May 31, 2005

NEWS: Swearing, violence and s.x? That's OK by Ofcom (UK)

Swearing, violence and sex? That's OK by Ofcom

BROADCASTERS have been given the green light to serve up sex and swearing to viewers in return for restrictions on harmful programmes that might be seen by children.

The watershed is to become a ?Berlin Wall?, with few restrictions on sexual material and foul language remaining after 9pm. But, under the new Broadcasting Code published by the communications regulator Ofcom, all reasonable steps must be taken to protect the under-18s from material that might ?seriously impair their moral development?.

The code, which applies to all television and radio stations broadcast in Britain, was drawn up after a year of consultation and comes into force in July.

Acknowledging the Human Rights Act, it guarantees broadcasters freedom of expression and the right of informed adults to view whatever they wish, however offensive it might seem to others.

Jamie Oliver?s swearing, the C-word in Jerry Springer: The Opera and a graphic sex scene in The Idiots, a Danish film screened on Channel 4, are all acceptable under the code because they were justified within their context and preceded by clear warnings.

The code also raises the possibility of programmes funded entirely by product placement and channels renamed by brand sponsors as replacements for traditional advertising. However, the rules could soon become irrelevant as broadcasters begin streaming programmes over mobile phones and broadband internet connections. Ofcom has no jurisdiction over the content of the internet.

Verbal and physical violence, as well as portrayals of sexual behaviour, must be ?appropriately limited? in pre-watershed programmes likely to be seen by children.

Smoking, the use of illegal drugs, alcohol and solvent abuse must not be condoned or glamorised. But Ofcom recognises that children?s grasp of modern technology often exceeds parental attempts to restrict access to unsuitable material.

Ofcom has banned the broadcast of hard-core porn films given an R18 rating by the British Board of Film Classification. Such films are often accessed through keying in a PIN code but Ofcom said that this security mechanism was ineffective because children could discover the number.

Chris Banatvala, head of standards at Ofcom, said: ?There is a limit to regulation because we cannot be in everyone?s home. Parents have to take responsibility too and we still see the watershed as the most useful tool.?

But the watershed must not become a waterfall and the transition to more adult material must not be ?unduly abrupt?. Nudity should not be sprung upon the viewer at 9:01pm. Stronger material should still be seen closer to 11pm.

Richard Hooper, Ofcom deputy chairman, demonstrated the body?s liberal approach, when he suggested that a notional programme depicting sex with animals could fall within the code if it was broadcast at a suitably late hour.

Ofcom can revoke a broadcaster?s licence for repeated breaches of the code and has fined terrestrial channels in the past. But most breaches result in a ?rap on the knuckles? and no additional sanctions will be introduced.

The BBC took issue with aspects of the code which it claimed would undermine its long-established tradition of self-regulation. It also rejected proposals designed to protect privacy which require a broadcaster to seek consent before filming an individual.

This would inhibit legitimate public-interest investigations, warned the BBC, which is subject to Ofcom?s rules on harm and offence but not impartiality.


  • Broadcasters guaranteed freedom of expression within the law

  • 9pm watershed remains building block of regulation

  • R18-rated porn films banned due to lack of secure encryption

  • Broadcasters must protect under-18s from harmful material

  • Adults exercise ?informed choice? over what to view

  • ?F? and ?C? words permitted with justification

  • Viewers must have ?adequate protection? and warnings over harmful or offensive material

  • News must be reported with ?accuracy and impartiality?

  • Relaxation of product placement under consultation
  • Brands can sponsor an entire commercial channel

  • TV hypnotists must not broadcast routines straight to camera
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