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The Broadcasting Standards Council makes weighty recommendations on what we can and cannot see. By what right, asks Andrew Calcutt, do its members influence what's on TV?

Whose finger on your button?

'What is important is a means of independent scrutiny. We can contribute from an independent point of view.' At the July press launch of the Broadcasting Standards Council's annual report, Lady Elspeth Howe, the newly appointed chair, praised the 'independent' role of the council and cited its contribution to the demise of satellite-porn station Red Hot Dutch. But what exactly is the role of the Broadcasting Standards Council (BSC)? Who are its members? And in what sense are they independent?

Established in May 1988, the BSC became a statutory body under the Broadcasting Act 1990. It has five main tasks: to draw up and review a code of practice which broadcasters must reflect (a revised code will be published towards the end of 1993); to monitor programmes and make reports; to commission research into such matters as the portrayal of violence and sexual conduct; to consider complaints and make findings on them; to represent the United Kingdom on international bodies concerned with setting standards for television programmes.

A quango

The government provides the BSC with a substantial grant. In the financial year ending 31 March 1993, the council received grants totalling £1,267,143. The Department of National Heritage, Film, Tourism, Sport and Broadcasting provided £842,143. The remainder (£425,000) came from Administration, Immigration and Police Support Services at the Home Office.

So it turns out that the BSC is not 'independent' at all: it is a quango, set up and wholly financed by the Tory government. But what about the individual members of the council? Can they be said to be independent?

The annual report for 1992-93 states: 'members of the council are appointed by the Secretary of State for National Heritage'. The key appointee to date was Lord Rees-Mogg, who chaired the council until June 1993. Rees-Mogg was the founding father of the BSC, and his ethos remains paramount. But he can hardly be described as 'independent': he has been among the governing circles of Britain for 30 years.

Lord Rees-Mogg is a former editor of the Times, vice-chairman of the BBC board of governors and chairman of the Arts Council. He is currently chairman and proprietor of Pickering & Chatto Ltd, and a director of GEC. He was much in the news this year for his efforts to prevent ratification of the Maastricht Treaty. In matters of morality he is a Catholic conservative, and his favourite century is the eighteenth.

The Daily Telegraph recently ran an article on Rees-Mogg's habit of making woefully inaccurate political prophesies (Heseltine to succeed Thatcher, for example). The article concluded: 'the problem with Rees-Mogg is not that he was wrong...but that he feels compelled, despite all his previous blunders, to sound omniscient.'

Throughout his five-year stint in charge of the BSC, Rees-Mogg was presented as an independent authority on broadcasting. Programme-makers were required, by law, to take heed of his 'independent scrutiny' of their work. Yet his track record in public life sheds light on the real Rees-Mogg: not independent, but a member of the Oxbridge in-crowd; a peer of the realm; a British eccentric inextricably linked to the establishment, and too pompous even for the Daily Telegraph.

The most recent government appointee to the BSC is Lady Howe, who took over from Rees-Mogg in June. Wife of former Tory cabinet minister Sir Geoffrey Howe and former deputy-chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, she was Margaret Thatcher's bitter rival for the role of top Tory woman during the 1980s.

The pronouncements issuing from the BSC are no more independent than its well-connected, government-appointed leaders. Examination of the work of the BSC reveals that its outlook is deeply imbued with all of the prejudices and patronising attitudes of the small-talk in a Tory Party tea-room.

'An ugly society'

The starting-point of the council's code of practice is 'concern about the effects on violent crime of violence on television...the possibility that regular exposure will desensitise the audience...fear [of] a copy-cat effect'. In fact, nobody has ever been able to substantiate the claim that the portrayal of violence on television has any such effect on viewers. Even the BSC feels bound to admit that 'the evidence supporting or running contrary to these fears is not conclusive'.

However, the lack of hard evidence is no obstacle to the BSC's determination to impose tighter controls on violence on television: 'in the absence of an answer, the council takes the view that a society which delights in or encourages cruelty or brutality for its own sake is an ugly society, set on a path of self-destruction.' In the absence of an answer, the BSC has taken it upon itself to save us from ourselves.

