Robert Manne, writing in a recent issue of Time, (Jan. 6), said this about pornography and mass murder: “the fervor over gun control and complacency about censorship are rather odd”. Manne goes on to detail the steady diet of porn which a recent mass murderer had fed upon before going on a shooting spree in Sydney. Says Manne, “what was going on in [his head] provides a more important line of explanation for the massacre than the nature of the weapon in his hand”.
Surely Manne is on to something here. It is becoming clear that pornography does have an effect upon the mind and behaviour of its readers and viewers. There exists more than a casual relationship between the consumption of pornography and anti-social, if not violent, behaviour. Yet critics continue to insist that no such relationship exists, that pornography has no adverse effects upon behaviour. But as Irving Kristol has pointed out, “If you believe that no one was ever corrupted by a book, you have also to believe that no one was ever improved by a book (or a play or a movie). You have to believe, in other words, that all art is morally trivial and that, consequently, all education is morally irrelevant.” Clearly, ideas – and images – do have consequences.
It seems that many Australians are becoming increasingly concerned about the “pornification” of culture. To take but one area, television, evidence is mounting which shows that we are becoming more disturbed about laxity in moral standards. Indeed, the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal (ABT) reports a 347 per cent increase in complaints about sex and nudity in evening television programming during the last two years. In fact, the outcry has become so great that the ABT has recently launched an inquiry into the matter.
The inquiry, known as the “Inquiry Into the Classification of Program Material on Television” was begun in November and will proceed throughout 1992. The deadline for submissions to the inquiry is January 31. The Tribunal will assess the current standards of program classification to see if they conform to community attitudes. The submissions will be studied to see if changes to existing standards are required.
In 1989/1990 the ABT received 2342 comments and complaints about television and radio broadcasting. During 1990/1991 there was a large increase in the level of complaints about television programming. According to the ABT Information Paper on the inquiry, the greatest number of complaints received (582), were about “issues concerning program classification such as sex, violence, bad language and nudity”. For example the soft-porn “Chances” attracted 32 complaints; the gruesome “Let the Blood Run Free” generated 10 complaints; a number of viewers protested “Tonight with Steve Vizard” and twelve viewers complained about the provocatively clad Sophie Lee, presenter of the “Bugs Bunny Show”.
Nor was program content the only object of concern. A number of complaints were received about the timing of the shows. Many felt that 8:30pm was too early for Adults Only programming to commence. Indeed, an ABT survey conducted in 1988 bears this out. The survey found that 50% of 9 year olds were still watching television at 8:30pm, while 20% were still viewing at 9:30pm. Also, 63% of 11 year olds were still viewing at 8:30pm, and 27% at 9:30pm.
Two important conclusions can be drawn from the convening of the inquiry. One is that even a few complaints can have a big effect. Several thousands complaints per year, coming from an Australian population of some 17 million is a small figure indeed. Yet it was a sufficient number to prompt the ABT to initiate this inquiry. (Keep in mind that these were complaints directed to the ABT only. The ABT estimates that viewer complaints to television networks may be ten times as many.)
The second point worth noting is that this relative handful of complaints was just that: a handful. Surely, for example, there are more than just twelve Australians who find Sophie Lee’s dress, or lack of it, inappropriate for young viewers. And surely there are more than 32 concerned viewers who object to the superfluous sex and nudity on “Chances”. The lesson is clear: if viewers are bothered by the declining standards in television programming, there is something that can be done about it. Concern can be expressed by writing letters or by simply calling the ABT in each capital city.
Regardless of the outcome of the ABT inquiry, it is clear that interested viewers can have an impact on television programming standards and quality. These standards have not fallen as far as in most European nations, but they are gaining ground. Vigilance in this area does pay off. As for those who only too readily yell “censorship” in this regard, the words of an American commentator are worth repeating: “Censorship is a defining act of civilisation. Societies cannot exist without proscribing certain things. When we outlaw racial discrimination or drunk driving or price-fixing, we are defining who we are. And just because we proscribe drunk driving does not mean that we’re on the slope to forbidding driving. Only the weak-minded find it impossible to make simple distinctions.”