Colin Shaw

Broadcast Standards in England, Too

VTR Date: May 25, 1995

Guest: Shaw, Colin


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Colin Shaw
Title: Broadcast Standards … in England, too
VTR: 5/25/95

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And afraid enough of a wise guy that more than a couple of decades ago, when first approached to head the motion picture industry’s voluntary film ratings system, Hollywood’s quite successful effort to use film classification to stable film censorship, I declined the honor, insisting that my mother hadn’t raised me to count nipples. Well, later I changed my mind not about my upbringing, but rather about what America’s voluntary ratings system if more rationally administered, might achieve. And right or wrong, I served as chairman of the ratings system not for the year or two I promised, but for 20 years until I was retired in June 1994. Obviously, it had proved to be a most fascinating area of work and thought for me. Particularly for an American historian and a broadcaster with an open mind who can invite guests as he pleases, as I have today in the person of Colin Shaw, the director of what is somewhat Britain’s counterpart to our movie ratings system. It’s BSC, Broadcasting Standards Council. Of course, I no longer commute from New York to Hollywood, Sin City East to Sin City West, as I used to joke. But my interest in cultural mores and standards is ever greater, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss the matter with one so learned and concerned. And Mr. Shaw, as I welcome you to these shores, I have to say that I would rather suspect from reading the bulletins that your organization puts out that you face many of the problems that the American ratings system faces.

SHAW: Yes, of course. We’re not a censorship body; we’re essentially a retrospective body. We look at complaints the public bring to the Council, and consider whether the broadcasters have behaved in broad accordance with the code of practice, which the Council produces in a limited range of matters to deal with violence, to deal with sex, and to deal with matters of taste and decency.

HEFFNER: You mean you’ve never been called a censor?

SHAW: We’ve been called a censor, but I think on the whole, we’ve, over the years, since 1988, when the Council was created, we’ve managed to persuade a lot of people that we’re not a censor. We can never quite throw off the tag that we silence people, that because people fear that our heavy hand will fall upon them, that they’re therefore less bold. I don’t actually believe that is so, but it’s an argument which is sometimes raised against us.

HEFFNER: Well, of course, I would argue, too, the question of whether the American system is censorious. It’s voluntary, after all, but let’s set that aside. One of the things, well, the word that I find is “watchdog.” Your organization is the watchdog?

SHAW: I think that’s a word we wouldn’t resist. I think we do attempt to be a watchdog within the very narrow limits in which we’re required to operate. What we did when the Council was set up in 1988 was to go very hard on research because we suspected , and I think it’s been brought out in the time we’ve been in existence, but if we simply took a count of what the complainants said, they have a proper voice in things but they cannot have a dominating voice, because they’re only a small part of a total audience, many millions of people watching many programs night after night with great pleasure. And it would be quite wrong to think that the relative handful of people who actually write and complain actually have some greater share of the truth than the rest who apparently find a great deal to please them.

HEFFNER: But if, if you’re talking about a relative handful, why bother?

SHAW: Well, because I think that in any kind of democracy, I think you have to give those citizens who are dissatisfied with some aspect of its democratic life the chance to have their say. You may not agree with them very often, but from time to time the Council does agree with the complainant, and it’s an opportunity for people with a grievance to get that grievance off their chest, and they may feel better for it. I’m afraid quite a lot of them don’t feel better for it, but nevertheless, the opportunity is there. And it seems to me when Britain in particular has provided all sorts of organizations to provide redress for dissatisfied consumers of this, that, and the other, that broadcasting should not be immune to that process.

HEFFNER: But there is a different basis with the consumer movement … with goods and products rather than with words, ideas, and you’re talking about television essentially. Broadcasting.

