January 2002
Sense on censorship.

Sense and Censoring

This month, spurred by recent US decisions and comment on indecency legislation, we return to the question of censorship but from a different perspective to that when we last looked at the issue in our July 2000 Comment on "Standards or Censorship".

Public and private space

The first distinction we draw in the debate is between what we will, for the sake of simplicity, term public and private space.

In the first area we would put all unencrypted terrestrial broadcasts; we specify unencrypted because digital technology will enable digital radio services to be accessed only by subscribers as is already the case with both digital and cable television services.

The essence of the distinction we make is that anyone can come across these services without necessarily intending to and, in the same way that it is reasonable to have different restrictions for material inside a magazine you have to purchase and on a poster site by a public highway, it is reasonable to have different rules for broadcasts in "public space."

Regulation by the "market"

For "Public Space", we take the view that it is not sensible or appropriate to use the "free market" as the total arbiter; to use the highway poster site analogy, considerations would have to include not only any offence that might be caused but also possible distraction of drivers and we would not consider it sensible to have a procedure of lawsuits after accidents and deaths resulted rather than regulate to avoid or minimize the risks.

In "private" space, which means anything that needs a conscious action to access, we remain against censorship and have no problem with markets rather than authorities being the main control on what is aired, indeed pretty well the only control so long as the activities before and behind the broadcast are themselves legal. Thus we see no reason for any general regulation of Internet or satellite radio nor indeed of any future encrypted digital terrestrial audio services.

"Public space" regulation

As regards regulation of public space, we accept that a whole mix of considerations are involved and that in a democratic society changes in contemporary standards will affect what is or is not allowed.

We also accept that, crude dividing line though they may be, the use of "watersheds" to separate periods of the day as for example times when children are likely to be listening or when they can reasonably be expected to be asleep, is a not unreasonable method of delivering the simple message that before this time an audience can expect restraints to apply that will not be in effect later.

In other words the audience has a reasonably effective way of making a choice! And that is the nub of public space regulation to us; that an audience should have a way to make a choice.

Can Technology help?

If there is a way to "flag" a topic that may prove objectionable so the audience can switch away then regulations can appropriately be lessened and we would see this as the better approach.

Already the technology to do this exists; we remain surprised it has not been used anywhere to our knowledge. If codes can be inserted to allow a car receiver to allow a traffic report to break into a station signal, the same technology could be used to override a radio and produce silence or a standard "Indecent item being broadcast" loop when "indecent" or "objectionable" material is to be broadcast.

The system can be made much more sophisticated with digital technology as it already has for Internet and subscription/pay-per-view TV services but the principle seems to us a better way of proceeding than restrictive regulation. Indeed making the system simple, as current technology dictates would probably be more effective than over-complicating things.

Until then contemporary mores will have to play their part; If the system can automatically mute itself whilst "Mancow" Muller shoves a yam up his backside for pleasure or discusses "fisting" with porn actresses, we don't mind him doing it. Indeed we have no problem with such a broadcast after a clearly-defined watershed.

When it is a case of generating an audience ( and money) by titillating at times when children may well be listening we have more doubts and would accept that some restrictions are necessary. We'd still prefer, however, one we could choose rather than one that is imposed.

An automatic ten-minute mute trigger would do nicely; it would even satisfy the free marketeers by bringing the market into play since if enough people chose to set the system ( or not cancel the default, whichever way were set) the market would fairly soon decide the future of such items.

Any views? Please comment on the above. For that matter, if you can put the time aside, we'd like your "Guest comment" pages this year to stimulate more feedback and dialogue.

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