Commercial television could face tougher government controls after a storm of protest over a spoof Channel 4 investigation into child abuse.
Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, has summoned the Independent Television Commission (ITC) to a meeting to discuss whether the watchdog needs new powers to curb programmes such as Brass Eye, a satire on media attitudes to paedophilia. The minister's move comes as the Home Office is preparing to launch plans to step up checks on sex offenders who have been freed from prison.
Ministers across Government, backed by Downing Street, believe that the programme, which included simulated scenes of under-age sex and actors portraying paedophiles, was a disastrous mistake by Channel 4.
Ms Jowell was particularly incensed that the channel defied protests from viewers and children's charities to repeat the show the day after its initial broadcast. She will ask the commission whether it needs increased powers to forbid the repeat of such contentious programmes. At present, the commission is at risk of judicial review if it applies a sanction without a thorough investigation, which can take weeks or even months.
Ms Jowell said: "As a viewer and a parent, I think it is a great shame that a public service broadcaster has chosen to transmit this programme.
"If this is considered acceptable material then we are tearing down all the boundaries of decency on television. As Secretary of State, this raises the question of whether the ITC can deal quickly enough with complaints against programmes."
A spokesman for her department said Ms Jowell would contact Channel 4 and the ITC this morning to arrange a meeting as soon as possible. He said: "She doesn't want to be setting out the TV schedules for broadcasters."
A spokesman for David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, said he was "pretty dismayed by the programme and did not find it remotely funny". Beverley Hughes, the Home Office minister who is launching plans to tighten the sex offenders' register today, denounced the programme as "unspeakably sick". Ms Hughes added: "It makes it more difficult to have the kind of debate that Channel 4 says it wants."
The Metropolitan Police last night confirmed they had also received complaints but had not yet started an investigation.
Channel 4, whose management was consulted at the highest level before transmission, continued to defend the programme as a satire that had made a strong point. "We have noted the comments of government ministers. We will give a full account of our decision-making and our reasoning behind it to the ITC," a spokesman said.
Today's Home Office Green Paper on the sex offenders' register will propose moves to increase the frequency of checks on offenders and the number of people listed. It follows a furore last year when protesters called for automatic access to the register after the murder of Sarah Payne.
In future, a sex offender will have to notify police in person within eight days if they change address, rather than within 14 days by post. They will also have to report at least once a year to police. The register will include "sex tourists", paedophiles convicted of crimes abroad, and criminals convicted of crimes that had a sexual motive.Reuse content