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To censor or not to censor; what is the question?
Monday, 25th January 2010

To censor or not to censor; what is the question?

The current debate about censorship suffers from a common malady, i.e. confusion in the terms used and repetitiveness. However, should I write once more about the subject? Would it not be a case of flogging a dead horse?

The Bishop of Gozo, Mgr Mario Grech, came to my rescue. He introduced a new argument to the discussion. While addressing journalists on the feast of St Francis of Sales (21/01/10) he proposed the extension of the principle of precaution – a principle enunciated in a number of international documents – from the field of the environment to that of the media.

The precautionary principle

The Maastricht Treaty says this about the principle:

“Community policy on the environment shall aim at a high level of protection taking into account the diversity of situations in the various regions of the Community. It shall be based on the precautionary principle and on the principles that preventive action should be taken, that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source and that the polluter should pay. Environmental protection requirements must be integrated into the definition and implementation of other Community policies.”

In simple terms Bishop’s Grech argument run as follows:

Those in authority decided that if something harms the environment they will withdraw it from the market.
It is scientifically proven that some media products can be psychologically or morally harmful.
We are not empowered to critically assess what we read or view.
Shouldn’t then the authorities invoke the precautionary principle to withdraw from the market what can be deleterious to the educational process that society embarks on?
Bishop Grech’s comparison of the physical environment with the mediascape finds an unexpected ally in the leftish media academic Cees Hamelink. In an article published in the European Journal of Communication (1995. Vol. 10 (4): 497-512), the Dutch academic wrote:

“One could also argue that the degree of concern vis-à-vis this secondary environment (i.e. the human-made cultural environment in which the mass media are crucial tools) is a matter of moral choice. If people withdraw from this concern, they make the choice not to take responsibility for its quality. … By and large people are worried more about the killing of whales than about the killing of minority TV programmes” (page 502)

In his article Hamelink notes that as the law regulates only a part of human activity action – my comment: and it cannot do otherwise without risking despotism – action by professionals in the field and audiences is essential to guarantee “the quest for professional freedom, quality and responsibility in media performance” (p. 498).

Media professionals can give their contribution though channels of self-regulation while audiences can contribute by personal and individual decisions as well as through lobby groups.

Hamelink refers to freedom, quality and responsibility. I think that the content of contemporary debates is privileging freedom over and about the two other very important aspects i.e. quality and responsibility. Isn’t the exercise of freedom without responsibility open to abuse even of freedom? Isn’t the dumping of bad quality programmes a minus that society has to do something about?

Alternatives to censorship

Let us return to Malta and the current debate. What are the best avenues open to society in its quest to protect itself in line with the precautionary principle?

In Malta, there is no censorship of newspapers, magazines, radio and TV. I have heard of no one suggesting that it should be introduced. Generally pre-publication or pre-broadcast decisions in the area are taken by editors or editorial boards. Such a filter does not exist in the use of the Internet and satellite reception of TV.

Such use is under the total control and discretion of the individuals themselves. This means that in the case of the most used and popular media there is no censorship. Please remember that around 99% of households have at least one TV set and around 70% of homes have access to the media.

Censorship in Malta concerns mainly the theatre, which is patronised by a relatively small number of people, the cinema which is patronised by thousands (but no where near the use made of TV) and (if I am not mistaken) foreign media print products not for personal use.

I am using the word “censorship” in its formal and strict sense. It happens when an authority outside a particular media organisation sets up a board which previews a media product or performance and decides whether it will be shown or not and if yes what ages could see it. In such cases, the state exercises the precautionary principle referred to by Bishop Grech by taking the preventive measure of censorship.

Is censorship by the state the only, or most effective tool that could be used?

If a broadcasting company takes over the editorial responsibility for the films and programmes it broadcasts and does not have to submit them to any external board cannot one hypothesise a similar strategy regarding plays in theatres? Cannot individual theatres be burdened themselves with such a task?

I think that to-day we should explore more ways of enlarging the scope of self-regulatory and co-regulatory regimes in the exercise of the precautionary principle instead of state censorship. I gladly concede that self-regulation is very weak in our country and co-regulation does not even exist in this sector. Both can be looked at as possible alternatives to state censorship.

This would not imply that the state would not have any defence mechanisms whatsoever from the possible negative effects of media products which have negative content. In Malta’s case, for example, the Broadcasting Authority has the right to fine erring stations.

Obscenity and libel laws are just two other examples of the battery of tools that the state can use. However, it is important that such tools should not remain static. They should reflect the changes that society goes through and therefore, should, be updated from time to time to reflect the prevailing values and attitudes of society. I do not think that there is anyone who contests the fact that what was considered to be obscene or objectionable thirty years ago is not necessarily so considered to-day.

Media education

Bishop Grech referred to people’s lack of ability to critically assess what they read or watch. I agree with him that it is imperative that people be empowered to critically assess what they read or watch. This is the way forward considering that technology will continue making state controls more and more difficult if not impossible to achieve. Paradoxically the commercialisation of the media would imply that control by commercial interests will, most probably, continue to be greater than what should be acceptable in a democratic society.

Together with others, I have been working on media education since 1980. The Media Centre of the Archdiocese of Malta was instrumental in the introduction of media education in Church schools and there are different studies showing that the programme had positive effects on students.

It is a pity that it now seems that the restructured Media Centre has renounced (at least de facto) the paternity of the project. It is also a pity that the Secretariat for Social Communications is way behind the targets which the Archdiocese has set for the sector. I hope that, at least, the Gozo Seminary, which is under the direct responsibility of Bishop Grech has the programme of media education developed in Malta as a regular part of its ordinary curriculum.

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