SHAW: Yes, there is a big difference, because if I’m not happy with the way in which the gas company has performed, they’ve perhaps not come to repair my gas stove at the right moment, and so I can have some kind of financial redress. If my train doesn’t arrive on time, I can have some kind of financial redress. If I hadn’t liked a program that hasn’t matched up to the expectations, I can’t be sent a check in the post with everything right. But nevertheless, it’s a way in which comments of opinion can be encouraged to flow. The Council can give some of them a spin on their way, and others we can deflect and perhaps put a stop to. So it’s a channel for expression of public opinion.

HEFFNER: But on what basis do you put a spin on some of the complaints and put a stop to the others?

SHAW: Well, the Council consists of eight people who are appointed by the Secretary of State for National Heritage, which is the department of government which now looks after broadcasting in Britain. And they are eight people from a variety of backgrounds. They themselves would conceive that the average age is too high. We should have some younger people. But they add to their experience the results of the research that the Council does. They look at the time of the program, they look at the channel it’s on, they look at the likely expectations of a particular artist. There are some artists who indulge much more than other artists, some comedians who can get away with more things than another comedian can’t. So all these things and a number of others all come into the judgment. There is, I think, a good deal of agreement in Britain among the people in the audience that the 9:00 watershed, before which programs are supposed to be not unsuitable for the family, is worth having and preserving. People say, of course, that with VCR’s and the ability of children to record, the ability of children to have sets in their bedrooms, that the watershed is meaningless. But it’s never been more than a kind of signal for those parents who want to take a choice in the interest of their children as they see it. That’s the signal that for the moment at which they do have to start exercising a great degree of responsibility. And that watershed is extremely well known, it’s known by well over 90 percent of the population with parents being particularly high in the representation.

HEFFNER: Now, when I was a youngster in this country, the watershed was 6:30 in the evening. My brother and I would eat our supper and then we would listen to “Uncle Don” and then we would go to bed at 6:30. How effective is the watershed today in England?

SHAW: Well, I think it continues to be surprisingly effective. We get relatively few complaints about programs going out before 9:00. And relatively few of those complaints are actually upheld by the Council. There are occasional lapses in the area of bad language, for instance, there were certain words which are beginning to be viewed more liberally, if you’d like , by the population; words change. And you can use some words between 8:00 and 9:00 without the audience reacting very strongly. Words which we certainly couldn’t have used 10 years ago, so there’s a constant shift in language.

HEFFNER: Working on the assumption that young children are listening, watching before 9:00 …

SHAW: Yes.

HEFFNER: … but working on the assumption also that they aren’t listening, watching after 9:00, after the watershed?

SHAW: No. But if you go back to the point I was making just now, that at 9:00, parents who want to make a decision that their children are not going to see or listen to what follows, parents can then do something about it, and pack the children off to bed. Lots of parents would say, of course, they can’t get their children off to bed. But I’m afraid that really is their problem, and I don’t think that broadcasters have a duty to those parents who simply cannot control their children.

HEFFNER: But Mr. Shaw, you say that’s the parents’ problem. Isn’t that a rather grand statement to make, given the fact that it is the problem faced by so many parents?

SHAW: Well, it’s an (inaudible) notion of the watershed well was defined by a colleague of mine as not being a waterfall but being truly a watershed. And the Council, if you look at some of our complaints, the Council has taken the view that an abrupt change of mood at 9:00 is really not acceptable. If, on a Saturday night, for instance, you immediately go straight into a rape scene some sort of staying at the beginning …

HEFFNER: as one program did.

SHAW: … as one program did. Then the Council takes the view that that’s not the way to behave and therefore censors the broadcaster. And the broadcaster ought to go and think about it and then repeat it if he has extremely good reason to do so. We have no really strong penalties, but most broadcasters listen with some attentiveness to what the Council says.


SHAW: Well, because I think most of them recognize that the Council which was looked at as a kind of bogey-body when it was first set up, and there were all sorts of fears as to how it was going to be another of Mrs. Thatcher’s threats to freedom, and on the whole, it’s been seen to behave quite reasonable and sensibly. It’s got things wrong occasionally as any institution will. But by and large, I think it’s been on a fairly sensible course, which most broadcasters have accepted, and they respect when it does uphold the complaint. They respect that the judgment and not agree with the judgment, but they respect the thoughtfulness which has gone into it.

