has been described as a battle ground for rival sets of moral perspectives
and disputed assessments of the medium's power to influence its
audiences. It enters the home, may trade in vivid and unexpected
images, and appeals greatly to children. It presents both reassuring
and disturbing impressions of values and behaviors prevalent in
society. The propriety of its program standards is therefore continually
debated in many countries.
Britain, the government responded to perceived public concerns of
this kind by establishing a Broadcasting Standards Council, on a
pre-statutory basis in 1988 and as a statutory body under the Broadcasting
Act of 1990. Its remit covers the portrayal in television and radio
programs and advertising of violence, sexual conduct and matters
of taste and decency. The Council has five main tasks:
- To draw up
a code of practice in consultation with the broadcasting authorities
and others, which broadcasting organisations must "reflect" (not
adopt) in their own codes and program guidelines. Initially published
in 1989, the Code was revised in 1994.
- To monitor
programs and make reports in the areas of its remit.
- To commission
research and enquiries in those areas.
- To consider
and make findings on complaints about programs and advertisements.
- To represent
the United Kingdom on international bodies involved in setting
standards for broadcasting.
BSC is not an instrument of censorship, for it has no authority
to consider programs before transmission. Since its findings are
essentially subjective judgments (not determinations of fact within
a framework of law), neither is it a judicial body. Its powers are
relatively limited. It may require broadcasters to supply tapes
of programs and statements in response to complaints about them.
It publishes its findings in a Complaints Bulletin (which is widely
reported in the press) and in serious cases may require the offending
broadcaster to do so on air or in print as well. The council is
made up of eight members, including a chairman and deputy, appointed
by the secretary of state for the Department of National Heritage.
It has been served by a staff of 15 full-time posts, including a
director and deputy; and had a budget of £1,375,000 in 1994-95.
council's role and approach may be summarised in five features:
First, its remit is more wide-ranging than might be supposed. Although
it covers the three main areas of violence, sexual conduct and bad
language, its 56-page Code of Practice also deals with the stereotyping
of women, men, the elderly, and ethnic minorities; disparaging treatments
of the disabled and mentally ill; depictions of death, grief and
bereavement, suicide, disasters, respect for victims and intrusions
into privacy; and responsible presentations of alcohol, drugs and
the council's "philosophy" of standards is not one-sidedly illiberal.
It aims to balance the claims of creativity and explorations of
contemporary reality against those of respect for audience sensitivities.
the council does not apply the simple precepts of a black-and-white
morality. Its Code of Practice reads more like a guide to editorial
responsibility than a set of proscriptions. Very little is ruled
out per se, and most code provisions and findings are couched
in a spirit of context-sensitivity. Conditioning factors may include
the time of scheduling, the program genre and viewers' expectations
of what it tends to present, likely audience composition at the
time, whether advance warnings of sensitive material have been given,
and the role of such material in the overall flow of the story or
report. Among the contextual influences, much weight is given to
a 9:00 P.M. "watershed", before which nothing that is unsuitable
for children should be shown and after which it is acceptable to
move to a more adult type of material. But even after 9:00 P.M.,
carte blanche is not envisaged, and broadcasters are expected to
move only gradually into more challenging waters.
although the council has had to deal with an increasing volume of
complaints (rising from 512 in 1990-91 to 1,473 in 1993-94 and 2,032
in 1994-95), its approach has not been draconian. In most years,
only about 20% of complaints have been upheld.
the council has largely based its work on an understanding of the
broad limits and tolerances of British public opinion (including
how these are evolving). To that end, it consulted approximately
100 organisations when drawing up its Code of Practice. Its Members
periodically travel on "road shows" to meet diverse groups in different
parts of the country, exchanging views on broadcasting standards.
Above all, it has commissioned and published the results of a great
deal of high-quality, often cited and well-regarded research.
has included broad surveys over time of both program content and
audience attitudes in the key remit areas. The results have drawn
attention to the diversity of public opinion about the boundaries
between acceptable and unacceptable treatments of violence, sex
and other matters and have done justice to the complexity of people's
views. This has supported the council's emphasis on "context" when
dealing with complaints. Other projects have included a review of
research findings on violence and pornography effects, an enquiry
into the future of children's television, an international review
of approaches to media education, a study of delinquents' media
use patterns, and in-depth studies of interpretations of screened
violence by women, men and victims of actual violence; children's
cognitive and emotional responses to diverse program materials;
the portrayal of ethnic minorities; and perspectives on the portrayal
of disabilities by both disabled and able-bodied viewers. The council
has also co-sponsored a large-scale enquiry into children's uses
of the television screen in the new media environment and commissioned
an independent analysis of the representativeness of those who submit
complaints to it. On the whole, the latter suggested that complainants
come from a relatively broad spectrum of the audience.
occasionally object to the council's role on one of three grounds:
for inducing caution among broadcasters; for imposing fuddy-duddy
restrictions on a medium of expanding diversity and choice; and
for a confusing overlap of jurisdiction with other authorities like
the Independent Television Commission and a Programme Complaints
Commission. Such objections do not seem widely shared or politically
weighty, however, and much of the early suspicion of the council
as a prospective agent of right-wing or puritanical control has
been disarmed by its record. Indeed, Mary Whitehouse (past leader
of the Viewers' and Listeners' Association and once a forceful lobbyist
for a body of standards control) has complained about its failure
to stand up to broadcasters' permissiveness.
1996, a bill was introduced into Parliament to merge the BSC with
the Programme Complaints Commission, which, since its statutory
establishment in 1982, had considered complaints arising from alleged
unfairness toward people appearing in or dealt with in programs
and alleged invasions of privacy. The new body is to be called the
Broadcasting Standards Commission.
Reports. Broadcasting Standards Council, 1990-91 to 1995-96.
Research Reviews (numbers 1-6). London: John Libbey and Broadcasting
Standards Council, 1990-96.
Jay G. Television and the Public Interest: Vulnerable Values
in West European Broadcasting. London, and Thousand Oaks, California:
Code of Practice. London: Broadcasting Standards Council, 1994.
Francis. "All in the Best Possible Taste: The Broadcasting Standards
Council, 1989-92." Public Law (London), Autumn 1993.
David. A Profile of Complainants and their Complaints. (Research
Working Paper 10). London: Broadcasting Standards Council, 1995.
Colin. "Taste, Decency, and Standards in Television." In, Smith,
Anthony, editor. Television: An International History. Oxford
and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
also British Television