I am grateful to the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Cunliffe) for raising these important issues, and giving the House the opportunity to debate them. There is widespread concern in the country about standards of taste and decency on television. The
Government strongly believe that there is no place for hard core pornography in a society that cares about the protection of children. Hard core pornography, in whatever medium, is unacceptable. I want to take this opportunity to set out clearly the
situation in respect of television pornography.
The type of television material about which we are concerned falls into two distinct categories: the domestic so-called adult channels, which are licensed by the Independent Television
Commission, and the channels that are receivable in the UK via satellite and transmitted from abroad by foreign broadcasters. I shall deal with each in turn.
Broadcast services that are licensed in the UK are governed by the
arrangements, agreed by Parliament, in the statutory framework of the Broadcasting Acts and the BBC charter. Those arrangements place responsibility for maintaining standards of taste and decency on regulators and broadcasters. The House will be aware
that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage regularly meets the broadcasting regulators and has frequently discussed matters of taste and decency with them. We have ensured that all broadcasters are held responsible for
programme content. In the new BBC charter and agreement we have placed specific obligations on the corporation to maintain standards of taste and decency and given the governors a clear duty to ensure compliance with their guidelines on standards. That
responsibility on the governors is new and was introduced only this year.
The BBC has also recently reviewed its producer guidelines and this week published a series of pledges to viewers, including a commitment to monitor their views
and concerns. The BBC document specifically states:
"for each of us, sexual activity happens after moral decisions have been made; its portrayal therefore should not be separated from recognition of the moral process."
I welcome that recognition by the BBC of the importance of such ethics in broadcasting.
With the development of the cable and satellite broadcasting sector, there are dedicated adult channels now licensed in this
country which broadcast adult erotica. Their programmes are, broadly speaking, titillation. There are at present three such channels. They are: Playboy TV, the Adult Channel, and Television X--the Fantasy Channel, all of which are licensed by the
Independent Television Commission and are subject to its licence conditions and guidance codes.
To prevent viewing by children, several conditions must be met by the broadcasters. The channels are provided only on payment of a premium
rate fee in addition to the cost of subscription, and must be specially selected by the customer. That is to say, they must not be offered as part of a subscription package. They are encrypted, which means that the signal is scrambled and can be
unscrambled only by the appropriate smart card. They may show material of a more explicit nature than would be acceptable on mainstream channels, but only between the hours of 10 pm and 5.30 am. I am told by the ITC that channels restrict their explicit
output to the hours between midnight and 5.30 am and show only material that has been given an 18 certificate by the British Board of Film Classification or has been edited to an equivalent standard. They cannot show the more explicit sexual material
which might be granted a restricted 18 video classification.
The ITC is vigilant in monitoring the adult channels and has intervened where its codes have been breached--five times since 1992. These interventions take the form of
warnings to the broadcasters. Four of the warnings were made shortly after the channels were introduced, and the broadcasters responded by avoiding further transgressions. In 1995, the commission upheld a complaint and gave a formal warning to Television
X following the transmission of a film which included material that had been cut by the British Board of Film Classification. If necessary, the ITC has the power to issue further sanctions, including fines and, ultimately, the withdrawal of a licence.
However, to date, the ITC considers that the warnings have been effective and sufficient.
Our concern to exercise proper control over standards on television extends also to films and videos. In the case of film, it is important to
remember that cinemas can control access to films and ensure that children and young people are excluded from films that have been classified as unsuitable.
Videos present a more difficult problem. In the cinema, the viewer is in
public, experiencing the reactions of other viewers. He is also seeing a film live--running straight through without breaks or repetition. When the same film is shown on video, it can be viewed in private and scenes can be watched over and over again.
Although it is an offence to sell or rent videos to those judged too young to watch them, videos are in the home and can be misused.
The Obscene Publications Act 1959 covers the most offensive material on video, but we are concerned
about the easy availability of other violent and sexually explicit videos. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary asked for a report from the British Board of Film Classification on the content and classification of videos on 5 November, and
he expects to receive that report by the end of this month. The Government will consider that report closely.
