on violence in society and argues against ever-increasing censorship of the media
Don't blame the television
Violence in society
IN 1987 Home Secretary Douglas Hurd announced the Government's intention to establish a new body — the Broadcasting Standards Council — which would monitor and censor television.
Although the Board of Governors of the BBC and the members of the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) are constitutionally responsible for such functions, the Government apparently believed that pressure groups, such as the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association, represented a widespread concern that violence is rife on television and, consequently, that some major revisjons of the present system had to be undertaken.
In the subsequent debate, "evidence" was thrown around with the gay abandon of a clowns' custard pie fight at a circus. Mary Whitehouse, for example, dragged out her usual reference to the hundreds of studies which "proved" that TV caused violent behaviour and the anti-censorship lobby produced equally asinine versions of halfdigested sociological and psychological "facts".
The problem is, however, that the majority of those engaged in the debate are unwilling to allow the "facts" to confuse a cosy debate about values and opinions. At one level I have every sympathy for them: the debate is fundamentally concerned with the very profound and deeply exciting hold which images have over our emotions and senses and, as we all have experiences of this power, we have our own "facts" on which to draw.
For example, standing in front of El Greco's The Saviour of the World at the National Gallery in Edinburgh, I can fully
understand how athiests or non Christians are moved, shaken and upset by the strange authority of that image and, therefore, why iconoclasts tear down statues, rip apart paintings and burn down churches.
There is an element of iconoclasm among those who wish excessive and heavy handed censorship of films and television. Sober and scientific analyses of the effects of religious art will not change the mind of the iconoclast.
Although the demand for increases in censorship often
comes from busy-bodies who treat the adult population of this country as if they are still in nappies, there is a legitimate fear that some television programmes may lead to an increase in violent behaviour and attitudes. Although we must monitor constantly the nature and type of violence which appears on our screens, we should not allow the iconoclasts to dominate the argument.
The self-proclaimed guardians of public morality argue that television is undermining the moral fabric of the nation and is leading to an unthinkingly violent generation. Such an argument must be examined closely; otherwise the level of censorship will far exceed that demanded by the citizens of this country and will, undoubtedly, lead to an unravelling of the creative fabric of British television.
Three questions should be answered before the government undertakes to increase the level (of censorship. Firstly is British television violent? Secondly, do we have undeniable evidence that television causes violent attitudes and behaviour among the majority of the population? Finally, does the public want more censorship?
If the answer to each of these questions is yes, then the Broadcasting Standards Council has a mandate to impose new restrictions on broadcasters; if the answer is no then the BSC is yet another useless and unwanted quango.
Reasonably sound and trustworthy evidence is available which will help to answer these questions. Let us take each in turn. Is television violent? The answer, according to a recent report commissioned by the BBC from Aston University, is, fairly conclusively, no. Even taking a broad definition of violence (which included intentional as well as actual acts) the Aston team discovered that only one per cent of television time contains violent acts. If wrestling and boxing were excluded this dropped to 0.5 per cent.
They also discovered that the depiction of violence was extremely mild: only in two out of ten occasions did the victim bleed. Finally, and importantly, they demonstrated that TV violence had not increased over time: there was fewer violent acts in programmes produced in the 1980s than there were in those made in the 1970s.
Although this broad analysis is useful, it tells us very little about the effect of those programmes which are high (in both senses) on violence. A Bond film, for instance, will contain a great deal of violence: do we know how these films affect people? Again, we have to be fairly cautious.
In the 1920s and 1930s, when worries about the cinema were at their height, a research foundation commissioned a series of studies about the effects of films.
The fairly sturdy conclusion of these Payne Foundation Studies was that films on occasion had a short term effect on people's attitudes or behaviour but, by the time they had left the cinema, their real values, the ones which were forged in their families, churches, schools and workplaces, had reasserted themselves.
Indeed, it does seem fairly ridiculous to assume that the work of 15 years of home and school — the real — can be undermined by individual works of fiction. There is a problem, however; some people who are predisposed to violence may be triggered by a TV or cinema image. What are we to do about them?
The problem is that psychologists appear to be unable to predict what will trigger psychotic violence: it is just as likely to be sparked off by a magazine, a wrong word or gesture from someone in a pub or a missed train. For example, whatever it was that made Michael Ryan take off down Hungerford High Street it is unlikely that television played much of a role.
The multiplicity of influences in that young man's mind will never be known; however, it included every institution and image with which we are familiar. What do we do? Close down every pub? Censor every magazine and book? Take away every gun? Turn ourselves into a cultural Albania? The important question is, therefore, how much violence on TV are we as a society prepared to tolerate?
In a recent study about Channel 4 Keeping Faith?: Channel 4 and its Audience*, I discovered that the public, by and large, was prepared to accept a great deal of violence on television. Or, to be more accurate, the public did not want to give up their rights to free choice in favour of extensive censorship. Although the majority of people felt that as a whole British society was more violent than it had been, they did not believe that television was primarily responsible.
The vast majority blamed unemployment, lack of discipline in schools and the home, and poor housing or poverty. Television came a poor fifth in the list (just above decline in religion!). Indeed, only one person in ten blamed television for a rise in violent behaviour.
I conducted discussion groups with every class, sex, age and race and the consistent appeal among all these people was for the Government to uphold the public's rights to choose whether or not to watch certain types of programmes. The public is extremely unwilling to hand over to the state the responsibilities which they feel should be exercised by themselves as parents and citizens.
In general we can say that
television is not particularly violent, that there is little convincing and clear evidence that TV causes violence and, finally, that the public is more concerned about unwarrented
intrusion on their personal choice than with the effects of violence. The Government's time and energy would be better expended protecting British television from the amount of junk and schlock which will appear on our TV screens as a result of more and more TV channels than on the constant search for more and more ways to censor broadcasting.
*John Libbey Publications 1988 Next week: the American experience — street crime and a nation of gun owners — Cristina Odone reports f rom Washington.