Arbiter of decency has to reflect public's tastes

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2008, 12:00am

The Obscene Articles Tribunal is ostensibly our gatekeeper of decency. Unfortunately, its rulings frequently provoke public mockery or outrage. For a classification system to be credible, it must broadly reflect community standards. However, those standards are shifting all the time, hence the system itself requires constant adjustment. The Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority yesterday announced it would speed up a planned comprehensive review of the tribunal and how it operates. This is a necessary and welcome move.

A survey by the Tela shows just how difficult it is to reflect public sentiment in any ratings system. The survey asked respondents to classify 22 articles rated by the tribunal; only 14 were more or less consistently given the same rating as their official classification.

Arguably, the quality of the tribunal's rulings has improved. It has not, in recent years, made any classifications comparable to its 1995 decision that an advertisement containing a photograph of Michelangelo's David was indecent. Still, some recent rulings have been controversial. In May, it made a highly questionable decision in rating a sex survey by Chinese University students indecent following a flurry of media reports about it. In another case last year, three newspapers published the same nude picture of a woman soldier overseas, but only two were fined for publishing an indecent article; the third was let off.

An honest attempt was made to broaden the membership of the tribunal's panel of adjudicators by increasing its size to 300 last year, from 100 three years earlier. However, a magistrate still needs to convene only two adjudicators to make an interim classification and four adjudicators for a full hearing. Clearly, there is a need to raise their number to make these proceedings more representative and their outcome less open to bias. Some adjudicators have served on the panel for more than six years. This is too long. Their tenure needs to be shortened to bring in new adjudicators.

As the Tela survey shows, few people question the need for a classification board. But there is a need to make it truly representative of our society.


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