I turn now to the controls we have on the unacceptable material beamed in from other countries. The services concerned are
pornographic television channels that are receivable in the UK via satellite, and transmitted from abroad by foreign broadcasters. I particularly welcome the opportunity to set out the facts on this matter, which has received considerable coverage in the
media recently. Some of the press coverage has, unfortunately, been misleading.
Other European countries share our desire to protect children from pornography. The television without frontiers directive, which the hon. Member for
Leigh mentioned, prohibits broadcasters in all member states of the European Community from transmitting unacceptable pornographic television programmes, but the definition of what is unacceptable within their frontiers is up to individual states to
decide. Other states can complain if they feel the material breaches the directive. That, coupled with the powers established in our domestic legislation--the Broadcasting Act 1990--enables us to take action to restrict access to foreign broadcasters who
transmit unacceptable material.
To understand the extent of the powers available to us in respect of foreign broadcasters, it is important to understand the principle of single jurisdiction. To address problems that arise from
transfrontier broadcasting, it is essential to have international rules that apply equally to all signatory countries. Each country should ensure that broadcasters operating under its jurisdiction comply with the rules. For the rules to work effectively,
each broadcaster must be the responsibility of one, and only one, country. Member states should not try to influence broadcasters. As a single market measure intended to allow the free flow of broadcasting throughout the Community, the directive
prohibits member states from interfering with broadcasters outwith their jurisdiction. We would not take kindly, for example, to another country trying to regulate the BBC.
There is one exception to that rule, and it allows us to act
against foreign broadcasters that transmit unacceptable pornography. I shall quote directly from the directive.
"Member States shall take appropriate measures to ensure that television broadcasts by broadcasters under their
jurisdiction do not include programmes which might seriously impair the physical, mental or moral development of minors, in particular those that involve pornography or gratuitous violence."
That could hardly be more clear. The
directive provides that, when member states believe that a breach of that provision has taken place, they may take measures against the relevant broadcaster.
A second category of programmes, which contain material that is unsuitable
for children but is of a less damaging nature, such as those licensed by the ITC, can be broadcast only when it can be ensured that, by selecting the time of broadcast--late at night--or by technical measures such as encryption, children are prevented
from viewing it.
A recent judgment by the European Court of Justice found that the UK had misinterpreted some of the provisions on jurisdiction. The Government are considering the court's judgment carefully and, in doing so, will have
regard to on-going negotiations on the revision of the directive. However, the important point for us to recognise today is that the judgment had no bearing whatever on our powers to take action against satellite pornography.
Broadcasting Act 1990 established powers for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage to proscribe foreign satellite services that broadcast programmes which offend against good taste or decency. In doing so, she may act only
upon a notification by the Independent Television Commission, which takes the initial view on which services are considered unacceptable. Upon receiving such a notification, the Secretary of State may make a proscription order when she considers that to
do so would be in the public interest and would be compatible with the UK's international obligations.
What is a proscription order? A proscription order declares a broadcaster unacceptable and creates criminal offences for various
acts in support of a proscribed broadcaster. It makes acts such as the supply of smart cards, the supply of programme material, advertising on or for the channel, publishing details of programmes and the provision of any other service in support of the
broadcaster criminal offences. By stopping the sale of smart cards, we restrict access to those channels in the UK.
Two proscription orders against pornographic broadcasters--those against Red Hot Television and TV Erotica--have
already proven successful in restricting access to those services in the UK. On both occasions, we were supported in our action by the European Commission, which confirmed that our action was compatible with Community law.
October, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made a third such order, against a foreign broadcaster called Rendez-Vous Television, which broadcasts an unremitting diet of explicit hard core pornography in clear breach of the European directive.
The proscription order against Rendez-Vous came into force only on 31 October, so it is still too early to assess its effectiveness, but I believe it will have the desired effect of significantly reducing the possibility of such
objectionable material being seen in the UK, and above all, being seen by children.