HEFFNER: Is language a major concern?

SHAW: Well, language is the subject that worries the audience, in terms of complaints to the Council, far more than anything else. It’s always been when there was a committee into broadcasting in Britain in the 1970’s, under a man called Noel (inaudible) which some people may well remember. He had a higher post bag of complaints about bad language than anything else. Though, if you ask people in research what it is that worries them most about broadcasting, they will say it’s violence. They’re more worried in their innermost selves about violence than apparently they are about bad language. But they write about violence, they write about sex, more than they do about violence.

HEFFNER: I’m assuming that I (inaudible) in your materials that … your research came up with language, but in reality, it’s violence. How do you account for that?

SHAW: Oh, I think, a number of reasons. When people say “violence,” I think they’re lumping all violence together.

HEFFNER: All language.

SHAW: Well, violent language, which is often a prelude to violent activity. But I think when they talk about violence, they’re talking about violence in the news. And if you look at the news bulletins some nights, the world looks like a pretty awful place. And it’s television that is the means by which you find these things. It’s upsetting, it’s distressing. So violence, I think, is much more than simply the kind of violence we might say occurs in Natural Born Killers, for instance, in the cinema. I think it’s all kinds of what other people might call simply unpleasantness, those things which make the world a less safe or less welcoming place to be in. The other thing, more practically, perhaps, is that violence tends to be on the screen after 10:00 at night. And certainly the people who write to us would know that after 10:00, there are quite a lot of things that they may not want to see. So I think they deliberately switch themselves off from violence. I also think, just to finish this particularly … I also think that the people who write letters are writing because, quite often the case of bad language and of sex, are of embarrassment, because they’re been watching in the family circle. And I don’t think people watch violence in quite the same way as they do – late evening violence – the family is broken up come 10:00, and they’re all on their separate ways, and I don’t think watching it after 10:00 is a kind of corporate activity in the way that watching it earlier in the evening is. And so, father doesn’t feel – and oddly enough, more men complain to us in writing than women – and so father doesn’t feel he’s got to defend the family hearth by protesting the outrageous behavior of the broadcasters.

HEFFNER: If you were to write you, what would you complain about?

SHAW: Um, well, I think I’m not sure. I think that what I would write about would be outside the reamage because I would complain about the tackiness of an awful lot of television, and the tawdriness of it, and the offering of rather grand rewards for fairly minor acts of knowledge and intellect. And I think that the luring of, the luring of respect for knowledge, which comes out of some of the games, I think, is something that I personally regret. I mean, that may date me like anything, but I think that’s what I would write about. And I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to consider my own letter.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting, you use that word “remit” as I come across here, meaning the area that you’ve been charged with –

SHAW: That’s right. It’s a handy shorthand for terms of reference. And the terms of reference are laid down by terms of statute. We have an act – the Broadcasting Act of 1990 – which prescribes what we shall do.

HEFFNER: You know that in this country, when we do anything, we hear first and foremost, “First Amendment, First Amendment.” You can’t tell us what to do; you can’t tell us what not to do; you can’t tell us what you like or don’t like, because somehow or another you’re doing violence to our First Amendment rights. In Britain, you do not have that concern, I presume …

SHAW: No. No, we don’t. Though it’s quite interesting that in some of the European judgments, judgments in the European courts, the spirit of the First Amendment seems to be flourishing more strongly than certainly it has been in British law, and really since time began.

HEFFNER: To their detriment, or to their benefit?

