| 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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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