January 2005

Broadcast regulation: Inaccuracy, bigotry, indecency and racism.

Broadcast regulation: Inaccuracy, bigotry, indecency and racism.

Our comment this month is spurred by the impending departure of Michael K Powell from the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the likelihood of regulation changes as pressures continue from various areas and in particular from those who, whether openly call for censorship or in full knowledge that what they want is effectively the same cloak their intent: At the same time examples of racism as well as and bad taste weaken arguments for leaving things up to self-regulation.

In particular in the last month we have seen disturbing examples from opposite sides of the spectrum: On the one hand are the likes of the American Family Association and Dr James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and on the other the likes of Troi Torain and Miss Jones.

All in our view have produced examples of bigotry, ignorance, and misrepresentation in various degrees raising the issue of what, if any notice, should be paid to them. For the sake of convenience we will term the two poles the complaining bigots and the broadcasting bigots.

The complaining bigots.

The latest outburst about the US cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants and later public more tempered criticism of the US Public Broadcasting Service by US education secretary Margaret Spellings of one of its "Postcards From Buster" cartoons indicates to us that there is reasoned cause for concern about the current climate in the US. (A search on the web should bring up plenty of results relating to both cases.)

Fortunately there is no serious suggestion that the US Supreme Court is likely to take up calls to extend censorship to subscription services that require a conscious decision to opt in and are in general enjoyed in private, although we could see a cause at times for public order prosecutions of individuals who insensitively blast the audio from their receivers in a manner that others in the area can't avoid and sometimes include content that those around may reasonably find objectionable.

That of course is the nub of the issue - for programming that people choose for themselves and that are suitable flagged we see no justification at all for prohibitions, direct or indirect, from politicians or lawmakers: As for others like Dr James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and, in this instance his followers in the American Family Association who have been attacking Spongebob because a leaflet being issues with a video includes homosexuals in those towards whom tolerance should be shown our view is that it is a public duty to push them to fully justify the implications and effects of their comments and deride or mock them when they cannot.

In many ways, Michael Powell notwithstanding, we think it might be valuable to push them and the regulators along the path of the Seven Dirty Words [The words formerly banned by the FCC and mocked by George Carlin in his song].

Should they win the public argument then the power goes to them but they have no right to expect to be given an easy ride by opponents although we hope the opponents might, like Carling, display a little more honesty in their attacks than these self-described family friendly organizations.

As with so many things, there is no straightforward answer for those who are not prejudiced and our view is that the best compromise is likely to come from reasoned public discussion of issues as opposed to the glib sloganeering and propaganda that so often seems to be what exists nowadays.

Yes, Dobson and his fellows have every right to argue their morality and to try and persuade others to their viewpoint but we think it is a sad society whose values allows to loudly-proclaimed opinions greater value than considered evaluation of the best way to achieve aims and even sadder if any arguments based on faith are allowed to over-ride evidence that exists and can be tested.

Those arguments, of course, can only be made in the public sphere and broadcasters are a very important part of allowing discourse.

We accept that this may cause embarrassment to some even serious disturbance to others, but if they're grown-ups they ought to be able to handle this and if they're infantile the more that is said publicly the better.

The ultimate answer, we would suggest, in almost all cases is a simple device - it allows owners to turn off or change the content: In other words tune in, tune away, tune out, or turn off for yourself but not for others.

The broadcasting bigots.

The broadcasting bigots all depend ultimately on their audiences and in a sense are automatically regulated thereby in ways pressure groups, which do not need significant general support to keep them going, are not.

That of itself in our view should lead us to be very cautious about formal censorship because in almost all cases the censorship cure is likely to be worse than the free speech disease, a phrase we use because it is clear that disease is exactly the way in which many groups regard speech and argument they do not agree with.

Those attitudes are widely, and in our view, rightly condemned when they come from authoritarian bodies in authoritarian states and it doesn't take much historical reading so find that they have existed at times in states where almost any religion has held significant earthly sway or where, as with the former Soviet Union, a religion of anti-religion did.

However taking this attitude means we can rightly be asked what we would do about excesses and in this area we have to respond that it is a matter of balance and the balance if dynamic.

The first sanction, it seems to us, is the right to complain and if enough complaints are made organizations frequently impose their own sanctions as Miss Jones and crew found out over their parody tsunami song, a tasteless and not particularly (in a musical sense) well constructed item.

