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Silent Witness episode broke BBC rules

Silent Witness cast

Story by Jack Foley

AN episode of BBC1 drama Silent Witness that prompted more than 600 complaints for violent content after it screened last April (2012) did breach BBC guidelines, the BBC Trust has ruled.

The offending episode culminated in a scene featuring a prison officer, played by Leo Gregory, attacking an inmate in a toilet cubicle.

It was aired after the 9pm watershed and carried a pre-programme warning to viewers of potentially violent and upsetting scenes.

But a total of 483 people still complained that the story was “too violent” and one viewer, in particular, took the complaint further by saying he found the scenes “extremely upsetting” and “thoroughly nasty” – ironically, he had not been watching the series but had tuned in to see the 10pm news, only to witness the final 90 seconds of the episode following an overrun.

After conducting their own investigation, the BBC Trust agreed the scenes were “too explicit for this series… in the first hour after the watershed”.

In its ruling, the Trust said that although the actual attack was not shown, “viewers were left in no doubt that an act of sexual violence was being carried out”.

And while it acknowledged that the drama, now in its 15th series, is known for the way it investigate the aftermaths of violent crimes, the episode in question was “noticeably darker in tone”.

Hence, owing to the significant number of complaints, it was forced to conclude that the scenes were in breach of the guidelines on harm and offence as they “exceeded audience expectations for this series as they depicted a sadistic method of inflicting pain, injury and death”.

The Trust did, however, note that compliance procedures had been followed for the episode, but still felt “the wrong editorial judgement had been made on this occasion and this episode was not suitable for broadcast”.

It therefore offered an apology to viewers who had complained and to those who had tuned in for the news and had “been taken unawares by the final scenes”.

BBC Vision – the department responsible for BBC drama – issued its own defence by arguing that the overrunning of programmes was a regular occurrence.

It said: “Silent Witness overran the billed finish time by 90 seconds and the news was two minutes late. This is all well within the parameters of a ‘normal’ programme junction and would not have triggered any extra editorial scrutiny beyond that carried out for the original schedule.”

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