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The Bankruptcy of a Restrictive Media Policy
Raymond van den Boogaard


Apart from inducing bated expectation, the multiplication of the number of radio and television signals available in the coming decades is in many places in the world also a cause for concern. After all, radio and television have always been seen partly as a threat, a much greater threat than the printed media could be. By who? By those who want to push the society they come from in a particular direction, because they are politicians, for example, or officials, or in some other way can be characterised as the 'leaders of society'.

This does not necessarily always mean totalitarian pretensions. Of course, dictators and their paladins especially hate, to mention a few example, television satellites which can be seen across national boundaries, or data bases of images, text or sound which without any appreciable control by the government can be sent from any point on earth to any other point on earth.

But the tendency to introduce restrictions - and no other word can be used to describe the debate on the introduction of worldwide 'codices' - is not at all confined to dictators, of whom there are happily fewer on this earth than a few years ago. The shortwave, before the rise of satellites and Internet actually the only medium with which it was possible to broadcast radio messages worldwide, is nowadays largely free of the growling and squeaks of the former USSR, and its satellite states. Now it is mainly respectable, democratic countries where people are worried by the assault on national or regional cultural values, which could be formed by television signal which is so much more penetrating. To say nothing of possible, commercially motivated information contents which would be perceived as shocking or morally completely unacceptable - all, or certain types of pornography, for example.

Of course, it would be so easy to dismiss such worries and their corollary, the tendency to regulate information, as an unacceptable assault on the individual capacity for judgement, at which in the final resort all this information is aimed. Due to my origins and cultural education, I certainly tend to hold such a standpoint. Freedom of choice in the field of information seems to me a self-evident value and the individual must certainly be trusted to make his own choice from what is on offer, no matter how rich, controversial or of if so required, disturbing, that may be.

But that does not dispose of the question: there is indeed little doubt that exposure to particular forms of information can sometimes cause serious confusion to individuals, that a bombardment of inferior cultural product from elsewhere can be a threat to much that is characteristic and valuable. If a sensible policy of influencing the information in these areas can limit the damage, why would a society, or its government, not make use of those possibilities? At least, if such a worthwhile policy of restriction, where the degree of limitation of freedom is in reasonable proportion to the beneficial effects of the measures, is at all possible. And there's the crux. It seems to me very improbable that such a policy is possible. And I hope to show why in this discussion using the history of radio and television in the Netherlands, where apparently with the best intentions, an exceptionally strict policy has been implemented for decades in the field of the availability of radio and television signals.

The Netherlands is an interesting area for the study of restrictions in the field of the media, as this country is not widely perceived as a country with censorship, rather the opposite. The genesis of the current Netherlands, which has grown out of a lengthy, socially and regionally differentiated revolt against the centralising Spanish administration at the end of the sixteenth century, was a good basis for a high degree of freedom. There was no central authority which could restrict freedom of opinion on the basis of centrally defined norms. While it is true that for a long time the Calvinist variety of Protestantism was more or less the dominant ideology in the Netherlands, in practice that hardly got in the way of expression in word or writing of other ideologies. It was not for nothing that in the seventeenth anies the Netherlands was known as the printing capital of Europe where books and periodicals were produced, also for export, which were banned elsewhere in Europe. The setting up of a more centralised Dutch state after 1813 brought about hardly any appreciable change in this situation. The history of the freedom of the printing press and freedom of opinion has certainly had its ups and down, as in most countries, but liberal practices have always had the upper hand. Certainly, the leaders of particular population groups advised their followers to ignore the printed material of other movements - the reading of a liberal newspaper was disapproved of by many a priest in the confessional - but on the whole this does not interfere with the generally accepted principle of the possibility of producing a wide range of writings of a different stamp, and their free sale.

Dutch society was to pass with flying colours its heaviest test in this area at the end of the nineteenth century when the modern workers' movement started to produce newspapers and other writings on a large scale which propagated radical social change. Certainly, in those years many writings were seized, there were trials and so on. But those scandals were always related to particular articles whose contents were seen as libellous or in some other way liable to prosecution. It did not prevent the modern workers' movement around the turn of the century, which was originally of an anarchist hue but later converted to Marxism, from producing a rich assortment of printed material, and no authority ever seriously wanted to stop that.

