Channel 4 faces investigation for breaking last sexual taboo on TV

Ofcom inquiry into screening of unpixellated penetrative sex in Lars von Trier's 'The Idiots'

Channel 4 is to be investigated by broadcasting regulator Ofcom after breaking one of terrestrial TV's last taboos, airing uncensored footage of penetrative sex during a screening of the cult movie The Idiots.

Channel 4 is to be investigated by broadcasting regulator Ofcom after breaking one of terrestrial TV's last taboos, airing uncensored footage of penetrative sex during a screening of the cult movie The Idiots.

The film, made by celebrated director Lars von Trier, had previously been shown with pixellation to obscure the more graphic footage in a sex scene, but last week it was shown unedited. Although it was a landmark TV first, few even noticed its significance because it was tucked away in a late-night slot and the station did not flag up its inclusion in advance. Ofcom, however, has now received a number of complaints which it is examining.

The screening comes as the debate about portrayals of real on-screen sex with graphic detail intensifies following the release two days ago of the film 9 Songs - the most explicit film to go into mainstream UK cinemas.

Many believe Channel 4 is testing the water to assess Ofcom's attitudes to portrayals of sex with a view to acquiring the TV rights to 9 Songs when they become available in the next few months. However, clean-up campaigners are angry, saying the station is pushing back the boundaries simply for the sake of it and is "beyond control" in its quest to do so.

The Idiots was shown as part of Channel 4's "Banned" season of documentaries and films, which examined issues of censorship and taste. It was screened on Monday night at midnight, preceded by a warning about its content.

The Danish film was at the forefront of a wave of art-house films which containted increasingly frank portrayals of real sex yet were deemed suitable for an adult audience with an 18 certificate. These include Romance, Baise-Moi, Intimacy and Anatomy of Hell.

John Beyer, director of the campaign group Mediawatch-UK, said: "Channel 4 is unquestionably pushing the boundaries and they are doing it quite deliberately. I guess that Channel 4 will be up there bidding for the television rights to 9 Songs along with all the other pornography channels. I just feel that Channel 4 is now beyond control, yet the regulator seems unable and unwilling to have anything to say about what Channel 4 is doing. I just don't know what can be done to stop this collapse of standards."

A spokeswoman for Ofcom confirmed it had received several complaints, which were being looked into. "As ever, everything has to be taken in context - the time of broadcast and the scenes themselves," she said. Ofcom's programme code says portrayals "of sexual behaviour must be defensible in context" and, where graphic, must be reserved for late-night slots.

Ofcom is currently revising its programme code and has consulted widely about relaxing a bar on the screening of R18 movies - hardcore pornography - for specialist subscription channels.

It demonstrated its "light touch" by dismissing a recent complaint against Five for briefly screening scenes of erect penises from the films Romance and Baise-Moi, which were also part of a censorship season in December.

Channel 4 defended the uncensored screening and said that it had a policy of not editing films, unless required to do so by the law or under Ofcom's code.

"Channel 4 decided it was not necessary to cut the film given its artistic merit, the fact that the explicit scenes are fleeting and the context in which the images appear," a spokeswoman for the station said.

With the explicit warning, she added, "the audience would have been in no doubt about the film's content, and Channel 4 has received no complaints since the film was broadcast".

She continued: "In its judgments and pronouncements on standards to date, Ofcom has indicated it is reluctant to interfere with the broadcast of stronger material broadcast late with warnings on 'minority channels', providing this is handled responsibly and can clearly be justified by context and so on."

Rowan Pelling, former editor of The Erotic Review, was not wholly convinced that the anything-goes approach was right for TV.

"I suppose it was almost inevitable that we would see live sex on TV, but the odd thing is that watching it is really not that interesting. I don't feel I could ever man the barricades to stop this sort of thing but, to be honest, there's a little bit of me that feels a rather uncomfortable to see the intimacy of people's lives being exposed like this," she said.

"The thing that people have been saying to me is, how long before we see 9 Songs on TV?"

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