Towards the end of last year, Laura Dodsworth and I complained to Ofcom about a collaboration between Sky U.K. and the Behavioural Insights Team – then part-owned by the Cabinet Office – to use “behavioural science principles”, including subliminal messaging, to encourage viewers to endorse and comply with the Government’s ‘Net Zero’ agenda. That is, Sky bragged about joining forces with a unit that was part-owned by the U.K. Government to use covert psychological techniques to try to persuade viewers to endorse one of the U.K. Government’s most politically contentious policies – and encouraged other broadcasters to do the same! Alarmingly, the joint report by Sky and the BIT also recommended broadcasters utilise these same covert techniques to change the behaviour of children “because of the important influence they have on the attitude and behaviours of their parents”.
In our complaint, Laura and I argued this was a breach of Ofcom’s Broadcasting code – in particular, paragraph 11 of section two, entitled ‘Harm and Offence’:
Broadcasters must not use techniques which exploit the possibility of conveying a message to viewers or listeners, or of otherwise influencing their minds without their being aware, or fully aware, of what has occurred.
Now, two months later, Ofcom has replied, effectively dismissing the complaint. You can read the full reply beneath our original complaint here, but this is the gist of it:
In the Guidance we outline that, among other things, whether an issue has “been broadly settled […] and whether the issue has already been scientifically established” should inform a broadcaster’s consideration of whether the special impartiality requirements in the Code apply to a particular issue. In our Guidance, we identify the scientific principles behind the theory of anthropogenic global warming as an example of an issue which we considered to be broadly settled. On this basis, we do not consider these principles in themselves to be matters of political or industrial controversy for the purposes of Section Five of our Code.
In other words, using covert psychological methods to persuade viewers to endorse climate change dogma and adapt their behaviour accordingly, e.g. switch to electric cars, is not a breach of the Broadcasting Code because the science of anthropogenic global warming is “broadly settled” and “scientifically established”.
What about the fact that many of the behavioural changes Sky is trying to persuade viewers to make also happen to be changes the current Government is promoting under the banner of ‘Net Zero’? On that point, Ofcom is slightly more ambivalent, leaving the door open to another complaint:
The U.K. Government’s position on net zero covers a wide range of policy areas around which there may be a degree of controversy. Policies on how governments deal with crises or controversies in general can be a “matter or major matter of political controversy or relating to current public policy”, even if the U.K. Government has a settled policy position on it. It is possible, depending on the specific content and context, that a broadcast programme containing discussion of specific net zero policy decisions by the UK Government may engage Section Five of the Code, and require consideration under the special impartiality rules.