The standards police should act with less speed, more taste

The guardians of broadcasting standards presume that the majority view should rule. Jaclyn Moriarty begs to differ
THE BROADCASTING Standards Commission was established on April Fool's Day last year. Its brief: to produce codes of practice, to do research, and to adjudicate on complaints, in relation to "standards" and "fairness". "Standards" means violence, sex, taste and decency; "fairness" means unjust or unfair treatment, or privacy infringements.

Last week it released a new set of guidance codes for broadcasters, meant to take on board changes in public tastes. But even as it is trying to update itself, the question to be addressed is: should it exist at all?

Two weeks ago, the commission censured the cooking show TV Dinners for its placenta-eating episode - and made headline news. The commission has also agreed with audience protests that related to: levitating tea towels (offensive to religious believers), jokes about necrophilia and bestiality ("unacceptable") and humour about children and drug abuse ("inappropriate to treat this subject in such a light-hearted manner"). A drama in which shoplifting teenagers gloat about their crime was denounced, since this "could have sent an inappropriate message to youngsters". Natural Born Killers - a film about serial killers, which parodies media violence - featured violence verging "on the mindless" and presented unfortunate "role models".

The commission also rejects complaints. One about a lesbian kiss on a Welsh soap opera was not upheld - because it was not a lingering kiss, and the audience had been well prepared. A complaint about the broadcast of a sex quiz early on the day of Diana, Princess of Wales's death, was not upheld - because the broadcasters hadn't known of her death.

The Watershed often pops up in the commission's decision-making, and complaints about programmes broadcast after 9pm are often rejected. But a programme on between 11pm and midnight on New Year's Eve received a wrist-slapping for jokey references to sex with pop stars, pregnant women and homosexuals, because "families expected to be able to watch television together to see in the New Year".

Looking over such decisions, a few basic rules emerge: humour is unacceptable if it is religious, touches on taboos like bestiality, or raises serious issues like drug abuse. Drama must provide appropriate moral messages (shoplift and you're finished) and suitable role models (serial killers won't do). Lesbian affection has to snuggle its way into a middle-of-the- road position, somewhere between too leisurely and too abrupt. Once news of a shocking national event is out, its media monopoly is compulsory. Children must not be allowed to know that pregnant women, homosexuals and (oddly) pop stars have sexual intercourse.

If such a body should exist, then it's too easy to pick and choose amongst decisions, and find things that seem ridiculous. But maybe it should not exist at all. What has become of "freedom of expression" when one small body is deciding what we can and cannot see and hear? The commission would respond that it is not one small body, but the public deciding what the public see and hear. It reacts to "public" complaints, and it informs its reaction with research into "public" attitudes. It upheld a complaint about Madonna using the word "Motherfucker", because research suggested that people rank this among the wickedest swear words.

But public opinion is not really what freedom of speech is about. It's meant to be about dissent, about breaching conventions, taking risks, shocking, and being in the minority. If the majority decide what we can say and hear, free speech is doomed.

We'd never put up with the "public" deciding what rude words we can read in our books, but we allow control like that over broadcasting. Unlike books, though, broadcasting frequencies are scarce and decisions must be made about what is broadcast - so why shouldn't the majority decide? Unlike books, broadcasting leaps into the family home in a way that is difficult to control. If something "harmful" springs on to the screen, the harm may be done before anybody can flick the switch.

Violence and pornography on TV or radio may well be harmful to children, although the evidence is inconclusive. No such argument can be made in relation to taste. Much of childhood is spent wallowing in far more tasteless jokes than anything a TV producer could dream up.

The question of what is in good enough taste for us to watch (or what tastes good enough for us to watch being tasted) should be left to the remote control. At best the placenta-eating episode was a fascinating insight into minority culture. At worst, it was just plain silly - as are so many April Fool's jokes.

The writer is a researcher in media law at Cambridge University.