A CHIP TOO FAR: Technology v Responsibility

SETTING THE STANDARDS

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n the United Kingdom Parliament has enacted legislation and other measures in the public interest to regulate Broadcasting. The Broadcasting Act 1990 requires in Section 6(1)(a) that the Independent Television Commission

"shall do all that they can to secure that every licensed service complies with the following requirements, namely, that nothing is included in programmes which offends ††† against good taste or decency or is likely to encourage or incite to crime or to lead to disorder or to be offensive to public feeling".

The Royal Charter of the BBC, which came into effect on 1st May 1996, imposes, in Section 5(1)(d), these same programme requirements on the Governors of the BBC.

The Broadcasting Act also requires the ITC, Clause 7(1)(a)(b)(c),

"to draw up, and from time to time review, a code giving guidance .... and the Commission shall do all that they can to secure that the provisions of the code are observed in the provision of licensed services."

In addition to providing a legal framework for the Broadcasting Authorities, Parliament has established the Broadcasting Standards Commission which also has the statutory requirement to draw up a Code of Practice the general effect of which must be reflected in the Programme Codes of the Broadcasting Authorities. It was clearly the intention of Parliament in setting up the Council that it

"would be one of the means by which the voice of the public would become known...."

 

The BSC Code states:

"In the view of the Council (Commission), there are two constant principles ... The first principle is that of the contract implied between the viewer and the broadcaster. The Code, like the wider-ranging Codes and Guidelines produced by the broadcasters themselves, sets out the terms on which the broadcaster seeks admission to the homes of the audience and the terms on which admission is generally granted. The offence to which broadcasts sometimes give rise is usually the product of a breach of those terms, a flouting of the expectations which the terms have set ... At its core is a respect for the audience".

It is clear from the foregoing that Parliament has rightly placed the onus for programme standards entirely upon the Broadcasting Authorities. As such the public has come to trust the Broadcasting Authorities to fulfil these requirements and maintain generally high standards of taste and decency in programmes. In the opinion of this Association the programmes described in Appendix 1 'WALL TO WALL SLEAZE', an editorial comment in the Spring1996 issue of 'The Viewer & Listener' fall far short of "good taste or decency".

PREVIEWING PROGRAMMES

Moreover, the statutory duties of the Independent Television Commission no longer include previewing programmes to ensure that they comply with requirements on taste and decency. The ITC can only respond to complaints from the public after a programme has been screened. Nor does the new Royal Charter of the BBC include requirements to preview programmes and according to Lord Barnet, a former Deputy Chairman of the BBC, speaking on BBC Radio 4 'Times Past, Times Present' 7/2/96, the Governors of the BBC never viewed programmes in advance of transmission. In these circumstances it is difficult to envisage a mechanism by which the obligations "to do all that they can to secure" ... "good taste or decency" are fulfilled. Neither does the Broadcasting Standards Commission have any powers to preview programmes. Like the ITC the Council can only view programmes and make its findings on complaints from the public after transmission.

THE WATERSHED

This Association believes that a brief examination of the rationale behind the 'Watershed' is important before setting out our thinking on the "V-Chip" because we believe that the underlying principle is very similar.

In March 1979 the BBC published a booklet entitled 'The Portrayal of Violence in Television Programmes'. Section 7 of this document describes the Watershed:

"It has been accepted since 1960 that programmes shown before 9.00pm should not be unsuitable for the children who are likely to be included in the audience".

Since neither the Broadcasting Act 1990 nor the Royal Charter of the BBC specifically require or even mention a "Watershed" it is clear that such a concept has been brought into being by the Broadcasting Authorities themselves. The ITC Programme Code describes a "Family Viewing Policy" the effect of which is said to be the same as the BBC's "Watershed Policy".

In correspondence on this matter with BBC officials this Association has been told that after 9.00pm programmes are more "demanding" and more suited to an "adult" audience. No definition of "demanding" is ever given or of what "adult" means in this context. The assumption always being that explicit scenes of sexual conduct, obscene language or brutal violence is "demanding" and "adult" entertainment!

Although it may be true that the concept of the 'Watershed' is well understood by the viewing public (90% of all adults and 93% of parents are said to be aware of the 'Watershed' according to the ITC's 1995 annual survey of public attitudes to television. SPECTRUM Spring 1996 issue) this is so largely because it has been so effectively promoted by the Broadcasting Authorities in their own interests. It would be interesting to know how many members of the public are aware of and understand the statutory obligations on good taste and decency which the Broadcasting Authorities do little or nothing to proclaim.

