HC Deb 15 November 1996 vol 285 cc670-6

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mrs. Lait.]

2.30 pm
Mr. Lawrence Cunliffe (Leigh)

I begin by recording my appreciation and gratitude to the Speaker's Office for giving me the opportunity to debate a highly sensitive, important and disturbing subject—televised pornography.

There is grave and growing concern on the part of the public, especially parents, that if allowed to go unchecked, television pornography could condition and corrupt our society into accepting sexual and violent practices which, even a decade ago, would have been totally unacceptable and regarded as an affront to every moral precept.

Television pornography is fast becoming one of our largest growth industries—possibly the only growth industry that we have had for a considerable time, but I shall not move into that political stratum. It is a growth industry in Britain, and even more so in Europe and throughout the world. Its growth in this country is partly due to the legal loopholes available to the merchants of porn, mainly because of the weakness of the European Commission proposals.

I am disturbed by the indifferent attitude shown by those responsible for enforcing the limited legal powers available. It is apparent to me that they do not take their job seriously enough to bring about a contraction in such entertainment. Prosecutions rarely take place. A greater sense of responsibility and direction is needed if the authorities are to use their powers of regulation to deal with the unpleasant people involved. If the limited powers were used properly, we could to some degree control and obstruct the porn kings. By failing to do so, we are encouraging a generation of millionaire porn merchants. If we do not control them, sooner or later they will control us. It is imperative that we have the moral will and the legal means to stop them before they take over and fill the British media with undesirable programmes—which are broadcast already, albeit late at night. I shall not go into detail about the four existing sex channels, including TVX, Playboy and the Adult Channel. I am told that another two—Baby Lon Blue and the Adam and Eve channel—could be licensed in the near future.

Much research has been conducted in this area. I refer hon. Members to an excellent investigative article by Sean Poulter which appeared in the Daily Mail on 30 September. He pointed out that we are faced with an avalanche of satellite sex which can be traced to the 1989 European Union directive regarding broadcasting laws throughout Europe and the publication of an article entitled "Television Without Frontiers". It is no doubt that those moves encouraged the EU television porn kings. Once a satellite station is licensed in one country, other countries have uninhibited access to it for broadcast. Such action is allowed, regardless of a country's stance in seeking to block that sort of insidious and indescribable filth.

Mr. Poulter referred to the Government's claim that they are winning the battle against satellite porn and then produced evidence to show that 27 hard-core films are available in Britain every night of the week. That is a disgrace, but it is permissible in law because we do not plug the loopholes. The Euro directive is quite clear, but I do not see why the British Government cannot take the initiative. EU member states retain the capacity to determine the means whereby they have responsibility for defining the terms "pornography" and might harm the development of minors in accordance with national moral standards. They can request a review at any time. The British Government must take a vigorous stand in the face of lax legislation—they should stop pussy-footing around and do it.

Every week my constituency postbag is filled with letters about this disturbing subject and it is high time that the Government took notice. It is no use Back Benchers like me continually plugging away if the regulators, whom we expect to safeguard our interests, and the Government appear indifferent and slow to act. It is a complex issue. "Pornography" has several meanings and there is no strict line of demarcation. It cannot be beyond the wit of the House and the industry to agree a common code of practice that is commensurate with decent British standards. Article 12 of the directive provides that television advertising should not prejudice respect for human dignity, while article 16 provides that television advertising should not cause moral or physical detriment to minors.

There does not seem to be any check on the advancement of unencrypted advertising for hard-core porn channels. There should be something to distinguish such commercial advertising under the Obscene Publications Act 1959. We should start there to see what we can salvage from the wreckage. It is an unholy mess and everybody knows that. It is time it was tackled more vigorously than it is at present. The House will know as well as I do of mass media communications—the Internet, journals and newspapers—dedicated to the selling of porn. They are all there. They are not stocked on the top shelf. They are in every newsagent's shop. Every computer magazine has advertisements saying that it is possible to reach 200 channels which provide the type of entertainment that they claim is a vital service to the public. There is no doubt that it is commercial interests which dictate the morals of that type of service. The advertisers say that they are broad-minded puritans just launching a commercial initiative, declaring that there is a demand for it—the law of supply and demand—and that they should be free.

