Media: 'Dangerous' watchdog that rarely bites: The guardian of our TV standards is five years old. It has found surprisingly little to censure, reports Sue Summers

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The Independent Online
HE HARDLY looks like 'the most dangerous man in Britain', with his old-fashioned pin-stripe suits, rumpled grey hair, gold-rimmed spectacles and general air of an absent- minded archdeacon. But that is how a near-hysterical Michael Winner described William Rees-Mogg five years ago on his appointment as the first chairman of the new Broadcasting Standards Council.

Today Lord Rees-Mogg hosts his final press conference as chairman, introducing the council's review of sex and violence on television in 1992. His term of office has not proved the least bit dangerous: indeed, some critics say that it has not been the least bit effective.

The fear in more rational and less emotional minds than Mr Winner's was that Lord Rees-Mogg would be the supreme censor of British television. The BSC has no punitive power over the broadcasters beyond being able to compel them to publish its findings, but Lord Rees-Mogg, a former editor of the Times and vice- chairman of the BBC's Board of Governors, was thought to present a threat as a potential Nemesis of British broadcasting even greater than Mary Whitehouse.

However, far from issuing the expected string of rulings criticising bad language, blasphemy and licentiousness, the high-Tory chairman has made himself look more liberal than the broadcasters, with his calls for more black characters in Coronation Street and more women in television generally.

If such views have gone some way to reconciling the broadcasters to the BSC, they have done nothing to appease critics on the right who lobbied Margaret Thatcher to set up the body in the first place. The Bishop of Peterborough, William Westwood, a member of the council until last year, looks upon his tenure as 'one of the failures of my life'. Mrs Whitehouse herself believes that the BSC is at best ineffective and may even have made matters worse.

'When the council dismisses serious complaints about foul language, that gives it the seal of approval,' Mrs Whitehouse says. 'The BSC was meant to be the voice of the viewer. It's not; it's the voice of the council, after it has chatted away to the broadcasters concerned.'

Broadcasters admit that the BSC's lack of power has made it far less of a threat to their freedom than they had expected. 'It has to be said that it's been run rather effectively and cleverly and conducted itself with much less general hassle than many of us feared,' says one broadcaster, who deals with it regularly. 'But, to be honest, the real reason I'm less hostile than I thought I'd be is that the BSC doesn't really matter.'

So, in this allegedly toothless form, what has the BSC achieved? Its director, Colin Shaw, a former secretary to the BBC and director of television at the Independent Broadcasting Authority, is widely credited as the council's main civilising force. He points to the large amount of research undertaken by the BSC in an effort to pinpoint genuine public attitudes towards broadcasting. 'We are not a censoring body, nor should we be,' he says. 'We are here to articulate feelings of the audience and express views of our own when we believe people have gone too far. Without us, there would be no body taking an overview of where standards are going.'

Although it is legally bound to investigate every complaint referred to it ('a ridiculous waste of time', one broadcaster complains), the BSC has been finding in favour of only one in five complainants. But it recently upheld two charges against BBC 1's hospital saga Casualty over scenes showing the gang rape of a rent boy and incestuous sexual abuse, both before 8pm. 'That seemed to us quite indefensible,' Mr Shaw says. In general, however, the council has taken a permissive line on sex, in keeping with research findings which show that 'the public is, by and large, relaxed about sex after 9pm'.

On the other hand, the BSC has noted a sharp rise in the number of complaints about violence in the first four months of this year, from around 130 a month to 207 - due, it believes, to increased public fears following the James Bulger case. The council recently censured Channel 4's The Word, for broadcasting a remark that could be perceived as an incitement to violence against homosexuals, and ITV for its 'sensationalist' documentary about the mass murderer Dennis Nilsen.

The council has always taken a strong line on violence and believes that the public mood is moving in its favour. 'In fact, the most violent bits of broadcast TV at the moment are mostly on Sky,' Mr Shaw says, echoing Michael Grade, chief executive of Channel 4, in his James Cameron Memorial Lecture last week.

At today's press conference, the BSC - which, for the first time, has been monitoring viewers' reactions to satellite televison - will reveal that some Sky viewers are indeed concerned about what they perceive as 'unjustifiable' levels of violence and bad language after the 9pm watershed. There have been more than double the number of complaints about Sky than about terrestrial television.

The BSC is adamant that it is not asking for more teeth. What it does seek is scope beyond its present narrow remit of 'taste and decency, sex and violence'. It wants to be amalgamated with the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, the parallel body that handles complaints about unfairness, inaccuracy and intrusions of privacy. The resultant body would be the first consumer council for broadcasting.

Lord Rees-Mogg believes that such a body is long overdue. 'There are a lot of issues, outside of sex, violence and good taste, which the public wants to become involved in - for example, science coverage, schools programmes, even the current controversy over the BBC's plans to move Radio 4 off long wave. All professionals hate outside scrutiny, but broadcasters have a quasi-monopoly and all of them need external pressure from their customers.'

(Photograph omitted)