If censors had a motto it might be "What you can't see won't hurt you." Countries such as Iran and China might have censors--in practice if not in name--but surely enlightened democracies such as Britain and the United States don't. Not so fast, says Henry Laurence, a Bowdoin College professor who lectured yesterday here in Oxford. Henry compared episodes involving public broadcasting in the U.K., Japan and the U.S. The bottom line: Uncomfortable subjects make people uncomfortable.
In 1965 a British filmmaker named Peter Watkins made a film for the BBC about the devastating effects that a nuclear attack might have on England. Called "The War Game," it featured harrowing scenes of death and destruction. We see those sorts of things everywhere now--I'm disappointed if my evening's television viewing doesn't include at least one mushroom cloud, fireball or slow pan over a post-apocalyptic landscape--but it was scary stuff back then. And since the film seemed to question the very notion of mutual assured destruction--aka, "Nuke! You're it!"--executives at the BBC started to get nervous. In the end, they were so nervous that they didn't show "The War Game." It was finally aired in 1985.
Japan's public broadcasting service, NHK, was explicitly modeled on the BBC, though critics say it is so deep in the government's pocket that it's covered with lint and fuzz. Nothing is more controversial in Japan than that country's World War II atrocities. When a conference was held in 2000 to discuss the issue of "comfort women"--Chinese, Korean and other women forced into prostitution to service the Japanese Army--it was big news. Or it would have been big news, had the Japanese media bothered to cover what was being billed as a "People's Tribunal." Still, NHK commissioned a documentary on the conference and the reparations movement. But after alleged pressure from top government officials, including future prime minister Abe Shinzo, NHK watered down the program to the point where it was as useless as a dose of homeopathic medicine.
If issues of defense and national guilt are controversial touchstones in England and Japan, what excites Americans? Sex! Gay sex! Girl on girl action! Animated rabbits! PBS's Buster the rabbit really stepped in it in 2005 when he took his camcorder to Vermont and showed families involved in producing maple sugar and cheese. The problem: The two families happened to be headed by lesbian couples. This worried the Bush education department, which had provided some funds for the children's show, and it pressured PBS not to distribute that episode of "Postcards From Buster," though stations could request it from WGBH, its maker. PBS honcho Wayne Godwin said: "In fairness I would have to say a gay character is not one we would not include. The fact that a character may or may not be gay is not a reason why they should or should not be part of this series." Apparently he was getting paid by the "not."
It's hard being a public broadcaster, taking the public's--or the government's--money but striving to remain independent. I wonder if things would have been any different if those three networks had been private. Maybe not. I remember the foofaraw over "The Day After," a 1983 ABC docudrama that, like "The War Game," showed the effects of nuclear war, in this case by incinerating Lawrence, Kansas. (Well, pretending to incinerate Lawrence, Kansas.) The Reagan White House was nervous about the film's anti-nuclear message. ABC went ahead with it. (And in Langley Park, Maryland, a college student and his roommate were inspired by the program to write a pop song called "Tomorrow Might Be the Day After." It was sort of an updating of Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," in which the singer urges a girl to sleep with him tonight, since tomorrow the Soviets might drop the big one. Yeah, it didn't really work as a song or a pickup line.)
Then there's the decision in 2004 by the Sinclair broadcasting group not to show an episode of "Nightline" in which the names and photographs of 500 U.S. servicepeople killed in Iraq were to be aired. "We find it to be contrary to public interest," said Barry Faber, general counsel to Sinclair, which owned eight ABC affiliates and dozens of other stations.
"Contrary to public interest." Hey, here's an idea: Let the public decide.