Friday, 17 January 2014

Fit for purpose?

This week I have spent quite a bit of time fielding calls from journalists; most of them want to talk about two news stories which broke this week.

The first is news that the British Board of Film Classification has announced that, following public consultation, they will be making changes to their classification guidelines.  The positive changes include a tightening up of the language permitted in U certificate films. Greater weight will be given to the impact of tone and atmosphere in films issued with parental guidance (PG) and suitable for 12-year-olds and over (12A) certificates.  That is, regulators will take into account the impact of what the viewer thinks they have seen as well as what they have actually seen.

After asking the public, the BBFC decided that there will be more flexibility for strong language in films given a 15 certificate.  The BBFC’s accompanying report stated that there had been a softening of attitudes toward the most offensive words “especially among younger respondents” which begs the question has offensive language been normalised because it has become so ubiquitous?  The report stated that “by aged 15, most parents argued that it was ‘game over’ and they could no longer control their child’s viewing. Film classification was fairly low on the list of things to worry about regarding their child”.  How very sad!  With childhood being assaulted on so many fronts it is hard to protect young adults but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try.

The report also revealed that sexualised content in some music videos and ease of accessibility to online pornography was also a public worry.  How extraordinary then that this report should be released on the very day that such content made its way to the small screen.

The second story which many journalists have called me about this week is what took place in the Celebrity Big Brother house on Sunday evening.  Although always provocative this series has been particularly notable for graphic sexual content and on Sunday it reached a new low. 

The contestants were set the task of producing an 18 rated broadcast.  Housemates were provided with latex outfits and props reminiscent of a pornographic film and plied with alcohol to remove any inhibitions.  What ensued, in the words of one of the housemates, was ‘crudity and filth’.

The broadcast included simulated sexual acts and pole dancing with overtones of prostitution.  It is worth noting that in our society pole dancing is confined to licensed establishments operating adult only viewing, something which cannot be said to apply to Channel 5 at 9pm on a Sunday evening.  The end result was footage with the tone and spirit of a pornographic film.

We have written to Ofcom and asked them to investigate, setting out why we believe this programme to be in breach of the Broadcasting Code.  We have pointed out that extra care should have be taken because its 9pm slot, coupled with the large amount publicity it receives, makes it very likely to be viewed by a young audience.

We are also concerned that this extreme sexual material is easily available to children via Channel 5’s on-demand service.  These broadcasts have attracted much media attention and it likely that children’s interest will be piqued as a result.  All that stands between them and such content is a tick box confirming that the viewer is over 16.  This is not enough protection and, although a parental control service is available, to our knowledge it has never been advertised on screen so parents are only likely to know about it if they have accessed such a programme themselves.  This means that in practice this broadcast is easily accessible to the majority of children.

We have also written to the on-demand regulator, ATVOD, and asked them what can be done to protect children from such material.  ATVOD have done some great work in targeting websites offering pornographic content without robust age verification and although in the past they have not considered the sites of broadcasters to be hosting material which might ‘seriously mentally, physically or morally’ harm a child broadcasts like this show that this is an argument which is wearing pretty thin.  

If you would like to have your say about this (or any other) broadcast you can do this via the regulators’ website Parentport.  So far Ofcom have received nearly 400 complaints about Celebrity Big Brother and I’m hoping that they will investigate and deal with the programme accordingly.   

Let 2014 be the year in which Ofcom finally shows its teeth.

Vivienne Pattison

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