The effectiveness of the 'Watershed' is now greatly diminished by the use of domestic Video Recorders and the opportunities that these machines provide to "time shift" programmes. A report published in June 1995 by the Strategic Marketing and Research Consultants, entitled "Class of 94", found that 40% of boys and 28% of girls aged between seven and seventeen watch TV after 9.00pm during the week. This increased to 50% and 41% respectively at the weekends. The report also found that 66% of children have TV sets in their own rooms and 25% have their own Video Recorders.

It is astonishing that those in the broadcasting industry who promote the 'Watershed' seem happy to ignore these realities when justifying bad taste and indecency in programmes. In practice the 'Watershed' and ITC's 'Family Viewing Policy', in the opinion mediawatch-uk, has led to an overall decline in standards of taste and decency after 9.00pm which is a trend entirely at variance with the intention and meaning of the statutory and Charter obligations as enacted by Parliament which do not provide for "Watersheds" or "exclusion zones" and are supposed to apply at all times.

THE "V-CHIP"

I

t was reported in February 1996 that an electronic device had been invented which would enable American parents to filter all undesirable violence and sex from their children's television viewing. Civil Liberties groups were said to be opposed to the device on First Amendment grounds. (The Times 3/2/96)

Writing in the American Family Association Journal, April 1996 issue, Dr Donald E Wildmon, the President of the AFA said:

"Last month President Clinton and representatives of the TV industry agreed to begin rating television programmes much like the movie industry has done. They also announced plans to begin installing a "V-Chip" in TV sets. It was a meaningless announcement done for purely political reasons. It will, in the long run, insure that TV programming will get worse ... It will leave them free to air whatever they desire and escape responsibility".

In the June 1996 issue of the AFA Journal Charley Reese, of the King Features Syndicate Inc., said:

"This business of a rating system for television shows is a fraud and a con job. Itís a way to get Bill Clinton's entertainment industry buddies off the hook. The problem is not lack of labelling. Itís content. Itís gratuitous and graphic violence. Itís vulgarity. Itís profanity. Its explicit and gratuitous sex ... Lets get one thing straight. The people who produce and broadcast this stuff have shown utter contempt for the American people. They are invited guests into our living rooms via our public airwaves and they have abused our hospitality by acting in a rude and disgusting manner ... We should insist that Congress clean up the entertainment industry's act ... Labels and "V-Chips" are just political tricks to take the responsibility off the backs of the tycoons of sleaze ...".

These points were also made very forcefully in a Daily Mail editorial 19/3/96. (See Appendix 2.)

Speaking at a conference in Warsaw on 23rd February 1996 Archbishop John P Foley, President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, said:

"Sound communications policy would also indicate that neither pornography nor gratuitous violence nor ethnic, racial or religious insults should be allowed on the airwaves which enter directly into people's homes, where they should comport themselves as guests. Guests should not give offence, and neither should radio or television programming - because the family is entitled to its privacy and respect - it is not a violation of freedom of expression to require that such a right of privacy be respected and that broadcasters be so advised. It is a sad commentary when governments have to consider equipping television sets with special mechanisms to block out certain programming, when such programming should not even form part of a broadcast schedule capable of entering directly into people's homes."

The European Parliament, at the first reading of the Broadcasting Directive, 14/2/96, passed an amendment requiring television sets to be fitted with the "V-Chip" by one year after this device has been developed and standardised. That this was done so quickly and without any meaningful public debate or consultation rather confirms that this device will be used, certainly by some politicians, to minimise the inconvenience arising from mounting public protest about declining standards of taste and decency in some programmes. Such rapid action contrasts starkly with the European Parliament's lethargy to deal with the transfrontier transmission of indecent and pornographic material despite the requirements of the European Convention on Transfrontier Broadcasting which states that programmes:

"shall not be indecent and in particular contain pornography" (Article 7)

and the European Community Directive on Television Broadcasting Activities which says that member states shall ensure that programmes:

"Do not involve pornography or gratuitous violence" and "Do not contain any incitement to hatred on grounds of race, sex, religion or nationality". (Article 22).

