The BBC, ITV and Channel 4 may be obliged to show party political broadcasts containing "shocking" images of abortion because of a ruling by the Court of Appeal yesterday.
The ruling means images including the bloodied and dismembered limbs of an unborn baby can be shown under the aegis of a party political broadcast by the Prolife Alliance.
The decision by the Court of Appeal, which overturned an earlier High Court judgment by saying refusal to show part of the broadcast was illegal, caused deep concern at the TV companies. The BBC's chief political adviser, Anne Sloman, warned: "This means that viewers may be subjected to material that will cause widespread and gross offence."
Lord Justice Laws said in his judgment yesterday that he had seen the party political broadcasts that were rejected by the TV companies. He described one of them, saying: "It shows the products of a suction abortion: tiny limbs, bloodied and dismembered, a separated head, their human shape and form plainly recognisable."
He added: "The pictures are real footage of real cases. They are not a reconstruction, nor in any way fictitious. Nor are they in any way sensationalised.
"They are, I think, certainly disturbing to any person of ordinary sensibilities. But if we are to take political free speech seriously, those characteristics cannot begin to justify the censorship that was done in this case," he said.
The BBC, which fought the case on behalf of all terrestrial broadcasters, decided the intended broadcast would not comply with its producers' guidelines. The Independent Television Commission said the broadcast would be against its programme code because pictures were used to depict the consequences of abortion.
The BBC said it would be seeking leave to appeal to the House of Lords because the decision seemed to undermine the obligation not to broadcast material that could cause offence.
A spokesman said: "The broadcasters have been entrusted by Parliament with the obligation not to broadcast material that offends against good taste or decency or is likely to be offensive to public feeling.
"This obligation has effectively been overridden by the Court of Appeal for the purposes of party election broadcasts save in the most exceptional of circumstances. This means that viewers may be subjected to material that will cause widespread and gross offence."
But Lord Justice Laws, who described the ban on images of abortion operations as an act of censorship, said in the judgment: "I have well in mind that the broadcasters do not at all accept that their decision should be so categorised.
"Maybe the feathers of their liberal credentials are ruffled at the word's overtones; maybe there is an implicit plea for the comfort of a euphemism.
"However, in my judgment this court must, and I hope the broadcasters will, recognise unblinking that censorship is exactly what this case is about."