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EDITORIAL COMMENT
July 2000
Standards or censorship?

Standards or censorship?

So do you really care if a shock jock slags off a caller or wants women to show their breasts (RNW July 24), comedienne Joan Rivers can't tell the difference between "shit" and caviare (See RNW July 27) or if a female British disc jockey asks male colleagues on air about the size of their penises (RNW July 29) , or indeed if female presenters of children's TV programmes feel it necessary to pose nude for men's magazines as seems to be almost a mini-trend in the UK at the moment? Is it maintaining standards to limit what is broadcast or is it censorship?
The question is timely at the moment because of a UK report on the attitudes of radio listeners and continuing controversy about the effects of mass media upon people in general and children in particular.

Most countries have some form of regulation as to broadcasts they consider "obscene" or "blasphemous"or "politically biased" but British listeners, it seems, objected most to presenters browbeating phone-in callers. The question thus arises as to who is best placed to judge and what is the best method of striking the right balance if the idea is not to let just anything go on air. When should even a wide consensus about standards be turned into a regulatory or legal framework of censorship?


Broadcast or narrowcast?


Our view here differs crucially over what we will for convenience call "broadcast"and "narrowcast".
By broadcast we mean a service which uses limited spectrum in which the general public can legitimately claim a say in the use of a scarce resource.
Here it does seem reasonable to consider the balance of interests whilst striving to have as wide an agenda as possible.

By "Narrowcast" we mean any service using resources where no such limits apply, such as the Internet where any number of audio channels could theoretically be carried.
In this case regulation, if any at all is needed, should in our view be much lighter and we would favour a "descriptive warning" approach rather than a prohibitory one.
This is one area where the Internet does have an advantage in that an audio stream can easily be linked to a screen textual warning which gives the audience a better chance to know in advance what they are going to get rather than tuning in with one expectation and getting something completely different.


To us it seems reasonable that efforts should be made to have a reasonable descriptive warning system but after that leave things pretty well up to the audience.

Should public service and commercial radio be different?

Following on from this, it seems not unreasonable to have different rules for commercial and publicly funded although this is a matter on which prominent commercial radio voices in the UK would disagree with us, and indeed are disagreeing with the BBC. Some of this may be a power battle but there are some important issues at stake.
The ultimate sanction in commercial radio is twofold, the off switch and influencing the advertisers as Dr Laura Schlessinger has found out ( See RNW July 25).

In publicly funded radio the sanctions are much more political although in some areas pressure groups can operate in much the same way to influence the broadcasters. But, if such services are not to be arms of the government -as they frequently are - they do have a duty to raise issues that may be unpopular and to at least strive to operate in the "public interest" including giving due respect and airtime to minority groups. This it seems to us is a crucial distinction since commercial pressures on their advertising-funded colleagues are to interest the public without much of a wider context apart from not upsetting an active or influential minority too much when it could have impacts on the bottom line.

So what standards should we impose?

In a general sense, our view is that standards should not be imposed as such except where the same general principles apply as in ordinary law. The old maxim about not allowing freedom to shout "fire" in a crowded theatre does in out view have some relevance in broadcasting (especially where we can think of a case in Croatia where broadcasts about nonexistent clashes led to both subsequent clashes and deaths!).
The question is how far we can make sensible and defensible rules to curb excesses without significantly damaging freedoms.

On "Obscenity" and "Indecency", let us quote US federal law. It prohibits obscene broadcasts, defining obscene via three tests: An average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the material, as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest; The material must depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable law; and The material, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
On Indecency, the broadcast of which is restricted during the day but not after defined watershed times, the definition is," language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or "excretory organs or activities".


Both of the above are, on the surface not unreasonable and take note of contemporary attitudes but they are not particularly clear guidelines and offer more scope to lawyers than broadcasters for gainful employment. However they are probably about as good as we can get since being too prescriptive inevitably does stray into being stuck in the past.


What more should we want?

In a sense our main objection to current regulations is that they are negative in that they seek to exclude whilst there could be said to be a much more important argument when it comes to limited airwaves for insisting on inclusion of more. If, for example, we are to have a satisfactory democracy, there needs to be some insistence on adequate and fair news coverage of issues. There also needs to be room for the voice of the children, for the poor, and others who are not particularly well catered for except in very limited senses by advertising-driven programming.

We do think that pressures to provide these should be greater in a democracy than they are in many countries. For that reason we strongly favour ideas like Low Power FM in the US and of some form of contributory levy so that, if a station wants to be all rock and no news, it has to make its contribution somewhere else. Perhaps by a percentage of profits being used to sponsor programming that is not profitable but should be available. The debate on what forms that should be be we will leave to another month but would welcome feedback.


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