Auntie in a flap over the F-word

BBC guidelines are the closest we have to a new prayerbook, but heaven help the taste committees
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The Independent Online
The man from the BBC who looks after taste and decency projected a silent graphic on to the screen. He ran through it fast, but I did catch the top of the list of words with the percentage of the public who thought them totally unbroadcastable:

c**t ...................... 74 per cent

c***s***** ......... 70 per cent

m*****f****r ..... 70 per cent

f*** ....................... 55 per cent

n*g***................... 55 per cent

What the BBC proved at its seminar on taste and decency this week is that examined too closely, too seriously, the subject is easily reduced to farce.

The BBC invited its leading critics to debate with programme controllers and governors for a whole day of filth and violence. Clips from Ben Elton, Backup and Lady Chatterley interspersed the discussions. For the battle over broadcasting standards represents the moral dilemmas argued over in every household, every newspaper, every pub. For lack of any other binding institution - no widely attended church, or any other generally accepted moral standard-bearer - the poor old BBC must bear the brunt of representing to society what it thinks of itself, what it thinks its standards are. BBC guidelines are the closest we have to a new prayerbook, and as a result the best battleground for all our moral anguish.

Having recently come from inside the walls of this sometimes monstrous, yet magnificent citadel, the internal discussions day after day were some of the most stimulating and intellectually absorbing but also sometimes the most mind-numbingly desperate nonsense. The burden of responsibility of a compulsory licence fee weighs heavily on BBC executives: pounds 86.50 a year is a harsh poll tax on every household. It puts some of the poorest into prison, many of them people who barely watch the BBC and are positively hostile. It makes everyone jumpy, an organisation of panicky paranoics who quiver when the most mindless leader writer or backbencher says boo. Accused by many, including many at this week's seminar, as cultural imperialists, ivory tower dictators, arrogant and unaccountable, the truth inside is quite different.

Of course, the corporation arrived at the seminar well-armed with audience research showing how much more liberal attitudes towards sex on television have become in the past 10 years. The most conservative groups had shifted greatly, with older women moving from 33 to 41 per cent toleration of sex and nudity. Changing attitudes towards homosexuality were most marked, with a 20 per cent drop in the numbers who find it offensive.

However, the fact that the viewers' values are on the slide was certainly not going to mollify the moralists. One of them put the dilemma succinctly: if the broadcasters keep pumping out sex, nudity and rude words, they themselves change public sensitivity. There is something devious about debasing the currency and justifying your behaviour by proving you are in tune with the people when you are a prime cause of the cultural shift you are measuring. If more people find gays on television acceptable now than 10 years ago, that must be in large part because in the past 10 years it has featured in virtually every soap.

What, someone asked, does the BBC think it is doing? Does it set moral standards and stick by them, does it follow whatever its polling says its viewers' standards are, or does it see itself in the forefront of positively setting out to change (and by implication liberalise) public opinion? This is tricky territory, since a simple "yes" to any of these is plainly both absurd and presumptuous. The BBC is not a pulpit, but nor is it a mere crowd-pleaser. If it is not a slave to opinion polls, but an innovator and a leader, then of course it does have standards of its own, but try defining them and the eels slip through the fingers.

Fine words can cover a multitude of difficulties. From the director-general we had "eternal values, truth and quality, excellence of thought and execution." Eternal values? Good heavens, we have just had a presentation that shows there are none, with everything constantly on the move.

For many, the argument descends here into unsatisfactory greyness and murk. But the truth of the matter is murky. Bernard Manning, Jim Davidson or Ben Elton - who makes you laugh, and who offends you most? Taste is so impossibly personal that only the grossest trespassing on new territory draws a clear consensus. (There is far more agreement on violence.)

The moralists want everything clear-cut. News and Current Affairs, with their strict guidelines, scored well. How much easier to make rules on how much blood, how many bodies, how much detail in the Rosemary West case. Though Martin Bell has been saying that he thinks television over- sanitises the horror of war, with all that bang-bang of the guns and, unrealistically no one apparently blown to bits as a result. So even here there is some doubt.

But when it comes to drama and humour, the sands shift so fast beneath the feet. With heavy heart I heard one governor announce that the seminar showed the clear need for more guidelines to cover these grey areas. Heaven help the luckless teams of taste-formers who will sit on those committees. Canute-like, the BBC can try to defy the cultural waves of Tarantino or Stone, the Playboy channel and worse that flow in from elsewhere with every tide. It can trim the worst blood and sex off Hollywood movies, but it cannot command the global culture of the ether.

The moralists will shake their heads and say, there you go again - this moral relativism takes us down the path to perdition. They see a steady decline in standards that can only lead to the sewer, though they never say where they would have stopped the clock. If they mean the golden year of 1952, year of coronation and conquest of Everest, perhaps we should show a night of programmes from that cultural desert of an era.

The moral panic model of society is a slippery slope to the cesspit. But another model is a continuous line of change with some higher standards and some grosser vulgarisations. To be sure, Blind Date has become pornographic, Don't Give Up the Day Job is a humiliation too far, and Lady Chatterley was plain bad. But there is now little of the casually sexist, racist, homophobic beastliness of yesteryear, and the drama is unrecognisably more subtle and sophisticated.

Of course, the BBC tries to wriggle out of its unwelcome role as the nation's moral guardian and weather-vane. Sidestepping the trap of whether it is an opinion-former or opinion-follower, instead they talk of the fragmenting audience and the duty to give every licence-payer something indispensible. Gone are the days when a nation sat down together to watch the same things at the same time. In other words, if you don't like the rude bits, make a cup of tea and watch the other side until the wildlife comes on.

However, forced to play the moral arbiter of our times, the BBC is doomed forever to abuse from every side, damned sometimes for cultural or political cowardice and damned sometimes when it is brave. Lame and tame, some say, while the Telegraph lams into its dashing scoop of the year - the Diana interview on Monday's Panorama. The nation's Auntie is also the nation's Aunt Sally, since pleasing all the punters all the time is quite simply impossible.

Although losing some cultural power as channels proliferate, the BBC will always have schizophrenic obligations. Bring in the crowds, bring on the excellence, do those programmes that no one else will do and yet be popular. Please the uneducated who pay the same as the erudite, but please don't be vulgar or low.

So it is hardly surprising that whenever the BBC presents its face in public, it covers its confusion in enough high-flown nonsense to make a politician blush. Sanctimonious language will always be a BBC imperative: "Our responsibility is to ensure that all that we do is driven by a moral purpose which rests on the basic pillars of decency, rather than the shifting sands of taste." Well, humbug. The BBC sits on the same sandbank of time as the rest of us.