EUROPEAN COMMISSION'S GREEN PAPER ON THE CONVERGENCE OF THE TELECOMMUNICATIONS, MEDIA AND INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY SECTORS

News Release: 17th April 1998

Full submission follows below.

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he National Viewers' and Listeners' Association, now called mediawatch-uk, in its response to the EC Green Paper on Technological Convergence, is today calling on the European Commission to set out a well defined framework of regulation within which those involved in the provision of television programmes, and other transmitted material, should operate. "The media industries around the world, and especially in European Union Member States, should be actively encouraged to reach comprehensive agreement on content rather than just technologies." The Association says "the moral, ethical, social and cultural well being of the citizens of Europe should be the overriding concern of those in the communications industry, in whatever capacity, who should regard themselves as servants rather than masters."

John Beyer, (right) the Association's Director, said: "Bodies like the European Commission enjoy a certain degree of public trust that our best interests will be safeguarded against the vested interests of the powerful media and information technology industries. It is not apparent in the Green Paper that this is the primary concern. There is an underlying assumption that the 'Information Society' is an inevitable consequence of technological convergence and that progress towards this goal is an undisputed 'Good Thing'.

"Clearly there are a number of beneficiaries of the new technology, not least those who manufacture telecommunications equipment, computers, computer software, television sets and video recorders. This being so there is huge vested interest to ensure that the new technology is taken up globally as quickly as possible. The rapid establishment of the Internet around the world and the widespread use of personal computers, demonstrates the commercial imperative to promote the technology, and the willingness of people to spend money on it. In addition there is a clear, although not widely appreciated, political imperative too."

The Association repeats its doubts over the efficacy of technical devices, such as the "V-Chip", to enable parents or guardians "to filter out certain programmes". What is needed is a workable definition, within Article 22 of the EU Directive 97/36/EC, of 'pornography and gratuitous violence'.

"Unless these terms are defined", said Mr Beyer, "portrayals of explicit sexual conduct and brutal violence will continue to dominate the media to the detriment of the societies the media ought to serve. Failure to deal with these important questions will certainly hinder the praiseworthy purpose of the technological convergence, expressed in the Green Paper, that it has 'the potential to substantially improve the quality of life for Europe's citizens'."

ENDS.

A response to the Department of Culture Media and Sport on the 31st March 1998.

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t should be the objective of the European Commission to set out a well-defined framework of regulation within which those involved in the provision of programmes, and other transmitted material, should operate.

The moral, ethical, social and cultural well-being of the citizens of Europe should be the over-riding concern and those in the communications industry, in whatever capacity, should regard themselves as servants rather than masters.

Accordingly, serious matters should always be dealt with responsibly, without sensationalism, and with a proper and sincere concern for the good of society and with scrupulous regard for the truth. The media industries around the world, and especially in European Union Member States, should be actively encouraged by the European Commission to reach comprehensive agreement on content rather than just technologies. Family life should be supported rather than be constantly undermined in order to help bring about social cohesion and a decline in family breakdown and delinquency.

Bodies like the European Commission enjoy a certain degree of trust from European citizens that their best interests will be safeguarded against the vested interests of the powerful media and information technology industries.

It is not apparent in the Green Paper that this is the primary concern. There is an underlying assumption in the Green Paper that the "Information Society" is an inevitable consequence of technological convergence and that progress towards this goal is an undisputed 'Good Thing'.

Clearly there are a number of beneficiaries of the new technology, not least those who manufacture telecommunications equipment, computers, computer software and television sets. This being so there is a huge vested interest to ensure that the new technology is taken up globally as quickly as possible. The rapid establishment of the Internet around the world and the widespread use of personal computers demonstrates the commercial imperative to promote the technology, and a willingness of people to spend money on it. In addition to the commercial imperative there is a clear, although not widely appreciated, political imperative too.

The European Commission, in its directive 95/47/EC, states in Article 1:

"Member States shall take appropriate measures to promote the accelerated development of advanced television services including wide-screen television services, high definition television services and television services using fully digital transmission systems. Member States shall see to it that the transfer of wide-screen television services already in operation to digital transmission networks open to the public is made easier, in particular pursuant to Directive 92/38/EEC and Decision 93/424/EEC, in order to protect the interests of operators and television viewers who have invested to produce or receive such services."

It further states in Article 6

"Before 1 July 1997, and every two years thereafter, the Commission shall examine the implementation of this Directive and the development of the market for digital television services throughout the European Union and submit a report to the European Parliament, to the Council and to the Economic and Social Committee. This report shall cover market developments, in particular relating to developments in digital technology and services and also to technical and commercial market developments on conditional access to digital television services. If necessary the Commission shall make a proposal to the Council to adapt this Directive to these developments."

The Green Paper argues that the development of new services could be hindered by the existence of a range of barriers "including regulatory barriers".

The "Information Society", then, is of such importance that it, apparently, must not or cannot be held back and certainly not by regulations. Moreover, Governments, regional and local authorities "must lead" by "fully embracing the technologies". Mention is made of a regulatory framework although there is little in the Green Paper which alludes to it.

