Institutionalised prudishness

A Ryanair chief has described the Advertising Standards Authority as a ‘bunch of unelected, self-appointed dimwits’. He has a point.

In recent years Ryanair has developed a reputation as the bad boy, or at least the cowboy, of contemporary capitalism. It provides super-cheap flights to the Continent, much to the chagrin of environmentalists and the blonde-haired daughters of the aristocracy, who would prefer to keep European cities to themselves rather than share them with the ‘vulgar’ hordes (1). It has earned the title of ‘chav carrier’ because, according to one blogger, it exports ‘our chavs to unspoiled areas which thus far have not been penetrated by the Adidas tracky bottom or Burberry cap’ (2). And it caused a storm of protest (well, 100 complaints) with its post-7/7, ‘crass, offensive and insensitive’ ad, which encouraged people to defy the terrorists by continuing to fly - preferably by Ryanair, of course (3).

This week, the Irish no-frills airline has upset Britain’s chattering classes yet again. It has denounced the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), Britain’s regulator of advertising and marketing, for being a ‘bunch of unelected, self-appointed dimwits’. The ASA ruled that a recent Ryanair ad, which showed a scantily-clad, Britney Spears-style schoolgirl next to the words ‘HOTTEST Back To School Fares’, was likely to cause ‘serious or widespread offence’. Ryanair has responded by describing the ASA as ‘censors’ and refusing to withdraw the image from the public sphere (4). Now, whatever you think of Ryanair and its cheap, corner-cutting brand of capitalism, there’s no denying it has a point. The question is - why did it take a self-interested airline to take a stand against the censorious ASA?


The Ryanair advert

The supposedly shocking Ryanair ad features a young woman in a classroom: she has a bare midriff and is wearing a short skirt, knee-high stockings and a tight blouse and school tie. The ad was published in three newspapers - the Herald, the Daily Mail and the Scottish Daily Mail - which have a combined readership of 3.5million. Was ‘widespread offence’ taken? Not quite; not even nearly. Out of more than three million people who will have seen the ad, 13 complained - yes, 13. That is about the same number of people who were on the downstairs level of my bus this morning. Yet the ASA agreed with these 13 super-sensitive souls that the ad was a shocker, and ruled that the model’s appearance and pose, ‘in conjunction with the heading “HOTTEST”’, suggested a link between ‘teenage girls and sexually provocative behaviour’ (5). Thus the ad was ‘irresponsible’; thus it must be expunged from the public realm.

This is institutionalised prudishness. The content of the ad is no worse than something one might see on MTV or indeed elsewhere in national newspapers. As Peter Sherrard, Ryanair’s head of communications, said: ‘It is remarkable that a picture of a fully-clothed model is now claimed to cause “serious or widespread offence”, when many of the UK’s leading newspapers regularly run pictures of topless or partially-dressed females without causing any serious or widespread offence.’ (6) Yet the existence of organisations like the ASA and the Office of Communications (Ofcom, which regulates broadcasting in general in the UK) acts as an invitation to squeamish, easily-offended or even self-interested individuals and parties to force through their own personal censorship of things they don’t like. It empowers the prudish, giving their narrow-minded outrage the full weight of officialdom’s backing. The ASA and Ofcom represent the tyranny of the minority.

Indeed, 13 is a high number of complaints in the world of the broadcasting and advertising censors. In 2004, Ofcom banned a radio ad that played on the double meaning of the word ‘faggot’ (which can refer to a meat product or a homosexual) after three listeners said they were offended. Ofcom once banned a TV ad that showed people shaking uncontrollably as a car drove by because 10 viewers said the ad could be construed as mocking those who suffer from disorders involving body tremors (7). Currently, Ofcom is investigating the popular comedian Catherine Tate’s Christmas special on BBC TV after 28 people complained about its foul language. Yet 6.4million people watched Tate’s show, which means that Ofcom is looking into it, and potentially planning to rap the Beeb’s knuckles, on the basis that 0.0004375 per cent of the audience - a minority so miniscule it would be written off by statisticians as ‘insignificant’ - took the trouble to complain (8). The ASA sometimes takes action against adverts on the basis of four or five complaints.

This means that public space and broadcasting are increasingly being shaped according to the tastes of tiny numbers of people. In the past, Mary Whitehouse and other members of the blue-rinse, blue-pen brigade at least claimed (however fancifully) to speak on behalf of ‘the silent British majority’ or the ‘decent British public’. Ofcom and the ASA have ditched this pretence; their starting point is that it is unacceptable to offend anybody. They have elevated and institutionalised today’s ‘You Can’t Say That!’ culture where the greatest sin is to ‘cause offence’ to any group or individual; they have effectively installed a Dictatorship of the Sensitive.

Public space should not be constructed according to 13 people’s sensitivities - or even 200, 500 or 4,000 people’s sensitivities. Indeed, if a majority were to support the censorship or censure of certain words and imagery, they ought to be challenged through public debate by those of us who believe in freedom of speech. The end result of Ofcom and the ASA’s tyranny of the minority is an unfree, shut-down public sphere, in which broadcasters, advertisers and the public at large watch every word they say and every image they transmit just in case it upsets Touchy of Telford. In truth, it is far better for 13 people to be horrified by Ryanair’s ad than for a ‘bunch of unelected, self-appointed dimwits’ to have the power to decree what all of us can see and hear. As Nadine Strossen of the American Civil Liberties Union has argued: ‘Both for society as a whole as well as the individual, having to hear offensive and upsetting expression is the lesser of two evils. Far worse is empowering the government or the majority of our fellow citizens to take away our freedom to make our own choices about what we see and what we hear and what we say.’ (9)

Of course, Ryanair is not the ACLU… by a long shot. It is no liberal, critically-minded, freedom-loving outfit. Rather its attacks on the ASA are motivated by a desire for self-preservation and a determination to protect its business practices from outside regulation. This makes Ryanair’s stand against the censorious ASA all the more embarrassing. Why is it left to an airline company to criticise those unelected dimwits trying to control public discourse? Where are Britain’s Nadine Strossens?

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill asked Who’s afraid of Ryanair? and said advertising is a free speech issue. Alex Hochuli warned of the dangers of the tyranny of the individual. Nathalie Rothschild noted that a series of ads deemed by the UK advertising watchdog to be ‘shocking, offensive and disturbing’ were, in fact, quite funny. Ethan Greenhart said we should all be brought back to earth, while David Soskin declared that ‘cheap flights should be a cause of national rejoicing’. Or read more at spiked issue Free speech.

(1) Junior jet set fight to halt Tuscan hordes, The Sunday Times, 13 January 2008

(2) See Flying off the handle, by Brendan O’Neill, Comment Is Free, 15 January 2007

(3) Ryanair refuses to pull ‘victory’ ad, Guardian, 16 July 2005

(4) Ryanair schoolgirl ad criticised, BBC News, 30 January 2008

(5)  Ryanair schoolgirl ad criticised, BBC News, 30 January 2008

(6) Ryanair schoolgirl ad criticised, BBC News, 30 January 2008

(7) See Stop this fatuous tyranny, by Brendan O’Neill, The First Post, 29 August 2006

(8) Ofcom to prove Catherine Tate Christmas special, The Times (London), 28 December 2007

(9) Nadine Strossen’s speech at the 17th Annual Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom, 2007

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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