More on Broadcasting Standards … In England and Elsewhere, Too
VTR Date: May 25, 1995
Guest: Shaw, Colin
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Colin Shaw
Title: More on Broadcasting Standards…In England and Elsewhere, Too
HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And this is the second of the two-art series with Colin Shaw, the learned director of Britain’s Broadcasting Standards Council. Thank you for staying with me again, Mr. Shaw. I actually wanted to ask you about a phenomenon that is just beginning to plague this country, and that is the interactive video games, the what appears on the games and other things on the home computer, and what in Britain you are doing about standards and those newer media.
SHAW: I think the answer is we’re not at the moment doing anything except worry about them, and worry whether in fact they’re susceptible of any kind of regulation, and how proper it is to even try. Uh…
HEFFNER: What do you mean proper?
SHAW: Well, whether it is a proper exercise of government, whether government, and to what extent the government, the state, should get involved in the regulation of this area as well as other things. There’s a curious dichotomy certainly in the Conservatives in Britain. Having between on the one hand wanting to set people free to do all sorts of things to let economic forces flow. And then pull in the opposite direction which says, well, yes, but we must put in blocks to stop them from letting the economic forces do too much. There’s a kind of power war in one of the very early nuclear power stations which was built in chimneys, and then somebody very late in the day, almost as the Queen was about to cut the tape to put the thing on the street, somebody said, “Well, you realize there’s no filter. All the radioactivity’s going to go straight up the chimney”. So, to this day, there is a rather splendid box at the top of one of these power stations which is the attempt too late in the day to stop the radioactivity out. And there is a sense, I think, in which that’s happened, and you can see it in quite a lot of the legislation in Britain over recent years.
HEFFNER: Otherwise known as Pandora’s Box?
SHAW: Yes, I think that’s it. I think it’s extremely difficult to go on. I don’t see how you go on setting up watchdog bodies in order to **** it from forms of the media. I think you have to be much more positive. I mean I think as a government, what governments have to do in the future is to regulate not against things but regulate for things. And they have to try to get a sense of what is valuable to the community, what are the valuable things they want within society. Good, sensible programs for children, good educational programs, programs for minorities of all kinds protecting ethnic languages and so on. We have a particular question of Welsh and Gaelic in Britain. And those things need to be, need to be positively sustained. And I think it probably governments about to think in more limited ways of making sure that those things are available, continue to be available, and subsidized when they have to be. And that the rest, you have to simply say, well, we’ll have to come to terms with the fact that they exist. And if it turns out in years to come that they really have very serious consequences, and not the consequences feared at the moment by some ****, then you do something about it. But don’t start off by trying to bottle them up before they’ve even escaped from the bottle.
HEFFNER: That sounds wonderfully noble. But I believe I have detected in our last program together, and when we have talked together before, some concern on your part on what comes out when you lift the lid off, when you go online with your nuclear plant or with your home video interactive games, etc.
SHAW: I think that’s right, but I think…I don’t think I wish to deny that, that there is a part of me which says we must do that. But I think this is the confusion of somebody who would claim to be a fairly liberal person. Not always content with the consequences of the full liberal virtues. And feeling that perhaps they have shortcomings, but not really sure how far you can go in the opposite direction. Because the people who are pulling you in the opposite direction are really not all that nice. They’re fairly disagreeable people of their own motives. So I think this is a classic, late 20th century liberal dilemma on the homes of which I impaled, and I don’t think you’ll get me on only one side or the other.
HEFFNER: But wait a minute. You talk about the rather unpleasant people trying to pull you into this…
HEFFNER: …that’s not true about people, who…rational, reasonable people who are concerned, who are not blue-noses, ****…What spews from this smokestack?
SHAW: I think, yes, I mean I wouldn’t want to class them all together. But there is, there’s a kind of person, particularly active in Britain I think summed up on a song in a musical years ago by **** Herbert, who wrote some wonderful musicals towards the end, towards the end of the war – at the end of the war, before war – in which there was a Labor MP who was clearly identifiable. This woman strode around the stage saying, “Let’s stop somebody from doing something”. And there’s a great deal of that about in Britain, and one doesn’t want to encourage that attitude among people. Where you apply pressure in order to stop the bleeding is extremely difficult, I think, in this matter.
