Thursday, 24 April 2008

You Can't Say That

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.

15 comments:

Ruth said...

Henry's lecture also brought to mind the 1984 BBC television play called "Threads" that I remember watching with a group of friends, all of us riveted to the TV. I was gripped by how fast a post-apocalyptic society could decay - and by the fact that the main character was named Ruth, a common enough name in England, but hardly heard in the States. I wasn't surprised to hear that the BBC finally showed "The War Game" in 1985, having had no problem with "Threads."

Richard said...

""Contrary to public interest." Hey, here's an idea: Let the public decide."

There's a slight administrative problem there, in that the public can't decide whether to broadcast something before it's broadcast to them. And if one assumes that there are things that ought not to be published because they're not in the public interest, the question becomes: "who has the right to decide what is in the public interest?"

Perhaps, on the other hand, you disagree with that assumption, and think everything ought to be published. But you quickly get into problems if you hold that view: would a journalist have been right to publish details of the plans for D-Day before Normandy? What about child porn, misleading advertising, my bank account details? And, in Canada, information on the way in which people commit suicide. Security, reputation, administration, fairness ... there are many reasons why journalists should sometimes be muzzled.

Aren't there?

R

R said...

... and apropos of nothing at all on your blog, but given your interest in UK institutions, I thought you might be interested in this trust in British institutions

Richard said...

... but check out these figures for how little the British public trust journalists

John Kelly said...

Okay, I guess I wouldn't publish or broadcast details of the D-Day invasion. Or child porn. And I suppose I'm not an absolutist. But I do think all of these particular cases were pretty clear cut. They were stifled not for any legal or national security reason but because the governments involved felt they might possibly cause viewers to possibly question policies that the governments felt strongly about: We think nuclear deterrence is vital and we mustn't invite citizens to doubt that; we don't want to countenance those who think the government was complicit in the comfort women; we don't want children to think that other children might have gay parents. That seems sort of insidious to me.

National security, or personal security, certainly strike me as legitimate reasons to muzzle journalists. Or if not muzzle them, then level with them. (Sometimes the decision will be to publish, as with Abu Ghraib or the "black prisons" story.) As for other sorts of stories,the public can "protect" itself by making the decision to watch or not to watch.

mark from alexandria said...

NPR's "All things Considered" did a 40th anniversary retrospective on the Columbia (NY)University student strike which took place after the assasination of Martin Luther King and carried on through the assasination of Robert F. Kennedy. One of the more interesting points of the piece was the belief of a retired Columbia professor that the Columbia Strike and simillar events around the country over the next couple of years resulted in the election of Nixon and the rise of reaactionary conservative politics in the US. What would have happened if the media hadn't covered these events?

Ken said...

cognitive dissonance in action - don't they know the BBC is chock full of untrustworthy journalists like you Richard?

Plus, they trust newsreaders - but (and here's a trade secret for you, British public) newsreaders are just reading out stuff handed to them by grubby journalists.

My conclusion - you just can't trust the British public.

On deterrence - I think MAD would count as a national security issue - THE national security of the day, in fact. And MAD relied totally on perception that it was real (with a lot of clever game theory built on top). The last thing you'd want to do is make those Ruskies with their itchy trigger finger think that you might not have the stomach to follow through...

Anonymous said...

How about the article on Washingtonpost.com today about how the Pentagon is blocking access to military funerals at Arlington. I guess the American public might all decide we don't want to be in Iraq anymore if we heard about the brave men and women that are dying over there. . .oh, wait, haven't we all made that decision already?

I'll try to post the link here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/04/23/AR2008042303244.html?hpid=artslot

T. Lach

mark from alexandria said...

The thing with the military funerals is very disturbing. The Post article makes clear that the family wanted the media there. They were proud of their warrior son. He died a hero to them and they wanted the nation to know. Once again, I am convinced that running a pre-emptive war (declared an unjust war by the late John Paul the 2nd)without conscription gives the military lots of discretion because most of America can just tune it out.

Ruth said...

About that Pentagon/cemetery story, I surprised myself by siding with the military. I'm pretty darn liberal (pointy-headed and/or knee-jerk - take your pick!) but my first reaction was, it's *their* cemetery, they get to make the rules. You wanna military tomb? You gotta play by their rules. And it seemed to me that it was the journalist who was more put out than the family.

Ken said...

I wouldn't trust a pope to declare on war - maybe it's the Incan in me...

Rciahrtd said...

you lost me there Ken.

Sarah Laurence Blog said...

Great sum, John. I was at Henry’s talk too, and it was fascinating. I’m eagerly awaiting his book on public television (full disclosure: I’m his wife!)

I remember seeing The Day After in high school. Our teachers warned our parents about the content. We sat down as a family and watched it. We discussed it at school the next day. It actually got us teens thinking about something other than which dance club we were going to on Saturday. Politics at a formative age!

Our children saw Buster rabbit’s “Sugar Time” episode. It was just a silly kids’ show. On top of it, same sex unions are legal in Vermont. The closest it got to lesbianism was a kid points to family photos: “This is my mom . . . and this is my step-mother.” Buster responds, “Wow, that’s a lot of moms,” promoting giggles in our house. The only offense is that the Bush administration found such obviously loving families offensive.

Censorship for reasons other than cases like those that Richard listed (Henry allowed those too) can hurt the public by enabling ignorance. I was sorry to learn that American public television is decades behind English public television despite our First Amendment. In Japan the Comfort Women program was a wartime atrocity and not owning up to that only compounds the crime.

Public television should serve the public interest. It may be hard to define, but censorship for political reasons is most certainly not in the public’s interest.

Anonymous said...

In response to ruth-actually it's not "their" cemetery, it's ours, as in all of ours. There's no national security issue here, so it should be fair game, especially if the family wants it, as it clearly states in the article they did. I realize I've taken this whole thing somewhat off topic, but that was rattling around in the back of my head all day. I promise not to say anything else about it!

T. Lach

Henry said...

John
Great summary - thanks for making my talk seem shorter, clearer and funnier than it really was! The only thing I'd add is that I actually found The War Game much more disturbing than most stuff I see now. Being made to think about what a firebomb would do to your street and your neighbours is MUCH more disturbing than some slick, sanitized CGI of a nuclear landscape.

Other than that, thanks to all the other commentators for giving me lots more to think about.

Time now to lighten up with a gargoyle, or a quick, err "Daily Mail story" if you know what I mean. Meantime you should try the Dept of Education for some funding....