Media Comment: Limits on free expression?

Can radio show hosts have too much freedom of expression? Be too independent, too intrusive, too disgusting?

army radio reporter (photo credit: REUTERS)
army radio reporter
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Can radio show hosts have too much freedom of expression? Be too independent, too intrusive, too disgusting?
In late 2009, the BBC launched a crackdown on strong language, issuing new editorial guidelines. Three of the more atrocious words now require approval by an output controller, even after the 9 p.m. watershed. More importantly, the BBC Trust research had found that the public is very concerned especially about “aggressive behavior” on television and radio as well as “inappropriate intimidation and humiliation... derogatory remarks must not be celebrated for the purposes of entertainment. Care should be taken....”
The BBC is in this case an example of public broadcasting listening to its public. The broadcast media regulatory body, Ofcom, issued a nine-page guideline on “sexualized language,” ordering that “broadcasters should... [be] mindful” of what they say. In France, the guideline of the Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel (CSA) indicates that programs describing “certain sexual practices in a graphic, detailed, and trivialized manner may only air after 10:30 p.m.”
In the land of the free, or actually of comedian George Carlin’s seven dirty words, a prohibition the Supreme Court upheld in a 1978 decision (while establishing a “safe-harbor” provision permitting indecent material between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.) is now under scrutiny. A new case which is being considered may alter the Federal Communications Commission’s powers.
The claim is that the government’s standards for indecency on television contained in the United States Code which prohibits the utterance of “any obscene, indecent or profane language by means of radio communication” may have violated the First or Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution. Those who support the current rules argue that the use of the public airwaves is a public trust and broadcasting is a uniquely pervasive medium. Material that is “patently offensive,” and whose context is a graphic depiction or is used to shock is deemed outside protection and should be punished.
In Israel, an egregious incident has brought to the fore the need to discuss perhaps limiting “freedom of the airwaves” or, on the other hand, demanding that relevant supervisory authorities apply the full authority provided them by law.
ON SUNDAY, April 8, Natan Zehavi opened his noon-hour 103 FM regional radio program by apologizing to his listeners for Sheftel’s use of his freedom of expression on the same station to, in Zehavi’s words, utter “filth” and “have feces exit his mouth.” This was in connection to remarks about former MK Aryeh Eliav, who Sheftel accused of being part of the campaign to shut out Soviet Jewry during the early 1960s (Gabi Gazit, who broadcasts on the station, joined Zehavi and termed Sheftel a “reptile”).
“And for those who claim ‘freedom of expression,’” Zehavi added, “even that right has its limit.” In his next breath, he continued to impugn Sheftel and finished by demanding that he be removed from the air or, better put, that Sheftel be denied his freedom of expression. Sheftel, Zehavi later added, “stinks physically and psychologically.”
This led to an outraged female supporter of Sheftel calling in and verbally dueling with Zehavi. She suggested that the host go and “kiss Sheftel’s feet.”
This is perhaps a non-hygienic act, but not at all obscene. It may be found in classic literature, as in Chapter 28 of Anatole France’s Red Lily or Chapter 15 of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.
Zehavi, in response, spewed forth that she should commit a sexual act on Sheftel. He used a highly sexualized phrase, prefacing it with the acknowledgment that he knows he could be fined for saying it but that he didn’t care. In an afterthought, a day later he attempted to gain sympathy by saying he should have added “Sheftel’s feet” as the object of the act, not his sexual organ.
Zehavi has been a “paragon” of guttersnipe language in the past. To be fair, our readers need know that Israel’s Media Watch has complained about his behavior many times in the past. As a result of this latest incident, Zehavi has referred to us as “imbeciles” and demanded that we be investigated.
This incident should be a watershed. It is not a matter of a “lively discussion,” of a “free-for-all” of slang or street talk. Indeed, it is not even about profanity and obscenity. Foremost, it was a violation of the broadcasting ethics code. And secondly, it was language that was intended, even subconsciously if we permit ourselves to be generous, to degrade the woman as a woman.
The language was not only sexualized but was, with malice aforethought, intended to sexualize the caller, to abuse her because of her agenda, to demean her as an independent person.
In America, the country of constitutional democracy, shortly after describing on his radio program the Rutgers University women’s basketball team players as “nappy-headed hos” on April 4, 2007, Don Immus, even after apologizing, was suspended. In April 2011, radio host John Tabacco was fired from station 970 AM after his guest, Drita D’avanzo, uttered the F-word, being informed that “your choice of guests is unacceptable, your programming is unacceptable.”
It’s not that Israel has not had experience with vulgar language. As Motti Kirschenbaum, then IBA Director, reminisced in Haaretz on April 12, the program “The CameriFive” was embroiled constantly with court appeals, regulatory demands and complaints from media consumers.
“It was a real pleasure, these battles and complications,” was his impression. “All that shouting, that’s part of the business and that’s the beauty of it. Public broadcasting is especially the arena to test out the limits of free speech.”
In other words, the public be damned (pardon my language).
The branja, the media elite, that small self-elected, self-electing minority who consider themselves talented and creative, and by seniority dominate public broadcasting, will reject any attempt to judge them or limit them. They will fight for their right to dictate their perverted opinion of what freedom of speech really is about. They could not care less if they hurt people’s feelings.
Why then does the public let them get away with this? Isn’t it time that Israel’s democratic institutions make sure that the limits of free speech are also respected?
The writers are, respectively, chairman and vice-chairman of Israel’s Media Watch.