Beware TV's red light districts!
By John C Beyer, Director mediawatch-uk
n Saturday 17 March 2001, St Patrick's Day, Channel 4 TV screened, for the first time on terrestrial television, William Friedkin's 1973 film 'The Exorcist'. The film is about a pretty, vivacious twelve-year-old girl, who is possessed by the Devil, and a priest who is brought in to restore normality when medical doctors fail. In the film the child is turned into a gruesome, screeching, foul-mouthed horror who vomits, urinates and uses a stream of four letter words and appalling blasphemy. Channel 4 TV, two days later, screened 'The Exorcist III' which is a story about a series of brutal, ritualistic murders. Not to be outdone in the 'devil stakes', BBC2 screened Sam Raimi's horror film 'Evil Dead 2' on 10 March.
Only a few weeks ago on Sunday 18 February Channel 4 TV premiered Paul Verhoeven's 1995 film 'Showgirls' about a young woman who becomes a stripper and then a lap dancer. Nothing, of course, is left to the imagination as the nation's living rooms were once again turned into 'red light districts'! According to one well-known critic, this film "gives pornography a bad name"! The poor scripting and the lack of a real story added to the impression that this sleazy production was little more than a promotion for the sex industry.
Last week (17-23 March) Channel 5 TV investigated the power of seductive imagery in advertising; SKY cinema screened the ultra violent four hour gangster epic, 'Once Upon a Time in America'; Channel 4 TV screened the sordid sado-masochistic film, 'The Story of O', about a young woman taken to a bizarre retreat where she becomes a willing sex slave; ITV began a three part series called 'Vice - Inside Britain's Sex Business', the first programme being about a student who is hired by husbands to fornicate with their wives. ITV also began another new series of 'The Vice' featuring a male escort, a massage parlour, a lesbian screen test and a swingers club. FilmFour screened the 1997 remake of 'Lolita', a film about a teacher who goes to great lengths to engage in sexual relations with a twelve-year-old girl; Channel 5 screened a documentary, 'Rankin's Raw Nudes' about a photographer's project; Channel 4 TV screened a programme '4Later: Digital Sex' about a transvestite escort, and, FilmFour transmitted David Cronenberg's controversial film 'Crash', about perverse sexual relations with car crash victims!
From this small selection of programming, shown in just seven days, it is evident that something has gone seriously wrong with the regulation of broadcasting in Britain.
ooking through the TV magazines there are many good and praiseworthy programmes to enjoy and of course it is true that no one is obliged to view offensive material that they prefer to avoid. But few can escape the effects of the media's preoccupation with violence and brutality, nudity and human sexual activities or the use of obscene and profane language.
Social aggression and violence have become huge problems and the Government has promised new punitive measures aimed at restoring peace and tranquillity to our land. The Courts are to extend working hours and an extra 300 prosecutors are to be appointed. But how much will really be achieved while the television, film and video industries continue to produce fictional violence glamorising criminal behaviour and turning gangsters and villains into heroes? In December last year it was reported that violent crimes reached record levels and Police chiefs blamed the rise of 'yob culture'.
In a society which places due emphasis on improving communication skills through our sophisticated and costly education system how far will it succeed if our beautiful English language is debased and corrupted by swearing and verbal abuse? One film we monitored very carefully, 'Goodfellas', shown four times in five years, included 212 'f...' words in 146 minutes! And this film is by no means unique! A school in South London recently made headlines because the head teacher had decided to exclude pupils for using bad language and swearing at teachers. Should we not also be asking how such a situation has come about, and remove the influences which have normalised obscene language?
And distress now commonly caused by marital infidelity and sexual promiscuity is hardly going to be alleviated by the continual portrayal of such behaviour in the media. Those who work so hard to salvage relationships often have their work seriously undermined by the casual, careless and irresponsible attitudes which are so frequently depicted on television and in films.
