Philip Schofield scolds Ofcom but there’s more to this than bondage

This BAFTA can be yours for a mere £299. Ian West/PA

Editor’s note: Philip Schofield has responded to this article on our Facebook page.

Philip Schofield is wrong, but bondage is only part of the problem. The This Morning presenter has hit back after broadcast regulator Ofcom said it would investigate the 119 complaints it received about an item broadcast on February 3 featuring bondage clothing and paraphernalia.

“Sex expert” Annabelle Knight talked the sometimes giggling presenters through a series of bondage aids from “beginners” to “advanced”, accompanied by what the Daily Mail described as a “scantily clad couple” who “were seen on a bed playing kinky games”. The feature was prompted by the newly released film adaption of E L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, and timed for Valentine’s Day.

With the announcement of Ofcom’s investigation, Schofield hit out, telling the Press Association the complaints were “minor” and expressed “middle-England outrage”. Schofield defended This Morning as having always “pushed the boundaries”, citing the show’s coverage of Viagra, testicular cancer and other important subjects deemed shocking by some viewers.

Let’s deal with the bondage issue first. No doubt most of the complaints were that the discussion of adult sex aids was inappropriate for an early morning broadcast. Ofcom said it was investigating whether the item was suitable for broadcast before the 9pm watershed.

For Vivienne Pattison, the director of pressure group Mediawatch-UK, the show set a dangerous example:

Quite apart from issues of taste and the fact that people might not want to speak to their children about this, I think it is dangerous to normalise this kind of behaviour. [50 Shades Of Grey] is putting across ideas that humiliation is pleasurable and torture is gratifying and I don’t think those are healthy for anybody at all. 

Broadcast after 10.30am, and with advance warnings by Schofield, the feature was likely to be seen by adults overwhelmingly, with most school-age children in classrooms, and included content that was unlikely to disturb pre-school children.

Certainly there is a case against the broadcast, since it would be seen in both broadcast form and then online by children – and the material remains available on ITV’s website. Showing the feature on daytime ITV can certainly be critiqued as the normalisation of porn, within a deeply sexist mainstream media culture whose articulations of sexuality are contradictory and compromised.

But the objection I would make was not that that any discussion or even depiction of sexual stimulants should be verboten on daytime TV. My criticism is that this was a shopping channel masquerading as an independent television show.

Annabelle Knight, who has appeared previously on This Morning and other media, breathlessly promoted a series of products giving repeated brand mentions accompanied by still images of the items. The entire feature was organised around the promotion of products, tied to the lucrative Valentine’s Day market.

What Schofield and ITV are defending under the hazy claim of public interest journalism is the shift to a more lucrative commercial space on television. We are seeing the return of the so-called “ad mags” created in the early years of ITV, in the 1950s, as experimental ways to show advertised products and draw in revenue, where characters in settings like pubs would discuss the latest brands. The ad mags were banned after the Pilkington committee in 1962 reaffirmed the principle established for ITV, that programmes and adverts should be kept separate.

That was largely sustained until product placement was permitted in the final weeks of the last Labour government. ITV’s This Morning was the first programmes to embrace product placement when ITV reached a £100,000 deal with Nestlé to feature a Dolce Gusto coffee machine for 13 weeks.

Section nine of Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code covers commercial communications and while product placement is permitted in some genres, broadcasters must ensure editorial content is distinct from advertising and that there is no “undue prominence”. Unfortunately Ofcom has confirmed to me that none of the complainants made the argument that the broadcast breached section nine, so this issue will not be part of the formal investigation.

The longer-term importance of this incident may well be the way ITV is advancing the integration of commercial communication into programmes. That is why Schofield is wrong and why we need robust complaints mechanisms that allow people to challenge powerful companies. Schofield is also wrong to disparage the complaints process. I am sure many readers will share some of Schofield’s concerns that broadcast output should not be set by the taste range of “middle England”. But that is to misrepresent the process. Complaints are investigated, not relayed, by Ofcom.

As a media reformer I want to see ways to strengthen how complaints are dealt with, and encourage the challenge to commercial integration that was missed on this occasion, so we should not join powerful media figures in dismissing the process. Complaints mechanisms are a vital component of a responsive system of democratic regulation of communications.

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