That sanction can, however, over-emphasize the views of a few with strong opinions and due respect should be given to organizations that do not bow to such pressures when they feel they are ill-judged or disproportionate: The respect, of course, does not apply if a business simply goes along on the lines that it just finds easiest or judges likely to be its most profitable course of action.

The second level of sanction is one that only has effect if there is overwhelming condemnation from the public of material being broadcast. It is, of course, the tune elsewhere or turn-off sanction that has devastating effect in such cases and virtually none if only a few hundred people -however well organized their pressure group may be - consider something both objectionable and important.

The final level of sanction left is the law and this is one we feel needs to be applied sparingly, in a proportionate manner, and according to principles that have been clearly thought through and subjected to thorough public discussion.
So on what basis do we think there should be any form of legal sanction on broadcasters?

Legal sanctions on broadcasters.

We'd split the regulation of broadcasters into three distinct areas, those of accuracy - or rather wilful inaccuracy, indecency, and bad taste. In all cases our view has gradually moved against the idea of fines towards requiring use of airtime to issue apologies or corrections.


Since the whole structure of democracy depends on information, we think accuracy of information should be far higher on any priority list than questions of upsetting some people though the use of a four letter word: The four letter coarsen discourses, inaccurate information perverts society as a whole.

We think therefore, that is concomitant with freedom of speech and opinion to require some form of respect for accuracy. The devil, or course, is in the detail, and in many cases it is difficult to determine the difference between spin and inaccurate statements.
However we would suggest that the concept of a pattern of gross inaccuracy is clear enough - and would require enough breaches of sufficient magnitude that it could be an idea that could form the basis of regulation for requiring corrections and, if combined with sufficiently strong requirements for those corrections, would be a reasonable deterrent against undue carelessness with facts as opposed to misbegotten opinions.

We'd suggest a pattern would be established after complaints were upheld in 25 cases and a warning then issued. Should there be a further ten cases within the subsequent year we'd then institute a requirement as a condition of retaining a licence that the rulings, introduced with the message that there had been a pattern of gross inaccuracy, be read out one a day at the start of the time slot the programme had occupied.

For those who think this would be an over-reaction we'd suggest a quick reading on the malign influence of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko on Soviet science, never mind the deaths that resulted, through the combination of the use of political power and influence to advance a supposedly scientific view despite evidence that was widely available. Maybe after that reading it would be worthwhile looking at the views advances by some Western religious groups and the effects of decisions made on the basis of incorrect information!


Many of the objections to indecency on air may well relate more to embarrassment at use in one context of language that is commonplace in another but we can still see a reasonable argument when it comes to public airwaves to impose limitations that have massive public support.
What we cannot agree with is the issuing of fairly vague rules and then changing rulings that even these led to because of a particular political climate.

In the end therefore, we think the rule makers should be forces word by word, comma by comma, to put down what they want to ban. If they are in tune with majority public opinion we suspect the list would be manageable but if they want to add and add and produce a list of thousands so be it: We assume, of course, in that case, that those responsible, would soon be made to feel foolish by the reactions in other media that would not be so restricted and would rather hope that subsequent voting sanctions might even ruin the careers of some of the more unreasonable restrictive.

The question then is of the sanctions that should be applied and in general we are against fines since we feel public apologies and corrections, which also cost money indirectly, are more appropriate. The obvious response to us, and one that would automatically be proportionate, would be to require the host to read out a summary - say a minute - at the head of the appropriate show each day for a week and at least three minutes of advert time (it should be the first advert in a slot) be used to repeat it. Those who are benefiting most from pushing things would then automatically be penalized most but the cost would effectively be tied to the programme's popularity.

Taste and standards:

Although some countries such as the UK and Canada have sanctions on this basis, they are not generally financial ones but rather those of peer and public pressure through having to broadcast details of rulings made against a broadcaster.

This seems proportionate and sensible for most cases but since these matters are ones where there can be no hard and fast rules we think such sanctions should be applied very sparingly if at all and then only in particularly gross cases.

In general we doubt that would ever be necessary since in most gross cases the broadcasters already take action because of the level of complaints that have arisen.

Probably better than any formal sanctions would be an industry body that would make rulings as in Canada allied with a requirement that all station and corporate web sites have a prominent link to any such rulings on home pages.
This would not involve any substantial cost and would allow organizations that felt they were being unfairly criticized to put their case as well.
We'd hope it would then be a badge of pride amongst the responsible that the links could say, "No complaints have been upheld against this organization (or station)."

What you think? Please E-mail your comments.

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