Revising the ITC Programme Code
Response to an ITC Consultation
ediawatch-uk agrees with the proposition that the Programme Code is one of the main tools of television regulation. This reflects a similar statement made in the Government's consultation paper 'Regulating communications: approaching convergence in the Information Age'.
In 5.5(a) it stated:
"The regulatory process starts with Government. Regulators must have a clear legislative framework within which to operate. With greater clarity of duties and objectives comes improved accountability for their delivery - to Parliament, to Ministers and to consumers."
We recommend that the securing of standards should be the role of the regulatory authority. That these powers were devolved in1993 to the licensees has led to a rapid deterioration in standards. A key factor in reversing this trend must be the restoration of these powers to a central regulatory authority.
It is no surprise that the Independent Television Commission states that it is satisfied by the performance of the licensees to meet the standards. This indicates that the Code, as presently constituted, lacks the necessary definition and consequently its application lacks force. The contemporary "light touch" approach has plainly had damaging consequences so far as taste and decency issues are concerned.
We do not agree that procedures to ensure compliance are "generally effective" and would point to the continuing debacle over Channel 5 TV's output that has given rise to unprecedented adverse publicity and to a statement of concern made in the House of Commons. That the Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport found it necessary to make this statement at all is itself an indication of a failing regulatory system. We note that the backers of Channel 5 TV are themselves anxious to eradicate its image as a purveyor of tacky games shows and smut so as to avoid driving away advertisers. Had the ITC acted within the terms of its statutory obligations such a situation should never have arisen.
This Association agrees that the work of programme makers, compliance staff and senior executives has been "mostly unknown" for far too long. Broadcasting is virtually the last bastion of paternalistic secrecy that is curiously out of step with every other aspect of life in a mature democracy. It is especially out of keeping for an enterprise whose business is social communications!
In an age of access and openness complimented by the exercise of wide ranging rights it is surely time that broadcasting was opened up to public scrutiny. If the proceedings of Parliament can be televised why not the meetings of the ITC? And, for that matter, the Governors and Management of the BBC? The members of the ITC are appointed to represent the public interest and yet few outside the television industry know who the members of the Commission are let alone what they do.
It is plain that the emphasis on self-regulation has not worked in the public interest but has favoured the industry. Nothing illustrates this more graphically than the entrenched attitude adopted by senior management at Channel 5 TV who have remained impervious to all criticism.
The aims for flexibility and support for creativity, innovation, ethical behaviour, good judgement and the independence and freedoms of the broadcasters "have brought to our screens" such excesses as 'Eurotrash', 'Fetishes', 'Animal Passions' and 'Sex and Shopping' to name but a few. And such monstrously violent films as 'Pulp Fiction', 'Reservoir Dogs' and 'Natural Born Killers' among many others.
The 'post hoc' approach to content regulation has clearly not worked and must be replaced in any new regulatory scheme by a system where the authority itself, rather than licensees, can secure compliance to the statutory requirements and to the Programme Code. This could be achieved by a requirement that every licenced service appoints a Programme Compliance Officer who should be responsible to the regulatory authority rather than to the individual TV company.
Whilst we acknowledge that a system of sanctions is available to the ITC it is noteworthy that in the last six years these have been imposed only for product placement, faking in documentaries and inappropriate scheduling. The ITC has rarely confronted taste and decency issues directly. Only when recommending the issue of Proscription Orders by the Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport, against foreign satellite channels, does the ITC refer to "taste and decency" rules being breached. We note and rejoice that the ITC recently revoked the licence of the pornography channel, 'Babylon Blue', but this was because an earlier financial penalty of £10,000 was not paid. Presumably, if the fine is paid the licence will be restored.
It is comforting to know that the ITC has in place a scheme for monitoring output. It would be helpful to have information, in the Programme Code, about the basis on which monitoring is conducted, its scope and whether the Code plays any part in forming judgements.
That the ITC itself receives around 4000 complaints each year from members of the public indicates there is a substantial degree of dissatisfaction with programming. It would have been helpful also to know how many complaints are received by the ITV companies.
It would also be helpful to know what measures the ITC proposes to improve contact with the public and make known the terms of the Programme Code in the future. We recommend that the ITC's 'Fact File' is advertised far more widely and especially in the ITC's television promotions of itself.
