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Ofcom mulls smackdown for rogue religious TV channel

Ribena is not the blood of Christ and won't cure cancer

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Satellite channel Believe TV has broadcast advertisements during programmes, made unsupported claims of curing cancer and repeatedly improperly exploited its audience, says Ofcom – enough to make even the normally hands-off regulator consider a fine.

The channel is broadcast on Sky and is filled with the kind of testament one might expect, but it also regularly advertises products in the middle of programmes (which isn't allowed) and, rather more importantly, claims some of those products can "replace" kidneys, pay off mortgages, and cure cancer, according to Ofcom.

The regulator is "considering statutory sanctions", which will take 60 days, followed by another 15 days for the channel to reply, before any fine is imposed. Ofcom could, potentially, take away the channel's licence too, which would seem to make more sense for an organisation which has been warned several times already.

It was the Advertising Standards Authority that got Ofcom involved, having noticed that the channel was asking viewers to buy "Miracle Olive Oil Soap" in the middle of programmes. The product was repeatedly promoted, with an on-screen number for orders and accompanied by repeated testimony from people who claimed that since giving up traditional medicine the magic oil had cured them.

Such claims aren't allowed. Indeed, advertising a cure for cancer is specifically banned by the Cancer Act 1939, and in February the channel met with Ofcom and promised not to do it again.

Only it did, continuing to broadcast similar claims and advertising CDs, books and videos during programmes, some of which also came with testimony that they had cured all sorts of illnesses.

Ofcom's decision (PDF, starts on page 11) treads awfully carefully though the rights of the religious, noting that the religiously inclined are entitled to broadcast their views. But by repeatedly showing people who had "cured" themselves by replacing prescription pills with Ribena (representing the blood of Jesus) the channel was - according to Ofcom - guilty of recommending that course of action, without "objectively verifiable evidence", and thus public health trumps freedom of expression.

Ofcom also points out that anyone watching Believe TV is probably quite gullible, or, as the regulator puts it: "the self selecting audience of Believe TV ... may have been less likely to question the potentially harmful and exploitative content broadcast".

One might see evidence of that in the habits of one presenter, Bishop Irungu, who apparently has premonitions of diseases. He tells specific viewers, identified with the usual non-specific details, to call the on-screen number and get a cure before they even have a chance to realise they are ill.

Ofcom reckons all this nastiness could have been avoided by an on-screen warning telling people to consult a doctor first, but we can't help feeling that would have removed the point rather: we'd hope that not many doctors would recommend Ribena and magic Olive Oil as a cancer cure, no matter how many people on Believe TV fell for it. ®

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