SHAW: Well, I think it’s … I think it’s very difficult. I think that the circumstances in which the First Amendment was brought into existence are really very different to the circumstances which prevail today. I don’t think, for instance, that with all the foresight of the founding fathers that they actually understood quite what commercial imperatives were going to exist 200 years later. And I think that account
was … how could they have taken account? But I just wonder whether the time is not come when the thing ought to be taken out of the water and looked at again to see whether there are ways in which perhaps it could be modified, because I’m not sure that some people are literally getting away with murder with it is, of course, an exaggeration. But certainly they’re getting away with the portrayal of murder, perhaps in circumstances where it would be healthier for society if they didn’t.

HEFFNER: Now in Britain, recently there have been certain major cases in which there have been people who have said television, film, are getting away with murder. They are bringing about murder. What is your own sense of the appropriateness of that charge?

SHAW: I think it continues to be not prudent. There’s a very useful judgment verdict in Scottish law which allows somebody to be neither guilty nor not guilty, but the case is simply not prudent. It’s a very unkind verdict, because, of course, some people go around with the stigma all their lives that they got away with it, and that there’s no smoke without fire, and of course she did it, or of course he did it, or that he just had a very clever lawyer. But I think the jury is still out, though in a relatively early stage of exposure of generations to be influenced, if television has a really strong influence. And I’m very doubtful … I think there is an influence, but I’m most unpersuaded that there is a direct effect. I think that in very rare cases somebody may be triggered by what they’ve seen on television, but I think it’s simply whether television over time is eroding certain restraints which have existed in society against violence – not always effective, though. But I think we’ve got to wait quite a long time before we see. After all, when you and I were young, I suspect we were (inaudible) off the cinema. Didn’t do you much good, obviously. But we managed to live through the cinema and we managed – I managed – we both managed to live through the last war without the influence of all the propaganda, “killing the enemy,” and so on. So I think we’ve got to see whether the present generation is more somehow susceptible. You can argue that there are in society a lot more social factors – many more family breakups – and all those things which make children more vulnerable than they were. But even that, I think, remains to be seen.

HEFFNER: But I have two questions, then, for you. Yes, we’ve survived. But I believe from our earlier discussions that you do see that the situation we’re in now is very different than that; the impact of the media is, in all likelihood, very different. And if you had to make your bet – now I’m not asking you to prove it; I’m not asking you for behavioral proof – but before you said, when I asked that very innocent question, what would you write if you were writing to your own organization, you’d write about a very general kind of influence that the media have upon society.

SHAW: Well, I think, yes, I would want to widen the whole question of the influence of the media, because I do think we have to consider very carefully the effects that the media have had on politics and on the stability of government. And I think that the media present, if you like, a challenge to society, or a threat to society, or whatever word you want to use. Which society has got to come to terms with. I think if you take the activities of the tabloid papers in Britain, the way in which over the last 12 months or so they’ve been seeking out conservative MP’s (inaudible) to their names, and outing them, in a way which has nothing to do with the value of those people to public life. And this is a kind of witch hunt, and a kind of puritanical zeal, carried out by a people who wouldn’t actually know Puritans if they fell over them. So it’s the unsettling effect of the media and the fact that a lot of powers, certainly in Britain – I don’t know enough about America, anything about America with confidence – but extent to which the media in Britain posed a challenge to the government, I think what has happened is that Parliament in Britain has become much weaker, and that the government has … it’s become much more, particularly with some newspaper magnates owning a large part of the media. I think it’s become much more a conflict between the media and government than Parliament and the censors to … I suppose fall back and out of the fight. And that is a fight which, in a civilized society (inaudible) society government, and to revive government, have to win, because we cannot let the media win.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s interesting that you say that, because I gather there are those who, for good reason, identify the Broadcast Standards Organization with government that has been involved too much with the media, and it’s to be dragged down, and your organization has used as a demonstration of too much involvement. Now, what’s the response?

