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Underbelly breaks laws on child sex

CHANNEL Nine broke child pornography laws with its ratings winner Underbelly as a sex scene in the show's new series featured an under-age character, legal experts say.

But a quirk in the law means the station could use the defence of classification that covers any work that passed the censors.

In the first episode of Underbelly: The Golden Mile, Kings Cross identity John Ibrahim (played by Firass Dirani) has sex in a school stairwell with former schoolmate Michelle (Rebecca Slade).

While both Dirani and Slade are in their 20s, the show features repeated references by other characters that the character of Ibrahim is under-age.

Under New South Wales and Victorian child pornography laws - which cover the production, dissemination and possession of such material - child pornography is defined as material that "depicts or describes or appears to depict or describe" a child engaged in sexual activity or a child depicted in a sexual context.

Jeremy Gans, associate professor at Melbourne University's law school, said despite no overt mention of Ibrahim's age, other character's references to him being under-age were enough to conclude the character was a minor.

One character refers to Ibrahim as "under-age", while a voice-over says he "wasn't old enough to buy a beer in his own nightclub".

Professor Gans said the NSW law would apply for the offence of production. Anyone found disseminating or in possession of the episode would also be liable under both states' laws. "It would fall within the definition of child pornography, but there is a broad defence of classification," Professor Gans said.

Underbelly was classified M by Nine's in-house censors. The defence of classification applies to all works unless they are refused classification.

Professor Gans said while the show clearly broke the law, prosecution would be unlikely. "It's all about assessments of merit and how the community would be affected. In this case, there is no doubt there is sexual context, but some would argue few people would have an issue with 17-year-olds shown having sex."

Joe Tucci, chief executive of the Australian Childhood Foundation, said showing schoolchildren having sex was not only illegal but also wrong.

"I think it's gratuitous," he said.

The first episode of the show, on Channel Nine on Sunday, attracted more than 2.2 million viewers - the highest rating TV debut of the year. Channel Nine did not return calls.

By Selma Milovanovic
April 16, 2010
The Age