Guardian of taste 

21 March 2016

Girl meets boy. They live together without a marriage licence. She is going to have a baby. They don’t want it so she finds an abortionist, who gets rid of it. To pay him, she makes some money by sleeping with a rich man. Her lover knows, and does not mind.

Somebody write a play about all this, telling the story in detail.

He offers the play to an Independent Television company. It asks itself whether or not the play is fit for viewers to see. The company may reject it. Or the play may go to the Independent Television Authority for a decision. If so, what is the yardstick?

The Independent Television Authority, of which Lord Hill[1] is chairman, was set up by Parliament to supervise ITV. It chooses the programme companies; it is responsible for what they show to viewers.

To see Lord Hill you go to 70 Brompton Road, London, SW3. That is the address of the ITA; it is an eight-storey building alongside Knightsbridge tube station. His office is on the top floor. I[2] went there to find out about the yardstick.

The Authority’s work, he said, is set out in the Television Act of 1964. For example, the act makes the ITA responsible for seeing (and here he quoted the exact words)…

that nothing is included in the programmes which offends against good taste or decency or is likely to encourage or incite to crime, or lead to disorder, or to be offensive to public feeling.

I asked Lord Hill how the Authority interpreted all that. Basically, he said, it is a matter of common sense and judgment. The ITA has 12 members, three of them women, all chosen (like) him by the Government. Among them, they try to apply current standards of taste and decency.

These were my questions and Lord Hill’s answers.

By current standard, I take it you don’t necessarily mean the traditional Christian standards?

The Television Act does not lay down such standards. The fact is that Britain is now a divided society in matters of morals.

Some people accept traditional standards; some don’t. TV has to live with this division.

We can’t pretend that it does not exist, even though we made deplore that nowadays so much attention is focussed on one or two sides of life – rather than on life’s whole story.

At the same time, we have to try to assess the moral climate, even though it keeps changing.

What changes? Has there been a new outlook on morality?

There has. A sizeable number of people in our society now take a permissive view of sex. Love-making, they argue, has nothing to do with morals.

Now this presents a serious problem to the ITA. Like it or dislike it, this new outlook is a significant fact in some sections of our society.

A sizeable number of people in our society now take a permissive view of sex. Love-making, they argue, has nothing to do with morals.

Though ITV cannot ignore, it cannot (and, let me assure you, it does not) ignore the fact that it is exceedingly distasteful to a good many viewers. They must be considered.

Those who believe in traditional Christian standards must be considered. And they are.

Despite the difficulties, we strive to strike a reasonably acceptable balance. Plays and discussion programmes that deal seriously with aspects of this new outlook cannot be ruled out.

It is a healthy thing that viewers should sometimes be disturbed, even shocked, by play or by a feature.

But there is no place in Independent Television for material that affronts the feelings and beliefs of those viewers – and they are the majority – who adhere to the traditional standards.

Do you think ITV succeeds in doing this?

Most of the time, yes. Sometimes, no. We make mistakes, of course. But on the whole, I think, we achieve a civilised middle position.

The verbal taboos that used to surround contraception, abortion, prostitution, homosexuality, are much less evident then they were.

In doing that we are helped by another change that is taking place in our society. People now feel free to discuss sexual behaviour, and listen to other people discussing it.

The verbal taboos that used to surround contraception,[3] abortion,[4] prostitution, homosexuality,[5] are much less evident then they were.

This Week, for instance, can put on a serious programme about prostitution without offence.

And standards the changing all the time. Some time ago, Granada did a documentary called The Entertainers, about clubs in the North of England.

We at the ITA asked to see it; and we boggled at one or two brief striptease scenes in it.

Consequently Grenada held it up. A year later they asked us to look at it again. This time we found we did not boggle. Could it be that our yardstick had changed?

How does the yardstick come to be used? Suppose, for instance, and ITV company wanted to show my imaginary play about the girl and the abortion. What would happen?

