Media: Sexual prudes who decide the bottom line

Censorship can be a good thing, argues David Aaronovitch, but not when led by public opinion
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The Independent Culture
ONLY THE foolish or the very young are opposed to all kinds of censorship. Parenthood, as I've learned, is a pretty continuous exercise in excision and bowdlerisation. So we parents tend to look upon censors as our allies in the task of keeping highly profitable mayhem from overwhelming us. The alternative is the three-year-old, thought to have been happily occupied in front of Teletubbies, who was discovered eating its Rice Krispies to the accompaniment of Johnny Wadd's impressive ejaculations. Societies that expose kids to pornography are bad societies.

So, in contrast to my student self, I am in favour of regulation; of bodies like the ITC; of documents like the BBC's producers' guidelines; and of individuals like our own Andreas Whittam Smith. Someone, after all, has to take a view on what is and what isn't kosher.

And please spare me all the guff about "who are they to tell us what we can and cannot watch?". Civilisations have rules. You don't want rules? Go and live in Chechnya; watch all the porn you like, and open your post to find your mother's ear and a ransom note.

But I draw the line at the Broadcasting Standards Commission. This is the group of worthies collected together to investigate and to rule upon complaints submitted by members of the public. These may concern mistreatment at the hands of programme-makers, or may be about Mr Pootie's horror at being confronted by gay sex on his TV screen. In the latter sense, the BSC resembles nothing so much as a strange cross between The Daily Telegraph's letters page and Sam Spade. With its entirely retrospective function, it is an institutional locker of stable doors after the horses have mated.

Its usefulness as an arbiter of decency may be judged by how the BSC handled a complaint about the edition of This Morning with Richard and Judy of 16 October 1998. As the Commission succinctly put it in its latest bulletin, "a viewer complained about nudity and simulated sex". Since This Morning is transmitted some time between elevenses and lunch time on ITV, it is an unusual vehicle for explicit material. So what happened? A man took his clothes off (though he apparently "kept his genitals covered"), and assaulted the al fresco weatherman by pretending to throw him into the water. I should explain that this particular forecaster usually stands on a floating polystyrene map of Britain.

A viewer. No genitals. No simulated sex. Not much of a case, you would have thought. Wrong. The commission concluded that, "while the man's actions had not been sexually explicit, the level of nudity had been unacceptable for the time of transmission". The BSC officially stamped the complaint "Upheld".

What on earth was meant by "the level of nudity"? What are "acceptable" nudity levels, anyway? And acceptable to whom? If the man's genitals were invisible, was it his bottom that we were worried about? And who cannot "accept" bare bottoms at 11am? I bet that if they were African bottoms on a safari programme then no one would be complaining. This is provincial prudery of an antique sort. The commissioners are the sort of people who change their swimming costumes under layers of towelling rather than offend an apathetic world with a microsecond's flash of greying pubic hair.

There are 12 commissioners (of whom nine are women), including two Ladies, a Reverend, a Dame, a CBE, an OBE and a CB (whatever that is). It would be too easy to take the mickey out of the chairman, Lady Howe. But we may be allowed to speculate that a woman in her sixties, married to an uncharismatic former chancellor of the exchequer, may be out of touch with those whose hormones still rage, and whose relationships are highly charged. But there again, it is possible, for aught we know, that Howe Towers makes the House of the Rising Sun look restrained.

Anyway, the difficulty with the BSC may be more to do with its function than its membership. It is there to adjudicate on complaints, not to take a proper view of what is good and bad on television. So it is always the letter-writing pudendaphobes whose laments are being considered. Very few people put pen to paper (as well we might) to argue that there is in fact too little proper sex on television, and that "nudity levels" are far too low. There are no erections (even late), almost no masturbation (despite its universality), and very little good foreplay.

Instead, we get endless programmes on the commodification of sex: male strippers, prostitution, sex shops, pornography, and leering teens on drunken holidays in Corfu. These shows have practically replaced proper current affairs altogether, yet there is barely a whimper from the BSC, which is too busy going on about nudity.

Good censorship, I think, is about leading public opinion, not about reflecting it. Indeed, this rule is true of good anything. It's a lesson that needs relearning.