BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM responds to Californication’s agitation of Family First, “newly self-appointed moral guardians of New Zealand” who this week called for the boycott of companies prepared to advertise during the show’s commercial breaks.

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IF THE NZ Herald’s rather hysterical coverage is anything to go by recently, freedom of expression is going to take a bit of a battering with the Electoral Finance Bill. That may or may not be the case, but there was another development in the New Zealand landscape that is perhaps a little more unsettling in its implications on freedom of speech. Last week TV3 premiered the new David Duchovny series, Californication. It caused controversy with the newly self-appointed moral guardians of New Zealand “Family First” trying to get it banned from New Zealand. (Ironically, they are also ranting against the Electoral Finance Bill and that ridiculously vapid term “political correctness” as taking away free speech; interesting that people don’t agree with free speech if it doesn’t conform to their views...) According to national director Bob McCroskie, “television programmers are simply using shock tactics to increase their ratings but families are sick and tired of this offensive type of programming,” and he suggests programmes like this apparently “cause” sexual violence, abuse and offensive language in our communities.

Fine, whatever, he can assume that audiences are so stupid that they’ll directly copy behaviour seen on TV (the discredited “hypodermic needle” thesis), rather than ignoring the myriad of other factors that affect people’s behaviour (cough, environment and background, cough). He’s allowed to protest. However, this organisation’s behaviour towards advertisers and the effect this has had seems to strike at a very important issue around free speech – the extent to which commercial interests can override fundamental rights such as the freedom to express what an artist might want to express via their art.

Family First targeted companies who advertised with TV3 that night, calling for boycotts of the companies that chose to advertise during the show. McCoskrie exhorted the companies involved to stop advertising because “television needs to clean its act up, for the sake of our families and the safety of our communities.” His threat to the companies was “we, along with other pro-family groups and our many supporters, are calling on families to boycott all companies associated with Californication, and to transfer their support and business to a competitor. Unfortunately, this means that your company is part of that boycott. (his emphasis)”. It’s clear that this wouldn’t sound appealing to the companies – essentially, advertise with this show, and your profits will suffer.

As a result, the Economic Development Ministry, Burger King, CRC, Finish Dishwashing Liquid, Cadbury, Flight Centre and Ferrit have all withdrawn advertising from the programme. Thankfully, TV3 have not withdrawn the programme as of yet, but it is certain that if action carried out by Family First is successful, television companies might be wary about displaying anything that involves sex, nudity, violence or offensive language for fear of alienating advertisers. So this means programmes may not be able to look at sex, language, religion or violence – which, let’s face it, are integral parts of the human condition and have been around for millennia before TV and movies were invented – and shouldn’t do so, lest they raise the ire of a few moral guardians. What will Family First target next in their crusade to save New Zealand society? The language in South Park? The drugs and violence in the upcoming American Gangster? The sex and violence in The Bible? (I doubt the latter.)

The media companies in New Zealand – CanWest, Sky TV and TVNZ (who contrary to popular opinion is funded via advertising, not government money) – are profit-driven, and they rely on commercial interests paying for advertising slots. Television shows and movies cost money, and advertising is needed to recoup these costs. If an “interested” group like Family First is able to pull advertising revenue away from a company like this, then of course, future channels might not take a risk on more “adult” shows. It’s essentially censorship by an organization which argues that it knows best, and if it proves successful, then there’s nothing someone with an opposing view could do (outside of illegally download via the internet).

