The Report of the 2009 Censorship review Committee (see www.crc2009.sg) takes realistic stock of the media landscape in its opening sections, and then ducks all the serious issues raised.
It recognises that media convergence is happening rapidly. The same content can be delivered on different media platforms, from print to internet to mobile downloads. Moreover, where content used to be produced by big organisations that are susceptible to regulatory pressure, it is much more diffuse today. It notes too that “the enormous volume of content distributed via the Internet, which bypasses physical media altogether, makes regulation a challenge.”
It then paints a picture: “Our regulatory fort was largely built in a simpler era.” But now, the walls of the fortress are being “blasted repeatedly by technological change, [and] will eventually only have its gates left standing, stoically and symbolically defended.”
But look at the rest of the report, and it’s mostly about tweaking and oiling the iron gates.
Tweaking and oiling
Loads of text were devoted to fine-tuning processes; content standards were barely discussed. There were calls upon calls for broadening committees and more “engagement”. There were motherhood statements about a “holistic approach”, shared responsibility and “meaningful partnership”.
“The industry should understand and support the need for sound and reasonable regulations,” sounded like a plea on bended knees.
The members of the committee seemed never to have interrogated their own paternalistic approach, one where there’s the state doing the regulating allegedly for others’ good. They merely recognised that that state can no longer do it alone and the entire report takes the direction of persuading others to join the state so that it becomes less ineffective.
This is especially troubling when it talks about “term licensing” for local arts groups. Instead of licensing one event at a time, the committee suggested that the Media Development Authority (MDA) adopt “essentially a co-regulatory scheme as it allows the arts groups to take over the responsibility of ensuring that they stay within clear guidelines set by the MDA.”
The effect is to demand that arts groups self-censor. What is striking is that the report still gives a blank cheque to the MDA to set those “guidelines”.
At no point does the report go into a serious discussion of content standards. Where it does, it largely reaffirms existing film and other classifications. With film, it dismisses the lowering of the R21 category to age 18, and it affirms that there should remain a “ban” category.
It makes absolutely no mention of the separate provision under which the MDA bans political films.
Perhaps to prove that it is capable of laying an egg, albeit a tiny one, the committee recommends the creation of a new category PG13, mostly to serve television.
Yet, on page 15, it says:
Censorship is a necessary tool, but a blunt one. Its application, while with determination, should be with regret.
Censorship is a restriction on personal freedoms, imposed by the government but reflecting the will of a substantial majority of the people. To be accepted as valid, it must be seen to fairly reflect widely-held sentiments.
Note the words “substantial majority” and “widely-held”. I will come back to them later.
But after mouthing the above, the committee quickly ducks. Perhaps trying to justify why it does not discuss content standards, it next says:
The boundaries of censorship, being subjective, should be set through an ongoing engagement with the public.
But weren’t they supposed to be the ones engaging and arriving at conclusions? Never mind, it’s bad enough that they affirmed censorship; even if they had engaged and arrived at conclusions, would it be much different from existing?
In the few places where the report discusses classification standards (as opposed to banning) it gets somewhat confused.
Although it begins well by calling for a harmonised system across all media platforms (currently different platforms have different grading systems) it quickly makes an exception for arts entertainment, and then also says it is not needed for print.
It calls for greater leeway for film festivals but also notes that anybody, including commercial operators, can call any screening a film festival. It never resolves the question that the report itself raises.
Page 66 tries to discuss what R21 should mean, but leaves the reader high and dry. It notes that the government wields this classification quite arbitrarily. Where it should mean material that has “explicit content” or “extreme violence and gore”, the report goes on to say, “It was also noted that not all R21 films are so rated because of their adult content. One example cited was Milk, a critically acclaimed film about the first openly-gay person to win elected office in America.”
One would have thought that the committee had a responsibility to set down clearer standards, it being their job, but after “noting” the above discrepancy, it says nothing further.
At this point, let me bring together the little bit of discussion about homosexual content that the report contains. In the Executive Summary, there are these two oblique mentions:
The values and beliefs of minority groups should be respected on the understanding that these are within legal bounds. Consumer advice is the best way to ensure effective audience segmentation, so that those who think they may be offended will be warned away.
Censorship decisions should be sensitive to context. Depiction is not necessarily promotion, and discussion is not necessarily incitement.
Then on page 76, there is a longer mention:
49. The CRC 2003 recommended that the MDA take a more flexible and contextual approach for homosexual content. It further proposed that greater leeway be given to adults, through suitable channels, to access such content provided the material is not exploitative. In accepting and implementing this recommendation, the MDA has gradually moved towards allowing more content on homosexuality. Generally such content is allowed under the higher, restricted ratings to address concerns over their suitability for younger viewers. Content which glamourises or promotes a homosexual lifestyle is disallowed.
50. This CRC agrees with the proposition that depiction should not be presumed to mean promotion of homosexual lifestyles, and recommends that the MDA continues to adopt a flexible and contextual approach in classifying homosexual content. This will ensure that adults have a wider variety of choices while the young are protected from content deemed unsuitable for them.
51. The CRC notes that the issue of homosexuality continues to be a sensitive subject for many Singaporeans. Nevertheless, based on the principle of informed adult choice, the CRC recommends that a lighter touch be taken in classifying non-explicit homosexual content, subject to the provision of clear and unambiguous consumer advisories.
I think the above speaks for itself. But I would like readers to compare the above with the more specific proposal I made to the committee: that a clear policy be articulated that gay themes, characters, emotions and sexual behaviour be treated on par with heterosexual. Depiction of a gay politician in a movie should be rated the same way as that of a straight politician. A movie with a gay couple in a relationship should be classified the same way as a movie with a heterosexual couple in love. A gay teenager coming of age should be given the same rating as a straight teenager experiencing puppy love.
This is the kind of specificity that the report dreadfully lacks, substituting it instead with banal references to community engagement and widened consultation.
What is a majority?
Even when the report tries to argue that minority tastes should be accommodated where legal, that censorship is regrettable and should only be resorted to when a “substantial majority” and “widely-held” consensus can be found (as mentioned earlier) the report demonstrates that it really doesn’t walk the talk.
On page 74, it speaks about attitudes to Playboy magazine as a litmus test. It reports that,
A similar question on whether to allow the sale of Playboy has been asked in each of the previous CRC surveys since 1992. It is noteworthy that the proportion opposed to Playboy’s distribution in Singapore has fallen with each CRC, from 57% in 1992 to 54% today.
In the next breath, it describes that 54 percent as a “clear majority”.
Nevertheless, with a clear majority continuing to oppose its distribution, there is no compelling reason to adjust standards at this juncture, notwithstanding the widespread availability of risqué content on the Internet.
Keep the ban on the magazine, the report says, so what if crude, full-blown porn is available via the internet? This little bit of incongruity, in my opinion, sums it all up. Never mind the crumbling walls; defend the gate at all cost.