HEFFNER: You want us to do the right thing?
HEFFNER: You want us to create a society in which whatever we find from media or elsewhere can’t possibly be as bad because we have a good society?
SHAW: Well, I think that’s, yes, I mean, if you like this is a liberal dream. But I do think that there are some practical things. I think one of the, certainly in Britain, one of the great neglected areas in British education is media education. We do very little to teach people. We teach them very little about visual interests. Very few have an idea of how to look at a picture; they have very little ability to read a picture and the way it’s presented by newspapers. And they have very little understanding of the way in which broadcasting works. All those things, I think you could armor the next generation much better by making them more aware of media education. And of those the things that media education can teach them. It’s…there’s a terrible curling of the lip in Britain when you mention the media education, it’s always regarded as a soft option. If somebody wants to do media studies, they tend to automatically, to be looked at as slightly askance by the more professional kind of teachers. And I think that’s a great pity. And I think that a better constructed society would be able to come to terms with all these new inventions.
HEFFNER: Instructed about media?
SHAW: Yes, yes. And the way in which the media works.
HEFFNER: What…tell me what the mechanism is when I teach. If I teach students how the media works, what would, what is the result?
SHAW: Well, I think that what you’ve, I think what you should be sending them away with is a proper understanding of the need to ask questions. I think that – to challenge, and to question, after all, it should be the purpose of all education, but particularly **** education – to send people away with an ability to challenge and to take nothing on trust. I mean I think one of the great heresies is not asking questions. And perhaps an even greater heresy is not to know there are questions to ask.
HEFFNER: Well, you’re making the assumption, I gather, that the media do not have the power, the strength, to block out any of our ability to respond rationally as you suggest. You just will not, do not see, media as quite the **** in our society as I admit I do?
SHAW: No, I don’t think I do. I think that they’ve got, I mean I think the balance of power between the media and government has got out of, out of hand in Britain.
HEFFNER: Which way?
SHAW: Oh, I think because the media have become too dominant, I think. And the great classic example in Britain was absolutely crazy, after Parliament, about dangerous dogs. The newspapers were running a campaign saying that dogs were being eaten all over the, children were eaten all over the country by dogs, and we must do something. And so a bill was rushed to Parliament by a minister who was particularly concerned with his, uh, his public appearance. And this act was put in place. I don’t believe it’s reduced the number of dogs who’ve come around biting children, not do I believe that it has actually put in place powers which weren’t there already before. And it was an extraordinary example of legislation between dictated simply by the tabloid press. And it’s that kind of imbalance which we need to correct. But I don’t, I don’t regard the media. I think the media have a very healthy influence in society. But the fact is the power is shifted too far in their direction.
HEFFNER: What’s that mean in other countries, not just of the European Union, but thereto?
SHAW: Um, I really don’t know enough about European countries. I mean one sees large figures but then one’s seen Mr. **** come and presumably go. And maybe that people who aspire to fly that high are going sooner or later to come to grief. That hasn’t happened to Mr. Murdoch yet.
HEFFNER: No, will any…will there be any impact upon you, and what you do…in terms of the European Union, in terms of what the entity that is the new Europe plus Britain can do?
SHAW: Um, on the work of the Council?
SHAW: I think they may well be. I think that one will see a gradual assimilation of British practices and habits of thought to European ways. I think younger people, for instance, are much more tolerant and much more likely to take a European view because they have a much wider knowledge of Europe than their elders do. I think there’s a, particularly in Britain, a generation which had it been exemplified in the time of V-day still feels quite passionately about Britain’s independence from Europe, and it’s need to preserve a separate identity. And I think that with the passing of that generation, then I think attitudes between Britain and Europe, provided we don’t bite off our heads and come out of Europe, are, I think that will bring about a change. And Britain will become closer to Europe in all sense.