The BSC code of practice aims to cover all exits down which broadcasters might try to escape. At one point the code suggests that broadcasting should be regulated on the grounds that it might affect real behaviour among its viewers: 'the extent of [broadcasting's] power uncertain, it shares a duty not to incite crime.' But the code's authors also declare that 'programme-makers have a responsibility not to aggravate the imagined extent of danger'. In other words, programme-makers should be regulated because TV violence is fictional. It seems the BSC is not concerned whether the dangers posed by televised violence are real or 'imagined'; its only concern is that programmes should be regulated.

At the BSC annual report press launch in July 1993, Lady Howe referred to the four-fold increase in complaints about violence on television which the council had received during the previous 12 months. Admitting that 'there has been a great deal of debate and this may have prompted particular contributions', she nevertheless insisted that '[this] is an indication of the heightened feeling about violence...if people are worried about the effect of violence hopefully that will influence the attitude of programme-makers'.

Fanning the flames

If 'people are worried about the effect of violence' on TV, it is because they have been influenced by scaremongering busybodies such as the BSC. The council contributes to unsubstantiated rumours about the effects of TV violence. Having fanned the flames of hysteria, it waits for the calls to come in, and then cites the increasing number of complaints as reason enough for public concern. Concern for the public and its peace of mind then comes to be put forward as justification for more control.

A flavour of the kind of control the BSC seeks to impose on TV today can be gained from flicking through its nit-picking code of practice for broadcasters:
'[news bulletins'] use of nicknames for notorious criminals which may soften their image should be discouraged....[in adult drama] care should be taken to avoid confusion between violence which may be legitimated by the situation and illegitimate violence, the kind perpetrated by villains....the display of weapons should be carefully monitored, particularly when knives or other objects readily available in the home are involved....violence which involves animals, even when no harm has come to the animals involved in the production, is deeply upsetting [and] should be kept to a minimum....the representation of sexual intercourse before the Watershed [9pm] should always be a matter for senior editorial judgement....programmes should not encourage smoking, especially by children or young people....the portrayal of alcohol in programmes ought therefore to be regarded with seriousness.'
And no doubt all feet must be wiped and all tea-cups placed on coasters before a programme can be broadcast.

The BSC presents itself as the voice of the ordinary people, speaking up for the public against the liberal trendies of the media establishment. Yet the council seems ready to ignore public opinion when it fails to tally with the BSC's own prejudices. On occasions when its findings proved inconvenient, the council's opinions have even remained 'independent' of its own published research.

In 1992-93, for example, the BSC received only six complaints concerning UK satellite channels, and none referring to Red Hot Dutch. Yet the BSC devoted considerable resources to its successful lobbying for Red Hot Dutch to be proscribed by the heritage secretary - in the public interest, of course.

In 'Sex and Sexuality in Broadcasting', the BSC's annual research review in 1992, the vast majority of respondents (81 per cent) agreed with the statement: 'people who don't like watching sex can always switch off.' A similarly large number (78 per cent) agreed that 'if people want to watch sex on television, they should be allowed to'.

In a research working paper commissioned by the BSC, an 11 year-old girl from Leeds commented on 'bed-hopping' in Dallas: 'well, some people may think it is wrong, but other people may think it is perfectly all right. I think it is just the individual's decision.' If only the grandees who sit on the BSC could demonstrate as much maturity on questions of sex and morality!

Grow up

Concern for children and the allegedly damaging effects of television is enshrined in the council's code of practice: 'some, however, feel that broadcasting, by confronting their children with the dilemmas of adult life, encourages them to grow up too fast.' Additional research commissioned by the BSC would seem to confirm that many children are indeed more grown-up than their state-appointed moral guardians.

In 'Children, Television and Morality' (BSC research working paper No1), Dr Anne Sheppard refutes 'the disturbing image of a child sitting cross-legged, hunched, isolated and unblinking before a television set, soaking up the images like psychological blotting paper'. Interviews carried out by Dr Sheppard indicate that, contrary to current wisdom, children do not lack discernment. 'They can', she concludes, 'distinguish reality from fantasy on television'.