CLASSIFICATION

T

he theory behind the development of the "V-Chip" is that it provides a means of excluding objectionable material from entering one's home via the television set. In determining what is objectionable or undesirable programmes would need to be classified according to their content. Presentations about the "V-Chip" on television, in newspapers and elsewhere have described a classification scheme of five levels of content acceptability relating to violence, sex and nudity and language. Difficulties obviously arise with regard to how such levels are determined and who is to determine them and according to what standards?

Given that the present regulatory system on taste and decency is, we believe, not working as intended (see Appendix 1) the level of public confidence in the present regulatory authorities to oversee such a task is likely to be very low. The track record of the British Board of Film Classification is also one which inspires little confidence. The classification for public exhibition of films like 'Natural Born Killers', 'Kids', 'Reservoir Dogs', 'Goodfellas', 'Showgirls', 'Casino' and a whole host of other films, we believe, demonstrates that their primary interest is with the film industry rather than with the consumer and the general public good.

The practice of classifying all television programmes according to arbitrary standards and multiple levels of acceptability would be a very difficult and, considering the vast number of programmes currently in libraries and archives, a very lengthy and time consuming and expensive task. This point was ably amplified in an Editorial in The Times 19/3/96. (See Appendix 3.)

Further difficulties arise with the transmission of programmes across frontiers via satellite and cable systems. The standards applied in one country may not conform to standards in another. Unless the programme classification system adhered to universal rules which were subject to international agreement and periodic revision the usefulness of the "V-Chip" would be rather uncertain. This problem was recognised by Jon Davey, former Director of Cable at the ITC, in SPECTRUM Spring 1992 issue, where he wrote:

"A number of the programme channels now available from elsewhere in Europe via the use of satellites contain programmes which do not accord with the rules which the ITC has laid down.... Yet under the directive the UK Authorities are not permitted to place restrictions on the re-transmission of such a channel".

The fact that the satellite channel 'EUROTICA' is able to transmit hard-core pornography, via the Eutel Satellite, into the United Kingdom from Holland to households which do not subscribe to it and do not wish to receive the obscene films it transmits, bears out Mr Davey's observations!

On a more practical level there will be some households where the "V-Chip" might be activated by discerning parents and some where it would not or not fitted to the television set at all, as with the "hand-me-downs" most children have in their own rooms! Children of parents using the "V-Chip" could easily go to a friend's house where the parents did not have it or did not use it. The apparent failure of the existing "Watershed Policy", detailed above, inspires little confidence that the "V-Chip" will achieve the desired effect of protecting children from undesirable programme content.

Experience with video recordings exemplifies the practice of children going to a friend's house. Unless all video recordings also carried the same activating signal "V-Chip" technology would not have any effect on the material viewed on this medium. Since there are millions of video cassettes in circulation the "V-Chip" would again have little effect for a very long time. And since Video Recorders have their own independent signal receiving capability is it envisaged that VCR's also be fitted with the "V-Chip"?

The "V-Chip" would give false legitimacy to objectionable material, whether it be violence, explicit sexual conduct or swearing and blasphemy, which ought not to be transmitted in the first place given the statutory obligations on taste and decency and the requirements of the various Codes of Practice and Guidelines. Broadcasters would argue, in view of audience fragmentation, that they were catering for the whole range of "legitimate" tastes. Those who like to see violent and/or sexually explicit material should be able to see it if they so wish. Those who do not simply activate their "V-Chip". Thus the whole long standing rationale for objective standards of taste and decency, which Parliament has put into place, would be seriously undermined if not completely destroyed. It is easy to foresee that the logic currently being applied to the 'Watershed' will conveniently be applied also to the "V-Chip" should these become commonplace.

This Association agrees with those who suggest that legislating for the "V-Chip" is a "quick fix" solution which gets broadcasters and politicians with responsibilities in these matters off the hook. It is a way of seeming to take action while avoiding the difficult and on-going issue of the Broadcasting Authorities failing to "do all that THEY can to secure" the required good standards in the public interest. The onus for providing good standards of taste and decency lies with the Broadcasting Authorities and it is not good enough to allow the broadcasters to simply "pass the buck" to the consumer. The right way forward is to ensure proper adherence to the appropriate statutory obligations and Codes of Practice. Where these lack the necessary definition for effective application they should be amended and up-dated as a matter of urgency.

CONCLUSION

T

he plain fact is that consistently high standards of taste and decency will only be achieved and maintained if, firstly, the will to do so is present among those responsible for programmes and programme policy. Secondly, if there were a well defined framework within which home produced programmes are made and bought in programmes assessed, and, thirdly, if the public are invited, on a regular basis, to make their opinions known in some meaningful way and given due prominence in the programme policy making process.

