Releasing the secular stranglehold
t has long been an objective of the Christian community in Britain to use the media to promote the Good News. This has been seen as a logical extension of the Lord's command to go and preach the Gospel to all nations. In recent years many Christians have responded to this call by harnessing technological developments and involving themselves in setting up radio and television stations, the commission and transmission of programming intended to bring the Word to Mankind. There are, of course, different ways of achieving this and today there are a host of channels on air that talk about the many graces God bestows and the close prayerful relationship that we, His creatures, should have with Him. There are also programmes that discuss theological matters, others that discuss the human condition and the right way to live our lives in accordance with what God has revealed.
All this is good and adds to the rich tapestry that makes up contemporary television and radio available at the press of a button. But we have to ask ourselves whether programmes like this, good and wholesome though they may be, attract the people most in need of spiritual awakening or whether they provide comfort viewing and listening for existing believers, or an escape from the offensive material elsewhere? The challenge that must be addressed, surely, is how to release the secular stranglehold on prime time television and radio and bathe in the light of Christ programming that occupies the screen in most households most nights of the week.
iewers who have bought into multi-channel satellite or cable networks have many programmes from which to choose their information, education and entertainment. Flicking through the many channels available, however, it is evident that the promise of greater choice of programming is pretty much an illusion, certainly at the present time. Along with repeats of soaps, gardening and DIY there are numerous pop music channels and old, mainly American, programmes dusted down from the archives. The recently published survey 'The Public's View 2002' revealed that many people are simply not satisfied with the programmes on offer.
Looking through the television schedules for any week of the year there are very few programmes that deal with anything other than material well being whether it be giving your kitchen a space-age makeover, cooking a superb dinner for one in under twenty minutes or demonstrating the latest technique for dieting. A recent science programme tried to show that God is merely part of our physical make-up! Of course there are marvellous exceptions that relay the wonders of God's creation, bringing us beautiful images of the animal kingdom that we would never otherwise see. And of course television makes familiar the great state and sporting occasions and, sadly, the awful consequences of war.
Most problems, however, arise with the way that human behaviour is portrayed. 'The Public's View 2002' revealed that violence is a huge public concern with 58% saying there is too much of it on screen. 56% of respondents had worries about swearing and 44% had worries about the portrayal of sexual conduct. More than half of the people interviewed said that programme standards have dropped across the board. The newspaper headline said "Complaints rocket as TV turns up the violence". The latest report from mediawatch-uk analysed 183 films shown on the five terrestrial channels. We identified 966 incidents involving firearms and 701 violent assaults.
There are also the frequent documentaries about strip clubs, brothels, lap-dancing clubs, the making and marketing of hardcore pornography and 'reality' shows about the lives of those who work in the sex industry. No wonder that a recent ITV Teletext poll found that 98 per cent of 2,765 respondents agreed standards on TV had slipped.
The day before 'The Public's View 2002' survey was published the Independent Television Commission reprimanded Channel 4 TV for showing a "lack of respect for human dignity" by broadcasting, among other degrading things, a picture of a Chinese performance artist eating a dead baby. Thankfully, the ITC rightly said the programme, 'Beijing Swings', was "contrary to good taste and decency" and there was little justification for its transmission. Channel 4 TV caused most offence in 2002 for the second year running although a call from me to the Chairman of the ITC to revoke the licence was rejected as inappropriate on the grounds that Channel 4's overall output is well balanced. Of course there are many excellent and innovative programmes on Channel 4 TV but these do not excuse scandalous material like the above or like the recent three part drama about the dysfunctional middle classes, sponsored by Renault, entitled '40'. This portrayed the very worst excesses of human depravity, which, as TV one critic accurately described it, "spluttered to a half-climax in a pool of murder, violation and recrimination". It is a great shame that so much contemporary programming is without love, without faith and without hope.
n the last few years much attention has been focused on the consultation process leading up to publication of the Communications Bill which will shortly receive Royal Assent. Clause 307 of the Bill sets out in detail the obligations placed on the Office of Communications (Ofcom) to set standards objectives. Gone are the existing requirements that programmes should not offend good taste or decency or offend public feeling. The Government, despite concern vigorously expressed, has done nothing to clarify the Bill with regard to regulating the content of programmes. Ofcom will have a duty to see "that generally accepted standards are applied to the contents of television and radio services … so as to provide adequate protection … from … offensive and harmful material". Ofcom will determine these terms in the light of public reaction to programmes. Accordingly, the onus on the viewing and listening public to complain or protest will remain. The broadcasters will be able to excuse themselves by improving media literacy and by providing warnings and better programme information so that we can all avoid the offensive material that they think is acceptable for transmission into our homes.
Last year mediawatch-uk published and circulated to all members of parliament a detailed briefing paper entitled 'A Fair Deal For Stakeholders' in which we made a number of proposals that we believe would strengthen the position of viewers and listeners in the whole broadcasting landscape. We suggested that broadcasters do more to involve viewers and listeners in determining programme policy. We welcome the BBC's comment line and we welcome the more recently established Viewer Relations Unit at the ITC. But it is no good keeping these facilities hidden.
Much more should be done to show respect for audiences by cutting out material known, through surveys and opinion polls, to cause offence and concern. There should be programmes about broadcasting and how the regulators fulfil their statutory objectives. Publicity should be given to the programme codes and guidelines so that the viewing public can make informed comment. There should be access programmes that give opportunities for concerns about standards to be addressed. Ofcom's Content Board must have a high public profile with strong community links to the viewing and listening public and it must act quickly to establish public confidence in its deliberations. Greater effort must be made to ensure that that everyone knows the point of contact. Ofcom must publish regular reports on monitored programme content, TV and Radio channel performance reviews and analysis of complaints received from the public - and above all, the action that has been taken as a result.
We believe that there is also a role for the Church in offering guidance to the viewing and listening public. People should be encouraged to become "media literate" in terms of understanding the media's influence on their lives, values, thinking and behaviour. We should be helped to become discriminating viewers and listeners and the most effective ways of 'making our voices heard' when necessary. Churches Together, for example, could issue an information sheet encouraging people to confidently communicate with Ofcom and the broadcasters. The Church could also, perhaps, do more to insist that the broadcasters present an improved moral tone and more civilised values than at present that will benefit our society as a whole.
One thing is certain - it is not enough to simply turn off. Doing this will change nothing!
This article was first published in ‘New Voice’ (Vol 1 Issue 2) the journal of the Christian
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