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Blue pencil for sex and violence in BBC code

In response to what it said was a shift in moral values the BBC yesterday cracked down on gratuitous depictions of sex and violence in its new producer guidelines.

The ring-bound booklet is supposed to be a bible for producers, advising on contentious issues, but the launch served a dual function in also assuring the Government that the corporation was reflecting its moral concerns. Last week Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, criticised the amount of sex and violence on television. In a letter to the BBC she expressed particular concern about the emphasis on crime.

Some will see the guidelines as a victory for the Mary Whitehouse school of morals and as part of the corporation's bid to win an increase in its licence fee. A significant extra injunction warns: "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."

Guidelines on violence have also been toughened. Producers are told not to concentrate unduly on the bloody consequences of an accident or terrorist attack, to avoid close-ups and not to show the dead unless there are compelling reasons for doing so.

The guidelines say there are almost no circumstances in which it would be justified to show an execution, a shift from those issued three years ago, which said there were "very few" such occasions. The wording is a rebuff for Martin Bell, the foreign correspondent, who has argued that news programmes are sanitising wars by not showing the true horror. The booklet says: "Editing out the bloodiest scenes need not result in a sanitised version of events. A good script is vital in conveying the reality of tragedy."

The section covering swear words has also been strengthened to make their use more infrequent.

"Deep offence will...be caused by profane references or disrespect, whether verbal or visual, directed at matters which are at the heart of various religions," the booklet warns. "Blasphemy is a criminal offence in the UK."

In the latest guidelines the election is a key issue and the lessons learnt from the disastrous reliance by the media on inaccurate polls during the 1992 election have not been forgotten.

"There is no area of broadcasting where the BBC's commitment to impartiality is more closely scrutinised than in reporting election campaigns," the booklet says.

"The failure of voting-intention polls at the 1992 general election called into serious question the methods used by pollsters to estimate voting intentions...Until it is clear that [they] are more robust, the BBC will maintain a sceptical approach to polling."

Will Wyatt, chief executive of BBC Broadcast, said the toughened framework was a response to a perceived hardening of public attitudes about violence - although not about sex.

"Our audiences are not so fussed about the depiction of sex, but I think there's always been a concern about violence and that doesn't go away," he said.