PROPOSED CODE REVISIONS
ediawatch-uk notes that the ITC does not "vet" programmes or schedules in advance. This Association believes that the duty to preview programmes, removed in the Broadcasting Act 1990, should be restored. It is difficult to see how the statutory duty to "secure" that programmes do not offend good taste or decency, for example, is achieved after they have been transmitted when offence to viewers has already been caused.
It is evident that some licensees have a very curious attitude to their delegated responsibilities in this regard. Unless further provision is made to ensure that licensees comply we believe that a central regulatory authority should be responsible. In view of the recent consolidation of ITV companies this should present no real practical difficulties.
We agree with the removal of (a) on page 13.
We agree with the removal of (b) on page 13.
We agree with the removal of (e) on page 14.
(f) We suggest that "taking into account comments received from the public" be added to the first sentence.
(9) We suggest that "interpretation" of the Code should not be carried on exclusively in the interests of the industry. Much more weight should be given to comment from the public. Moreover "interpretation" ought not to be done as a result of "changing circumstances". Fixed reference points are essential in any process of interpretation.
(h). This Association believes that the Programme Code should attempt to be "a complete guide to good practice in every situation". By being incomplete and acknowledging this from the outset it allows far too much latitude to ambitious producers.
We agree with the removal of (j) on page 15.
1.2. assumes that "freedom of expression" is a "requirement" that is unconditional. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is incorporated into the Human Rights Act 1998, is not unconditional. It is misleading to convey the impression that such "freedom" is absolute.
Why should the decline in the proportion of children be "matched" by a progression towards more "adult" material. "Adult" is a word adopted by pornographers and has widely understood connotations. For this reason it should be avoided in a Programme Code which is aimed at regulating content on all TV channels. "Mature" might be a better word to use.
Section 1.2 (v)(c) on page 20.
Why should the mere passage of time be sufficient reason for BBFC classifications to be "relaxed"? This assumes again that there are no fixed points of reference. The ITC and the ITV companies have relied too much on BBFC classifications for assessing suitability of films for showing on television where different rules apply. Films should not be shown on television if they do not comply with the Programme Code.
Section 1.2 (vi)
This Association can see no good reason why rules on content for subscription or specialist channels should be different to any other channel. By proposing different rules the ITC contributes to the overall public confusion about acceptable standards.
We note that the Playboy TV channel was recently given approval to begin transmissions at 8.00pm rather than at 10.00pm. Why accommodate "material of a more adult kind" simply because it is transmitted between 10pm and 5.30am. Video recorders enable programmes to be recorded and viewed at a more convenient time. A Programme Code that fails to recognise this widespread popular practice falls short of what is really required.
Section 1.2 (vii)
This Association simply does not accept that "watershed rules may be waived" or that any other rules may be "waived" in any viewing circumstances and certainly not to accommodate "adult sex material" which we believe does not and has never complied with the statutory requirement on good taste and decency.
Section 1.2 (viii)
Much more stringent rules must apply to Trailers and Programme Promotions. These tend to concentrate on the most sensational aspects of a programme and for this reason create a demand in younger viewers to stay up late. Often the trailers for late evening programmes are shown between daytime and early evening programmes in order to retain the audience for the whole evening. In recent years trailing programmes on other channels has been stepped up notably for ITV 2.
It is true that many people are offended by bad language. For this reason alone the volume of bad language in film and television programming should be substantially reduced. Much of the bad language is entirely gratuitous and has no dramatic or other justification. The film 'KIDS' shown by Channel 4 TV on 21/8/00 exemplifies our belief that the Programme Code is not enforced by the ITC and ignored by Channel 4 TV. Other films like 'Natural Born Killers', 'Goodfellas', 'Reservoir Dogs', 'Trainspotting', 'Ladybird, Ladybird' to name but a few, have included scripted obscenities that have, by any reasonable interpretation, breached the Programme Code and have failed to attract any form of censure by the ITC. Much more must be done to curtail bad language and we propose that this section should list words and phrases that should never be heard on any licensed television service. This would go a long way to reducing public offence and would assist film and programme makers in their creative endeavours.