The "V-Chip" has no relevance in any of these important questions. Moreover, mediawatch-uk would suggest that the need for the "V-Chip" at all is surely symptomatic of the regulatory authorities failing to fulfil their statutory duties and obligations.

For the reasons set out above mediawatch-uk is not in favour of the "V-Chip" as a means of improving the general moral tone of programmes on television. However, if as a result of membership of the European Union, Britain has to comply with International Directives on this matter we believe that the European Parliament and the United Kingdom Parliament must re-emphasise to the Broadcasting Authorities that the "V-Chip" does not absolve them from the statutory and Royal Charter obligations on taste and decency.

Appendix 1

WALL TO WALL SLEAZE

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n Monday 8/1/96 the 'Omnibus' programme on BBC1 at 10.40pm included a compilation of explicit sex scenes and brutal violence from films made by Paul Verhoeven. In addition to the opening sexual murder scene from 'Basic Instinct' the programme promoted Mr Verhoeven's latest film 'Showgirls' released later that week, which according to poor reviews is little more that a parade of unrelenting female flesh. Barry Norman, in 'Film'96', 22/1/96, said this film "gives pornography a bad name".

On Saturday 13/1/96 ITV screened a comedy play 'The Bare Necessities' about a group of redundant coal miners who turn to stripping as a new occupation. Little was left to the imagination and the producer, in a letter to a member of mediawatch-uk, fully justified the play.

On Monday 15/1/96 the BBC began its new epic drama series 'Our Friends in the North'. Whilst the first episode, set in Newcastle in 1964, was full of political idealism and raw 1960's atmosphere, it began at 9.00pm and within five minutes a couple were writhing on top of each other. It concluded at 10.10pm with the same girl copulating with another man in a park. At 10.40pm on the same evening ITV screened the second episode of 'Band of Gold' about prostitution and murder.

On Wednesday 17/1/96 ITV began another new series entitled 'Hollywood men'. One third of this programme was taken up with a feature on "male enhancement" in which a "penis enlargement surgeon" was interviewed about the procedures he undertakes. During this programme a number of porn actors and actresses were interviewed.

On Saturday 20/1/96 Channel 4 'Eurotrash' featured a group on men and women taking their clothes off on a paid "holiday" to make porn films.

On Sunday 21/1/96 ITV screened a programme entitled 'Lights, Camera, Action' introduced by Michael Aspel. This was about film "censorship" and described how Hollywood film producers have succeeded in overthrowing all restraint. It was "a continuing story of what you can get away with". Numerous explicit sex scenes from films old and new were shown sandwiched between interviews with film stars. James Ferman, Director of the British Board of Film Classification said: "We haven't cut a mainstream film for sexual reasons for more than ten years because the mood of the public is much more accepting of sexual representations on the screen". More explicit sex scenes were shown from 'Basic Instinct' and 'Showgirls' just in case we missed in on 'Omnibus'!

The second and third episodes of 'Our Friends in the North' portrayed more explicit sex scenes as well as brutal sexual abuse of a woman and a vicious attack to a man's head with a hammer following a protection racket pay-off. The second episode of 'Hollywood Men' continued in the same vein as the first taking up a hour of prime time television to discuss the activities of pornography "stars" and producers.

The much publicised Channel 4 series 'The Girlie Show' began on Friday 26/1/96. This flop included such features as "toilet talk", an analysis of soiled underpants, a man urinating against a wall while talking to the camera and much else that was degrading and puerile in the extreme.

More explicit sex scenes were portrayed in the film on BBC2 'Something Wild' on 27/1/96 when a woman removed her top and then handcuffed a man to a bed and stripped off his underclothes. On 30/1/96 ITV premiered the film 'Consenting Adults' about "wife swapping" and murder with insurance fraud as part of the plot.

And so it goes on.

In the Autumn 1995 issue of this journal we reported on what Mr Bill Jordan, former trade union leader and now BBC Governor, said to the Broadcasting industry at the Royal Television Society Convention in September. What he said about trade union power in relevant: "Suddenly the public said 'Hold on'. You have to learn the difference between what is right for the country and whether its for you own self interest".