In the printing field this situation of great freedom has lasted right up to the present-day, and is seen on all sides as a good thing in Dutch society. It is no exaggeration to say that in the Netherlands everything which can be published, is published. Naturally, that includes matters which are perceived in broad layers of society as tasteless, worthless and shocking. But in the situation of excess the individual consumer of printed matter does not take a personal interest in the information he has rejected. It is only in very exceptional cases that the individual tries to obtain a ban on publication through the courts, and in this respect the government is very careful - as they know that any appearance of censorship within Dutch society will meet with powerful condemnation.

However, in the field of radio and television the situation is somewhat different: for a long time government restrictions set the tone and to some extent, they still do. It is important to note that the beginning of the situation shows great similarities to the situation in which voices are now being heard worldwide advising caution with 'normless', crossborder broadcasting or information via the Internet. At the end of the 1920s too, when the medium of radio was on the rise, there were heated discussions about the fact that citizens - confronted in the home with a medium considered far more insistent than the printed word - by uncontrolled information could become very confused, become alienated from their own culture, in short, undergo damage to their personal and cultural identity.

The result was that at the beginning of the 1930s a broadcasting system took shape, which was later transplanted to television and still exists to a large degree, which was expected to oppose the harmful consequences of the then revolution in the media.

Protestant, Catholic, socialist and liberal broadcasting organizations came into being, analogous to the ideological and political situation in the Netherlands of those years, which wanted to be defined as a single building with different 'pillars'. The system thus created was based on the idea that an individual enjoyed what was called his 'sovereignty in his own circles'. He was already a member of a Catholic, Socialist or Protestant sports club, voted accordingly and could therefore now - in theory - also listen on his radio to sounds from his own circles and not - at least, so ran the doctrine - to different sounds which could confuse him and his family. This is not the place to investigate to what extent this broadcasting doctrine was already an anachronism in the 1930s. The fact that in the 1950s the Catholic clergy considered it necessary to take action against members of the flock who listened to socialist radio broadcasts, shows that we are probably dealing with a fiction: Dutch society was never as statically divided into pillars as the leaders of the various pillars would have liked to believe.

With the growth of modern industrial society in the 1960s the distance between the fiction on which the broadcasting system was based and the social reality, grew ever greater. Nowadays social diversity in the Netherlands runs along completely different lines than that of Protestantism, Socialism, etc. Significant in this context are the constantly declining loyalty of certain population groups to certain political parties and the history of Dutch daily newspapers. Whereas it was still possible in the 1950s to say that daily newspapers could be classified on the basis of the pillarisation structure, nowadays the same titles serve population groups which can better be defined on the basis of social stratification in the area of income or education. Dailies which failed to follow this development have in general failed economically, or have shrunk to insignificant news sheets.

However, the broadcasting system dating from the 1930s has managed to withstand the pressure of social change and, though with declining success, secure its monopoly position, making grateful use of powerful lobbies in parliament. The impression that this living anachronism has by no means drawn its last breath, despite having largely lost its social basis, was once again confirmed in the Spring of 1996 when a commission from state, government and parliament was invited to offer proposals for a reformation of the historically evolved broadcasting system. While the system is generally seen in society as dysfunctional, itat in the political classes it is still impossible to come up with proposals for a fundamental reformation of this system. On seeing this an outsider might think that the prevailing broadcasting system in the Netherlands is a propaganda machine, which is constantly boring society with anachronistic ideologies. But that is not the case: as far as the contents of the programmes are concerned, the various broadcasting organizations have largely been 'depillarised' to a point where it is now seldom clear what makes a broadcast typically Catholic, Protestant or Socialist. In some cases the television itself has taken the lead in expressing changes within Dutch culture: for example, in the field of ideas about decency in the 1960s and 70s.

However, the ideological broadcasting organizations have shown themselves to be exceptionally totalitarian in their attempts to hold onto the monopoly over radio and television broadcasting in the Netherlands. Every attempt to arrive at alternative structures for commercial broadcasting in the context of national legislation was smothered at birth until late in the 1980s, and the same was long true of regional broadcasters. Attempts to broadcast radio and television in the Dutch language from international waters in the North Sea, were stopped with legal ingenuity.

