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Disney Plus must bring age rating in line with UK standards, Tory MPs say

Disney Plus must steer in behind the UK’s age rating standards for its content, Tory MPs have told the Government, amid claims the service has deemed inappropriate material suitable for children.

Ministers were told the streaming giant had classified “scenes of sexual abuse as suitable for nine-year-olds, scenes of graphic misogynistic violence or offensive antisemitic stereotypes as suitable for 12-year-olds”.

Conservative MP Miriam Cates (Penistone and Stocksbridge) was among the Tory backbenchers who said age ratings used by video on-demand platforms should be mandated to use either British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) or equivalent standards.

The Tory MP, a member of the right wing New Conservatives faction, told the Commons the watershed for adult content “has become increasingly redundant” in the streaming era as MPs continued their consideration of the Media Bill, which aims to update decades-old broadcasting laws.

“We urgently need to apply the same standards of child protection to on-demand video as we do to cinema releases, physical DVDs and linear TV,” Ms Cates added.

Northern Research Group conference
Miriam Cates speaks during the Northern Research Group conference at Doncaster Racecourse (Danny Lawson/PA)

She warned the current position of the Bill is to “shy away from setting that minimum standard” for age ratings, and said Netflix and Amazon Prime have both voluntarily set up partnerships to include BBFC ratings on their content.

“But the reluctance of Disney Plus and others to follow suit shows why this kind of regulation is needed,” she said.

Sir Gary Streeter, the Conservative MP for South West Devon, tabled an amendment to the Bill setting out “objective criteria” for age ratings, targeted at streaming services like Disney.

While he commended Netflix, Apple and Amazon for using BBFC ratings, he added: “The current ratings free-for-all has seen Disney Plus classify scenes of sexual abuse as suitable for nine-year-olds, scenes of graphic misogynistic violence or offensive antisemitic stereotypes as suitable for 12-year-olds, and that is lower than they classify some of their Star Wars or superhero content.

“Until we hold services to a minimum standard we risk eroding public trust in age ratings as a child protection measure and perpetrating this entirely preventable harm, because the problem with Disney Plus is that the brand conjures up in most of us a sense of safety and security that is no longer warranted.

“When people of my generation hear the word ‘Disney’ we think of Bambi or Cinderella. So the thought that our grandchildren are in the next room watching a Disney Plus video is intrinsically reassuring, but that would be an error of judgment because much of their content is now dark and explicit.”

Sir Gary did not push his amendment to a vote, but said he hoped ministers or peers would take up his plans for further consideration.

Shadow culture secretary Thangam Debbonaire said there is “no consistency” in how age ratings are currently used on streaming sites.

She said: “Parents and children alike deserve to be able to have full confidence in age ratings so that when they pick something to watch they can trust it will be safe and age appropriate.

“So ratings must be easily understood and recognisable for the public, underpinned by a transparent set of criteria that takes into account British attitudes on everything from swearing to violence and anything else we might think of.”

Culture minister Julia Lopez told the Commons: “We are in complete agreement on the need to protect children and vulnerable audiences from harmful and inappropriate video on-demand (VOD) content.”

Ms Lopez said on-demand services will be brought within the scope of the new video on-demand code, which will be drafted and enforced by Ofcom.

Government Art Collection announcement
Culture minister Julia Lopez said on-demand services with brought within the scope of the new video on-demand code (Ian West/PA)

The minister added: “Ofcom will be getting new powers under this Bill to look at VOD protection measures and power to mandate specific approaches in the VOD code if it deems it necessary.

“That could be BBFC ratings if they wanted. What we’re trying to do is move towards a more outcomes-based rather than a proscriptive approach. We think that there has been great innovation in the space of parental controls and that has often been more effective than a badge rating.

“But I’ve heard what’s been said in the House today and we will continue to listen on this subject.”

Disney was contacted for comment.

The Bill also seeks to scrap existing legislation that would require publishers to pay the legal costs of those who sue them, regardless of who wins, if they were not a member of an approved regulator.

The measures contained in section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 have not been commenced, but the Government is using the new Bill to repeal the clause so it cannot be introduced.

Conservative former minister George Eustice tabled an amendment to prevent the Government from repealing this piece of legislation, but it was rejected by 284 votes to 195, majority 89.

Ms Lopez said his amendment would have been “at odds” with the Conservative Party manifesto commitment to repeal section 40.

Labour’s bid to require the Government to review whether a Gaelic language service should be given a public service broadcast remit was rejected by 294 votes to 194, majority 100.

The Bill later received an unopposed third reading and will undergo further scrutiny in the Lords.