HEFFNER: And how will that impact upon standards?
SHAW: Well, I think it will mean that the, some of the things which the British now object to will be seen in a rather different context. I mean, if you take nudity, which causes a lot of concern in Britain still, I think we shall find that in time the youngsters who are less concerned about nudity will see themselves closer in spirit to the kind of things that you can see on the French television, Heaven knows they’re not particularly outrageous. And I think the notion could probably survive seeing a little more of them than it does at the moment.
HEFFNER: Well, close, uh, in the twenty years I spent commuting to Hollywood, I always heard from our friend Jim Forman of the British Board of Film…now Classification…then, British board of Film Censorship, or censors…that we were always hard-bound when it came to nudity. And the English, at least in terms of, the British, in terms of film, much more open now…are you saying that when you move on to the continent there was a much more accepting attitude about seeing the human body?
SHAW: Yes, absolutely.
HEFFNER: Even us old fuddy-duddies?
SHAW: Um, yes. I think we’re less so than we were. I think there has been quite a shift, actually, in the time the council has been around. **** sexual explicitness, after nine o’clock. They’re still, because of the children, very anxious that these, that kind of thing isn’t seen before nine o’clock. But after nine o’clock, in our research we did quite recently, shows that people are willing to, they won’t get in the way of other people’s wish to see these things, and they’re not *** themselves. But they don’t feel they shouldn’t be there for those who want it, which of course is not something that they say about violence. So there is a considerable distinction in the perception of violence and the perception of sexual explicitness.
HEFFNER: So in language…some negative?
SHAW: Uh, language is still pretty, pretty negative. And certainly I would say up to ten o’clock, language is still a sensitive issue. And there’s still some words which are completely taboo.
HEFFNER: Are the broadcasters doing, themselves, trying to sneak things in?
SHAW: Um, I think it depends on what you mean by the broadcasters. They’re not always, and I think they probably should be. There will always be attempts by ambitious directors and producers to push the frontiers a bit. And I think that’s probably something one should not actually resist in the sense of saying they never did. I think they should at least be free to try it, though they may bump themselves up against a brick wall, and discover that the public won’t stand for it. But I think it would be a great pity if they **** away from it because they feared they might get censored for it. The World Council of Churches, surprising body, said that **** a television service which had no **** which were offensive would itself be offensive. And I take that view. I think that’s…I think there should be shocks from time to time at which the system would have to absorb and will have to react to properly. But one really shouldn’t set out to stop people even trying to do the ambitious, the inventive, the innovative.
HEFFNER: Yes, but it’s so interesting to me. You say, “the ambitious, the innovative, the inventive”…um, there are so many people who say the degrading, um, people who are not concerned about, who are quiet willing to maintain standards, older standards, and so we’re going to Hell, not just in a wheelbarrow but a lot faster that that. **** would such pleasure upon the innovators, what is indeed, by itself, so wonderful about change?
SHAW: Well, Allen Bennett (?), not unknown in this country, said what I think is a very useful thing. He said – we’re talking about standards – he said, “Of course they’re old-fashioned, otherwise they wouldn’t be standards”. And so, if there have some new standards which are new-fashioned and not old-fashioned. And I think, I mean, you clearly can’t stand on the line of the old-fashioned standards and never move. You have to move, and you have to push forward, and you have to see. It’s like cattle grazing in a field and an electric fence. And one day the farmers moved it, and you may have moved the fence forward, you may have moved the fence backwards. And the cattle get a shock in a different place than the place they got it before. Maybe further on, maybe further back. And I thin that’s the process which is continually going on.
HEFFNER: An approval in this commitment of change?
SHAW: No, no. I think that you have to have an eye to what the public will take. But I think what you mustn’t do is to discourage people attempting to change. But **** from BNC Television said it’s all in the way you treat the subject. If you make an obscene program about butterflies, if you like, and I think that’s a very true proposition. But he also said something which I’ve always thought was very important. He said, “in the name of what?” In the name of what in, in this program. And if I’m making the name simply, in the program, simply in the name of shocking people, then that’s not a proper exercise for access to the airwaves.
