Moral crusade on crash course with advertisers over violence

Are the recent crackdowns on violence in the media a response to the public’s concerns or a threat to free speech in this country? Nick Higham is the BBC’s media correspondent

There’s a new Puritanism abroad, and the censors have been sharpening their blue pencils – or so it often seems.

Crash, the movie about people who get their sexual kicks from car accidents, has been banned in its present form from the West End by Westminster Council – even before the film censors have given it a certificate. The councillors acted after Heritage Secretary Virginia Bottomley urged local authorities to use their powers against the film.

Bottomley has also summoned the chairmen of the broadcasting organisations to a meeting to discuss violence on television. The medium, she says, concentrates too much on the darker side of society, and she wants them to do something about it.

ITV is reportedly planning a publicity campaign designed to dispel the notion that all those dramas and factual programmes featuring criminals and blue flashing lights, immensely popular as they are, represent an excessive concentration on violence.

The BBC’s new Producers’ Guidelines were hailed in the press as a crackdown on sex and violence (even though the section on violence was virtually unchanged from the previous edition).

On Monday the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg upheld the right of the British Board of Film Classification to ban a bit of soft porn tosh called Visions of Ecstasy as potentially blasphemous. The makers of the video had argued the ban contravened the European Convention of Human Rights, which safeguards free speech.

The European Court’s decision follows one in a UK court the other week involving the Advertising Standards Authority, which had upheld a complaint against an advertisement in the Daily Mirror for a sex education video. The ASA said the ad was too explicit for a family newspaper; the distributors argued that was a breach of their right to free speech under the European Convention; the court decided the ASA acted perfectly reasonably – and that the Convention was academic, since it hasn’t been incorporated into English law.

That decision came as a great relief to the ASA, which as a voluntary body has no statutory backing: if the judge had decided in favour of the advertisers, then virtually any decision the ASA took would be open to challenge.

But, however welcome to the Authority, the case represents an endorsement of yet another curb on free speech.

From the advertising industry’s point of view, that is disturbing. Advertising interests have been lobbying hard, in Britain and Europe, against further restrictions on advertising for products like alcohol and tobacco, goods sold to children, and so on. One of the principal arguments advanced is that laws dictating what advertisers can and cannot say are effectively limiting the freedom of commercial speech.

The decision of the European Court in the Visions of Ecstasy case – which was that there was no pressing reason for a European institution to override national laws – is not an encouraging precedent from the advertisers’ point of view, implying as it does that individual countries are at liberty to make laws which curb free speech if they have good cause.

The intriguing question about the “new Puritanism” generally is whether it is a genuine phenomenon, or something got up by politicians in Britain in advance of an election.

The answer seems to be a bit of both: undoubtedly, politicians, Conservatives especially, want to be seen to be cracking down on violence in the wake of horrific events like the Dunblane massacre and the murder of the headmaster Philip Lawrence (although there remains no proof that screen violence actually promotes violence in real life).

But both France and the US have recently adopted new ratings systems for broadcast programmes; both the US Congress and the European Parliament have voted in favour of the V-chip, the electronic device which enables parents to screen out material they think may be offensive; and Crash, though it’s been shown with great success in France and Canada, has also run into difficulties in the US (where it’s distributed by a company owned by the maverick moralist Ted Turner).

Then again, violence against women has become a source of great concern thanks to the rise in political correctness, in the UK and elsewhere. And, although the numbers saying they were concerned about violence on television fell last year, it is still far and away the topic which gives most viewers cause to worry – far more than, for instance, sex or bad language.

But at the same time, when it comes to sex, the latest British Social Attitudes survey suggests we are becoming much more tolerant. It’s OK to bonk on the box, provided no-one gets hurt.

The lesson for advertisers is that public taste and the views of authority about what is acceptable are constantly shifting. Those “Hello, Boys” posters would have been unthinkable a few years ago; the Independent Television Commission has decided nipples are permissible in commercials – provided they’re in context.

But there’s always the danger that public tastes will shift the other way – or that the censors and watchdogs and politicians will think they have.

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