March 2004

More US moralizing - does the country really want to step back in time?

More US moralizing - does the country really want to step back in time?

Last month we suggested the US had lost its marbles and wasn't thinking very clearly in its current mood about broadcast indecency; the situation seems if anything to be gathering more momentum as politician after politician steps onto the bandwagon of moral fervour and precious few air a voice of caution and regard for freedom of speech and expecting people to take reasonable responsibilities themselves.

Time past in Britain and the US and comparisons with the US at present.

That reminded us of the time when considerable influence was exerted in the UK and the US. In the former it came from the late Mary Whitehouse and her National Viewers' and Listeners' Association was monitoring British media for material it considered to be "offensive to good taste and decency."

It had some limited success and in 1979 won a case against "Gay News", which had printed a poem dealing with the supposed homosexual attraction between a Roman Centurion and Christ on the cross and was influential in pushing EMI to withdraw financing for the Monty Python film "Life of Brian" which pushed Beatle George Harrison into forming Handmade Films and taking over the financing.
The film subsequently attracted condemnation from Christian groups in the UK and North America and was banned in a number of places.
In the US in the early 70s the Movement to Restore Democracy - a prime example of the tendency of the American political classes to pervert language - it called for the banning of rock music to end the spread of socialism in the country - had a brief burst of success in curbing rock concerts and station play lists as the FCC told stations they could lose their licences should they play music that glorified drugs and promoted immoral or anti-American sentiments.

In the end though democracy prevailed - songs like Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and John Denver's hit song "Rocky Mountain High," were back on the air, the US didn't fall apart, and the vociferously honest President Richard Nixon and his vice-President Spiro T Agnew went towards their just deserts.

We're not sure, however, what happened to the 984 unmarried mothers who, according to the Reverend Charles Boykin of Tallahassee, Florida, who conducted a of 1,000 unwed mothers, became pregnant while listening to rock music.

Parallels with the present.

There seem to us to be too many parallels between then and now with the political herd being stampeded into moral fervour because on the surface it seems a no-lose situation to opt for the simplistic censoring of material rather than telling a lot of people to grow up and many others that they've more in common with the Taliban than the best in US culture.

Not only does the brief exposure of Janet Jackson's breast, complete with nipple cover seem to have driven many to forget any sense of proportion but the battleground has moved on and the whole future of the "shock-jocks" seems at issue.
Before we go further here we would make it clear that most of the time the output of the jocks itself isn't particularly to our taste and also note that the radio giants, and many smaller stations, are making what they see as sound business decisions, as was EMI when it dropped the Python film.
The risk of tenfold fines that could cost tens of millions could kill profits from the shock jocks and potentially mean that killing shock jocks seems a sound financial decision

From the past we remember a skit that poked fun at the moralizing Whitehouse by portraying an old woman climbing onto a box on a chair on a table so that she could peer out of a skylight window and cackle affront at the sexual activities of a couple across the road: Currently the US would seem to have a fair number of such caricature characters in its lawmaking and regulatory bodies. It would also seem to have a fair number of weak-willed and easily affronted citizens if the aforesaid bodies are correct.

So what about tuning away or using the off switch?

The obvious advice to those tuning accidentally into a shock jock- as opposed to the Super Bowl, which after all is a one-off annual occasion of a particular general appeal - is that they can speedily tune to another channel or switch off: The question this begs is that of how far a society should in fact enforce some standards of behaviour in public, as opposed to private places, since in a sense the advice in principle is the same as telling those who object to fornication, say in a public library, that they should avert their gaze and maybe muffle their ears.

It comes down in both cases it would seem to us to a matter of balancing pros and cons - in the library case we would argue that the balance of greater good or least inconvenience to the largest number clearly lies in favour of those using the library for the purpose for which it was designed and that those who wish to fornicate should find locations more suitable for that purpose.

When it comes to the shock jock, the argument is less simple, but there is still a balance to be struck and the balance should clearly be different for subscription and free to air services.

The factors to balance - subscription and Internet.

In making any judgment, we need to consider the overall degree of offence against the overall pleasure or edification of those who listen to a show.

When it's a matter of choice consciously made before being able to listen, as in subscription services, we're firmly of the belief that the only area that should be regulated relates to material that in some way breaches normal laws as with incitement to violence or hatred. If it's just a matter of someone being upset by what they feel is offensive to dirty talk, they should be told firmly that they needn't subscribe and then ignored.

Beyond the dictates of programming that can attract enough listeners to sustain itself and the aforesaid staying within general laws, the regulator should have no part; a view we feel should also apply to Internet feeds.

The factors to balance - terrestrial broadcasts.

When it comes to terrestrial broadcasts, the situation is slightly different but to us the offence caused has to be very severe to the few who tune in inadvertently - and presumably only stay tuned for a few seconds - for it to outweigh the rights of those - presumably in the many thousands at the very least for a show to be economically viable - who tune in to a show.

The very fact of having to attract audience and advertisers and keep them are in our view major constraints that will tend to keep most broadcasts within levels acceptable to the community to which they broadcast and we have noted that, be the objectors right or wrong, a number of shows have fallen victim to strong feelings from groups who have put pressures on advertisers concerning the image they wish to portray of their goods and services.

On radio we doubt that many people tune into a station in error and stick with it for long unless they find some satisfaction in the programming: We therefore find it difficult to believe therefore that there is need to severely curb shock jocks although as a general rule we certainly favour warnings of the nature of a show, something that can be done fairly simply on digital transmissions with modern technology.
There certainly seems to us no great difficulty, if the will is there, to develop a V-chip type system for digital radio and it is not censorship for regulators to set up some kind of grouping system to allow control to be exercised fairly simply by those who wish to do so in varying circumstances.

For example it should be quite easy to have a general category that can be selected at the touch of a button on an automobile radio for use when children are in the vehicle and another all on button for when adults alone are in it, with additional groups allowable if desired.
There would be some controversy and debate about categories but we don't see such a system as unworkable.

Conclusions on the basis for regulation of terrestrial broadcasts.

We feel the operating principle should be to apply limitations primarily on the basis of programming that could lead people, even if only a small minority of them, to actions that abuse children or the vulnerable but assume that adults can behave like adults in most circumstances and react accordingly.

In a sense this is already recognized through the use of watersheds - allowing certain programming only after children are not thought to be likely to listen, a practice that, if thought through, undercuts many of the comments currently coming from the US: The question here in our view is how far the call for bans on material relates to embarrassment for adults when they are asked questions and how far it relates to genuine concern for children.

We would suggest that the evidence there is suggests that far more harm is done to children through the effects of much advertising and promotions, such as, for example including gifts with junk food and indeed the general effects of advertising directed at those too young to be able to make sound judgments.

That seems to us to put the debate into a reasonable context and even if we don't share their tastes, there are many millions of Americans who tune in regularly to the shock-jocks and we see little evidence that the jocks' influence is particularly harmful to children however offensive it may be.

Nor does there seem to be evidence that they do harm to society in general as opposed to upsetting sensitivities.
In the end, we therefore conclude that the best move for a free society isn't to go along with the current demands for stringent clamp-downs on the broadcasters but rather to tell citizens to grown up and recognize that the benefits of being in a society where there are freedoms far outweighs the downsides of some embarrassment.

What you think? Please E-mail your comments.

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