Here at the ITA, we know what all the companies are planning. Each supplies detailed synopsis of plays they propose to put on well in advance. Our experts scrutinise them carefully.

If they saw such a play was on the menu, they might call for the script.

After reading that, they might even see the play itself. Members of the Authority might see it. We have power to require alterations or to veto it.

How often do you do either?

I suppose about 10% of plays might raise some sort of initial query. Incidentally, most of the Authority’s work is done through informal regular contacts between its staff and those of the companies. There is a great deal of consultation of this kind.

In my three years as ITA chairman, we have insisted on alterations in a few plays – perhaps half a dozen.

Before my time objection was raised to one play because it portrayed three girls living in promiscuity; and the company that wanted to put it on agreed to drop it.

Was the objection because of the theme, or the treatment?

Because of the treatment, I am told. It is not our business to tell playwrights (or TV producers, either) what themes they shall select. That is a matter for them.

Creative people must be free to create. The more freedom they have, the better – whether they are novelists, playwrights, or TV producers.

Our concern is to see that the theme, whatever it is, is presented in a serious fashion – so as to respect current standards of taste and decency.

Creative people must be free to create. The more freedom they have, the better – whether they are novelists, playwrights, or TV producers. Be we have responsibilities, too.

What about the social responsibility of ITV? Do you think it has a duty to elevate the tastes of viewers, and to improve their minds?

Parliament requires us to do three things in our programmes. To inform. To entertain. To educate. We seek to do all three. But we are not cultural dictators.

It is not our business to tell men and women viewers what they ought to like. Nor is it our business to refuse to give them what they do like, on the plea that their tastes are naturally bad. A free society cannot be run on those lines.

Are you saying that ITV need dos no more than give the masses what they want?

Not at all. For one thing, we are required to preserve a reasonable balance in our programmes; this means (among other things) that we must cater for minorities as well as for the mass. And we do.

Secondly, in seeking to inform, entertain and educate, we necessarily widen the range of viewers’ interests.

Their horizons expand. They are made aware of all sorts of things – facts, arguments, theories, ideas, points of view – which may be completely unfamiliar to them.

Some of our citizens like grand opera, and others prefer pop records. Neither lot has any right to impose its tastes in the other.

Sometimes this disturbs them, or shocks them. It compels them to look critically at their personal beliefs and attitudes and prejudices; to overhaul the little bundle of preconceptions which they have hitherto taken for granted.

To do all this is part of the job of ITV; and a socially important part, too.

But to go further, and seek deliberately to replace their tastes and preferences by substitutes which (in some people’s opinion) might be better for them… ITV has no right to engage in that kind of brainwashing.

Britain is a plural society in matters of morals, and ITV must recognise that. We are also a plural society in matters of culture; and ITV recognises that just as plainly.

Some of our citizens like grand opera, and others prefer pop records. Neither lot has any right to impose its tastes in the other.

  1. Dr Charles Hill, Baron Hill of Luton PC (15 January 1904 – 22 August 1989), formerly an MP and Postmaster General in the cabinet that introduced Independent Television in 1955
  2. Sir Charles John Curran (13 October 1921 – 9 January 1980), later Director-General of the BBC
  3. The contraceptive pill had been introduced in 1961. It and other forms of safe, reliable birth control that could be controlled by women were only available on prescription to married women who had already had children. A long campaign to make birth control available to all was underway, culminating in the NHS giving free contraception to any female that requested it from 1974
  4. Abortion was illegal, except under some very restricted circumstances, but ‘back street’ abortions leading to injury and even death were not uncommon. At the time this article was published, David Steel’s Abortion Bill was about to begin moving through the Houses of Parliament. It passed in 1967 and abortions became legal in 1968
  5. At the time of publication in 1966, Leo Abse and Lord Arran’s Sexual Offences Bill was very slowly and with much opposition making its way through parliament. It passed in 1967, and on 27 July of that year male homosexuality, provided it took place in a building with no other persons present and both parties were over 21, was partially decriminalised. Those already in prison for homosexuality were not pardoned

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