Leading article: Dangerous smoke signals

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The complaints made to the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, about Marco Pierre White's ITV series on British food, in which the chef was seen smoking, appear unlikely to get anywhere. While it is true that the Broadcasting Code states that smoking "must not be condoned, encouraged or glamorised in programmes likely to be widely seen or heard by under-18s", the programme in question went out after the 9pm watershed. If under-18s were watching White light up, the fault lies with parents, rather than the broadcaster.

Yet there is something disturbing about the way in which those who would censor depictions of smoking in the media seem to be getting more of a hearing since the advent of the UK smoking ban last year. Few now disagree with the banning of overt cigarette advertising on billboards and television. But should this prohibition be gradually extended to all depictions of smoking on television or film? Of course not.

The usual argument against on-screen smokingis that it "glamorises" the unhealthy practice. There is probably an element of truth in this. But art can glamorise a lot of unhealthy things, from drugs to violence. Once you decide to censor one of those malign influences, where do you stop?

It would be silly to argue that there is any great artistic statement being made in filming White with a fag in his mouth. But there are films and TV programmes in which smoking is a crucial part of the drama. The acclaimed American television drama, Madmen, set in the fuggy world of 1960s New York advertising executives, is a perfect example.

Some might say the anti-censorship argument is alarmist. But Manchester City Council is considering moves to ban under-18s from seeing films at the cinema that show smoking. Another proposal the council is considering is to cut funding to local theatres that stage a play which includes smoking. This is illiberal nonsense.

As for Ofcom, it should be very wary of mission-creep. The job of the watchdog is to ensure that broadcasters behave in a responsible manner. It is not there to censor the depictions of practices that some in our society happen to dislike.

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