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BBC Suffers 'Serious Lapse' in Care of 13-Year-Old Actor, Says Ofcom

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The media watchdog calls upon the public broadcaster to reiterate rules governing the use of youngsters in programming.

LONDON -- The media watchdog Ofcom is criticizing the BBC for a "serious lapse" in its duty of care to a 13-year-old actor who appeared in violent scenes in the BBC 2 police drama Line of Duty.

The regulator told the public broadcaster that the program did not do enough to protect the child actor in scenes that saw him head-butted before he attempted to sever a policeman's fingers with pair of bolt cutters.

In reply, the BBC told Ofcom it was in "constant dialogue" with the teenager's parents, who were content that he could cope with the emotional demands  -- despite this being his first acting role.

But Ofcom, which launched an investigation following a single complaint from a viewer, ruled the program had breached broadcasting rules requiring that "due care must be taken over the physical and emotional welfare and the dignity of people under 18."

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The regulator said 13-year-old Gregory Piper, who played a character named Ryan Pilkington (described as a child-runner for a violent criminal gang), had appeared in scenes which were "of a particularly violent nature and included sexually explicit language."

Ofcom said the scene in question shows his character being handed bolt cutters after being head-butted while shouting: "Give it, give it, now hold his hand out and give me that f---ing finger."

In a later interrogation by another police officer, Pilkington is told: "You're a tough kid, Ryan, or at least you think you are. If you carry on like this, the place you are going has 16-year-olds, 17-year-olds and they are built like brick sheds; how do you think you'll fare against one of those lads? They knock your teeth out, Ryan; they do that so you give a better blow job."

The regulator said it was "particularly concerned that there did not appear to be anyone who was independent and had no direct interest in the child actor's participation in the series involved in the decision making regarding his participation."

The "violent nature of the 'bolt cutter' scene and the sexually explicit language used by DC Fleming [actress Vicky McClure] were such 'extreme' cases and, given the child actor's direct involvement in both scenes, would have warranted the broadcaster to seek expert opinion on whether it was appropriate for the child actor to participate in them," Ofcom said.

Made by independent producer World, the gritty police show aired in June and July this year and has been commissioned for a second installment.

Ofcom called for a meeting with the BBC to reiterate the "paramount importance" of rules regarding child participation following what it described as the pubcaster's "serious lapse."

In its defense, the BBC detailed to Ofcom 11 separate steps it had taken before filming to allay any concerns about potential emotional risks to the young actor.

The BBC said in a statement to the regulator: "We believe that overall the decisions and arrangements made minimized any risk of emotional harm during the filming process itself."

But the broadcaster later admits that best practice was not used during the filming of the interview scene.

Sections of the dialogue should have been filmed separately to avoid the teenage actor's exposure to sexually explicit language, the BBC conceded.

While the BBC said it agreed with the producers' assessment that they had exercised "due care," the pubcaster did say that "best practice would have guarded against the possibility that the assessment was mistaken."

And it also sent Ofcom a letter from the actor's mother describing his first turn on television as a very positive experience and adding that the actor had suffered no harm or distress as a result of either scene.

But Ofcom said it was "particularly concerned about the child actor's exposure to sexualized language" and said the BBC should have involved third-party experts rather than relying on its own judgment and that of the teenager's parents.