28 DECEMBER 1974, Page 14


Controlling the explosive influence

Mary Whitehouse

The Labour Party's recent attack on the BBC's coverage of the general election merely underlined once again how perennial a source of concern is the part played by broadcasting in the moulding of public opinion. No matter what may be the rights or wrongs4of this particular accusation, there is no doubt that the mass of the people do see politicians through the eye of television and are profoundly affected by it. And if this is true of politics then it must be accepted that its power is equally great in every other field.

But debate about its influence has been bedevilled by the deliberate propagation of the idea that there is no proof that television affects standards and attitudes. That such a proposition is seriously accepted is a measure of the unreality which confounds current debate. To deny the power of television specifically to affect behaviour and to mould attitudes, as well as declaim or pervert truth, is to deny the potency of cdrnmunication itself, it is crazily tqrquesdon the ability of education to affect the social conscience and to train the human mind.

For all television is'educiational. It may teach self-interes_t rather than philanthropy, violence rather than gentleness, a disregard for human dignity rather than a respect for it. It may not always teach the truth but teach it does, and it is more than time that responsible people both within and outside the broadcasting professions said boldly what is so obvious in commonsense terms — we cannot understand what is happening in international, cultural, economic, political and social,., affairs without coming to grips with the way in which television influences virtually all our behavioural and thought processes.

Once the fact of the medium's power to influence is accepted then the vital question becomes — what is its message in toto ? What does it say about human relations, about the family, the home and about men and women? What does it say about social responsibility, about industrial affairs, about international relationships? Where does it stand vis-à-vis the conflict between East and West; between black and white; what is its attitude to South Africa, Chile, the Common Market? Herein lies a wealth •of research of a totally different kind

to that which occupies various university groups, and the internal research carried out by the broadcasting authorities themselves. Until such research is carried out and assessed then, inevitably, TV is our master rather than our servant.

The truth of the matter is that broadcasting has a wealth of internal patronage which enables producers, commentators and playwrights to swing the thinking of millions behind their own political, cultural and ethical loyalties. It is a fact of life that Telstar has been used to divide allies as well as link nations, that public figures are destroyed with a speed and aplomb equalled only by the expertise which creates others, that one nation's image and position in the world can be undermined as subtly and persistently as sympathy for another can be stimulated. Unless we devise better means of governing this explosive influence over the human mind then inevitably demand for control — and political control at that — will grow stronger. Our quest must be to find a right system of government for this new manifestation of power before the politicians get in on the act. And there are obvious signs that some of them plan to do so.

Inevitably at this stage of the argument the hackles of the professional broadcasters begin to rise. They see their freedom of expression at risk. But television is a unique meclium in that it is projected into the home, and it is a fact that large numbers of children are still watching during so-called 'adult' viewing time (a recent BBC publication notes that as late as 10.30-11.00 p.m. programmes are being watched by 2 per cent of the five-to-seven-year-olds, 7 per cent of the eight-to-eleven-year-olds and 18 per cent of the twelve-tofourteen-year-olds). The freedom of the professional, therefore, has to be balanced against the right of the individual to maintain certain standards within his own home, to sit and view without having to accept gratuitous indecency and foul language as an integral part of the evening's entertainment, to be given the truth so that his freedom of judgement remains unimpaired. Television is our No.1 consumer product, our most potential force for good or evil. It must be the subject of democratic control and the challenge to us is to seek ways in which this may be implemented without denying either of the basic freedoms referred to above. The challenge, in essence, is to create a situation in which conviction and tolerance can co-exist. Without conviction there can be no standards, without tolerance there can be no liberty of thought and free discussion.

There are two problems — the one posed by a mass viewing public which, inevitably, is unable to understand the conditions under, which the professional broadcaster works, and the other by the possessive attitude of producers and playwrights who genuinely seem to believe that broadcasting belongs to them and have a great impatience, even intolerance, of critics who appear to them to be illiberal and uneducated! The. need for a meeting of minds has never been so imperative.

Of course there is much the public need to understand, and appreciative as well as critical appraisal is essential. On the other hand the truth is that some of those who write and produce live in too small a world. In spite of their technological expertise they have failed to grasp the very nature of the medium in which they work — a first requirement of the artist. The television studio and its contents are only a small part of their equipment. They will manipulate not only the cameras but hearts and minds as well. They will meet those hearts and minds at their least resistant and most receptive. To fail to take this into account is to be less than responsible and less than an artist in the full meaning of the word.

We are faced with a great divide — the gap between those who produce and those who receive programmes. That the gap is polluted by a great deal of misunderstanding, resentment, even bitterness,cannot be doubted — certainly in Britain. It is ironic that this is not unconnected with the very expertise which makes British television the envy of the world. The more authentic — and it could be said the more amusing — the presentation, the more effective it can be in its impact for better or worse. No institution in western society is less accountable than our television services partly because choice is so limited, and partly because broad casting is so contrived that the consumer is the least important participant. The myth that the public is given what it wants is the product of an industry so structured that the vast majority accept what they are given with a varying degree of grace. The only acceptable alternative to dictatorship either from within or without the medium is an informed and involved populace. Democracy must be made to work within broadcasting as elsewhere. The responsibility must be accepted as 'ours' rather than 'theirs'.

Changes must be initiated which will enable the viewer and listener to feel that he is important, that his voice is listened to, that his ideas are valid, that his experience is relevant. Steps must be taken to ensure that dialogue between both sides of the screen becomes a reality; and has impact upon broadcasting policy and standards. At the same time the public must be given its defence, and a Broadcasting Council is a must for the 'seventies. So is a completely new and independent system of Advisory Councils for both BBC and ITV — the present ones are maintained reluctantly and used sparingly and are, in any case, part of the broadcasting 'establishment'. We should go further, We are now so closely involved with Europe, at least for the moment, that a single clearing house for communications research, say under the auspices of the Council of Europe, would appear an obvious next step. We need to co-ordinate our efforts, to study and make available to all interested bodies the social science implications of technological achievement. We need to know where communication technology is taking us and this demands more than the expertise of technicians and the insight of creative people. It cannot be done without the rank and file of the television consumer. There are abundant resources of wisdom, experience and understanding among the ordinary people, and it is high time these were mobilised and translated, directly

Mary on to the television

en Mary Whitehouse is Hon General, Secretary of the National Viewers and Listeners' Association.