Cover Story: Lost in a moral maze

Action must be taken against those who exposed families to health risks, ex-residents tell Rebecca Fowler This week the BBC announced new guidelines in taste and decency. Some see it as another example of unnecessary censorship. But, says Paul Vallely, perhaps the time has come for a return to Reithian values
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It was sometime in the early Eighties that I was sent along to the AGM of Mary Whitehouse's National Viewers' and Listeners' Association to write a mocking piece for the Mail on Sunday. It was not a difficult brief. At their annual assembly, these self-appointed guardians of the nation's morals offered easy targets with their wild haircuts and wilder statements, their odd selection of lunch-boxes and Thermos flasks and their even odder collection of opinions.

We were all so sure - even in those days the executives of Associated Newspapers - that this barmy old bat and her motley band were a remnant of some fading era of moral imperialism whose day was long gone. After all, the battle between artistic freedom and censorship has been joined and won. The notion that a barrister in the Lady Chatterley obscenity trial could have asked the jury: "Would you let your wife or servant read this book?" was a sign that things had changed profoundly and irrevocably.

It all seemed so much clearer then. But might the much-maligned Mrs Whitehouse have had a point?

This week the BBC governors have announced they are about to launch a crackdown on blasphemy and bad language. It would be easy to mock again at the horror of one of The Archers gels recently describing one of the other occupants of the Radio 4 rural idyll as "a creepy little shit" or to produce some cod outrage at Chris Evans's references to oral sex on mid-morning Radio 1.

But somehow that is not the mood of the moment. Dunblane has once again resurrected concerns about whether screen violence and pornography prompt copycat responses among the deranged. The V-chip has been seriously considered in recent weeks by the Government as a device for filtering filth from the nation's TV screens when they are being watched by the young. Ministers are also considering introducing a new clause in the BBC charter to underscore the role of the corporation's governors in enforcing standards of good taste and decency.

No less a figure than the Archbishop of Canterbury yesterday launched a "debate on the morality of Britain" in which he singled out the small box for particular comment. "Our children are spending too much time in front of the television," said Dr Carey. "They are watching programmes in which casual sex, gratuitous violence and extreme language abound. For many hours each day they become the context in which our children grow up."

And even as hitherto libertarian a character as Jaci Stephen, who for the past 10 years has reviewed TV programmes for liberal periodicals like the New Statesman as well as popular papers like the Daily Mirror, have launched broadsides. Announcing yesterday that she was quitting after a decade of watching TV for eight hours a day, she confessed she felt bored, frustrated and trapped. But she added: "With severe insomnia, depression and nightmares returning, I also knew I was no longer able and no longer wanted to watch the violence that has increasingly come to dominate the screen."

It was not so much copycat violence by psychopaths which is the new fear as the growing sense that a heavy diet of violence - with its quick-rush adrenalin fix of instant sensation - changes the way we react emotionally to the world around us. The idea is in the air not that we must return to the some gold old pre-Sixties standards but that the drift to licence has now gone far enough.

The response of the liberal old guard to this has been predictable. British television, they point out, is the most regulated in Europe already - with no fewer than three watchdog bodies in addition to the statutory and common law constraints of obscenity, blasphemy and libel as well as the self-regulation systems on cinema and video.

The Independent Television Commission, financed by the TV companies themselves, can impose fines after programmes have been shown and shorten or even revoke ITV franchises. The Broadcasting Standards Council, which covers all broadcasters including the newer satellite and cable channels, receives and investigates complaints from the public and publishes its findings. And the Broadcasting Complaints Commission is empowered to investigate allegations that individuals have been wronged by television and can impose fines imposed on offending broadcasters.

On top of that, the BBC board of governors can vet programmes in advance and ban their broadcast. And though the power has not been apparently used since 1971 - when it caused such outrage among BBC staff that the sanction has never been invoked since - it sits there still at the top of a raft of internal constraints and checks set out in the corporation's internal codes of self-discipline.

But the main response of the liberals is to insist that, as everyone's standards are different, it is intolerable that a few people - especially the boring old establishment farts who make up the BBC Board of Governors - should tell the rest of us where the bounds of good taste and decency lie. What is wrong with irreverent language, asked this newspaper's leader column yesterday, and why should blasphemy be more offensive than, say, cliche? The commercial pressures on the BBC will dictate a move in the opposite direction, it suggested. If listeners do not accept Chris Evans's language, then presumably they do not have to listen to him.

This is a counsel of despair. It acquiesces in a downwards drift to a lowest common denominator culture. As one listener insisted on a recent Radio 4 phone-in, she did not want to have to switch off because, by the time she realised she had to do that, she had already been offended. The V-chip was something she would programme into her TV for her own viewing rather than that of her children. What is required by broadcasters is self-discipline rather than self- censorship.