Dr Sheppard asked an eight year-old boy if a shooting in The Bill was the same as one on the news:

Child: 'No. News is real and The Bill isn't.'

Interviewer: 'What is The Bill then?'

Child: 'Just a thing they've made up.'

An eight year-old girl made the same distinction: 'The news is real. The Bill's not true. If someone is shot in the news, they would be dead completely, but in The Bill they wouldn't be. It'd just be a fake.'

In all the recent discussion about television and the dangerous influence it exerts over impressionable young viewers, the BSC has never stepped forward to put the record straight. It chooses not to let the evidence of its own research get in the way of a good moral fable about corrupted children and the decay of the nation's values.

Narrow minds

The petty, narrow-minded atmosphere in which the BSC operates is reflected in the complaints it receives and the way in which it handles them.

In 1993 the council upheld complaints about 'the use of holy names' (such as 'Oh my God!' and 'Jesus Christ!') in episodes of Coronation Street and Pebble Mill. In 1992 the council upheld complaints against Damned in the USA, a documentary on censorship shown in the 'Banned' series on Channel 4. The BSC apparently failed to see the irony of censuring a television company for showing a programme about censorship.

The BSC's monthly bulletins also list complaints which the council has investigated, but not upheld. These are said to come from a cross-section of the British public, but they are almost exclusively representative of what could be called the Daily Mail mentality.

'Mrs Matthews of Hampshire complained of an advertisement for Ritz video hire...she was concerned about the menacing terms in which two cinema films were advertised, including references to "murder and mayhem".'

'Mr John of Gloucestershire complained of a scene in an episode of Emmerdale...showing a man and a woman in bed together. It showed no sexual activity and only the nude upper halves of the couple's bodies.'

'Mrs Rensch of London and three other viewers complained of the offensive use of a Christian holy name in an episode of Bonjour La Classe.' (Partially upheld)

'Shit' at 9.06pm

'Mrs Rensch complained of the use of a Christian holy name in an edition of Smith and Jones.'

'Mrs Rensch of London complained of the use of Christian holy names on Drop the Dead Donkey.'

'Mr Hopkinson of Staffordshire complained about an item in Beadle's About which he described as "a travesty of a marriage service".'

'Ms Smith of Yorkshire complained of offensive references to the bodily functions of a dog in an edition of Side by Side.'

'Ms Davies of Kent and another viewer complained of a scene showing a stripper in an episode of Love Hurts.'

'Mr Waterfield of Cambridgeshire and another viewer complained about the film Tequila Sunrise. Both complainants were concerned about "foul language" including the inclusion of the word "shit" at 9.06pm.'

It would not be surprising if one of the BSC's complainants turned out to be a certain Mrs Bucket (pronounced 'bouquet'). Absurd though they may be, such complaints are taken seriously by the BSC. In his foreword to the 1991-92 annual report, Lord Rees-Mogg pontificated: 'every one of those who complain to us...can at least be assured that, on the one hand, their complaints are treated seriously and, on the other, that the most senior levels of management in the broadcasting organisations will be concerned in the formulation of adequate responses.'

In other words, the BSC will ensure that complaints from proponents of the Daily Mail mentality influence the increasingly censorious climate in which programmes are produced and editorial decisions are made. Rees-Mogg's statement exemplifies the insidious influence of the BSC in seeking to restrict the scope of television and radio programmes. It chimes in with current trends such as the call for more emphasis on 'happy news', and the new instructions from BBC governors (like Rees-Mogg) for interviewers to be more polite to government ministers.

Creeping effect

The BSC might seem like a harmless coterie of upper-class eccentrics lending an ear to the fears and foibles of their suburban counterparts. But it would be foolish to underestimate the creeping effect of the council's work. There are plans afoot to hand over more powers to the BSC, and to merge it 'into the work of a new consumers' council for broadcasting entrusted with a much broader remit'. A revamped BSC is set to be the remote-control panel you never asked for.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 59, September 1993

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