HEFFNER: Now do you find that in much of your work in terms of standards that that’s what you’re dealing with?
HEFFNER: Innovators for the sake of shock?
SHAW: Yes, I think that there are people who are challenging…we, um, there was on Channel 4, a youth program, which I think is now come off the air, which was permanently trying to find something which was truly deeply shocking to an older generation. It was the kind of thing that in college rags and student affairs of that sort would be taken for granted. I mean, somebody getting into a baffle **** and so on. And this is the kind of thing which profoundly disgusting as it seemed to many people, was nevertheless not, I mean, if it was disgusting at all it was pleasurably disgusting to most of the young people who were watching given the sort of **** the kind of thrill which they actually rather liked. And you have to be very careful if you go around saying this is absolutely disgusting. They’re delighted. This is the kind of encouragement for that kind which they are looking for. So you have to be, you have to be very careful how you respond to programs of that kind and of the particular audience late at night and anybody of an older generation who may be watching needs, I think, to take that particular, the target area of the audience, into consideration.
HEFFNER: What will counterpart here in this country to you?
SHAW: No, we don’t. I don’t think we have a counterpart anywhere because I think that the kind of concerns certainly over bad language and probably sexual explicitness are not really shared with many other countries. The one **** most serious about is the whole issue of violence. And that is one which many societies are deeply, deeply worried about because they do not know, and violence is a phenomenon in many modern societies, and although you can pin down the roots in many countries to economic consequences, social groupings, and so on, and the kind of trouble which has gone on in northern Ireland for the last twenty, thirty years, has deep roots in religion, economics, and so on. It has nothing to do with television. But there’s an element in which perhaps television could play a part and it’s that element which is the thing that is so worrying. I mean, we’ve **** the Council’s code of practice about violence, and say that a society which is taking pleasure in violence in its own sake is not a healthy society. And, the words aren’t quite that, but that’s the message. But of course there are certain forms of violence which are, appear to certain societies to actually not to do harm of their kind. One looks at the violence of Japanese cartoons, for instance. And then looks at Japan, which provides a very orderly society. So the thing is very complicated between societies and the common ground is very hard to establish.
HEFFNER: To what degree is America’s majoritarianism a factor in the work that you do? It seems to me there is a lot of that, you’re saying. Well, what’s the response of the audience? And if the audience isn’t responding poorly then what does the standards **** have to do with this?
SHAW: Well, I think that is a very difficult question, because interesting, one of the things about our complainants is that people who have satellite and cable services complain very little because they ha a cash relationship. Remember that people watch the BBC in payment for a license fee. And they watch commercial television in Britain, terrestrial affair television, they watch that because they are paid for the imbursements when they bought the groceries. But there’s a direct subscription payable by cable in satellite users, and those people seem quite content if they want to put a thumbs-down on the service they are getting. They simply don’t renew the subscription. And we’ve had, I suppose, in all the time we’ve been taking complaints, since the beginning of 1991, I doubt if we’ve had more than a dozen complaints form satellites or cable services. One I have to tell you was from a woman who complained, she was tuning, she tuned in quite unexpectedly as far as she was concerned to a channel which had a **** pornographic service. And in fact for one reason or another, the **** wasn’t working that night. So she sat there for three hours writing three letters of complaint about the three programs she said were disgusting beyond belief.
HEFFNER: Was she watching closely?
SHAW: Well, closely enough to give us a reasonable understanding of the basis of her dislike of the programs.
HEFFNER: But that does take me again to this question of what you see to be the appropriate relationship between majority acceptance and your standards, the standards that you apply?
