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Deciding what we watch: Taste, decency and media ethics in the UK and the USA

Colin Shaw (1999). Deciding what we watch: Taste, decency and media ethics in the UK and the USA. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 200pp. 0-19-815936-6.

Reviewed by Dr. Latiffah Pawanteh, Department of Communication, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia

This book offers readers a comprehensive inside look at the differences in the structure, role, and regulations governing the American and British broadcasting systems and their responses to issues on taste and decency. The author, Colin Shaw, reveals that he is a well-versed broadcasting practitioner by giving a first-hand account of broadcasting regulations in both systems. What makes the rendering of these accounts interesting is the personalized instances of actual events and issues with media personalities that provides the reader with an insight into the day-to-day goings-on of the broadcasting industry in both the US and UK. His ability to juxtapose issues concerning regulations and morality across both systems shows his in-depth comprehension and knowledge of the workings of broadcasting in two differing historical and socio-cultural environments.

In chapter 1, the author sets the historical, social, and cultural context that characterizes the societies within which both American and British broadcasters and those in conjoint activities exist and conduct their work. Here also, he compares the attitudes in Britain and the United States towards free expression and the differences in the interpretation of the concept of freedom. Chapter 2 reveals the subsequent consequences of the two distinct socio-cultural systems on the structure and operations of broadcasting. The author further describes the American system as being rooted in commerce and suspicions of government, while the British system on the other hand reflects suspicions of commerce as well as a reliance on continued public support. Hence, these approaches are reflected in the regulations of the issues addressed by the broadcasters.

The key concepts of this book, namely taste and decency, are identified and discussed in chapter 3. Shaw defines and contrasts the meaning of these terms as they are expressed and implemented through regulations by broadcasters and communities in both societies. From his examples it is evident that there exist distinct differences in how each society constructs and responds to "taste and decency," with regard, for instance, to death, profanity, stereotyping of age, gender, religion or sexual preference as well as the privacy of citizens as sources of news items and reality programming. In this chapter he also elaborates on the underlying factors such as the schedules in which the programs are aired, the standards that are observed, and the expectations brought on by the audiences themselves as contributing to the nature of programs aired.

Issues concerning children, sex, language, news and reality programming, and privacy and how they evolved and are attended to by both broadcasting systems are discussed in great detail and given a chapter each (chapters 4-8). These chapters provide the reader with an overview of the circumstances in which these issues occur and the implications for subsequent services provided. They also reveal the differing moral frameworks in both societies and how that affects the broadcasting services by privileging or prohibiting particular practices. The discussions of each of these issues provide a description and explanation of how standards are established and applied. In the concluding chapter, the author engages in thought-provoking discussion, looking at the motives for developing and maintaining regulatory structures and the future role of these regulatory structures, in view of the changing media landscape in which broadcasting will no longer be constrained by limited frequencies.

This book concludes by posing a crucial question: for whom are regulations and self-scrutiny of taste and decency implemented by the broadcasting systems? Shaw's predictable answer is that it is for the public interest, and with that in view, he identifies astutely the three significant directions in which political will can be exercised so as to safeguard the maintenance of standards of all kinds in broadcasting: first, in acknowledgement of the growing power and influence media has on society; second, the acknowledgement by politicians of the need to support forms of broadcasting; and third, the enfranchisement of the audience that carries with it the necessity of improving media education. In view of the inevitable proliferation of channels which we are experiencing across Asia as well, Shaw is rightly of the opinion that the future of public interest in broadcasting must lie in the third domain.

About Latiffah Pawanteh

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