May 31, 2005

NEWS: Ofcom acts to protect under-18s from TV sex and violence (UK)

Ofcom acts to protect under-18s from TV sex and violence

John Plunkett
Wednesday May 25, 2005

Controversial new rules aimed at protecting 16- and 17-year-olds from explicit scenes of sex and violence on television were unveiled today by Ofcom.

The regulator says broadcasters must not transmit material that might "seriously impair the physical, mental or moral development" of under-18s.

The new policy goes a significant step further than the traditional 9pm watershed, which is aimed at protecting the interests of children under 15.

The inclusion of the rule to protect under-18s will surprise many given that 16 is the age of consent and that modern teenagers are regularly exposed to what many in a previous generation would have regarded as adult behaviour.

Ofcom says it was a necessary inclusion and was designed to comply with other UK and European law designed to protect under 18s.

A spokesman said its intention was not to treat under 18s as an "homogenous block" and it acknowledged that "some 16 ad 17 year olds probably watch a lot of TV after the watershed and well into the night".

Broadcasters had opposed stiff regulation, arguing that the focus on viewers aged 16 and 17 would be unworkable because of the right to freedom of expression of viewers already able to have sex and get married.

But Ofcom's long-awaited broadcasting code, published today, says broadcasters must take "all reasonable steps to protect people under 18".

Potentially offensive material must be justified by its context, including time of broadcast, the size of the audience and by alerting viewers to the programme's content.

The chief executive of Ofcom, Stephen Carter, said the new regulations "set out clear and simple rules which remove unnecessary intervention, extend choice for audiences and allow creative freedom for broadcasters.

"It also secures the protection of the under-18s - which our research has shown to be an important priority for viewers."

Ofcom said the new programme code "set standards to protect the under-18s" and allowed broadcasters "as much freedom of expression as is consistent with the law".

It allows broadcasters to transmit "challenging material, even that which may be considered offensive by some, provided it is editorially justified and the audience given appropriate information".

The watershed remains in place for children under 15, but the new code says the transition to more adult material "must not be unduly abrupt" at 9pm.

"For television programmes broadcast before the watershed... clear information about content that may distress some children should be given."

Violence that can easily be imitated by children "must not be broadcast before the watershed... unless there is editorial justification".

However, the new regulations encompassing the interests of 16- and 17-year-olds are not as strict as some broadcasters had feared.

In its response to the draft version of the code published last year, the BBC said it would like to see a "better balance... between protecting under-18s and their rights to freedom of expression and freedom to receive information. Otherwise there is a real danger that the section as drafted could deprive children and young people of challenging, complex and interesting programmes."

Ofcom said it had "deregulated significantly in the area of commercial sponsorship and commercial references, whilst ensuring at the same time that the overriding principle of editorial independence is maintained".

However, the ban on product placement remains and will be reviewed later this year.

"Ofcom acknowledges the pressure on traditional broadcaster advertising as a key source of funding for commercial broadcasters and will consult on product placement in the context of a wider assessment of the broadcast advertising market later in the year," the regulator said.

"Both broadcasters and audiences told us of the need for clarity and flexibility in how we approach these rules," said Richard Hooper, the deputy chairman of Ofcom and chairman of the content board.

"We believe the new code meets those requirements."

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