Deciding What We Watch: Taste, Decency, and Media Ethics in the UK and the USA

by Colin Shaw; Oxford University Press, 1999

When he wished to dismiss potential objectors to a proposed episode of the police-series Cagney and Lacey dealing with an abortion clinic, the producer referred to the 'nine little old biddies', who would write to the network's head office.

was a patronizing description of his fellow- citizens in the exercise of their democratic right, but it conveys the stereotype so often identified with taste and decency. The narrow preoccupation of the law with their sexual aspects, combined with the fact that the words, bracketed together, have become shorthand for that kind of prissiness, tends to conceal the fact that issues of taste and decency in broadcasting stretch far beyond the boundaries of sex.

decade later, CBS became involved in another debate about the portrayal of abortion. In this case, the New York police series Cagney and Lacey wished to produce an episode built around an abortion clinic. The FCC's Fairness Doctrine, which was to remain in force until 1987, even though allowing balance to be achieved over more than one programme, had proved administratively difficult for the broadcasters. They had eventually chosen the alternative of securing balance within an individual programme. As a result, there were lengthy arguments between the producer, Barney Rosenzweig, and the broadcaster's Standards and Practices Department in order to ensure balance. Alerted to the broadcaster's scheduling plans, the opposition, with the Catholic Church in the van, sought to talk CBS out of showing the programme. But their attempts failed.

neither of the two American examples was there a question of the explicit portrayal of an abortion. But it was the explicit nature of certain images which brought a British pro-life group into conflict with the broadcasters during the general election campaign of 1997. Under British electoral law, any group putting up a minimum of fifty candidates is entitled to a limited amount of free television airtime. The Pro-Life Alliance, having produced the qualifying number of candidates, proposed to support their arguments with clips from an American video, Hard Truth. These were said to show body-parts from aborted fetuses. The BBC and the Independent Television companies declined to show some of the illustrations and the broadcast went out only after editing had taken place. The Independent Television Commission, with no powers to preview, concurred subsequently in the decisions which the companies had taken.

Back to start of Cagney and Lacey section

My Index Page