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
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
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 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:
And no doubt all feet must be wiped and all tea-cups placed on coasters
before a programme can be broadcast.
- '[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.'
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
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
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
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
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.
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.'
'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
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