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Watching 'Big Brother'

And More Bad Entertainment Choices

By Father John Flynn

ROME, JAN. 30, 2007 (Zenit) - It's not often that junk television influences world politics, but it happened in mid-January in the case of the British program, "Celebrity Big Brother." During the course of the show one of the participants, Indian film star Shilpa Shetty, was repeatedly insulted by other members of the program, in particular by Jade Goody, a British reality-television star.

Instead of the episode just remaining another example of trashy television, Shetty's tormentors were accused of blatant racism. Subsequent polemics reached such a level that the program was brought up during a press conference held by British Treasury chief Gordon Brown while he was on a visit to India.

The Channel 4 program was the subject of tens of thousands of complaints to the British Office of Communications, the government's media authority also known as Ofcom. Ratings for the show also went up, and media commentators noted that the show's organizers may well have deliberately set the stage for confrontations in order to boost the program's flagging popularity.

In the wake of the event, commentators reflected on the implications of what the program revealed about contemporary culture. "Dumbing down is an assault upon the very concept of value," observed Howard Jacobson in the newspaper the Independent on Jan. 20. He noted that the ignorance demonstrated by Jade Goody, who emerged as a public star in a previous edition of "Big Brother," was celebrated and promoted by television.

The Irish Independent on Jan. 22 lamented the state of "hundreds of thousands of young women like Jade Goody," who have "never known standards in education, manners, decorum or speech." A culture that regards self-control as "repression," respectability as "authoritarian," and uncouthness as "honesty," has led to unprecedented levels of vulgarity, the paper said.

BBC South Asia bureau editor Paul Danahar reflected on how Britain and India compare, as the latter prepares to mark its 60th anniversary of independence. Writing on Jan. 22, he observed that "your average English-speaking Indian (most of whom have been through private schooling) is a lot better educated than your average English person."

Noting that this category of Indians probably numbers more than 100 million, he concluded that Brits who are concerned for the future should be more alarmed by the likes of Shilpa Shetty, a representative of a pool of well-educated people who will be stiff competition for Britain's native sons and daughter in the job market.

Junk culture

Concerns over television and its contents are not new, as evidenced by a letter signed by 110 teachers, psychologists, children's authors and other experts and published Sept. 12 by the British newspaper Telegraph.

The experts expressed concern over a number of issues affecting children, including the education system and junk food, but they also commented that too often children are "exposed via the electronic media to material which would have been considered unsuitable for children even in the very recent past."

"We are deeply concerned at the escalating incidence of childhood depression and children's behavioral and developmental conditions," the letter stated.

The experts also suggested that television itself could be harmful. The letter says that in order for children's brains to properly develop they need real play, instead of "sedentary, screen-based entertainment," together with "first-hand experience of the world they live in and regular interaction with the real-life significant adults in their lives."

And the spreading use of Internet by children and adolescents also means they can be exposed more easily to the type of racial and cultural intolerance typified in the "Celebrity Big Brother" program.

Brendesha Tynes, writing in the 2006 "Handbook of Children, Culture, and Violence," edited by Nancy Dowd, Dorothy Singer and Robin Wilson, warns that a "virtual culture" of racism is forming.

She explained in her article entitled "Children, Adolescents, and the Culture of Online Hate," she says that hate groups and racists deliberately target youth, creating a presence in the chat rooms and discussion boards they frequent. Racist groups build Web sites with ambiguous names, and organize their material in such a way so as to appear credible to a young student looking for information.

In turn, adds Tynes, spurred by the interactivity and anonymity of the cyberspace, children and adolescents can also give free rein to their own intolerance, without fear of any repercussions. Filter programs can eliminate some of the more extreme material, but they are only partially effective.

Culture and ethics

The Church has long warned about the media. The decree "Inter Mirifica" of the Second Vatican Council states: "Those who make use of the media of communications, especially the young, should take steps to accustom themselves to moderation and self-control in their regard."

At the time the decree appeared in 1963 nobody could imagine what the Internet and programs such as "Big Brother" would bring, but the principles set out are strikingly relevant today.

The decree explained that in defending the right to information and communication a conflict can arise between art and morality. The document, nevertheless, "proclaims that all must hold to the absolute primacy of the objective moral order" (No. 6).

The decree went on to explain that given the power of public opinionnote that narrating or portraying moral evil can even have some positive results in bringing about a deeper knowledge of humanity. "Nevertheless, such presentations ought always to be subject to moral restraint, lest they work to the harm rather than the benefit of souls," the decree warned (No. 7).

The document went on to explain that given the power of public opinion, all should strive to "fulfill the demands of justice and charity in this area."

Users of the media should choose materials noted for their goodness, knowledge or artistic merit, avoiding those that can cause spiritual harm, give bad example or promote evil, the decree continued. And in addition to suggesting that the media should be used with restraint, the decree recommended that young people should "endeavor to deepen their understanding of what they see, hear or read" (No. 10). Parents, in turn, have a serious duty to protect their children from harmful material.

Almost four decades later, in 2000, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications published its document "Ethics in Communications." It noted: "Great good and great evil come from the use people make of the media."

Choosing well

The Church regards the media and the means of social communication both as products of human genius and as gifts of God. Therefore, it is not some blind force, but something we can choose to use, either for good or for evil. Those making choices -- public officials, policy-makers, executives and consumers -- should serve human dignity, the document "Ethics in Communications" exhorted.

When it comes to the question of popular culture the document noted that critics often decry the superficiality and bad taste of the media. "It is no excuse to say the media reflect popular standards; for they also powerfully influence popular standards and so have a serious duty to uplift, not degrade, them," it concluded (No. 16).

With regards to how to make media choices, the pontifical council recommended applying a number of ethical principles. The fundamental ethical principle to remember is the human person and the human community. Communication should contribute to the integral development of persons, it urged.

Another important principle is the common good. The media should not set groups against each other, bringing about conflicts of class, races, nations, or religion. And while freedom of expression is important there are other elements to take into account, such as truth, fairness, and respect for privacy.

Both producers and consumers of the media have ethical duties in the choices they make, the social council observed. A duty too often shirked.

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