The notion that the BBC governors should keep their peculiar prejudices to themselves and leave decisions on taste to BBC producers who are more in touch with real life is a curious one. The life with which BBC staff are in touch can be a singularly metropolitan one. It cannot be inappropriate for the governors to build into the editorial process systems to remind staff that their assumptions are not necessarily those of the nation. Most viewers or listeners live in a common-sense world in which - even if sociologists cannot prove a causal link between TV and behaviour - they know that their children's teachers report an alarming increase in incidents of kicking in the playground when Power Rangers is aired on children's television.

So often the media wants to have it both ways on this. "I scripted a massacre," read the headline in one newspaper yesterday reporting the reaction to Dunblane of an American novelist who has just published a book in which a disturbed loner ambushes a school bus and murders 14 children and the driver before shooting himself in the head. "My God, that's my story. But it's even worse," he was quoted as saying. "My first fear was that some nut had read my book and decided to act it out. It was some relief to learn it hasn't yet been published in Britain"

The novel was called Equation for Evil and what such confused thinking reveals is an inability to conceive that the violence in the equation might be differential. There is more than one variable at play here.

The pseudo-psychology of such efforts - and imagine how much worse the violence will be in the film version - is as much about titillation as it is about understanding. It is difficult now not to concede that so much of the sex or violence which is offered as insight is really just gratuitous sensationalism driven by the "commercial realities" which today are thought to be the final answer to all questions.

Many would agree with that who would not buy the complete package on offer from Dr Carey. He says that our modern moral relativism has allowed objective standards to slip which unleash powerful selfish urges in each of us, causing untold pain and social disorder. But even those who might dismiss his pronouncements as simplistic or platitudinous must still find answers to his questions about children and television: "What is it doing to their concept of the world and how they ought to treat others? To what degree does it inure them against the reality of evil and the horrifying effect of violence?"

That great guardian of BBC standards, Lord Reith, who established the high-minded principles of public service broadcasting, would have had no doubt of the answers. The certainties of his age of paternalistic elitism may be gone. But the governors of the BBC appear to have decided that - until plausible answers to Dr Carey's questions can be provided - caution is the most prudent strategy. And there will be many outside the usual vocal minorities who are happy to agree.

INDEPENDENT TELEVISION COMMISSION

Chairman: Sir George Russell

Origins: Set up with the passing of the Broadcasting Act in 1990, replacing the IBA and Cable Authority.

What does it do? Licenses commercial television services in the UK, terrestrial and cable/satellite. Regulates services with a code of practice on programme content, advertising, sponsorship and technical standards, and has a range of penalties for failure to comply. Has a duty to ensure a wide range of services is available, that they are high quality and appeal to a variety of tastes and interests. Also ensures fair competition. Reports on complaints about programmes and adverts, dealing with issues of content and scheduling, are published monthly. In 1995, out of 3,432 complaints about advertising, 57 were upheld wholly or in part.

BROADCASTING STANDARDS COUNCIL

Chairman: Lady Howe

Origins: Established in 1988, and became a statutory organisation under the 1990 Broadcasting Act.

What does it do? Although it has statutory powers in the handling of complaints, its role is advisory, not regulatory. Its remit extends to the portrayal on television and radio of violence, sexual conduct and matters of taste and decency, including bad language, treatment of disasters and issues of stereotyping. Also conducts audience research to determine attitudes. Received 2,838 complaints in 1994, and reached a finding on 1,492 of them; 20 per cent of those were upheld wholly or in part.

Members: 7, besides the chairman, all appointed by the Department of National Heritage.

ADVERTISING STANDARDS AUTHORITY

Director-General: Matthew Alderson

Origins: Set up in 1962 by the UK advertising industry to keep its own house in order and counter the need for legislation.

What does it do? Ensures that everyone who commissions, prepares and publishes advertisements complies with the industry's British Codes of Advertising and Sales Promotion. Carries out research, issues advice to the industry, and, in 1994, handled 8,661 complaints from members of the public. 2,677 were pursued, and 1,611 upheld.

Members: The ASA is made up of the Committee of Advertising Practice, made up of representatives from various trade associations, and the ASA Council. This council comprises 12 people from differing academic backgrounds to adjudicate on complaints. They are appointed by Lord Rodgers of Quarrybank, the ASA chairman.

BRITISH BOARD OF FILM CLASSIFICATION

Director: James Ferman

Origins: Set up as the British Board of Film Censors in 1912. Became the British Board of Film Classification in 1985, when Parliament made the body responsible for dealing with the problem of so-called video nasties with the passing of the Video Recordings Act (1984).

What does it do? The Board views submitted films for cinema and video release and classifies them according to the current rating system (U, PG, 12, 15, 18), making cuts if necessary. Between 6 and 7 per cent of films are cut, either to conform to the certificate requested by the makers, or to the requirements of the law.

Members: Besides Ferman, there is a deputy director, a head examiner, and 13 other full-time examiners. Two examiners are usually present at any one screening.

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