Public will ask why we did not act on TV pornography, John Major warns in 1993

John Major predicted a public backlash over the widespread availability of pornography and violent videos, yet felt his Conservative government was not doing enough to stop it, newly released confidential papers show.

A precis of the Conservative government’s policy unit away day in November 1993 shows how the prime minister deemed existing proposals on how to tackle child pornography to be “pathetic”.

Documents released from the National Archives show Mr Major, now Sir John Major, was also “frustrated at always being told there was no way to tackle violent videos”.

A note prepared by Downing Street aide Mary Francis shows he suggested that it might be possible to abolish the idea of the 9pm watershed, which he felt was “becoming obsolescent in the age of time-shifting video recording”.

The briefing added: “The prime minister said he was still not satisfied that the Government was doing enough.

“In a few years time when the public saw violent and pornographic material readily available they would ask why the government had not acted.

“He was not convinced by arguments that this was just a matter of personal responsibility. He believed this area should be followed up.”

Other ideas chewed over during the policy unit meeting included extending the school day and plans to improve the rented sector.

The briefing document also claimed there were only 250 rough sleepers in London at the time. The figure today stands at closer to 3,000.

'Pathetic' - how John Major deemed existing proposals on tackling child pornography
‘Pathetic’ – how John Major thought of existing proposals on tackling child pornography (National Archives/Ryan Hooper/PA)

Separate files relating to a similar policy unit away day in July 1993 show Mr Major’s government had concerns about the erosion of the 9pm watershed for some time.

One file notes the emerging popularity of satellite and cable television channels which “did not observe the terrestrial watershed”.

“That meant that over the course of an evening, they showed progressively more violent programmes,” the summary showed.

It was suggested that the government “might push the ITC (regulator the Independent Television Commission) on more restrictions on the encrypted channels and might use the legislation to renew the BBC Charter to introduce more general regulatory broadcasting legislation”.

Previously confidential files, released last year, showed how Mr Major’s government was urged to embrace the internet in 1994 to catch up with the White House and stay ahead of young Labour leader Tony Blair.

Media regulator Ofcom can currently take action when broadcasters air unsuitable content – from sexual content to violence and swearing – before or immediately after the 9pm watershed.

However, streaming services do not have the same restrictions.

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