Jun 11, 2014

    Arts groups should set up panel to classify works

    I READ with some disappointment the news that Arts Engage, a network of arts practitioners from various disciplines, had rejected a proposal by the Media Development Authority (MDA) for arts groups to self-classify their productions.

    I can understand the reason for the Arts Engage group's response. It would indeed be self-censorship, and of the worst kind, if arts groups were to have official classifications on their minds as they went about crafting their works.

    On the other hand, the MDA is moving in the right direction in devolving some of its powers of content classification to the relevant community - in this case, the arts group.

    The issue then is to arrive at a solution that can address both concerns without compromise.

    Self-classification is a form of self-regulation, which is regulation of an industry by the industry. The minimal conditions for successful self-regulation are: a motivated industry, a small number of large players, and a regulatory backstop.

    The major obstacle to overcome is self-censorship. The answer is to separate the creative function from the regulatory (that is, classification) function.

    I propose, therefore, that the self-classification be done not by the individual groups themselves, but by a committee formed by representatives of the groups.

    Imposing the regulatory function on a creative person is very likely to lead to prior restraint. This is the worst possible form of censorship because the works would not even surface. At the superficial level, there is no censorship, because there is nothing to censor. The reality is that ideas are stifled.

    A common criticism of self-regulation is that the regulated industry will act only in its own self-interest.

    Here is where the issue of motivation arises. The self-classification committee must take an objective view, appointing to the committee thoughtful members who do not merely rubber-stamp. Appointing cynical persons to a committee whose voting pattern is predictable is the surest path to self-destruction.

    In any event, there should be an appellate body so that complaints or appeals against the decisions of the committee may be reviewed. Such an appellate body should consist of respected individuals of the community.

    This self-classification committee and its appellate body should replace the current MDA-appointed Arts Consultative Panel.

    Because self-regulation can only be truly effective if the parties concerned are willing to accept it, I suggest that the system be voluntary.

    That is, those who do not want to come under this self-classification committee will continue to submit their proposals for review directly to the MDA.

    To encourage arts groups to subscribe to the self-classification scheme, the decisions of the body, including its oversight appellate body, must bind both those subscribing to it as well as the MDA.

    It would be a tragedy if Arts Engage and the MDA, acting with the best of intentions, came to an impasse or, worse, took a step back.


    The writer is professor of communication studies and director of the Singapore Internet Research Centre at Nanyang Technological University, and has researched self-regulation of the media. He is also a legal adviser to the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore. This article first appeared in The Straits Times.