Should we then be concerned that free speech is subservient to commercial interests? In New Zealand, freedom of expression is only enshrined statutorily in the Bill of Rights Act 1990, but this only applies to the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of the country (i.e. the government/public bodies). So, say the government declared it was illegal to call your first-born “Bob”, if someone wanted to challenge this legislation, then they may be able to obtain a ruling from the Courts saying this new legislation contravenes the Bill of Rights Act provision requiring freedom of expression. The courts would be able to issue a declaration upholding the rights. This doesn’t go as far as the US which allows for the offending legislation to be quashed, but obviously this wouldn’t look good for a government and the people could vote accordingly (though the courts have basically never done this yet, a dissent excepted). However, there is no such protection in the matter of commercial interests. If commercial interests can be used to limit free speech, as the Family First precedent may do, all that would mean is that s/he who shouts the loudest can affect what the rest of us can express or consume. So a group like Family First can tell the rest of us what we should watch simply because a company fears losing profit. Nevermind that some of us might actually want to watch this content

One only needs to look at the United States to be a little concerned to the extent to which commercial interests can limit free speech. The most notorious example of this in recent times is the United States mainstream media’s coverage in the build-up to the US invasion of Iraq. And this can’t be relegated to the stuff of conspiracy theories – 80% of newspaper revenues come from advertisers for example, so of course, advertisers have a say. CNN for example, was told to temper its criticism of the war for fear of losing advertising revenue. The New York Times on May 26, 2004 went so far as to apologise publicly for not being critical enough of the build-up for the war. Owen Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley states that media companies were “afraid of losing further influence, access [to the White House], and the lucrative ad revenues that come from such political image-making,” and that “major media outlets have found it in their financial interest to quietly yield” to the pro-war rhetoric. The threat of advertising boycotts made sure that the US news didn’t critique the war as extensively as they do now (where it’s more advertisement-friendly) and therefore assisted in Bush and co selling the war. So much for free speech in a country whose Constitution fiercely upholds it, yet there’s nothing the Constitution could do when it comes to advertising, media companies and moral groups.

Furthermore, pressure from moral groups (such as the Parents Television Council) has affected how TV and movie studios have operated in the States. Fear of boycotts by concerned family groups has meant US television networks are far more reticent to create programmes that might alienate viewers. For example, the outcry over the accidental partial display of Janet Jackson’s breast in the 2004 Super Bowl, mainly be concerned family groups, meant networks cracked down on anything that could be deemed risqué. Massive fines were handed out to CBS, and concerned family groups threatened boycotts of advertisers etc. (Sound familiar?) Consequently, soap operas had to cut out anything remotely sexual; ER had to cut out a breast shown in an operating scene, Star Trek: Enterprise had to cut out an arse, etc. Shock horror! Only cable networks which rely less on advertising than the main networks (due to subscriptions) have been able to make edgier shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, and Californication. And I would argue that having The Wire and The Sopranos is good. New Zealand unfortunately, has no such cable alternative. In the movies, Hollywood during the late 90s and early 2000s (though arguably it’s changing again) hadn’t been so puritanical when it comes to sex or political content since the early 1960s. Again, losing audience numbers and therefore revenue has tempered the effect to which artists can explore particular subjects. Documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated shows the extent to which studios avoid trying to get an NC-17 rating reserved for more sexual or violent films because of the commercial implications. Free speech doesn’t simply cut it compared to profit.

The Family First boycott may potentially go down as a one-off, where a bunch of moralistic killjoys managed to scare off a few companies from a solitary TV show. But perhaps New Zealand is getting more conservative – it seems to be a natural cycle in Western countries which oscillate between liberalism and conservatism (for example, the 80s Reaganite conservatism was seen as a backlash to the liberalism and social progress of the late 60s/70s, or the Bush conservativism was seen as a backlash to the perceived liberalism of Clinton). It seems to be the trend in New Zealand at the moment too, when a liberal, progressive Labour government is copping the inevitable conservative backlash. This suggests that this won’t be the last we here from the likes of conservative groups like Family First. As soon as advertisers start getting spooked by the threat of boycotts when they advertise on a show that may be deemed “wrong” by a vocal minority, it’s not too far before we see ourselves falling into the trap where advertisers can start dictating content. Of course advertisers have always played a big role in content, but when we may not be able to see something involving sex, violence, religious themes or offensive language simply because a group like Family First deems it objectionable, then there is a little to be concerned about. Thanks to Family First and Californication, a dangerous precedent seems to have been set on a fundamental right to expression.

Californication currently screens Thursdays, 9.30pm, TV3.