I say NO to TV censorship 

11 April 2016 tbs.pm/8899

Find a controversy and it is a virtual certainty that you will find Michael Foot - right in the thick of it. Yet 47-year-old Michael Foot has become one of the most personally popular politicians on either side of the House of Commons.

Find a controversy and it is a virtual certainty that you will find Michael Foot[1] – right in the thick of it. Yet 47-year-old Michael Foot has become one of the most personally popular politicians on either side of the House of Commons.

From the TVTimes for week commencing 16 April 1961.

I am utterly opposed to television censorship – or any other censorship for that matter. Others disagree.

They say that in this age, when we are exposed to so much violence, so many false values, there should be a more rigid censorship of plays and films, books, radio and television to protect us from vicious or undesirable influences. They say that young people particularly need to be shielded in this way.

One simple reason for opposing censorship is that no one is fit to be the censor and this in turn is the reason why those who undertake the task usually make asses of them selves.

“A magistrate,” wrote Bernard Shaw,[2] “has laws to administer: a censor has nothing but his own opinion. A judge leaves the question of guilt to the jury; the censor is jury and judge as well as law-giver.”

So what can the poor censor do? He has no rules to apply, no laws to interpret. All he can do is to give vent to his own prejudices, or to follow the precedents set by the previous holders of his office or to make his own vague estimate about the accepted standards of the age.

Inevitably, he makes a botch of it. For what is considered indecent, intolerable or outrageous in one age is often held to be high-minded, artistic and even respectable in the next. The whole history of literature confirms the claim.

To do his job, therefore, without the risk of suppressing or mangling works of art the censor would need to be a great artist himself and an major prophet into the bargain. No such candidates for the office are ever available. If they pass the test at all they are too busy producing works which the censor might find offensive.

The classic liberal doctrine against censorship was stated by Bernard Shaw in his preface to The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet[3] half a century ago. It has never been satisfactorily answered by the would-be totalitarians and the skin-deep libertarians.

The sharp and necessary distinction between deeds which may be dangerous and ideas which may be dangerous.

He drew the sharp and necessary distinction between deeds which may be dangerous and ideas which may be dangerous.

The state has every right and every duty to guard against the first; it has no business to meddle with the second. “No case whatever,” Shaw wrote, “can be made out for the statement that a nation cannot do without common thieves and homicidal ruffians. But an overwhelming case can be made out for the statement that no nation can prosper or even continue to exist without heretics and advocates of shockingly immoral doctrines.”

Censorship defies this principle – the principle of all progress. Shaw was writing about the theatre, but there is no reason why the same governing idea, the same condemnation of all censorship, should not be applied in all the other fields to literature, to television and to that medium which is still so much more potent than television, the films. (Please don’t censor that last part of the sentence, Mr. Editor. If it’s not true, it won’t hurt the television companies; and if it is true, you ought to know about it.)

Can we really allow this deluge to continue unchecked, especially when so much of it goes down the throats of our children?

But wait. Come down from this rarefied atmosphere, with all this fine talk about art. What about the horrors, the filth, the rubbish, the pornography allegedly poured out through what are called the modern media of expression? Can we really allow this deluge to continue unchecked, especially when so much of it goes down the throats of our children?

Well, the children, of course, are a special case. But you can’t stop adult entertainment, instruction and cultural enjoyment for fear that the kids might overhear. That would mean keeping the whole nation in the kindergarten and, heaven knows, much of our so-called entertainment is infantile enough as it is. For the most part. the parents, not the censor, must look after the children. And then if you’re really going to start stopping the rubbish, where are you going to stop or where are you going to start? Many Sunday newspapers touch a lower level than the worst you can see on television or film screen.

And if it comes to that, advertisements on the hoardings urging adolescents to get lung cancer by smoking or to become manly and kill themselves on the roads by acquiring a real taste for drink are more directly dangerous than the much vaguer ideas they are likely to learn by other incitements.

If we believe in freedom, let’s put our faith in it.

I’m all in favour favour of branding the salesmen of sadistic spectacle or pornography, whether film moguls or newspaper proprietors, for what they are – glorified sellers of filthy postcards.

But let’s do it by argument and courageous exposure without surrendering our freedom in the process to a censor who more often than not catches the real artist and lets the truly contemptible creatures through his net.

Altogether, the truth of the matter is summarised in an old rhyme even more effectively than Shaw did it:

Sticks and stones may
break my bones
But words will never
hurt me.
[4]

If we believe in freedom, let’s put our faith in it. Ideas must be answered by ideas, arguments by arguments, words by words. Those who would resort to the club, which is what the censor wields, would have kept us all living in the Stone Age.

 


  1. Michael Mackintosh Foot PC FRSL (23 July 1913-3 March 2010). MP 1945-1955, 1960-1992. Secretary of State for Employment 1974-1976. Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons 1976-1979. Deputy Leader of the Labour Party 1976-1980. Leader of the Opposition 1980-1983.
  2. George Bernard Shaw (26 July 1856-2 November 1950). Irish playwright.
  3. The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet: A Sermon in Crude Melodrama, first performed in 1909, was heavily censored by the Lord Chamberlain for blasphemy.
  4. Traditional; first cited in 1862 with “harm” rather than hurt. Cited again in 1872 with “names” rather than words.

    Notes by Kif Bowden-Smith

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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1 response to this article

Paul Mason 12 April 2016 at 2:02 pm

This was written before the rise of Mary Whitehouse (1964 onwards) of which enough has been said.

However MW praised Jimmy Savile for his “wholesome family viewing”. Oh dear, but few people knew the real story.

The lady was often ill-informed and a criticism from MW guaranteed huge viewing figures for a TV programme.

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