We have seen what has happened on the Internet. Parents can be forgiven for thinking that the computer world has gone mad. According to the media, children are being bombarded with computer pornography. Individuals are being prosecuted for sending details of violent fantasies halfway around the world. Schools, colleges and companies are wondering what is stored on their computers. It is a minefield of unpredictable material, and if the people who produced it were to knock on our doors, many of us would not let them beyond the threshold. This insidious method of getting into the living rooms of this country—and, for that matter, the countries of western Europe—Soho-type entertainment should be tackled and barred as quickly as possible.

The days of the personal computer being an isolated unit have gone. If we are not careful, there will be access to this type of porn in the schools through videos and so on and assessed, some would say, as educational progress. I do not accept, and neither do many of my hon. Friends, what is known as "Internet intimacy". At least 60 porn news groups can be found, ranging from written erotica to pictures covering all sorts of pornography — bondage, paedophilia, and so on. Both Penthouse and Playboy have worldwide web pages. It is possible to pick up something from Los Angeles or Las Vegas at any time, to get pictures, visual aids, that do nothing but arouse sexual instincts. I agree that the problem is complex and I am sure that the Minister will quote something.

There is sex on the system. Many computer magazines advertise an assortment of different computer software and services available, including Wet Dreams Collection, 11 discs for £15; 3-D Sex BBS; Hustler Online, the Electronic Land of Milk and Honey; Private Previews 1, "You're in full control". It is a case of, "Put it on, look for the nice girl up the road"—that sort of depraved technique. One can see "Indian Beauties" on a £10 floppy disc.

Some people believe that we should turn our backs and not try to arrest the problem. They think that we should be broad-minded and not keep our youngsters in ignorance of such sexual activities and that such material should be freely available. Top-shelf magazines of soft pornography can be obtained around the corner from the House. They contain detailed photographs of female sex organs and advertisements for hard pornographic material, contact networks and mail order sex shops. Such is the trend that, even in the United Kingdom, the public spend an estimated £60 million a year on 100 different pornographic magazines. There is no legal requirement for newsagents to display such magazines on the top shelf, where at least they would be out of the way and reachable only by adults and not by youngsters. Newsagents can legally sell pornographic magazines to children under 18.

Another problematic area that should be tackled is satellite pornography. We should legislate against such pornography being transmitted in the late evening. The owners of satellite dishes or cable connections can watch pornographic programmes from Europe without paying a subscription. Even the Independent Television Commission—our monitoring board—does not permit channels such as TV Erotica and Eurotica. The broadcast hard-core pornography that is now available alarms hon. Members and most of the public.

As I have said, the Government should stop pussy-footing. Expert researchers—whose work I have used for my speech—have done the nation a first-class service by exposing the type of material that I have described. The Government should make it a criminal offence to manufacture, sell or possess pirated decoder cards, which are easily and cheaply available on practically every high street. It is farcical that certain software, the only purpose of which is to access banned channels, can be bought or sold without any fear of penalty.

If we care, we should take up this challenge. Politicians of all political persuasions have preached to us and have taken the high moral ground. Let their crusade begin here with a Government initiative so that, regardless of party colour, we can be proud that the standards of morality that we seek to protect will be maintained for ever. We should at least maintain the conventional standards that we expect as ordinary people with Christian beliefs. Such activity should not remain unchecked and uninhibited. I exhort the Minister to tell his senior colleagues of the growing concern about television pornography.

