LONDON, 17 November 2000
- Setting aside the nail-biting outcome, this has been the dullest of
US elections for those who enjoy the cut and thrust of ideas rather
than the miniutiae of Floridan psephology.
The only issues
that raised blood pressures before the frantic finger-counting of the
past few days were, remarkably, the c-words - two terms that never get
mentioned on British hustings. Culture and censorship invaded the US
election by force and by stealth, like would-be gem-thieves at the
It was the Democrat Al Gore who, in an
unscripted moment, put the arts in play by attacking what he called
''cultural pollution'' - by which he meant the degradation of society
by a torrent of near-porn movies and violence-glorifying pop songs.
"You are now allowed to officially slap bitches,"
chants the chart-topping rapper, Eminem. "You have the right to
remain violent." His brother-star, Dr Dre, sings of "12
year-old children that kill ... usually drillin' the one that wasn't
willin' to die." Tipper Gore, the candidate's wife, expostulated
Gore's running-mate, Senator Joseph
Lieberman, gave edge to the issue by telling Congress that it might
need to legislate against anti-social art. "If the entertainment
industry ... continues to market death and degradation to our
children," he had previously warned, "then the Government
George W. Bush preferred to avoid direct
intervention, but pledged that "as president I will urge
entertainment leaders to limit sexual and violent images voluntarily."
The wife of his running mate, Lynne Cheney, a former head of the
National Endowment for the Humanities, let fire for the conservative
side with a blistering assault on pop and post-modern artists.
need," she declared, "to let those who are polluting the
culture know that we are going to embarrass them and shame them until
they stop - until they use their vast talents and resources to put us
in touch with our best selves, instead of the worst parts of our
Crossing the Atlantic
stuff, and not the sort of rhetoric that will fade without trace. Like
it or not, censorship is back on the agenda - and it is crossing the
Atlantic with hurricane speed. In London last weekend Channel 4 and
the Institute of Contemporary Arts called a symposium of media types,
religious leaders, child-care authorities and civil liberties groups
to engage in, as the invitation termed it, Making Sense of
A public opinion survey conducted for the
event demonstrated that the stop-me-and-ask-one man in the street felt
more threatened by internet porn than by television and that 82
percent believed it was up to individual heads of household to
determine what their families watched. This verdict was hailed by Nick
Jones, Channel 4's head of film programming, as an overwhelming
rejection of censorship and, indeed, as the debunking of the existence
of a "moral majority". His conclusion is tenuous, dependant
as it is on the way the question was phrased. In the thick of a
FilmFour season of Extreme Cinema - banned films - he would
say that, wouldn't he?
In my own Radio3/www listener poll on
last week, 50 percent of voters wanted explicit sex and violence
to be removed from movies, TV and rock music. A further 34 percent
demanded the elimination of racist material and 16 percent favoured
censorship of drug-related matter.
The question remains
whether, even on a subscription channel, unwary eyes should be exposed
to the sight of a butcher who beats his pregnant wife to make her
abort, in Gaspar Noe's Seul Contre Tous; or the torture of
animals in Werner Herzog's Even Dwarfs Started Small. The next
question is whether it is now possible to restrict such material when
worse is downloadable on the internet.
position, held by Index on Censorship, maintains that all
restraint of art amounts to oppression and that the state has no right
to cut. The only admissible circumstance, argues Michael Griffin,
editor of Index, is "when one person's freedom of
expression entails harm to another person, gender, race or religion."
In those circumstances, he adds, "one would have to think
constructively about drawing a line that is recognisable to all
reasonable men and women." What might amount to reasonable is a
matter for irresoluble conjecture.
Most thinking men and
women accept that it is the first duty of government to protect the
weak and safeguard social order. There is an overwhelming body of
evidence - from Sharon Tate to Jamie Bulger - that connects screen
violence with imitative crimes. It was the Columbine High School
massacre that precipitated the censorship debate in the United States,
after the Federal Trade Commission reported to Congress two months ago
that violent films and music were being deliberately targeted at
Bitch Ass Niggaz
initially refused to face a Senate investigation committee, citing
echoes of McCarthyism, entertainment industry chiefs began
back-pedalling to avert compulsory regulation. Last week, the movie
theatre owners' organisation agreed to appoint compliance officers to
ensure that trails for X-rated films were not shown to young
audiences. Dr Dre has excised the line "raped the women's swim
team" from his song "Bitch Ass Niggaz", though the
unexpurgated lyric remains on his website - along with a host of
sexually abusive expressions, disturbing even to adult minds. Senator
John McCain has warned Hollywood that his committee will monitor its
conduct in quarterly cycles and may yet decide to crack down.
how the rage of smut can be controlled is uncertain. For half a
century the very word "censorship" was so closely associated
with totalitarian regimes that it can no longer be uttered except in
inverted commas. The British Board of Film Censorship has changed its
name to the Board of Film Classification to avoid giving offence to
politically-correct producers of skin and slash movies. Its chairman,
Andreas Whittam-Smith, suggested last week that the best way to check
the spread of pornography was to authorise a national quintupling of
licensed sex shops, thereby stifling an illicit trade in underground
videos. There is no easy way of policing unacceptable art when sources
of dissemination have become extra-terrestial on satellite television
and the internet. An attempt by America Online to block e-mails
containing certain inflammatory words has provoked a storm of protests
and boycott threats from civil rights and artists groups. The
occasional arrest of a paedophile promoter is probably the best we can
hope for, along with increased parental vigilance at home.
the Clinton and Blair regimes have cuddled up closer than ever before
to the moguls of showbiz, whether in shameless pursuit of donations or
simply to share the reflected glamour of a photoshoot with Stephen
Spielberg or Noel Gallagher. Dewy-eyed fan mail from Clinton and Blair
has encouraged the industry to act as it if were above criticism.
If politicians are serious about stemming the tide of porn
and violence, they will have to put some distance between themselves
and the industry that produces it. The doors to Downing Street and the
White House must shut and the star-kissing must stop until the makers
of movies and music have restrained their assault on young minds and
exercised a degree of self-control that eliminates them from
responsibility for further cultural degradation.
William Hague (and prudish Gordon Brown) should appreciate is that
censorship is no longer taboo to democratic politicians. It might even
win elections in a worried middle England.
Lebrecht is a columnist for London's Daily Telegraph and the author of
several books on culture. His most recent book, Covent Garden, The
Untold Story: Dispatches From The English Cultural War, 1945-2000,
was published by Simon & Schuster.