I would certainly agree that television cannot be blamed entirely for society's ills but I do believe that it has not been merely an innocent bystander. Indeed, the Chairman of the BBC's Governors once proudly boasted that the BBC had "shaped the taste of the nation". This being so we can conclude that broadcasting has at least contributed to some of the problems that badly need to be remedied.
As an organisation we are very aware that there is considerable public unease at some of the programming now finding its way on to television and the damaging influence it exerts. And this despite the existence of a system of regulation that currently has at its core a requirement, imposed by Parliament in the Broadcasting Act and in the BBC's Royal Charter, to secure that programmes do not "offend against good taste or decency, do not incite to crime or lead to disorder or offend public feeling".
A survey recently published by the Broadcasting Standards Commission stated that violence, sex and swearing had reached record levels and that more than a quarter of swearing incidents occurred before 9.00pm. The Commission also found that 50% of viewers said that they were concerned about the standards of television programmes and that violence was the concern most often mentioned. In another report published last October the Commission concluded that the number of people switching off or changing channels, because they have been personally disgusted by something they have seen, is on the increase. That such a high proportion voluntarily declared this is a clear indication that regulation of programme content is failing properly to reflect public attitudes and meet expectations.
ast year 'The Catholic TIMES' reported on our campaign to undermine public confidence in the Independent Television Commission for failing to resist the slide in standards. Although it is true that some complaints about programmes have been upheld since then, there is little real evidence that anything has changed for the better. Moreover, the ITC's new Programme Code, which comes into effect from April, removes the requirement that sex and nudity in programming should be in context and presented with "tact and discretion". This omission is clearly calculated not only to accommodate the growing number of cable and satellite channels, licensed by the ITC, that transmit pornography, but also to remove grounds upon which claims of breach of the Code could properly be based. It is no coincidence that two more pornographic satellite TV channels started transmissions from 1 March offering "the most explicit films and shows on TV".
Accordingly, it is more necessary than ever that there is a campaigning organisation with expertise to represent those who have a legitimate grievance that programming is lacking in quality, diversity and standards. On the 1 March 2001 mediawatch-uk became the new name for the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association, (Click here for About Us) founded by Mary Whitehouse in 1965. The Chairman, John Milton Whatmore, said "The new name is modern and we hope a more user-friendly banner under which to operate. Taking into consideration the rapid change in media technology and legislation it is more important than ever for an organisation like mediawatch-uk to exist to facilitate balanced and ethical debate." The enthusiastic support of the members was a great encouragement and made a difficult decision much easier. Our intention is certainly not to sweep away or forget the remarkable achievements of the past but to build on the considerable experience gained and to make the campaign for better broadcasting more widely supported.
It is often lamented that there is nothing on television but perhaps what we really mean is that there is nothing good or worthwhile! As we know the schedules are full, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and choice has been extended enormously in the last few years as satellite and cable networks have become established. But looking through the programme magazines how much of this is original programming being shown for the first time?
Last month the Government concluded a public consultation on proposals for a new communications regulator to be called OFCOM. It will be responsible for all aspects of regulation including that of programme content. mediawatch-uk said in its response, entitled 'Empowering the Viewer 2', (Click here) that the objective of any system of content regulation should surely be to set standards and to provide a proper mechanism by which they are maintained or improved. We said that the system should provide adequate safeguards and appropriate sanctions for those who breach the rules. There should be requirements that all broadcasters do nothing to undermine human dignity or civilised values, that they show respect for the audience and that they present the best possible information, education and entertainment. For their part the broadcasters must present far-sighted plans demonstrating a real passion for excellence which will fulfil the above objectives.
The White Paper takes into account the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998 and we would expect OFCOM to place due emphasis on the requirement to protect health and morals, which we said should take priority over all other considerations. We welcomed the formal establishment of the "Viewer's Panel" but said that this must be broadly based if it is to reflect authentic public opinion.
It is often said that we get the television we deserve. If we want good wholesome programming that is not gratuitously offensive or low budget, recycled off-the-shelf material, we must all make a real effort to ensure that h igh standards prevail. Switching off and remaining silent are no longer options in the digital television age that is now upon us.
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