However, the media coverage I saw was keen to wheel out the “censorship” card. “You cannot and must not censor the media” was the general message, sprinkled with vague references to the legalities and constitutional principles of free speech, democracy, and the media’s power to say what it likes in poking its nose into everyone’s business and holding everyone accountable but itself.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not a media basher. I believe wholeheartedly that a strong democracy relies on an independent press and an independent judiciary. I admire greatly the journalists who keep people honest, and I do agree that censoring the press is a slippery road that any nation needs to be careful when seeking to walk it.
It was that juxtaposition that got me thinking: If I am all for free speech, why am I smiling at the Daily Mail getting a slap?
The answer soon came: It is because “serious” media and “entertaining” media are starting to blur, and I worry that the editorial decision making that differentiates between it is not fit for purpose. The way a piece of news is presented is incredibly important. Not only that, but what is chosen to be presented in the first place is vitally important too. The criticism of the Daily Mail was against its “editorial content” – ie the things it chose to fill its pages with and how it chose to present them.
This seems to me to be quite a problem across the media these days. I am not one for long blog posts, so I shall simply make one point below and leave you to think on it for yourself.
Take TV and society. If ever there was a case for “editorial content” being important it’s the TV studios. Bono from U2 once referred to TV as “the drug of a nation” and he was right. We turn it on, and generally swallow whatever we are fed.
But a brief look at TV in the UK shows that it does not reflect the society to which it broadcasts.
This is dangerous territory now, because minority interests neither expect nor deserve to be ignored. And I have absolutely no issue with any minority interests whether it be the LGBT community, a religious community of any denomination, a racial community or, indeed, any other peaceful group. I am a liberal and always have been…. and I have often been impressed by the simple Wiccan creed that states “If it harm none, do what you will” – meaning that provided being you doesn’t cause untold harm to others then, by all means, please feel free to be you. Whilst you cannot count on my support in circumstances where expressing yourself is hurting others, you certainly can where being you is part of a wider, tolerant society where love and social justice prevails.
So, in what I am about to say don’t get carried away with any ideas that I am a bigot. I am not. All I am saying is that the baulk against “editorial content” that triggered the action taken by Virgin Trains may well be part of a wider baulk against “editorial content” in other media organisations. There could be more to follow. Most of us are fed up with being given information about society dependent on what a few editors believe we need to know or should know. We are not talking about whether the press is censored or not. We are talking about how the media uses and handles the incredible responsibility that is in its hands for shaping public perception and public opinion. It is that which seems to be outside any accountability.
There are lots of gay and lesbian characters and storylines on TV. I have no issue with that. But the lesbian and gay community only make up somewhere between 2% and 4% of the UK population. There are lots of minority religious characters and storylines on TV. I have no issue with that. But, even collectively, all minority religions in the UK do not make up more than 7% of the population. Muslims, for example, make up 2% of the UK population. And yet, somehow, mainstream TV has contributed to the bigoted argument that we are “over-run” with gays and immigrants. By its editorial judgement, it has painted a society that is quite out of kilter with the actual reality, and that has no doubt skewed the view of many, producing quite the opposite result with regard to general tolerance than was probably initially intended. It could be argued, (but this is opinion only so no editor needs to reach for their High Court Writ just yet), that it actually fuels intolerance.
Consider this: Around 11% of people in the UK are physically disabled, living lives and striving to meet personal ambitions in the same way as the wider society, and yet we do not see this on TV to the same degree as other categories, (save perhaps for the elite athlete group). 7% of people in the UK have had a sexual relationship with a physically disabled person but that is not reflected either. Around 0.62% of children in the UK are in care, whereas around 20% are living below the poverty line within family units, be they one parent, two parent, carer or whichever. That is not reflected. The BBC programme “The Dumping Ground” focuses on the 0.62%, not the bigger majority of struggling children aforementioned. 6% of people in the UK live with Diabetes Type 1. 11% of people in the UK have visited a prostitute and 62% of the population think it should be made legal. I could go on – with sections of society and their individual challenges / behaviours / lives all of which are as important as the sexual and religious minority percentages but which, despite the percentage difference, are rarely, if at all, shown.
Do not misunderstand me. I am not advocating the removal of minority sexual and religious storylines from TV. I am simply pointing out that in the editorial decision making of mainstream TV, the “society” portrayed on the screen on a daily basis is not the society in which we all live. And that is dangerous, because TV portrays itself as our window on the world.
And it is too easy for those in charge of editorial content to push the responsibility onto the viewers. Individually, we do not have the power to inform. It is the media that has the power to inform. The action taken by Virgin Trains was just one example of someone pointing out that WHAT and HOW something is portrayed is paramount. It was the first influential action taken that reminded the media of its powerful position and that how it handles itself is important.
And that’s not censorship. That’s sensible, social responsibility. It is that, and nothing less, that we should expect from our media.
The question is: Are we getting it? And if we are not, what should we do about it?