We give advice, we don't censor

Lady Howe believes we were wrong about the Broadcasting Standards Commission
NO ONE at the Broadcasting Standards Commission would disagree with the proposition that freedom of speech is about dissent, taking risks or indeed shocking, despite what Jaclyn Moriarty argued in The Independent last week.

Indeed, our new Code of Guidance, which was the peg for her argument, acknowledges from the start that: "Broadcasters interact with their many audiences in a relationship of respect. This is what gives them the right to experiment and challenge conventions by presenting controversial work."

The difficulty comes from the fact that the majority of television enters the home unfiltered by smart cards or pin numbers. It is there, available like water from a tap. That does make it different from going out to buy a paper, magazine or book, or entering a cinema or theatre.

The creation of the Broadcasting Standards Commission was Parliament's decision. It wanted to provide independent, statutory guidance to all broadcasters, public and private across radio, television, cable and satellite.

But whose values are we seeking to protect? The Commission is a public but non-elected body. Its members come from a wide range of backgrounds but they are appointed by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. So they have to be careful not to be thought of as imposing their own arbitrary standards. The codes and the findings, especially on standards issues, are based on properly conducted and published research.

Contrary to the impression given by Jaclyn Moriarty, the commission does not have the power to decide, as a censor, what the public sees or hears. Its role is to advise on where the line of acceptability might lie. It takes into account not just its research but the editorial context, the channel, the time of day, the genre and the likely audience expectation.

Virtually no one believes that the removal of regulation will improve things. But we have to be clear that society has changed. Audiences are much more fragmented. People do not find the same things funny or the same words offensive. What we have found in our research is that people do get exercised about bad language and sex but their concerns have fallen quite significantly. They are much more concerned about the depiction of violence.

What all that demonstrates is that those sensitive issues remain difficult to resolve. So while on the one hand, people want to take responsibility for what they see or hear, they also expect some protection from excess. There clearly remains an appetite for a measure of regulation.

The question that remains is that old one: how far should we go? The commission offers its answers for public debate.

Not so much an April Fool, more a lightning conductor.

Lady Howe, Chairman, BSC