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1978 Protection of Children Act

Legislation governing indecent images of children on film and TV

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The 1978 Protection of Children Act makes it a criminal offence to distribute, show or even possess indecent photographs of children under the age of sixteen, the definition of "indecent" being broad enough to cover images that are considered indecent even if the role of the child is not.

Although its primary purpose was to deal with the increasing problem of child pornography, the wording of the Act also meant that it could be applied to entirely respectable films as well, and the British Board of Film Censors was required to take this into account.

The crucial difference between this Act and some of its predecessors, notably the 1959 Obscene Publications Act, is that it does not admit context or artistic merit as a legal defence. As a result, even highly distinguished films such as Pretty Baby (US, 1978, d. Louis Malle) and the Oscar-winning The Tin Drum (West Germany, 1979, d. Volker Schlöndorff) had to be cut.

When vetting a film to make sure that it stays within the bounds of the Act, the BBFC has to assess whether or not any part of the film can be interpreted as a recording of an indecent act involving an actual child. The Act does not cover the use of "body doubles" over the age of sixteen, or of scenes that have been carefully edited to create the impression of indecency when none actually occurred. This was how the BBFC was legally able to pass a film like Lolita (US, 1997, d. Adrian Lyne) without requiring any cuts.

The Act was modified by the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, the definition of "photograph" being extended to cover digital images and "pseudo-photographs" assembled by image editing software that appear to show children in sexual situations, which had become an increasing problem thanks to the rise of the Internet.

Michael Brooke

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