Paying To Be Peeping Toms

By John C Beyer, Director mediawatch-uk


t was reported last week that a ten-year-old child was caught accessing hard core pornography on the Internet. He was showing his classmates when a teacher intervened and turned the computer off. The child had apparently overridden the software by which such material would normally be excluded from sites accessible to those using school equipment. Whilst we accept that all children should be computer literate this eventuality is one of the predictable consequences of connecting schools to the World Wide Web. Indeed we warned the Government, many months ago, that effective safeguards should be in place before the substantial sums of tax payers money were expended on connecting schools to the so-called Grid for Learning.

Many people, perhaps, will probably not be aware that the Internet, apart from its beneficial capability of enabling access to a wealth of valuable information, is a technological development, just as video was in the 1980s, that is being used extensively by the sex industry. There are many web sites offering access too much that is morally corrosive and offensive in the extreme. Indeed, daily newspapers and magazines advertise numerous web addresses that offer pornography, prostitutes, sex products and so on. More worrying are the many sites that seem innocent and yet conceal some very explicit images.

In the past people who wanted pornography had to go to sleazy back street premises and do so in fear of being seen. All that has changed and today anyone with a computer and a modem, and there are now 10 million homes in Britain connected to the Internet, can access obscenity in the privacy of their own homes. It is estimated that the number of visits to pornographic web sites is to be counted in millions every day!

Channel 5 TV, not surprisingly, is currently showing a series of programmes entitled ''. Included so far has been a programme about Porn Stars, others about prostitutes and "swingers" with another about "amateurs" who like to perform sex acts while being watched by others. According to one contributor "'Amateur' is a prized quality that people are really willing to pay for - the illusion that they are seeing into somebody's house and they are seeing them do something that they don't think they are being seen doing". Web sites devoted entirely to voyeurism were featured as well as some of the explicit images shown on them. This series seems to be little more than a promotion for the sex industry and its exploitation of the Internet and we can hardly be surprised if youngsters have their innocence destroyed by surfing the net.


ommunications technology has moved quickly into the digital age and television producers have been eager to demonstrate the range of novel capabilities that are now possible. The first series of 'Big Brother' hit our television screens last year and was considered to be a ratings success for Channel 4 TV. It was followed later in the year by 'Celebrity Big Brother' which was also a ratings winner with prize money being given to charity. 'Big Brother' has also enjoyed unprecedented press coverage and some of the participants have quickly achieved celebrity status especially those who have played up to the cameras.

The continuous web casting, the transmission of edited highlights on free to air television and telephone voting combine to bring us a televisual development that is bound to become commonplace in the future.

In George Orwell's book '1984', 'Big Brother' was the all seeing eye that exerted total control over every action, word, gesture and thought of the subjects. In the TV series it is not difficult to imagine the conversations reflecting directives from Orwell's Ministry of Love. Even the location, a high security compound, is not very far removed from the windowless building described in the satire. That the viewers decide who stays and who goes could have sinister implications for the future of our televisual society.

As with other programming the wider social consequences are simply not considered. Such a series turns viewers into voyeurs and it moves further along the so-called 'fly-on-the-wall' genre of programming. 'Big Brother' creates an unhealthy curiosity and a lustful desire to see what other people do "in private". It pretends to be showing the reality of living but it is so clearly contrived to parade the worst excesses of exhibitionism. The danger of programmes like this is that they assume that individual privacy can be cynically surrendered in the interests of novelty television aimed at maximising audience ratings and advertising revenue. The towel dropping scene will no doubt be shown again and again and in order to keep us all viewing we are promised that Helen and Paul, two of the "stars", are expected be spending a night together in the den.

The portrayal of real, rather than simulated, sex on television is an objective that has been achieved several years ago on some European satellite TV channels. At the Edinburgh Festival in August last year a high ranking TV official demanded that hard core pornography should be available on British subscription channels. This is a prospect that is not as far off as we might think! Next week a new film called 'Intimacy' will be shown in Britain's cinemas. This film, classified "18" by the British Board of Film Classification, represents a landmark judgement. For the first time real sexual intimacy is being portrayed in a film regarded by the BBFC as suitable for general release in the nations cinemas. Up until the Board's guidelines were relaxed last year such imagery would not have been so classified. With an "18" certificate 'Intimacy' is eligible for showing on television. Other explicit films like 'Showgirls', said by one critic to give pornography a bad name, has been shown by Channel 4 TV, the remake of 'Lolita' and David Cronenberg's controversial film 'Crash' have been shown recently by FilmFour. The sordid sado-masochistic film 'The Story of O' about a young woman who becomes a sex slave has also been shown by Channel 4 TV.

That current broadcasting policy is out of step with a large proportion of public opinion has been demonstrated again by the results of two separate polls conducted recently by 'The Heaven and Earth Show' on BBC TV and another by ITV's teletext service. Viewers were asked if they thought that society is being corrupted by the media. Of the thousands who telephoned and e-mailed 92% said YES. Teletext readers were asked if they are sick of TV sleaze. Astonishingly, this had an even higher 98% YES vote!

Of course it is easy to keep going on about the problem but you may ask what are we doing about it?


ediawatch-uk, previously called the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association, has established a reputation for taking on media issues fearlessly and without compromise. We have suffered many setbacks in the past and have had to cope with the criticism of being "too negative". We continue to recognise good programmes that deserve praise but we believe that these do not outweigh the bad. Nor do we believe it is right to remain silent when the programme codes and statutory duties seem to be ignored.

At the beginning of June Channel 4 TV transmitted a two part drama called 'Men Only'. Significantly this was a few days before the General Election when most people, including our politicians, were concerned about voting. 'Men Only' was previewed in a national Sunday newspaper and the description of the contents proved to be accurate if understated. From the outset and throughout the characters used a continuous stream of foul language. The men were portrayed using illegal drugs and brutally raping a nurse. We wrote immediately to the Chairman of the Independent Television Commission asserting that the drama breached several sections of their Programme Code. We also said that it failed to comply with the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998 in so far as it portrayed disorder and crime and sexual conduct that was not healthy or moral. We also wrote to the Broadcasting Standards Commission because we thought it breached their Code of Guidance too. Bearing in mind that Channel 4 TV's drama season is being sponsored by Renault we wrote, in French, to the chairman, Msr Benoit Marzloss, urging that their funding be withdrawn.

Television has imperceptibly assumed an essential role in our society and we have all come to trust the broadcasters and rely upon the entertainment, the information and the education that is prescribed for us. The Digital Television Age brings with it the advantage of greatly increased choice of viewing. If we want good wholesome programming that respects audiences and is not offensive we must all make a real effort to ensure that high standards of taste and decency prevail. We have to ask ourselves whether being turned into voyeurs is right or desirable and whether television is going beyond and what it ought to be - our servant not our master. One thing is certain, switching off and remaining silent are no longer realistic options.

This article first appeared in The Catholic Herald 20/7/2001

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