The Halifax Daily News
Sunday, March 17, 1996

The V-Chip

Keith Spicer's weasel words
are intentionally deceptive

by Parker Barss Bonham,

Students of language and its misuse should listen carefully to the verbal flourishes that accompanied, and obscured, CRTC chairman Keith Spicer's decision to impose the V-chip on Canadians.

The chip is an electronic device that detects codes imbedded in television programs, and blacks out shows whose ratings for violence, nudity, sexual content, or off-color language exceed levels established by the set's operator.

Note that consumers will control only the level of ratings at which their sets will black out programs, not the nature of the ratings, or their application to particular programs. That will be rest with industry committees, mostly in the United States, operating under the watchful eyes of various governments and self-appointed sex-and-violence watchdogs.

By September, thanks to Spicer and his fellow commissioners, all Canadian cable subscribers will pay $1 per month extra for the privilege of having a V-chip, whether they want one or not. By next year, all TV new sets will include the device, its cost built into the price of the set.

A CRTC "fact sheet" explained that several "roadblocks historically impeded progress" on TV violence, including a "focus ... on research and finding the `definitive' study" that "led, inevitably, to a never-ending sterile debate." The "fact sheet" complained of a tendency to define the issue of television violence "in philosophical, ideological, and legal terms focusing exclusively on free speech."

Readers will rarely find a better example of what George Orwell had in mind when he complained, in his wonderful essay "Politics and the English Language", of "words used in a consciously dishonest way ... with intent to deceive."

What these weasel words attempt to paper over is the inconvenient fact that, despite the best efforts of anti-violence groups inside and outside academia, the crusade to censor violence enjoys no solid foundation in objective research. But since Chairman Spicer and his allies know in their hearts that TV violence must harm children, why bother letting a lot of "sterile debate" get in the way?

Likewise, the concerns of those who believe the Charter of Rights and Freedoms means what it says when it guarantees "freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communications" can be dismissed as merely "philosophical, ideological and legal."

Spicer makes much of the claim that the V-chip is voluntary and under the control of parents. It is neither.

Parents will be able to set a numeric rating level for violence, sex, and dirty words (although, they may need help from the same 10-year-old boy they rely on to program the VCR). They will have no control over the meaning of the ratings. How will Schindler's List, a gripping portrayal of the holocaust that killed six million Jews, be rated for violence? How will the Boys of St. Vincent, a hair-raising account of a Roman Catholic order's sexual abuse of boys, be rated for sex? At what age should children watch such shows? Should violence on the Simpsons qualify for the humorous exemption proposed by Spicer? How about the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers?

Each of these decisions calls for a judgement based on a complex set of values. Far from being empowered, as Spicer like to claim, the parent who employs a V-chip will be abdicating those judgments to an industry committee, one that owes its very existence to the threat of government-imposed rules.

As the American Civil Liberties Union pointed out, "A media rating system mandated by government under threat of the formation of a federal rating agency should private industry fail is not a `voluntary' system. It is a form of censorship."

Even within Canada, huge differences exist as to values a V-chip would regulate. Quebecers, for example, are more tolerant of sexual themes in their media. Spicer would subject us to a monolithic ratings system. Ironically for this Canadian nationalist, control over the values thus imposed will effectively reside in the United States, where most of the programming seen in Canada originates.

Spicer claims to have the overwhelming backing of Canadians for his government crackdown on violent and sexual television content. The selective nature of his consultations _ he sought out meetings with groups opposed to violence _ and his disdain for Canadians with a "philosophical, ideological, and legal" commitment to free speech reinforced that impression.

David Jones, president of Electronic Frontier Canada, a group that defends freedom of expression in electronic media, says that if Spicer really wanted to follow the public's wishes, he'd back a "C-chip" -- one that would "filter out distracting and unwanted commercials". Such a device wouldn't need selective consultations to win an appearance of popularity. (See EFC's website at

Jones, a professor at McMaster when he isn't defending freedom from the encroachment of bureaucrats, plans to put his electrical engineering students to work inverting the V-chip, a technically trivial task, he predicts. With an inverted V-chip, frat brothers can ensure that their parties will feature only the raunchiest programs. Ah, freedom.

Years ago, under pressure from dairy farmers, various governments barred margarine manufacturers from coloring their products. I'm old enough to remember that early ritual of civil disobedience: tossing the plastic margarine pouch back and forth across the kitchen with my sisters, to mix in the yellow die that came, unmixed, in the package.

Spicer's V-chip is the information-age equivalent of uncolored margarine, and just as silly. Within a few years, a decade at most, the V-chip will self-destruct in the face of merging communications technologies. As the Homolka fiasco demonstrated, the Internet is quickly outstripping the capacity of government busybodies to impose their will on citizens.

Copyright © 1996 by Parker Barss Donham. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.