SHAW: Yes, I think I would want to separate my general concern about the imbalance within the political life of the country with the particular origins and the particular role that was given to the Broadcasting Standards Council. I mean, the history of the Council really lies in over the last 30 years going back into the 1960’s, when the conservatives were pretty, um, ill-disposed towards the BBC, and it had gone on and soon to be must be shackled or must be brought under control, and they talked about setting up a broadcasting council and so on. And we are actually the (inaudible) end of that process, and the Council was created in order to try and control the broadcasters, particularly the BBC perhaps, in a fairly narrow field of activity. And quite a lot of the things the feeling that the public was deeply distressed about violence and sex and taste and decency, has, I think, over the years been shown to be rather less (inaudible) than perhaps the original architects of the Council thought. And the Council has now taken on a new and a wider role, because it’s done a lot of independent research, which wasn’t being done by anybody else. And what we’ve tried to do is to position the Council so that it can contribute sensibly to the public debate about values in broadcasting with the complaints as an active part of what we do, but not the decisive part, which I think the original architects thought might be the case. I don’t think the development on the research side was something that was anticipated by those pushed the Council forward.

HEFFNER: If the Council researchers should indicate minimal concern on the fault of the public …


HEFFNER: … we now accept the language. We now accept the violence. We now accept the nudity and the sexuality. How much of an impact would that make upon what the Council does?

SHAW: It would make a very considerable effect. I mean, we’re nothing like near that position, but in the end, I suppose if we’re honest men and women, we would have to say that we’ve done ourselves out of a job, because there isn’t a job to do. But all the evidence is there is a job to do, not least in that area that we talked about in the very beginning, of giving those with a grievance the chance to air it.

HEFFNER: Yes, but I’m asking a somewhat different question, and I’ll probably ask it inappropriately, I’m not … well, we’re talking about standards. Standards are set simply by counting noses and counting responses to your research, or standards are set by those ladies and gentlemen who make up the Council?

SHAW: Well, I think it would be very difficult to put a knife blade between the two. I think it’s a … there’s a process of osmosis, if you’d like, and you have to try and reach common sense judgments which you believe that if you like or (inaudible) a majority of people will accept as being sensible ones.

HEFFNER: And the attitudes, the values, the standards, to use your own word, of the people who make these decisions?

SHAW: Um, yes, they would certainly play a part. But I think there are certain things on which would be – let’s take the area of taste and decency, for instance. We decided we ought to have a kind of working distinction between the two things. And we decided that taste was ephemeral. And if you like, the Chinese wore white when they mourn people, we in the West wear black, and that’s a, if you like, a matter of taste and fashion. It has nothing to do with decency, because both West and East are united in respect for the dead. And that’s where decency is, and decency has to do with the enduring values of human beings for another. And that’s why we have in the code suggestions as to how people should treat death in the moment of death; we’ve just for the first time seen on British screen – almost the first time – and outside of news contexts somebody die on screen, a very moving Dutch film about euthanasia and the termination of the life of an incurably ill patient, and it was almost unbearably moving to watch. And it produced almost no complaints at all because it was properly introduced and properly handled. But the real issue in decency is you ought not to exploit for the purposes of the television screen that most awful, in the full sense of the word, that most awful moment in anybody’s life when they actually die.

HEFFNER: Of course, then the question comes up is when do you exploit it or when you have exploited it and when have you not? When have you simply presented something and there must be enormous disagreements and, uh …

SHAW: Well, let’s take that fellow … the shooting of the police chief in the street, or the shooting by the police chief of the man in Saigon …


SHAW: … which, at the moment it was shown, was profoundly relevant to any exposure of the nature of life in Saigon, and the nature of the regime which was in power. And the total disrespect for justice, and it was a harrowing shot. Now it was later used by a producer in a series of, a review of pop music, and he used this as part of a (inaudible) of shots of action, I mean, not 100 miles from Natural Born Killers, I suppose, in the way it was made up. And that was intolerable because it was exploitation of this sensational scene.

HEFFNER: And that we could agree upon. But I’m getting the signal that I have to agree upon the fact that the program is over. If you stay where you are, we’ll do another one, because there’s so much more to talk about. Thank you so much, Mr. Shaw.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, our guest today, please write: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts send $4 in check or money order.

And meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”