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Concerned about standards?

January 2006

The telephone rang. It was ten to eight in the morning. ‘Hello? Is that John?’ Yes. ‘This is BBC Three Counties Radio. Sorry to call you so early. Would you take part in our breakfast show?’

Jean Alexander, who played Hilda Ogden in Coronation Street, had said that there is now too much sex in the programme and she would not return to it. ‘OK’, I said, ‘call me at twenty to nine’. Not a routine event but not rare either.

As Director of mediawatch-uk, I am frequently called upon to contribute to TV and radio programmes, sometimes at the drop of a hat – and to state our point of view on a range of issues that fall under the general description of ‘communications’ and ‘regulation’.

Mobile pornography

A week ago a BBC reporter asked me to do an interview for the Todayprogramme on BBC Radio 4 about the latest generation of mobile telephones, which can access the Internet. The story was that youngsters would be able to view hard-core pornographic web sites.

This call meant a dash to the BBC studio at Tunbridge Wells. The same day, BBC 3 TV news interviewed me, also from their Tunbridge Wells studio. As you would expect, I was ‘disgusted’ that (according to media consultancy Screen Digest) UK viewers can now tune in to 27 dedicated pornography channels.

This was the fastest growing genre in television in 2004 and, apparently, Britain has more of these channels than any other European country!

Straight after this I did another interview for BBC News 24 about the Government’s plans for the switchover to digital television, announced earlier that day by the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell.

In touch with public opinion

Of course, not every day brings so many opportunities to speak to so many people about our concerns. But since our founder Mary Whitehouse died in 2001, I have found myself in the spotlight more and more – whenever discussions arise about the media and protests about offensive and harmful programme content on television.

This suggests that some, at least, recognise that we express opinions that can provide balance that might affect future programmes. The latest studies by the regulator, the Office of Communications, suggests that we may be more in touch with public opinion than we are given credit for!

I joined the campaign in 1976 because I could see the power of television to affect a whole range of social, moral and political issues. Having read Mary’s autobiography Cleaning Up TV, I could see that she had made out a strong and compelling case for greater accountability and better regulation of broadcasting – complying with the Codes and Guidelines and with what Parliament intended in broadcasting legislation.

These rules require that programmes should ‘not offend good taste or decency’ or ‘offend public feeling’. Until quite recently these have been the primary statutory requirements applying to all broadcasters.

Welfare of children

Mary Whitehouse was a brave and courageous woman who in her last years suffered severe pain from a crumbling spine. As a former senior mistress, the welfare of children was at the core of her concern – which in turn derived from a profound Christian faith.

She took part in many TV and radio programmes as well as debates at most universities around the country. She wrote five books focusing on the campaign and one TV executive famously said of her that had she not existed she would have had to be invented!

The work involves a great deal more, however, than being interviewed and making statements to the press. During the course of a year we spend many hours monitoring programmes and producing reports on content – as well as responding in detail to numerous public consultations issued by Government and broadcasters.

This year, for example, we have responded to the Government’s Green Paper on the future of the BBC and to the Home Office consultation on violent and abusive pornography on the Internet.

Undoing the damage

In the last twelve years we have monitored more than 1,000 TV films and produced reports on violence and on bad language. The findings are alarming. In our most recent report on 186 films shown in 2004, 900 incidents involving the use of firearms and 680 violent assaults were portrayed.

In another report on bad language (analysing 142 films shown in 2003) we recorded 2,234 ‘f-words’ and 549 uses of Jesus or Christ as an expletive. We contend that violence and bad language on television is a positive hindrance to overcoming antisocial behaviour in our society.

We continue to call on broadcasters to play their part in undoing the damage they have caused and contributing to the Government’s objectives in tackling the so-called ‘yob culture’.

Social dramas

Since our early days in the 1960s we have all been part of the revolution in communications. When Mary Whitehouse started the Clean-Up TV Campaign, television was transmitted on 405 lines in black and white. ITV had started in the 1950s and was competing with the BBC.

However, instead of commercial competition driving up standards, as many people hoped, a new style of controversial programming began to take hold, driving standards down.

We had social dramas like Cathy come homemaking contentious political observations, and new satire programmes like That was the week that wasridiculing people and cherished institutions as never before.

When speaking, Mary Whitehouse often quoted the words of St Paul from his letter to the Philippians: ‘whatsoever things are true, just, pure, lovely and of good report if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, think on these things’.

She felt specially justified in quoting this passage because words based on it have been displayed in the entrance hall to BBC Broadcasting House since 1931!

Jerry Springer

Mediawatch-uk has always tried to represent viewers’ and listeners’ concerns about standards and to remind the broadcasters of their obligations. We have also tried to advise busy politicians, who do not have much time to watch TV, when we believe the legislation they have enacted in this field is being ignored.

A recent and well-known example was the showing of Jerry Springer the Operaon BBC2 in January. The choreography, music and acting may have been good. But the production, taken as a whole, with its orchestrated obscene language and unparalleled mockery of the Christian religion, surely transgressed the BBC’s Royal Charter and its own Producers’ Guidelines. It certainly succeeded in causing a great deal of offence at licence-fee payers’ expense!

Market-driven standards

Multichannel television is here, with wide screens, stereo sound and superb high definition pictures. Since deregulation in the 1990s, new global providers are also present, anxious to sign everyone up to their services.

There are now more channels than ever vying for subscriptions, sponsorship, advertising revenue and, above all, ratings and audience-share. ITV has just launched ITV4 and Channel 4 has launched More 4.

However, a serious obstacle to the digital switchover is that so many channels offer nothing more than continuous pop music, pornography, or new opportunities to shop. Sadly, standards are market-driven and where most money is to be made, there are the most TV channels.

Regulations rolled back

Over the years thousands of hours of good and praiseworthy programmes have been broadcast into our homes, aimed at informing, educating and entertaining us. Most succeed but some have offended too!

According to the Broadcasting Code introduced by the Office of Communications, the emphasis today is on ‘freedom of expression’ which inevitably involves a steady rolling back of regulation.

The main task now is to promote ‘media literacy’ and plans for classifying programmes are slowly evolving. In the future, media consumers will be expected to inform themselves using advance programme information published in the TV magazines and elsewhere – and so make choices about what programmes to view or avoid.

Although aimed at setting standards, this will only be done retrospectively – in the light of research and public reaction to programmes. Nevertheless, the Broadcasting Code does acknowledge that broadcasters have duties and responsibilities, and mediawatch-uk will focus upon these.

Battle for standards

Recent developments have substantially shifted the goalposts in broadcasting regulation, and mediawatch-uk has had to adapt. Unfortunately, the future for our campaign is rather uncertain because we have suffered a loss of membership and consequent funding.

It would represent a huge victory for those who want all constraints on media standards to be abandoned if mediawatch-uk were forced to close down. We would like to appeal to you directly to join mediawatch-uk and encourage others to do so.

The battle for standards on television is becoming ever more difficult and it is up to each one of us to resist the slide towards offensive and harmful content being presented as the norm.

Remember, evil triumphs when good people do nothing!

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