In this decades-long fight to retain the monopoly the quest for to define its own contents won out over the idea that broadcasting activities must in the final reckoning serve the public's needs. Right up to the present-day for example, the confessional broadcasters are not prepared to come up with a logical characterization of the five radio broadcasters which they control, because they think that a division into news, classical music, pop music etc., will damage their ideological identity. There is a comparable situation in the three television broadcasters under their control. For a long time certain areas of interest were consciously and haughtily ignored - pop music fans for example, who were denied an adequately functioning pop station until the late 1980s as some of the broadcasting organizations considered such musical interests unsuitable.

This contempt for the social function of broadcasting was always accompanied by the stations' overstatement of their own social function. In an almost totalitarian fashion the broadcasting organizations declared themselves to be the sole preservers of the Dutch cultural heritage, and of the democratic values, making grateful use of their own monopoly of the ether. Anyone who followed their lengthy propaganda campaigns against the introduction of rival broadcasters in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, is almost driven to the conclusion that they were the only defenders of all national, if not human, culture against the threat of the Moloch of commercialism. In a mercantile business culture like the Netherlands, such views are indeed an anomaly.

The functioning system from the 1930s may still be institutionally intact, but in the objective sense it has lost much of its significance since the end of the 1980s. After European laws turned out to be stronger than Dutch legal ingenuity, commercial television was launched on the Dutch market from Luxembourg. By now the Netherlands has four essentially foreign commercial television broadcasters, who in the few years of their existence have drawn off more than half the viewers from the established stations.

Hardly anyone in the Netherlands sees this as a cultural threat - the companies involved present themselves as cautious and business-like and avoid clashes with both Dutch taste and the political culture of the Lowlands. On the other hand, as an instrument of cultural politics in the Netherlands these stations are useless. In countries like England, France or Germany, when permitting commercial television broadcasters, governments often insisted on a certain cultural function for these stations, or a certain share of locally produced programmes in their total supply. However, as commercial broadcasting in the Netherlands has come into being despite the Dutch authorities, those authorities lack - apart from the odd note in the Media law - any form of ideological leverage.

The end of the crumbling of public favour for the traditional broadcasting organizations is not yet in sight, as far as television is concerned. Sooner or later this will have consequences for democratic support of the legally compulsory broadcasting fee, which is now their major source of income, and thus of the possibility of social, or cultural 'direction' of the broadcasting supply. The situation is even worse in the traditional radio broadcasters, whose audience seems to be disappearing like snow in the sun, now that the authorities are pursuing a policy of hesitant liberalization in their own country. Although the traditional radio and television players are still ignoring the reality as much as they can, they are in fact dealing with a large-scale strike among listeners and viewers.

The Dutch situation illustrates the bankruptcy of attempts to achieve, using restrictive means, a happy, socially responsible media policy in a highly developed, prosperous country with a democratic tradition. Dutch developments show that a restrictive policy all too soon develops its own, institutional dynamic. By doing so it loses contact with the dynamics of the society and ultimately ends up in contempt of the audience, apart from the high goals which such a policy can perhaps with some justification claim.

Such a policy ultimately marginalises itself, as the information places itself increasingly outside society and paralyses itself as a means by which to continue playing a role in actual social development. That is the lesson broadcasting policy in the Netherlands - not a totalitarian country, just a country with a restrictive broadcasting system. That lesson is fundamentally no different than for many a dictatorial state, where those in power feel themselves overtaken by social and political developments and revolutions which they never propagated in the media they control.

Whoever has the best interests of his country or his culture at heart and proposes to maintain a certain influence on that cultural development with his media policy, will think twice before he takes the route of restrictions and bans, even if these are euphemistically called 'standards'.

Raymond van den Boogaard (1951) is a journalist with the NRC Handelsblad. He was correspondent in Moscow and Berlin. In that period he wrote the book Moscow on sea (1988). From 1991 to 1994 he reported on the war in the former Yugoslavia. Van den Boogaard is currently media editor.

pijltje_beneden.gif (179 bytes) "Challenges of a media-rich world"
Raymond van den Boogaard
Jean-Pierre Guépin
pijltje.gif (895 bytes) A new globlal ethics
pijltje.gif (895 bytes) A commitment to pluralism
pijltje.gif (895 bytes) Challenges of a media-rich world
pijltje.gif (895 bytes) Recasting cultural policies
General introduction
Challenges of a media-rich world