ended up on the prop phone.

The BBC said that on the afternoon of 8 September 2009, Mrs Edwards told a member of BBC staff that she had spoken to The Sun newspaper. In its defence, the broadcaster said many of the calls and texts were prompted by a screen grab of the phone with the number published in a Sun newspaper story afterwards. Ofcom did note that Mrs Edwards’ telephone number appeared in the newspaper, together with her name and a photograph of her, after the broadcast but decided that publication was after the broadcast and therefore could not impact upon her expectation of privacy at the time of broadcast.

Ofcom found the woman’s privacy had been unwarrantably infringed and there was no justification for broadcasting the information. The BBC apologised to Mrs Edwards. The moral of the story for broadcasters is don’t get called out by a telephone number. Use one of Ofcom’s numbers for drama. Don’t let your audience dial T for trouble, particularly since, if they too go to a newspaper, it’ll be D for double trouble.

Click here for the original complaint in the Ofcom bulletin 156