2.49 pm
The Minister of State, Department of National Heritage (Mr. Iain Sproat)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Cunliffe) for raising these important issues, and giving the House the opportunity to debate them. There is widespread concern in the country about standards of taste and decency on television. The Government strongly believe that there is no place for hard-core pornography in a society that cares about the protection of children. Hard-core pornography, in whatever medium, is unacceptable. I want to take this opportunity to set out clearly the situation in respect of television pornography.

The type of television material about which we are concerned falls into two distinct categories: the domestic so-called adult channels, which are licensed by the Independent Television Commission, and the channels that are receivable in the UK via satellite and transmitted from abroad by foreign broadcasters. I shall deal with each in turn.

Broadcast services that are licensed in the UK are governed by the arrangements, agreed by Parliament, in the statutory framework of the Broadcasting Acts and the BBC charter. Those arrangements place responsibility for maintaining standards of taste and decency on regulators and broadcasters. The House will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage regularly meets the broadcasting regulators and has frequently discussed matters of taste and decency with them. We have ensured that all broadcasters are held responsible for programme content. In the new BBC charter and agreement we have placed specific obligations on the corporation to maintain standards of taste and decency and given the governors a clear duty to ensure compliance with their guidelines on standards. That responsibility on the governors is new and was introduced only this year.

The BBC has also recently reviewed its producer guidelines and this week published a series of pledges to viewers, including a commitment to monitor their views and concerns. The BBC document specifically states: for each of us, sexual activity happens after moral decisions have been made; its portrayal therefore should not be separated from recognition of the moral process. I welcome that recognition by the BBC of the importance of such ethics in broadcasting.

With the development of the cable and satellite broadcasting sector, there are dedicated adult channels now licensed in this country which broadcast adult erotica. Their programmes are, broadly speaking, titillation. There are at present three such channels. They are: Playboy TV, the Adult Channel, and Television X—the Fantasy Channel, all of which are licensed by the Independent Television Commission and are subject to its licence conditions and guidance codes.

To prevent viewing by children, several conditions must be met by the broadcasters. The channels are provided only on payment of a premium rate fee in addition to the cost of subscription, and must be specially selected by the customer. That is to say, they must not be offered as part of a subscription package. They are encrypted, which means that the signal is scrambled and can be unscrambled only by the appropriate smart card. They may show material of a more explicit nature than would be acceptable on mainstream channels, but only between the hours of 10 pm and 5.30 am. I am told by the ITC that channels restrict their explicit output to the hours between midnight and 5.30 am and show only material that has been given an 18 certificate by the British Board of Film Classification or has been edited to an equivalent standard. They cannot show the more explicit sexual material which might be granted a restricted 18 video classification.

The ITC is vigilant in monitoring the adult channels and has intervened where its codes have been breached—five times since 1992. These interventions take the form of warnings to the broadcasters. Four of the warnings were made shortly after the channels were introduced, and the broadcasters responded by avoiding further transgressions. In 1995, the commission upheld a complaint and gave a formal warning to Television X following the transmission of a film which included material that had been cut by the British Board of Film Classification. If necessary, the ITC has the power to issue further sanctions, including fines and, ultimately, the withdrawal of a licence. However, to date, the ITC considers that the warnings have been effective and sufficient.

Our concern to exercise proper control over standards on television extends also to films and videos. In the case of film, it is important to remember that cinemas can control access to films and ensure that children and young people are excluded from films that have been classified as unsuitable.

Videos present a more difficult problem. In the cinema, the viewer is in public, experiencing the reactions of other viewers. He is also seeing a film live—running straight through without breaks or repetition. When the same film is shown on video, it can be viewed in private and scenes can be watched over and over again. Although it is an offence to sell or rent videos to those judged too young to watch them, videos are in the home and can be misused.

The Obscene Publications Act 1959 covers the most offensive material on video, but we are concerned about the easy availability of other violent and sexually explicit videos. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary asked for a report from the British Board of Film Classification on the content and classification of videos on 5 November, and he expects to receive that report by the end of this month. The Government will consider that report closely.

