The Between the Lines column from the May 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard
Under capitalism the best things are forbidden. Access to the best things in life are denied to most of us because of lack of money. Other things are removed from us by the forbidding state. News and information, plays and films, jokes and songs: any of these images of life can be censored if they are considered liable to disturb the passivity of the wage slaves' minds. The Banned season on Channel Four has shown a number of programmes previously censored for TV audiences and has produced some first class discussion on the theme of censorship in its many forms. It has been a revealing few weeks of TV. Pathetic little voyeurs, hoping for a bit of naked flesh in their living rooms, will have been disappointed by the Banned season; the majority of censored TV is denied to viewers on grounds that to show it would be politically insensitive. The ruling class can live happily with the daily Page Three, but when it comes to exposing scrutiny of its precious, oppressive values it is time to pull the plugs.
The Truth About Lies (C4, 9pm, Monday, 8 April) offered a valuable survey of how the British ruling class has used censorship to keep workers in the dark. It documented how the BBC was used to attack the 1926 strikers, to serve as an appendage to military propaganda in the Second World War, to ban numerous programmes about the Army's current operations in Ireland, and to prevent life and death information — such as the coming of US Cruise missiles to British soil — from being communicated to the public. The liars who rule Britain came across as very scared people. They are afraid that the workers might see too much of what they are up to. They forbid speech on certain mailers because they know that they could not win the argument if they discussed them openly. In short, they confirm the socialist claim that when the working class understand what is going on in society it will be an explosively and unstoppably potent force.
John Pilger's excellent Frontline - The Search For Truth In Wartime (C4, 8pm, Saturday, 13 April) presented a survey of how TV coverage has been used to drive the millions into the frenzy of war fever. Pilger, whose own journalistic standards are in marked contrast to most of his cringeing, knee-bending colleagues, showed how war reporters, from Vietnam to the Gulf, have simply served the propaganda needs of the militarists who gave them the briefings.
News is not the only victim of the censors. Numerous films and plays have been censored from TV audiences. For years The War Game, which was commissioned by the BBC, was banned from being shown on the grounds that it depicted loo realistically what the effects of a nuclear bomb would be. In the late 1970s the BBC commissioned a play on the legalised brutality of the borstal system: the play Scum, was banned from being shown to us until it appeared in the Banned season (C4. 10.30pm. Sunday, 14 April). Even comedy has been the victim of the censor. No TV station would show Monty Python's Life of Brian (C4, 10.30pm, Tuesday, 16 April) and in several British cities local government outlawed the showing of the film which superbly sends up the myths of Christianity. Only Joking? (C4, 11pm, Friday, 12 April) was about comedy and the limits of "public taste". To be sure, there are lots of comedians, notably in the current US "comedy of hate" vogue, whose unfunny racist rambling! can appeal to to those with Sun-reader mentalities. The documentary showed a performance by a racist creep called The Dice Man whose New Year's Eve show in the USA attracted an audience of 17 million cable viewers. But who needs the state to tell us what is unacceptably unfunny? If we are unamused by Bernard Manning or Gerry Sadowitz, then we need not watch them. The price of any kind of free speech is that you cannot set up a dogma called Good Taste and then ban those who transgress it. The alternative price to be paid was well illustrated in two documentaries about Christian bigots and their efforts to "clean up" (for which read censor) TV output: Damned in the USA (C4. 10.30pm, Sunday, 14 April) and Dancing With the Devil (C4, 11pm, Friday, 19 April). When the superbly produced Thirtysomething showed a scene with two male lovers in bed together fifteen major advertisers pulled their money out of the network making the programme, resulting in millions of lost dollars as a result of the homophobic bigotry of a handful of rich marketing directors. Under capitalism it is these people who decide what is good for us to see.
Socialists oppose censorship. Ironically, C4's Banned season was itself censored: in the hitherto unshown Mother Ireland the voice of the IRA woman shot by the British troops in Gibraltar had to be dubbed over by an actress lest we be contaminated by her authentic voice; a Yugoslav film-documentary about Wilhelm Reich had to be changed so that the male genitals in it could not be seen by the highly-corruptible late-night audience.
A more significant irony was that C4 did not once in its season give any consideration to the ultimate ban which it seems to find quite compatible with its own liberal values: the ban on serious TV exposure to those ideas which are considered "way out" or "utopian". In short, the ban which we socialists have experienced when trying to obtain more than a two-minute chance to explain our ideas on Channel Four. Perhaps now is a good lime for the C4 gang to ask where they draw the line. And why. And who might lose their jobs if the boundaries were redrawn.
THE LONGER VIEW
You can never be depressed in the company of a geologist. Why hasn't socialism been established after all these years? After all what years? Clive James interviewed Stephen Jay Gould, the eminent and very worth reading Harvard palaeontologist (BBC2, 6pm, Sunday, 7 April). "What would happen if a nuclear holocaust destroyed the whale of human life?" asked James. It has happened before, responded Gould — in fact, there have been three wipe-outs of life over the past 260 million years. "We'd just have to wait a few million years and it would all start again" replied Gould. And the struggle for socialism is hardly a century old. Come to think of it, when they banned The Life of Brian less than twenty years ago the censor probably thought that it would never ever be shown - the fools.