Offended audiences and regulatory expectations: Of red flags and red herrings

Posted by ap507 at Jan 10, 2017 09:45 AM |
Drs Ranjana Das and Anne Graefer discuss audience expectations of media regulators

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In our forthcoming book Provocative Screens we listen carefully to the expectations that people voice about media regulators and producers when speaking about television content that upsets or offends them.

Contrasting neo-liberal visions of a receding, small state with diminished or diminishing regulatory responsibilities, against social-democratic visions of a state that seeks to participate in, engage with and enhance the public interest by engaging with a variety of sectors, Lunt and Livingstone in their recent work (2012) on the Office of Communications, ask whether the British media regulator “(1) recognises when it is dealing with issues of public concern (2) recognises through its principles and practices that it represents one institution among many (3) gives equal recognition to effectiveness and legitimation and (4) respects rather than undermines the right to self-determination of citizens” (2012, p 9). Turning this around to face audiences, we were keen, in our fieldwork, to probe audiences’ expectations of the regulatory process in the context of media content they themselves identified as problematic or outright offensive. We travelled to towns and villages across Britain and Germany and watched daytime TV with audiences, viewing programmes audiences themselves reported to be offensive or problematic, and interviewing them.

A red herring

Our findings grouped into two key categories across a scale – (1) from an alignment with a self-managed and regulated approach to controversial content to (2) an alignment with an approach where institutions had potentially useful roles to play in regulating such content, with the vast majority falling somewhere in between these positions.

The real analytical issue that emerged for us, however, was in reading people’s positions on this scale at face value. At first glance, it would seem that a significant proportion of our respondents aligned with a vision of the self-regulating audience/individual for issues emerging out of consuming offensive content. On probing however, it soon became evident that this alignment with the vision of the self-managing individual was more of a reflex response to a vision of heavy-handed censorship, many often citing instances of countries where extreme levels of state-censorship prevail, and aligning themselves as far away from that as possible. This was then, a case of rejecting a censoring machinery with indiscriminate scissors – rather than a considered rejection of social-democratic ideals that could lie behind the kind of media regulation that aims to engage publics, further the best interests of citizens and audiences, and protect the vulnerable from problematic content.

Umesh, an Indian gentleman in his sixties, living in Britain is an excellent demonstration of this point: "I think once you get the state involved in sensitising anything, then where do you draw the line with that? all of a sudden you end up like North Korea and you can't see anything."

For museum curator and modern art enthusiast Connie, it is all a bit like walking through a museum where one choose to walk away from displays that one does not agree with: “It’s your job at the end of the day. Otherwise – what- (laughs) – no museums or what?”

We returned repeatedly to this vision of regulation as heavy-handed censorship (“no museums or what?”), and that automatically created its desirable opponent – the self-regulating audience. These voices should not, therefore, be read at face value, to assume that the people are vastly against the placing of any responsibility about offensive material at all in the hands of producers and regulators, for their reasons are guided by a heavy-handed vision of a scissor-wielding bureaucratic censor.

Some red flags

In analyzing responses which argued for a clearer role of institutions to better serve the needs of audiences, when it came to the production and regulation of content they found problematic, we found a closer alignment with the democratic ideals behind the media’s and media institutions’ responsibilities. Here too, we note that it is misleading to read off the surface of these responses as calling for limits to artistic freedom, or asking for a paternalistic meddling in televisual content. As is evident below, these responses speak more about ideals and expectations placed on institutions acting for, speaking for and on behalf of audiences and publics. Earnie – a middle aged LGBT activist who lives in inner city London speaks of his views on ‘offensive’ content - as content that lies outside what is captured on screen i.e. content which is conspicuous by its absence or shallow treatment: “There was always a very small amount of disability programming ..  identity programmes are problematic.., but you kind of need to do it until we can get to the place where people have gone past that into more proper inclusion if that makes sense. That never happens…”

Jackie, a disabled woman living in London, mirrors these views, as she tries to understand institutions, including producers and regulators as part of a map where race, gender and sexuality continue to draw lines, in her views, just as in the world she works and lives within. Jackie asks: “Who is listening to the way a character is developing…and how people are living with these characters in their own lives out on the streets?... they never have to worry about the consequences of people coming up to people in wheelchairs and saying, oh, you’re just like, when Ricky Gervais had a series recently about somebody with a mental health illness, is it Derek?”

These views come from a place of expectations – some of which are disappointed. Beth, who has recently transitioned from male to female, complained about the representation of trans issues on Little Britain. She said she got a generic response acknowledging that she had sent in a complaint, but little beyond. Rebecca, in Britain speaks of a similar story when she found a response to a complaint very generic and even addressing her wrongly.

Three conclusions

  • First - our fieldwork has shown us that the complaints that make it to the regulator arise often from an insufficient list of red flags. But taking these out to audiences, in cities and villages in Britain and Germany, contrary to what we expected, swear words, bad language or flashy lighting were not always, or at all, what people wanted to talk to us about. Rather, they were concerned with wider issues, around the construction of characters, the relative power and positions of the actors/creators behind characters, the absence and erasure of faces and issues, and in all these cases, the list of red flags we started out with, soon proved much too restrictive.
  • Second, in investigating people’s expectations of actors and institutions in their responses to television content that startles, upsets or just offends them, it is crucial, we find, to treat a conversation on free speech and censorship with caution. Often, as it seemed for us, this issue showed up as a red herring – misleading people, to conflate regulation with censorship and to interpret ‘the censor’ as a monolithic strawman - high-profile, totalitarian, often religiously motivated, as they shut down communication (citing often, the banning and burning of books in certain countries) –and thereby generating the self-regulating individual as an answer which needed probing.
  • Third, a key issue at hand, about the umbrella of ‘offensive content’ on broadcasting regulations, which is visible on probing further, is about the expectations people felt able to place (or not) in the institutions which act on their behalf, and will continue to. If these expectations exist in the minds of those who feel upset or offended, how can these be met? And, if these expectations do not exist, with confidence, then why not?


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