Charge of the right brigade

Self-appointed guardians of morality and Christian values in the US have targeted a 'depraved' Hollywood as public enemy number one. By Daniel Jeffreys
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"You have sold your souls, but must you debase our nation?" A religious fanatic speaking? No, that was Senator Bob Dole from Kansas. Dole gave forth his fire and brimstone in Los Angeles last month. His target was Hollywood. "We have come to a point," he said, "where our popular culture threatens to undermine our character as a nation."

Since Dole fired that shot, he has given six more speeches on Hollywood's "depravity". Like many conservatives, Senator Dole wants to blame TV and the movies for violence, irresponsible sex and the decline of the family. "Our culture is being debased by nightmares of depravity," he thunders.

So these are the culture wars and there will be casualties. "Senator Dole has begun a potentially poisonous process," says Majorie Heins at the American Civil Liberties Union in New York. "People think the First Amendment to the Constitution is an unlimited protection of free speech. It is not. The Amendment excludes obscenity, and that is widely defined. If people have the motivation, they can use the law as an effective vehicle of censorship."

Especially if there are votes to be won. "The phones have been ringing off the hook," says Clarkson Hines, Senator Dole's spokesman. "I think you can assume this will be an issue throughout the campaign."

Hines thinks this is especially so now that some of Senator Dole's targets have struck back. The Los Angeles speech singled out Time Warner, its rap music label Interscope and the rap groups Geto Boys and Bushwick Bill. "You know what those people have done?" says Hines. "Bushwick Bill now has a video in which he burns a Bob Dole campaign banner. This was released by Time Warner. Where's the responsibility in that?"

But the Los Angeles speech was not written by Bob Dole. The attack on Hollywood was scripted by Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council. The FRC is just one organisation among many that make up the religious right in America. It has joined forces with the Christian Coalition, the American Family Association, the Christian Film Office and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Los Angeles. Between now and the next presidential election, they intend to change the way Hollywood behaves.

"Politicians have to know these issues are no longer negotiable," says Kristi Hammrick, an executive officer of the FRC. The FRC describes itself as a "think tank". It's really the propaganda arm of the American Family Association and the Christian Coalition, producing ammunition for the six million foot soldiers who are its members.

Until November 1996, the FRC will concentrate its efforts on public enemy number one. "Hollywood has abandoned its role as a moral guide," says Gary Bauer. "Instead it peddles horrible values. Just a few days ago, two teenagers stabbed a 67-year-old man to death in Boston and told police they had been influenced by Natural Born Killers. This is about cultural pollution."

One unusual feature of Dole's campaign has been the naming of names. There has been nothing vague about this attack. Companies such as Time Warner, Miramax and MTV have all been identified as culprits.

This sharp focus on Hollywood is already proving effective. The Disney subsidiary Miramax used to own a disturbing film called Kids, which depicts the sexually anarchic life of inner-city teenagers. No more. Disney forced Miramax to sell the film. The problems don't end there. The Motion Picture Association of America has just denied the film a commercial rating. One MPAA insider said the decision came after intense pressure from religious groups like the FRC.

Of course, what many on the right would prefer is a return to the days of Hays. Will Hays was the US Postmaster General in 1932 when Hollywood asked him to devise a censorship code. In the Thirties, Hollywood was under attack by the Catholic Church. The Hays Code was an attempt to deflect this criticism and avoid greater government regulation. It prohibited nudity, interracial love, adultery and illicit sex. It also banned any criticism of organised religion. Had Gone with the Wind producer David Selznick not fought with the Hays Office, Clark Gable would never have said: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." The office at first ruled the line was offensive to public morals.

Some of this nonsense could soon return. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles has just called for a new motion picture and television code. In a press release that almost parodies the constitution, LA's Cardinal Mahony writes: "We, the people, have the right to decency on movie screens and on our public airwaves."

The connection between violence on the screen and on the streets is tenuous at best, and who knows if movies influence sexual behaviour or vice versa? But public opinion does affect politicians - that's a much simpler relationship. After the first Dole speech, a Gallup poll showed 72 per cent of Americans thought that Hollywood was "seriously out of touch with the values of American people". Which may explain why President Clinton tried to grab his seat on the bandwagon last week. He demanded that Congress pass a piece of legislation that would force TV manufacturers to install a "V- Chip". This would allow parents to programme their sets so they can block shows with violent content. "This is not censorship," Clinton said. "This is parental responsibility."

"This is the danger in this campaign, on both sides," says film producer Fred Zollo. "After a V-chip, an S-chip can't be far behind. But who decides which programmes deserve the labelling? The producers? The TV networks? The government?" Zollo is even more concerned at the implications as the presidential elections begin. "Politicians on both sides know that 1996 will be a close election. They have to win votes in every grubby corner. There are far more fundamental Christians in this country than liberal movie producers. We are bound to have a period of more intense censorship, both public and private."

"We have been insulted and defiled by Hollywood," says the FRC's Kristi Hammrick. Hammrick's passion is also fuelled by suspicion of a deeper conspiracy. "Statistics show it's family oriented films that do best, and softer types of music. Violent movies and rap music are not as commercially successful. So why produce that material? If it doesn't make the most money there must be some other motive."

It seems the FRC and other fundamentalist groups believe there's a plot afoot to destroy Christian and family values. It's a little kooky, but it's an idea backed by great power. Groups like FRC and the Christian Coalition have perfected their political skills and now control school boards, city councils, state legislatures and some congressmen. "These groups are well on the road to restricting abortion rights, and they have censored school books throughout the country," says the ACLU's Majorie Heins. "If Hollywood producers don't censor themselves, they will be forced to act by economic boycotts and new regulations."

Michael Fuchs, the new chairman of Warner Music, confesses that he is worried. He has had to face criticism about rap music everywhere he goes, but he says he won't be bullied. "This is street poetry. It reflects a culture and it would exist and flourish in that culture even if we dropped all the rap bands on our label." But even Fuchs is starting to bend. "Some lyrics have been too violent and misogynistic. We will be taking a closer look at some of these songs in the future."

An admission of defeat? Of course. Freedom of speech is enshrined in the US constitution, but the freedom to broadcast or own a TV station is not. The US media business survives inside a web of government regulations. Licences can be denied, takeovers or mergers can be blocked. Big corporations like Time Warner spend millions on political consultants so they know when not to swim against the tide. While the right has the ascendancy in American politics, there will be less freedom of expression. Rap bands will find it more difficult to get recording contracts. The next Pulp Fiction will face a struggle to get produced. The figures who mint words for aspiring presidents will make sure of that.