Thursday 23 November 2017

Gogglebox: switched on or turned off to the reality?

Ireland's broadcast watchdog this week launched a draft code of standards. But is there any point in the age of countless TV channels and a digital free-for-all?

The Kardashians
The Kardashians
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

When Eamon de Valera launched RTE in 1961, he warned solemnly of its 'nuclear' power to destroy morals. But what would he make of the media half-a-century later, when kids can access porn via the smartphone in their pocket – and Eamon Dunphy can swear during a football broadcast, and barely register a complaint?

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland this week launched its draft code of programme standards.

The code covering such issues as sex, violence, and religion may seem like a quaint leftover of a time when children sat down after tea to watch TV with mother.

Some might see any kind of programme code as a finger in the dyke – as 200 channels, on-demand films and pirated laptop videos pour into our living rooms.

Bob Collins, chairman of the broadcasting authority, says the code is still relevant since eight out of 10 people still watch programmes on conventional television at home.

The new standards of taste and decency also show how public attitudes have changed dramatically.

In late 1978 there was uproar when a programme, The Spike, gave viewers the briefest glimpse of naked female flesh. The chairman of the League of Decency was so offended that he had a heart attack, and the Evening Press reported that one of the cast of the programme was "thumped by a fat elderly lady".

Now the only issue for the regulator when it comes to sex is what kind of lovemaking is shown. The draft code says: "The inclusion of sexual content and the degree of detail featured must be appropriate ... "

In drawing up its new standards, the broadcast watchdog carried out a survey of public attitudes.

It shows the Irish public is much less concerned about sex, swearing and religious offence than it was 20 years ago. However, 80pc of viewers are still offended by scenes of rape, sexual assault or cruelty.

When Eamon Dunphy unleashed the F word when talking about the Brazilian player Neymar, there were very few complaints.

Only 18pc of people now believe that there should be no swearing on television. A man who rang Liveline a fortnight ago to complain about cursing on Mrs Brown's Boys seemed like a voice in the wilderness

Only 21pc of people surveyed now believe that there should no intimate sex scenes and no full frontal nudity on television. For most viewers, according to the research, the only limitation should be that sex is shown late at night when children may not be watching.

Even in the anything goes internet age, we still believe in the idea of a watershed – a line in the schedule before which certain sexual and violent content is not shown

However, many Irish parents are not going to get too hot and bothered if their offspring catch a glimpse of Hugh Grant's buttocks during a rom-com. A recent survey by the Irish Film Classification Office (IFCO) found 43pc of parents find nudity acceptable in films classified as being suitable for children.

There are still concerns about sexual activity shown on screen, but parents are now more troubled by violence, the survey shows.

The new broadcast code says children should not be "exposed to programming that would seriously impair their moral, mental and physical development". The watershed is not mandatory for Irish stations, but it is still used by RTÉ.

But how realistic is it in the modern multi-platform, multi-channel age?

The Broadcasting watchdog's research shows most members of the public believe TV channels must take full responsibility for what children see. However, chairman Mr Collins questions whether this is feasible. He told Weekend Review: "Parents have to share responsibility. Broadcasters cannot be an electronic babysitter."

Since so many channels seen by the Irish public are beamed into Ireland from Britain and elsewhere through cable packages, the regulators there are just as important in influencing what we see.

Mr Collins says there will come a time when there may have to be European codes of programming.

Occasionally, the British regulators have clamped down on the cable channels that are popular with teenagers here.

Two years ago E! Entertainment was fined €50,000 for showing a series Girls of the Playboy Mansion throughout the day when children could be watching.

Ofcom, the British media regulator, tightened its rules on the watershed following the furore that greeted raunchy dance routines by Rihanna and Christina Aguilera on the X Factor. But these bum-wiggling turns seem like pictures of sweet innocence when compared to what is available to kids on the Internet.

Dr Finola Doyle O'Neill, broadcast historian at University College Cork, says: "It is all very well trying to keep a lid on public morals, but most children are carrying a firecracker in their pocket in the form of a smartphone. The content available to them on that is much more explosive than anything they might see on television before or after the watershed.

"What we have now is a free-for-all and there needs to be some kind of European regulation of TV and the internet," says Dr Doyle O'Neill.

The broadcast historian says it is much too difficult for householders with a cable TV package to opt out of channels showing pornographic material.

"Ultimately it is parents who have to be extremely vigilant about what kind of material their kids are accessing. In practise, the State can't act as a nanny."

Mr Collins acknowledges that is very difficult to set standards in a code.

"There is no unanimity about taste and decency," he says.

According to the broadcasting authority's research, opinions range from those of "Young Liberals", who are never offended by sex scenes to "Older Conservatives", who regularly take offence.

Thirty years ago, nudity and blasphemy were common causes of complaint. Now Irish stations are just as likely to receive complaints about the way women, gay people, immigrants or Travellers are portrayed.

In former times, Ger Connolly's job title would be "film censor". Now he is acting director of film classification. His office has not banned a film for four years (the DVD re-release of the violent 1978 film I Spit on Your Grave)

"I hate the word 'censor'," he told Weekend Review. "We classify films. Much of our work involves giving advice to parents, so that they can make a decision on whether their child should watch a film.

"We have a huge responsibility, but that never diminishes the responsibility of parents to decide what is best for their children."

Ger Connolly says there are new standards of what is acceptable.

"A sitcom like Til Death Do Us Part (made by the BBC in the 1960s and 1970s) would never be broadcast now, because it was racist."

The internet and smartphones may have opened up a new frontier where kids can easily be exposed to lurid sex and violence.

The first generation of parents in the internet age may have been ignorant of what was going on online. But Mr Connolly says the present generation of young parents grew up with the internet and are more savvy about what is happening.

"They are probably better at working out what works best for their children."

Éamon De Valera would not just be spinning in his grave if he could survey the modern media – he would be rotating as fast as a helicopter blade.

Television has indeed destroyed his version of morality, but recent revelations about the treatment of mothers and children in baby homes in the Dev era show that his own vision for society was severely flawed.

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