Sentencing of Zara Aleena’s killer ‘upsetting and disturbing’ for TV viewers

An Ofcom study asked audiences to rate TV clips on the level of violence and sexual content.

Charlotte McLaughlin
Tuesday 31 October 2023 13:16 GMT
The broadcasting on TV of the sentencing of Zara Aleena’s killer was branded ‘very upsetting’ by viewers in an Ofcom survey (Metropolitan Police/PA)
The broadcasting on TV of the sentencing of Zara Aleena’s killer was branded ‘very upsetting’ by viewers in an Ofcom survey (Metropolitan Police/PA) (PA Media)

The broadcasting on TV of the sentencing of law graduate Zara Aleena’s killer has been branded “very upsetting” by viewers.

Broadcast regulator Ofcom has been surveying the public as part of a study called Audience Attitudes To Violence And Sexual Content On Television, which was published on Tuesday.

As part of the research, audiences were played TV clips and asked to rate them on the level of violence and sexual content.

Viewers were shown a broadcast on the BBC News channel, originally screened at 4pm, of the judge’s remarks as Jordan McSweeney was sentenced for the sexual assault and murder of 35-year-old Ms Aleena.

Audiences said it was “one of the most disturbing clips” and were concerned that children could stumble upon it “unintentionally”.

The report said: “The level of detail of the attack, together with the knowledge that this was something that was endured by a real (and named) woman, was very upsetting.

“Even though it was a spoken report with no accompanying imagery, it was still felt to be disturbing, given that it was real life and the perpetrator’s violent acts were described in full.”

Viewers felt the segment should have had “clear warnings” and the report noted that many participants had little understanding of the principles of open justice, where court proceedings take place in a transparent way so people can have confidence in the system.

Overall the BBC was seen as having “less sexual content” than other broadcasters, as well as having “expectations of a higher degree of responsibility in its handling of any potentially sensitive content”.

A clip of romantic series Normal People on BBC One was praised for a “responsible attitude” to sex, while the violence in the channel’s gritty historical crime drama Peaky Blinders was seen as “necessary for the character and story development”.

The report also said a minority “felt that broadcasters such as the BBC had an overly ‘politically correct’ agenda”.

Viewers were also critical of documentary The Sex Business – Orgasms For Sale, about women paying for sex, which had a warning at the beginning before airing on Channel 5 at 10pm.

“Many were uncomfortable with the explicit nature of the content for TV, although the level of acceptability was more polarising,” according to Ofcom.

“Participants often concluded that the programme-makers were hiding behind the impression of an educational, documentary-style programme as a means of justifying very sexually explicit content.”

Ofcom had previously ruled in June 2019 that the three-part series breached broadcasting rules for showing “images of extreme, graphic sexual activity”.

However, viewers also said Channel 5 has “more sexually-themed shows and could be expected more generally to push the boundaries of what was acceptable in this respect” given that it caters for a “smaller audience”.

Ofcom’s report also concluded that the portrayal of sex and sexual relationships in programmes has “improved and modernised”.

Audiences said there have been changes in “gender stereotyping, objectification of women or uncritical depictions of exploitative relationships”.

Channel 5 and the BBC have been contacted for comment.

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