SHAW: Well, I think I’m not sure that Allen Bennett hasn’t got something to say to help. I mean in saying that, of course…standards are old-fashioned. Otherwise there wouldn’t be standards. I think you have to start, and I think it is a gradual process of…
SHAW: No, I don’t think that I, I think there is change. You can say it’s erosion in some ways, but then I think you’re saying erosion, you’re saying there shouldn’t be any kind of change. I think you have to move forward, and if it looks as though a program or a particular strand of programs is breaking new ground which is somewhat dubious new ground, perhaps because there are elements in the program that are perhaps morally questionable or perhaps might be done differently, then I think it’s the role of the Council to try and put down a knocker and say, “Look, here’s a question”. And too, since our role is only advisory, to say to the broadcasters, “Look here, if you go down this road, might the consequences not be this and this?” And do not think that it’s in the interest of the public, and indeed in the interest of your own standards that you think again and that you, **** for the program into a different format, deal with the idea differently, and…
HEFFNER: And if the answer is “No, mind your own business”?
SHAW: Well, then, that’s…I mean, if you give advice, that’s what you have to expect. Advice is always terribly tricky stuff to deal with, both in the giving and the taking, because if you persistently ignore the person who’s giving you advice, if the advice is sensible, and they get fed up…on the other hand, if you’re constantly giving advice which is not very sensible, practical, then the people they’re giving advice to get fed up. So it’s a very delicate relationship.
HEFFNER: How often, in your experience, do you receive the answer “Thank you very much, we go ahead as planned”.
SHAW: Well, we’ve had two examples where broadcasters have rerun a program which, for one reason or another, the Council was critical of. And they’ve rerun most recently a program which has been rerun at an earlier viewing that first went out about how it was earlier in the evening, brought forward by the broadcaster to nine o’clock. And so the Council’s taken more a rather serious action over that, criticize the broadcaster, and is requiring to put a notice in the newspaper, so there’s a kind of public pillory going on which doesn’t cost them a bit of money, but not much money, but there is at least a public expression of the displeasure of this group of eight people.
HEFFNER: So there is some power here.
SHAW: Yes, of a kind. And it’s not the power, I mean, I have very mixed views other than making people pay for the publication of things, I have very mixed views about fining people for editorial lapses because we’re dealing with objective matters. Unless somebody’s been grossly negligent or grossly corrupt in the thing that they’ve done, then I think you have to say, well, my judgment’s not the same as ours, but I have no reason for believing necessarily that mine is better than yours, and –
HEFFNER: Don’t you have reason for believing that the standards that you bring to bear are better?
SHAW: I, no, I think that would be, I think that would be a dangerous thing to assume in every case. I think you have to back your judgment if you really believe they are, but I think if you had a body which set out and said, “We’ve got the standards. We’ve got the Ark of the Covenant. We’ve got the truth”, there I think you would be in great danger, and I think this is what people feared when the Council was set up…was allowing the Council to take…and the Council has made the pains to distance itself from that, and feel its way forward, to have its finger as far as it can on the public pulse.
HEFFNER: Any criticism because of that self-restraint?
SHAW: Um, oh yes, from some people who would like to, a lot of people who wanted the Council in the first place wanted it to, I think, insist on Christian values. And to try and persuade people back to religious view of life, or a Christian religious view of life, which was unreal because after all, we take our money from the taxpayers, and a lot of taxpayers these days are Muslims, quite a lot of them are Jews, quite a lot of them have no faith at all, and you could not possibly defend the use of public money to propagate a particular view.
HEFFNER: So we move on and on and on.
SHAW: So you move, yes, I mean –
HEFFNER: Or down and down and down, as many people believe.
SHAW: Well, I don’t think I’m prepared to say it is down and down and down. I think that there are two great fantasies in this society, this age. One is to confuse activity and progress, and they muddle up the words “different” and “better”, and to think they’re saying the same thing. And of course, they’re not. And I think that there are changes. I’m old enough, you’re old enough to see things which we regret happening. Some we would say are likely to end in tears. But there are things we have to accept; that things do change. I mean, certainly the generation of my children has a totally different attitude to marriage, for instance, than my generation, and they are clearly no worse off, no better off than we were. They’re muddling though like human beings always do.
HEFFNER: And surely that’s the equivocal point at which we have to end our second program. Thank you again for joining me today. 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 today’s program, please write:
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