Sex and nudity also cause offence to many viewers whether gratuitous or not. It is a pity that the revisions in this section do not recognise this or refer to the statutory requirement that programmes should not offend against decency. Many films, dramas and lately, documentary productions, include sex and nudity for its own sake and for no other reason than to titillate the audience or to bolster weak or non-existent plots. It is argued that the inclusion of sexually explicit imagery is justified because it is "in context". On these grounds anything can be justified!
We note that the requirement, in earlier versions of the Programme Code, that sex and nudity must be portrayed with "tact and discretion" has been revised out of the draft Code under consideration. This Association believes that this should be restored and its application better enforced by the competent regulatory authority.
This Association believes that indecency in programming has become commonplace because of a failure to enforce the terms of the Programme Code. The relaxation of the Code now proposed would seem to be contrived to bring it into line with current production practice. Such an approach is hardly appropriate for a regulator. We believe that the revisions proposed in this section of the Code could well be interpreted, by programme makers and schedulers, to justify invading the early evening with indecent imagery and the ITC should resist this rather than try to accommodate it. Moreover, many people are offended by sex and nudity and for this reason the Code should be far more restrictive.
We propose that "tact and discretion" should be better defined so that any unseemly display of human private parts is specifically excluded.
Section 1.5: VIOLENCE
t is true that the portrayal of violence on television is an area of public concern. This has been well known for many years but there is little evidence that any attention has been paid to this manifestation of public feeling. We agree with the proposition that there can be no defence of violence shown or heard for its own sake. However, many films bought in from abroad, include violence that has no dramatic or any other justification. It is commendable that the ITC at least recognises in the Code that the portrayal of violence can be "disturbing" and that it can be "psychologically harmful". However, it would be helpful to know what forces come into play when the balance is weighed against the "more robust majority".
This Association believes that broadcasters always justify the inclusion of violence and the considerations outlined in the Programme Code seem to count for little. If the Code were taken seriously films like 'Natural Born Killers', for example, would never be shown on television. In this, too, the ITC has failed to enforce the terms of its own code. The Code should be rather more explicit about unacceptable violence. We suggest, as a starting point, that the portrayal of the use of firearms and other offensive weapons be drastically reduced.
Monitoring by this Association of evening and late night films shown by the terrestrial TV channels from 1994 -1998 shows startling statistics:
In 1091 films 4886 incidents involving firearms, 3603 violent assaults and 1438 incidents involving the use of offensive weapons other than firearms were identified.
We agree with the revision in 1.5(d).
n 1.5(e) who determines when "violence in a sexual context" is very exceptional? It would be helpful to know how far the ITC is involved in determining when such material may be shown "very exceptionally" or whether such decisions are devolved to the companies. In every case we would expect that broadcasters would contend that their portrayal is exceptional and is justified by dramatic context.
We agree that suicide 1.5(i) should be handled "with care" although again we believe that justification by context allows too much latitude. Any portrayal should not show details capable of imitation or suggest that the distressed person will always survive.
We agree that Hanging Scenes 1.5(ii) should also be handled with care. Again, any portrayal should not show details capable of imitation or suggest that the person may survive.
Violence in news, and other factual programming, raises particular difficulties especially when incoming news footage is beyond the control of the receiver. When deadlines for news bulletins are tight it is easy, although rare, for misjudgements to occur. We agree that care should be taken to avoid frequent repetition of violent news.
n Section 2 we would suggest that the statutory requirement to maintain a proper balance on matters of public policy is not always observed and could be hindered by the provisions in 3.2: Impartiality over time. Whilst this clause is necessary there is no provision to ensure that due impartiality is achieved. For example, both series on Channel 5TV entitled 'Sex and Shopping' devoted almost all of its time to the promotion of pornography and the sex industry with only token representation of opposition viewpoints. The emphasis of these programmes was that Britain is out of step with other countries and that the Obscene Publications Act is an archaic restraint from a bygone age that should be swept away. Only one programme in the first series paid any attention to harmful effects on women who pose for pornography. These series, taken as a whole, could hardly been said to have been presented with due impartiality on a matter of public policy. Given that the series was said not to have breached the Code in this respect indicates that it is defective or not adequately enforced.
This Association has no comment to make about any other aspect of the proposed revisions to the Programme Code.
5 September 2000
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