Broadcasters have been warned against sensationalising factual programmes and documentaries in a bid to boost ratings.
Broadcasters who sensationalise a programme’s findings and use "excessive or unduly colourful language" were criticised by the the Broadcasting Standards Commission in its annual report.
A BBC Panorama investigation into a paedophile network was accused of "scaremongering". The programme had criticised the inadequacy of internet regulation "without giving a sufficiently full picture of the steps that were being taken", the BSC said.
The watchdog ruled this material was included "primarily to sensationalise" an otherwise "valuable" programme.
"The commission is aware of the pressure on broadcasters to attract as many viewers as possible while working within ever tighter budgets," the report said. "It does not consider, however, that these constraints absolve broadcasters of their responsibility to be fair to those affected by their programmes."
The BSC said the language used to describe archaeologists in the LWT documentary Battlefield Scavengers was "not justified or appropriate" and an HTV Wales consumer affairs programme, The Ferret, had called a builder a "con man" without any evidence of wrongdoing, the BSC said.
"It is a basic principle of factual programming that when broadcasters are making allegations, the language used should be justified and not used simply for effect," its report said.
But despite the BSC’s concerns, complaints about privacy and fairness remained roughly around the 350 mark, in contrast to a 46 per cent increase in the number of complaints about matters of taste and decency.
The report revealed that the rise in this category from 4,920 to 7,183 was due largely to just four programmes: the infamous Brass Eye; a Robbie Williams documentary; a foot and mouth special by ITN’s London radio station News Direct that blamed the outbreak on a Chinese restaurant, and an edition of Question Time broadcast two days after the September 11 terror attacks.
The watchdog praised the broadcasters’ "sensitivity" in reporting the events of September 11, claiming that most complaints were about "the perceived partisan approach of a number of programmes, or the guests therein".
The BBC received 217 complaints after anti-American views were expressed by some members of the Question Time audience.
The watchdog acknowledged the director general Greg Dyke’s apology and also ITN’s decision to apologise for a montage of images of the World Trade Center set to classical music broadcast on September 11.
This reflected a growing tendency among broadcasters to respond to complaints from viewers without further action being required, the watchdog claimed.
By Julie Tomlin