Regulation, currently, has many facets: the receiving of applications to run services; the granting (and removal) of licences; the maintenance of transmission systems; the formulation of technical standards, and so on.

This Association continues to be concerned about the regulation of content by way of film, video and television programmes. We believe many consumers share this concern. Most people are concerned about programmes, and other electronic transmissions that enter their homes, via telephone, Internet, computer software, and above all, television and video. In this response we shall concentrate on this area of concern.

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he EC Directive 97/36/EC, which, curiously, is confined to no more than a footnote in the Green Paper, states in Article 22, which we reproduce in full:

1. Member States shall take appropriate measures to ensure that television broadcasts by broadcasters under their jurisdiction do not include any programmes which might seriously impair the physical, mental or moral development of minors, in particular programmes that involve pornography or gratuitous violence.

2. The measures provided for in paragraph 1 shall also extend to other programmes which are likely to impair the physical, mental or moral development of minors, except where it is ensured, by selecting the time of the broadcast or by any technical measure, that minors in the area of transmission will not normally hear or see such broadcasts.

3. Furthermore, when such programmes are broadcast in unencoded form Member States shall ensure that they are preceded by an acoustic warning or are identified by the presence of a visual symbol throughout their duration.

28. the following Article shall be inserted:

Article 22a

Member States shall ensure that broadcasts do not contain any incitement to hatred on grounds of race, sex, religion or nationality.;

29. the following Article shall be inserted:

Article 22b

1. The Commission shall attach particular importance to application of this Chapter in the report provided for in Article 26.

2. The Commission shall within one year from the date of publication of this Directive, in liaison with the competent Member State authorities, carry out an investigation of the possible advantages and drawbacks of further measures with a view to facilitating the control exercised by parents or guardians over the programmes that minors may watch. This study shall consider, inter alia, the desirability of:

- the requirement for new television sets to be equipped with a technical device enabling parents or guardians to filter out certain programmes:

- the setting up of appropriate rating systems,

- encouraging family viewing policies and other educational and awareness measures,

- taking into account experience gained in this field in Europe and elsewhere as well as the views of interested parties such as broadcasters, producers, educationalists, media specialists and relevant associations.

We believe that Article 22 is of critical importance.

In correspondence with Commissioner Oreja in 1996 and 1997 concerning the transmission of hardcore pornography across Europe, it was stated that it is up to Member States to determine what is acceptable and what is not with regard to such transmissions.

In view of the convergence of technology, which does not recognise the boundaries of Member States, it is, in the light of the Green Paper, strange that such a subjective approach to this problem be countenanced.

It should be noted that the substance of Article 22 which is concerned to avoid serious impairment of the physical, mental or moral development of minors, was significantly amended in 1997 by the addition of minimal limitations on the transmission of "pornography and gratuitous violence" in programmes. Technical devices to enable parents or guardians "to filter out certain programmes" were thought to be sufficient with the additional qualification that such programming should be transmitted late at night, only on subscription channels and be encrypted. Thus, "pornography and gratuitous violence" is acceptable to the European Commission provided these conditions are met.

Numerous breakdowns in this system have come to light, the most serious being the transmission to Middle Eastern countries of hardcore pornography by a French channel instead of children's programmes. Such "accidents" are occurring with greater frequency with a consequent loss of faith in the filtering devices and the regulatory systems.

This Association believes that effective law, enacted democratically, is the only sure answer to stopping "pornography and gratuitous violence". The key to effective law is that such material is properly defined in the public interest so that the present 'free reign' enjoyed, in particular, by the international pornography industry comes to an end.

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e note with concern that enterprises such as 'Vivid Video', which operate in the United States of America, are currently flooding the world with hardcore pornography and especially the lucrative European cable market. If the European Commission is to take seriously this threat, measures must be put in place to outlaw the marketing of such material across Europe. Indeed, it would not be out of place for the European Commission, acting on behalf of the citizens of Europe, to make representation to the US Government protesting about the export from America of hardcore pornography and films containing gratuitous violence on the grounds that such material is an affront to our sensibilities and an attack our morals.

There can be no doubt that pornography, by its promotion of distorted sexuality, threatens family life and a balanced sexuality which would lead to a more wholesome healthy society. With established links to sexual crime the absence of pornography would lead to less sex crime, less fear in women and children arising from sexual abuse and attack.

We offer the following definition of "pornography" to the European Commission. This formed the basis of a Private Bill presented to the UK House of Lords by the Earl of Halsbury.

"(1) For the purposes of this Act an article shall be deemed to be obscene if, in whole or in part, it portrays, deals with or relates to any of the following matters (whether real or simulated):

(a) human sexual activity or acts of force or restraint associated with such activity;

(b) human genital organs or human urinary or excretory functions;

(c) any act which would be a sexual offence if carried out in practice;

(d) mutilation or torture of, or other acts of gross violence towards humans or animals;

in a manner which a reasonable person would regard as grossly offensive".

The term "gratuitous violence" should also be properly defined and this Association suggests that violent actions that would constitute a criminal offence in reality would be a suitable starting point for discussion.

