Television: Broadcast and be damned: the death and the abortion we should not be spared

Pushing back the boundaries or overstepping the mark? Andreas Whittam Smith on why some taboos are to be broken
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The Independent Online

Does it matter whether violence on screen is fictional or factual? This question is raised in an acute form by two TV documentaries. One is a Rough Justice programme screened by the BBC on Wednesday evening that showed the actual death of a man in police custody. The other is a Channel 4 programme - My Foetus - to be broadcast on Tuesday, which will show an abortion being carried out.

Does it matter whether violence on screen is fictional or factual? This question is raised in an acute form by two TV documentaries. One is a Rough Justice programme screened by the BBC on Wednesday evening that showed the actual death of a man in police custody. The other is a Channel 4 programme - My Foetus - to be broadcast on Tuesday, which will show an abortion being carried out.

The relevant piece of legislation is the Video Recordings Act. As well as dealing directly with videos, it also sets the standards for classification of films in the cinema and, in turn, influences the way broadcasters handle violent material. The Act focuses on whether a work could harm viewers directly or society indirectly through the actions of those viewers afterwards. An example of direct harm would be where a young viewer suffers permanent psychological damage as a result of being frightened by a violent episode on screen. Harm to society would arise when a video shows, say, a rape scene in a way that encourages imitative behaviour.

The concept of direct harm is, therefore, mainly concerned with children. In the cinema this is handled by the system of classification by age. In the home children are protected either by the timing of TV programmes or by the British Board of Film Classification's age rating printed on the video box. No problem, then, with My Foetus, which is to be screened at 11pm. However, BBC1 showed the Rough Justice documentary on the watershed line, 9pm. This is truly prime time and some children will undoubtedly have seen the programme. But the test is permanent damage, not just a temporary feeling of fright or of horror. I don't believe myself that any young viewers will have been mentally injured by the experience.

The larger question is whether the two programmes might encourage, or at least ratify, antisocial behaviour. In other words, will they cause any harm? I think one has only to pose the question to see immediately that the answer is no, not in any way. In the case of Rough Justice, viewers see some indistinct CCTV footage of Christopher Alder being brought into the police station. Then he is seen slumped face downwards on the floor with his trousers and boxer shorts pulled down to his knees. Mr Alder is bleeding from a wound on the back of his head, his breathing is frankly a death rattle and he is otherwise immobile. The terrible tragedy of the scene is that nothing happens. Police officers stand around discussing what charges should be brought and content themselves with the thought that Mr Alder must be faking his condition. He isn't. He is in fact dying rather swiftly in front of their eyes.

Revulsion is the emotion that the scene evokes. Is it, though, disrespectful of a fellow human being to witness his death like this? Not, I believe, in this case. For Mr Alder's family wished the public to see what had happened so that justice would be done. And indeed the next day, the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, asked the Independent Police Complaints Commission to review the case.

In My Foetus viewers will see a woman who is four weeks pregnant having a "vacuum pump" operation and footage of the procedure's results placed on a dish. The programme also shows images of aborted foetuses at 10, 11 and 21 weeks. Here limbs and a face can be seen. The material in the dish does not appear specifically human. The abortion scene is much less graphic than films of operations usually are. This is because termination of a pregnancy at four weeks is simple and quick. There is not much to see. It requires only a local anaesthetic. It would have been a different matter if the documentary had shown a late termination. Even so, some viewers will find the operation hard to watch. Others will be revolted not so much by what they see but by what is involved. At some point in the pregnancy cycle, abortion becomes the legal killing of an unborn baby rather than the removal of a formless foetus.

What the programme does is to re-state the debate between supporters and opponents of abortion by showing, for those who don't know, what is physically involved. In this sense, far from being harmful, it contributes to the public good.

I confess that when I was President of the British Board of Film Classification, I found it hard to apply the Act to documentary treatment of violence, as opposed to fictional. The board, for instance, occasionally had to classify videos that comprised news footage of accidents or crimes considered too strong to show as part of a normal news report. Indeed, the material often was horrific. But it is what happened. Alder's death on a police station floor is what happened. Abortions happen. Here I instinctively revert to the journalistic injunction: publish and be damned.

Andreas Whittam Smith was founding editor of The Independent, and President of the British Board of Film Classification, 1998-2002

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