Q: What do a Jeremy Paxman interview and an armed robbery have in common?; A: They are both pawns in a new game of TV politics

Curbs on crime shows
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The Independent Online
John Major's government yesterday moved television to the very centre of the pre-election campaign, as Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for National Heritage called for urgent action against TV violence.

In letters to the BBC, the Independent Television Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Council, Ms Bottomley expressed particular disquiet at the "unhealthy concentration on crime and the emergency services", including true crime reconstructions and even scenes from popular series such asCasualty, Prime Suspect and London's Burning. She asked for an urgent meeting to discuss ways of ensuring that "television programme makers and broadcasters take full account of the standards acceptable to today's viewers".

She added: "I would also like to explore what more we can do to help protect vulnerable groups of viewers, particularly children, from unsuitable material."

The move was seen in broadcasting circles as overtly political, and aimed at helping the Conservatives regain the moral high ground lost to Tony Blair's Labour in recent weeks.

"Who knows, maybe the Government will start talking about the V-chip again, depending on where they stand in the polls," said one industry chief executive.

The V-chip is a device installed in TV sets to let parents to block out programmes of a violent or sexual nature.

Statistics compiled by the ITC show that the incidence of violence on TV has actually decreased in recent years, and only 4 per cent of complaints to the BBC in the last three months were related to violence, none of which were upheld by the BBC's own internal complaints unit.

In a related move, the Home Office called for a clampdown on video violence, and has requested a report from the British Board of Classification on ways to reduce the incidence. "We must redouble our efforts to raise standards in the media and the video industry," Tom Sackville, the Home Office minister, said in a speech to the British Video Association in London yesterday.

Ms Bottomley has also requested the BBC, the ITC and the BSC to furnish written reports by the end of the month detailing actions they have already taken to curb the incidence of violence on television.

The BBC said last night that violence was "an issue we take seriously, and our guidelines are constantly under review". It added that it took its responsibility to abide by the 9pm watershed in peak time particularly seriously, and that it routinely warned viewers about potentially offensive programmes.

The unofficial view at the BBC was less restrained, with one senior source suggesting: "This is blatant electioneering, and an over-reaction."

BBC sources also suggested that the timing appeared linked to the publication yesterday of the BBC's Statement of Promises, which the public service broadcaster viewed as proof of its commitment to listen to the views of licence payers.

The Government's action followed a rare official warning issued to Carlton over a protracted rape scene in an episode of London Bridge.