| 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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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