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UK press coverage

August 1997

Jul 97 Aug 97 Sep 97




[The Guardian Guide to the Edinburgh Television Festival]

In his annual survey of television censorship, recorded in memory of Clive Goodwin, Julian Petley detects a growing tendency in the industry to placate critics by playing safe.

X marks the cut


A gay kiss between Tony Hills and Simon Raymond on Blackpool Pier in EastEnders is cut to half a second after discussions that go to the top of the BBC. In December, furious that the Broadcasting Standards Council has refused to censure the scene, the Daily Mail (whose former editor Sir David English claims that the paper does not employ homosexuals, and apparently operates a policy of not reviewing sympathetically any works which take a positive attitude to homosexuality) asks: 'Is there anything which the BSC - supposedly the guardian of morals and good taste - would find unacceptable viewing for children? 'It concludes: 'The issue is not one of realism or the growing tolerance of homosexuals by the public. It concerns the BBC's apparent desire to lead opinion, not to follow and reflect it' (unlike the Mail itself, presumably).

BBC broadcast chief executive Will Wyatt makes it known that the six-part history of gangland, The Underworld, will not be repeated. On its original transmission the series had aroused controversy over alleged payments to convicted criminals (and indeed, £600 had been paid to 'Mad' Frankie Fraser who was a consultant on the series). Much of this controversy had, however, been stirred up by newspapers who were not exactly strangers to 'chequebook journalism' themselves.


The BBC finally screen Tom Bower's Maxwell - the Downfall, which was originally scheduled for January (see The Television Book 1996) but was pulled at the last minute after the Attorney General had warned that it could be in contempt of court, since a decision was still pending on whether Kevin Maxwell would face further charges. In the footage of Maxwell dictating his own publicity material, accompanied by the commentary 'unquestioning executives helped to mould Maxwell's image', there can be glimpsed the figure of Peter Jay, then Maxwell's chief of staff but now the BBC's Economics Editor. Another programme involving the Maxwell theme was rather less fortunate; the BBC and Hat Trick Productions were fined £10,000 each for contempt of court after an edition of Have I Got News For You in which Angus Deayton remarked: 'The BBC are in fact cracking down on references to Ian and Kevin Maxwell just in case programme makers appear biased in their treatment of these two heartless, scheming bastards.'


Channel 4 shows Peter Greenaway's film The Baby of Macon. This features, albeit in a highly stylised fashion, a multiple rape of a young woman and the mutilation of a baby. The film had been passed uncut with an 18 certificate for both cinema and video viewing by the British Board of Film Classification. However, the police are called in to decide whether the film breaks the Obscene Publications Act. According to a Scotland Yard spokesman: 'The Clubs and Vice Unit was called in after a number of calls to police stations from the public expressing concern. We will view the film to decide if there needs to be any further action.' Not altogether surprisingly, none is forthcoming.

In a barely reported case, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission rejects a complaint against Channel 4 News by Peter Lilley which he described as 'by far the worst abuse of journalistic licence I have experienced in my entire political life'. According to Lilley, Jon Snow had given the impression that he, as the then secretary of state for Trade and Industry, had been named by the Lord Chief Justice in an Appeal Court judgement as having blocked key documents needed by four businessmen during the Ordtech arms-to-Iraq case.

Politicians rarely have had recourse to the BBC, which is generally regarded as a 'poor man's libel court'. However, Lilley may have been emboldened by the success of Lords Howe and Lawson before the commission in March 1995 (see The Television Book 1995) or by Michael Howard's victory in autumn 1996. In another virtually ignored case Howard had complained that he had taken part in an edition of Radio 4's The World Tonight on the understanding that his contribution would be the last one to a debate about prison policy. In the event, interviews with two critics of Howard were broadcast the following night. Lilley (who, most unusually, turned up for the BCC hearing) lost his case, but had he won the floodgates could have been opened to a long list of similarly aggrieved politicians.

ITN threatens libel action against the magazine Living Marxism unless it pulps its entire February issue, apologises to their journalists and pays damages. The threat is in response to an article by Thomas Deichmann, The Picture that Fooled the World, which argues in considerable detail that the famous ITN pictures of Bosnian Muslims imprisoned behind a barbed-wire fence at Trnopolje camp in August 1992 were seriously misleading. Living Marxism refuses to back down and ITN launches its libel action. In his Iain Walker Lecture in May, Harold Evans remarks: 'ITN rightly wants to defend its correspondents in Bosnia but it is a shame that it did not choose to seek redress against Living Marxism in a television confrontation - on the BBC, say - rather than issuing writs and apparently silencing discussion of a complex situation.'


Scottish Television opts out of the ITV network drama about child abuse, No Child of Mine, on the grounds that it is not appropriate in the run-up to the first anniversary of the Dunblane massacre.

Sandra Howard, the wife of Home Secretary Michael Howard, fails in her legal action to stop the broadcast of a World in Action programme which includes an interview with Derek Lewis, former head of the Prison Service who was dismissed by her husband. In it he claims that Mrs Howard believes 'the prison code's requirement to provide a balanced and nutritious diet were somewhat too generous to prisoners'.


The Home Office seeks an injunction against the Panorama programme Predators to stop it screening videos of therapy sessions with patients in Broadmoor. The Home Office argues that the videos breach the confidentiality of prisoners and the Prison Service and would harm the public interest. The application for the injunction is rejected.


In spite of the predictable huffing and puffing from the usual quarters, C4 shows Reservoir Dogs uncut.


Jonathan Aitken begins his libel case against The Guardian and the Granada World in Action programme Jonathan of Arabia, broadcast in April 1995. The previous month he had applied successfully for the case to be heard without a jury. This is the first libel case brought by a prominent politician over his conduct while in office to be heard in such circumstances. It was thought by the judge hearing the case, Mr Justice Popplewell, that the documents involved in the trial would have overwhelmed any jury by their complexity and sheer numbers.

Aitken's case collapses when new evidence is presented. 'Jonathan Aitken's chosen weapon was a dagger of deceit, not the sword of truth', says Ian McBride, managing editor of Granada TV, after the case ends.

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