The 'Hold on' time has surely arrived in the field of Broadcasting. Will you say it loud and clear to the candidates who seek your vote at the next General Election? The fight for good standards depends on each one of us.

Appendix 2

Daily Mail Comment

Microchip morality

S

uddenly everybody's extolling the virtues of the V-chip.Implanted in TV sets it could give parents the power to veto all programmes with a violence unsuitable rating for children.In the United States, President Clinton has already ordained that all new televisions be fitted by 1998 with this computerised device for scrambling transmissions.

Here the Heritage Secretary, Virginia Bottomley, yesterday sounded as if she is ready to fall for the dubious charms of the V-chip. Lady Howe of the Broadcasting Standards Council also enthused about what a boon it could be in helping people to decide what 'comes into their home'.

How tempting (especially after the horror last week) to clutch at some technological toy that might miraculously prevent vulnerable minds being bombarded from TV screens by the incessant barrage of brutal and desensitising images.

But neither life nor the commercial pressures of television are that simple.Think about it for more than a moment and you will realise how this violence-zapper could actually become a violence promoter.

Inevitably, the impressarios of bloody mayhem and porn on the box would advance the slippery argument that, because parents had the V-chip to censor what their children see, adults should be free to view whatever turned them on.

With the V-chip as a fig leaf, the less scrupulous of television's tycoons would feel emboldened to step up their transmission of trash and violence.This unsavoury material would still be pumping into millions of homes where feckless mothers and fathers exercise little or no control over what is being watched by their children Ö or their children's friends who have dropped in from down the road.

Such images would still be feeding the sick fancies of dangerously unstable adults.Certainly, the V-chip could be of some use to good parents who, with the best will in the world, cannot always be on hand to monitor what their children see. But it is no substitute for personal duty, public ethics or, indeed, parental responsibility.

You can't punch in a secret computer code to uphold standards on television. The V-chip offers no victory over the violence that menaces our society. As a moral regulator it's a cop-out for programme makers - and for parents.

Appendix 3

CHIP IN THE BOX

Can technology shield young viewers from television gore?

A

fter several decades in which film and television drama-makers have leapfrogged each other in the levels of violence they have portrayed, the public is saying "Enough!". In America and Britain, a new consensus is emerging. Violence on television and in films is degrading. But is the "V-chip" the answer to the gore that so many so detest?

Last month in America, Congress passed legislation compelling all TV manufacturers to install these chips in new sets. Virginia Bottomley, National Heritage Secretary, is considering following suit. Since the chip costs only 60p to install, the obligation is not onerous. Once in place, the chip recognises an electronic call sign attached to programmes with high levels of violence or explicit sex. If parents wish, they can then scramble all such programmes.

This sounds like the perfect solution to the problem of children watching unsuitable fare. It seems to deal with the difficulty of monitoring what children see on their own television sets, and works even when the parents are out. Best of all, it imposes a blanket ban, relieving parents of the need to argue their case against each individual programme of which they disapprove.

On closer examination, however, the V-chip has flaws. First, it will take at least a generation to have much effect. The average life of a television is 20 years, and the oldest sets usually find their way to children's bedrooms. Secondly, as experience with satellite blocking systems has already shown, children tend to be more technologically adept than their parents and are ingenious at unscrambling transmissions.

Meanwhile the regulatory body monitoring the programmes will have a mammoth task. In America, for every 700 films released each year, there are more than 700,000 hours of television on an average cable system. Europe is moving in that direction. How would censors decide whether a production of Titus Andronicus was more violent than an episode of Cracker, or a documentary on Rwanda?

Even supposing practical problems could be overcome, the V-chip might suffer from the law of unintended consequences. Those children most in need of protection would be those least likely to receive it. Well-balanced children could find their viewing restricted to anodyne quiz shows, while delinquents watched anything they liked. Broadcasters, sheltering behind the V-chip, might then be tempted to put out ever more shocking programmes on the ground that only adults need watch them.

There lies the rub. Violence corrupts not just children, but parents too. The constant fare of shooting, murder, brawls and rape that is pumped out on prime-time TV these days makes violence look like part of everyday life. If you believe the broadcasters, the only glamorous profession to be in, apart from crime, is one of the emergency services. This is not "real life" - it is a thousand miles away from the life most people lead. Filmmakers and broadcasters should look to their own consciences and broaden their imagination. Blood is not the only component of the human body, nor testosterone the only driving force. Humans possess also a brain and a heart.

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