Leading Article: The right to rent nasty videos

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DAVID ALTON MP is right. The rules that forbid high- street video stores to rent unsuitable tapes to minors are clearly not working. But the solution that Mr Alton intends to put before the House of Commons tonight is misguided. Mr Alton wants Parliament to lay down that films which present an 'inappropriate model' for children, or that may cause them 'psychological harm', should be banned from video rental altogether, and limited to screening in adults-only cinemas.

These two criteria are unworkably vague. The video industry and Britain's film censors have both already seized on the absurdities that might result if they were to become law. But even redrafted, Mr Alton's amendment has a more fundamental flaw.

The axiom of the debate is that society may disapprove of adults who want to see highly pornographic or gratuitously violent films, but it defends their right to do so. Mr Alton's amendment would provide extra protection for children - but at too high a price. Instead of forcing enthusiasts for these films back into the seedy picture-houses of the red-light districts, the Government could instead achieve Mr Alton's aims with minimal disruption.

The first step would be for Parliament to use legislation to make it clear to adults that it is wrong and illegal either to show adult videos to children at home, or to leave videos around in places where children might find and screen them. There are no reasons to believe that the threat of fines and imprisonment would be any less effective in controlling the use of adult videos than it now is in preventing parents from beating their children or leaving them at home alone.

Second, the Government should improve the inspection of high- street video shops to put an end to the widespread circumvention of certification rules. The identity cards being considered by Michael Howard yesterday may help; better still would be to encourage the local authority trading standards officers, who are responsible for enforcement, to do a better job.

Finally, the censors should revive the little-known restricted 18 certificate, which under current law allows an adult video to be distributed only in registered sex shops that minors are forbidden to enter. In recent years, the censors have used this certificate only rarely, because they feel it absurd to limit hard-core porn to sex shops when similar anatomic detail is available in the high street in so- called sex education videos. But this certificate is ideally suited to the most unpleasantly violent material. If more use were made of this restricted form of video release, the protection of children could be achieved without prejudice to the rights of adults.