Unless these terms are defined portrayals of explicit sexual conduct and brutal violence will continue to dominate the media to the detriment of the societies the media ought to serve. Failure to deal with these important questions will certainly hinder the praiseworthy purpose of technological convergence expressed in the Green Paper that it has "the potential to substantially improve the quality of life for Europe's citizens".

Turning now to the "technical device" which Directive 97/36/EC requires to be fitted to all new televisions sets to act as a filter, this Association published a paper in June 1996, entitled 'A CHIP TOO FAR' in which the case against the V-Chip is examined.

We understand that a cinema style classification system is currently being drawn up by the Internet Watch Foundation's policy board. The intention of this scheme is to allow parents to filter out violent, pornographic and other unsavoury material that they do not wish their children to access. The European Commission (despite issuing this Green Paper!) and ratings bodies in the United States and Australia, are reported to be in favour of such a scheme which is expected to be available in two years time.

Since national governments have undertaken to connect all schools to the Internet, as a priority, it is vital that some means of denying access to such material be established internationally.

This Association, however, has serious doubts about such "filtering devices", see Appendix, because they pass responsibility from the broadcaster or provider to the consumer and they give a false legitimacy to the material from which it is intended to protect minors.

Article 22, above, intends to disallow "pornography" and "gratuitous violence" from broadcasting and it is our belief that the Internet should be brought within its scope. Since the Broadcasting Authorities in Member States are responsible for broadcast material the Service Providers must henceforth be responsible for the material carried on the Internet. The European Commission should now direct that this be so and disregard self-interested protestations from the Service Providers.

With regard to the role of the recipients of transmitted material, by whatever means, the European Commission should direct that Member States provide proper means through which the public can make effective representation to the Broadcasting Authorities, and other providers, who should be required to give them due regard and adjust policy accordingly.

It is true that parents have an authentic role to play in educating their children but this should not be undermined by the electronic media. Children should be helped to understand the media and parents should try to ensure that they are selective and discriminating consumers of the means of communication. However those who transmit material have the greater responsibility. Parents play little or no role in making films and other programmes nor do they play a role in scheduling or choosing, from what is available, what to broadcast.

In recent times it is apparent, as the demands of so-called "free speech" have gained ground, that there has been a constant drift towards more screen violence, greater use of obscene and profane language and ever more explicit depictions of intimate sexual activity. Indeed, the Independent Television Commission, in the United Kingdom, has granted licences to a number of cable and satellite channels that transmit so-called "soft" pornography. It is always easier to drive taste in these matters downwards rather than upwards. Each step may be a small one, by itself, but if nobody takes responsibility for each incremental movement, the eventual result will be the decay of public standards of decency to the point where they no longer exist, without at any time a deliberate decision having been made by society that this is what it wants.

It is assumed by the Broadcasting Authorities, and others, that the absence of public protest or complaint is sufficient to assume public consent.

The complaints procedures currently in place do nothing to assure the public that their concerns are understood or that they are taken seriously. Over many years this Association has itself sent in innumerable complaints about a wide range of objectionable programme content. We have been in the forefront of encouraging the public to "make their voices heard". This activity, sadly, is regarded by many as a waste of time and effort because it seems to achieve nothing. Many people perceive that programmes, where matters of taste and decency and public offence are concerned, get worse rather than better.

Indeed, nine years after the Broadcasting Standards Council was set up their annual survey of public attitudes, published in September 1997, showed that 64% of respondents said there was too much violence on TV, 55% said there was too much bad language and 41% said there was too much sex on television. It is not surprising that Lady Howe, the BSC Chairman of the Council, said, in launching the BSC Report 'Regulating for Changing Values', published in May 1997, that many people perceive that the media "may have its own agenda".

This Association sent, to the Governors of the BBC, a detailed complaint about the constant stream of gratuitous obscene and profane language, a number of brutal and merciless shootings, scenes of bondage and graphic use of illegal drugs of the film 'Pulp Fiction' transmitted by BBC2 in November 1997. This complaint drew a dismissive response from the secretary of the BBC, Christopher Graham, who explained that "the BBC takes the view that violence and strong language are part of contemporary society and adult drama must be free to explore important issues truthfully"! The obligations on "good taste and decency" set out in the BBC's Royal Charter seemed to count for nothing. Indeed earlier correspondence with the BBC established that the Corporation is committed to broadcasting a wide range of programmes which cater for different tastes.... "The question of what is good taste or decent is a matter of judgement and the boundaries change over time. Different people hold different views".

The European Commission, in consulting on converging technology, and attempting to devise some means of effective regulation, can no longer shirk from the task of establishing a broad agreement on content. Article 22, of the EU Directive, is plainly not sufficient as presently formulated. Without meaningful definition of the material intended to be excluded from being legitimately transmitted, by whatever means, those who wish to exploit the system by broadcasting "pornography" and "gratuitous violence" will continue to do so using all of the modern technological means to do so. As a consequence of this technology may well turn out to be the master rather than the servant of the people.

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