Thatcher takes action to clean up British TV

The average Briton watches 25 hours of television each week - almost as much as his American cousin. But tolerance of sex and violence on the box is much lower here, at least officially.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has been concerned about the standards of taste and decency on British television for several years, and appears determined to ``clean up'' television. She recently appointed Sir William Rees-Mogg, former editor of the Times and former vice-chairman of the British Broadcasting Corporation's (BBC) Board of Governors, to head a newly created Broadcasting Standards Council. The council will monitor the country's two television companies as well as video productions and radio and cable broadcasts.

The council is charged with drafting a national code of taste and decency for broadcasting, and must submit an annual report to Parliament on the portrayal of sex and violence in programs. Sir William has indicated he also wants authority to preview imported programs for television that make up some 14 percent of BBC broadcasts. Most imported productions are from the United States, and it is these that have the highest levels of violence, according to a BBC commissioned study last year.

The council fulfills a pledge made during last year's general election by Mrs. Thatcher's Conservative Party to address public concerns about the display of sex and violence on television. A recent opinion poll showed some 69 percent of the British public agreed that violence on television was a problem. And memories of last summer's rampage by Michael Ryan, who killed 16 people in a Rambo-style massacre in Hungerford, have enforced the view that the media can influence people to act violently.

Experts continue to say, however, that there is no clear link between violence on television and human behavior.

The popularity of American television series such as ``Miami Vice'' and ``The A-Team'' has led to public perceptions that British television has become more violent in recent years. But a study commissioned last year by the BBC shows that violence on British television has actually decreased. According to a survey by Guy Cumberbatch of Aston University, the number of acts of violence per hour on television programs produced in 1986 was less than two, compared with more than four for programs produced during the 1940s and 1960s. Levels of violence have been dropping steadily since the 60s, according to the survey.

Overall, Britain has the lowest such rating among seven industrialized countries, including the US and Japan, in proportion of violent programs and number of violent acts each hour, Dr. Cumberbatch reported.

The new council worries television executives who say the internal checks of Britain's two television organizations, the BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority, are adequate to maintain public standards. They are also concerned that the council might be given expanded powers to preview domestically produced programs or even to screen broadcasts for political reasons. So far, the body has no means of enforcing its view on the powerful broadcast business, though the government expects to give the council some future statutory authority.

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