I turn now to the controls we have on the unacceptable material beamed in from other countries. The services concerned are pornographic television channels that are receivable in the UK via satellite, and transmitted from abroad by foreign broadcasters. I particularly welcome the opportunity to set out the facts on this matter, which has received considerable coverage in the media recently. Some of the press coverage has, unfortunately, been misleading.

Other European countries share our desire to protect children from pornography. The television without frontiers directive, which the hon. Member for Leigh mentioned, prohibits broadcasters in all member states of the European Community from transmitting unacceptable pornographic television programmes, but the definition of what is unacceptable within their frontiers is up to individual states to decide. Other states can complain if they feel the material breaches the directive. That, coupled with the powers established in our domestic legislation—the Broadcasting Act 1990— enables us to take action to restrict access to foreign broadcasters that transmit unacceptable material.

To understand the extent of the powers available to us in respect of foreign broadcasters, it is important to understand the principle of single jurisdiction. To address problems that arise from transfrontier broadcasting, it is essential to have international rules that apply equally to all signatory countries. Each country should ensure that broadcasters operating under its jurisdiction comply with the rules. For the rules to work effectively, each broadcaster must be the responsibility of one, and only one, country. Member states should not try to influence broadcasters. As a single market measure intended to allow the free flow of broadcasting throughout the Community, the directive prohibits member states from interfering with broadcasters outwith their jurisdiction. We would not take kindly, for example, to another country trying to regulate the BBC.

There is one exception to that rule, and it allows us to act against foreign broadcasters that transmit unacceptable pornography. I shall quote directly from the directive. Member States shall take appropriate measures to ensure that television broadcasts by broadcasters under their jurisdiction do not include programmes which might seriously impair the physical, mental or moral development of minors, in particular those that involve pornography or gratuitous violence. That could hardly be more clear. The directive provides that, when member states believe that a breach of that provision has taken place, they may take measures against the relevant broadcaster.

A second category of programmes, which contain material that is unsuitable for children but is of a less damaging nature, such as those licensed by the ITC, can be broadcast only when it can be ensured that, by selecting the time of broadcast—late at night—or by technical measures such as encryption, children are prevented from viewing it.

A recent judgment by the European Court of Justice found that the UK had misinterpreted some of the provisions on jurisdiction. The Government are considering the court's judgment carefully and, in doing so, will have regard to on-going negotiations on the revision of the directive. However, the important point for us to recognise today is that the judgment had no bearing whatever on our powers to take action against satellite pornography.

The Broadcasting Act 1990 established powers for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage to proscribe foreign satellite services that broadcast programmes which offend against good taste or decency. In doing so, she may act only upon a notification by the Independent Television Commission, which takes the initial view on which services are considered unacceptable. Upon receiving such a notification, the Secretary of State may make a proscription order when she considers that to do so would be in the public interest and would be compatible with the UK's international obligations.

What is a proscription order? A proscription order declares a broadcaster unacceptable and creates criminal offences for various acts in support of a proscribed broadcaster. It makes acts such as the supply of smart cards, the supply of programme material, advertising on or for the channel, publishing details of programmes and the provision of any other service in support of the broadcaster criminal offences. By stopping the sale of smart cards, we restrict access to those channels in the UK.

Two proscription orders against pornographic broadcasters—those against Red Hot Television and TV Erotica—have already proven successful in restricting access to those services in the UK. On both occasions, we were supported in our action by the European Commission, which confirmed that our action was compatible with Community law.

On 10 October, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made a third such order, against a foreign broadcaster called Rendez-Vous Television, which broadcasts an unremitting diet of explicit hard-core pornography in clear breach of the European directive.

The proscription order against Rendez-Vous came into force only on 31 October, so it is still too early to assess its effectiveness, but I believe it will have the desired effect of significantly reducing the possibility of such objectionable material being seen in the UK, and above all, being seen by children.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.