We expect tabloid hysteria about violent films and videos, but now the broadsheets are advocating censorship too. A new book hits back at the attack on popular culture
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What do Reservoir Dogs, The Bad Lieutenant, Menace II Society, Natural Born Killers and Crash have in common? The answer is depressing but instructive: they've all been banned in Britain as a result of newspaper pressure. And in order to address such a curious - if not para-legal - approach to British screen regulation, a group of media academics have broken out of their ivory towers to question how the press arrived at those judgements.

In their introduction to Ill Effects: The Media/Violence Debate the editors, Julian Petley and Martin Barker, say they "want to provide information to the unconfident" in the debate on media violence. And indeed they do provide a refreshing guide to what has often been a stale, circular argument, batted between different shades of moral opportunism in the papers - most of whose pundits have never seen the "immorality" in question. But it is the essays that make up the meat of this intriguing book. Whether contributors are reminiscing about a precocious penchant for horror ("I was a teenage horror fan" by Mark Kermode), or even deconstructing their own discipline ("The dangerous psycho-logic of media 'effects'" by Ian Vine), each attempts to puncture the self-fulfilling myths that have dominated this issue for so long in Britain.

For let's be quite clear here, these debates are not a symptom of pre- millennial tension - people have been fussing about the media for decades. Graham Murdoch's essay "Reservoir of dogma" immediately scuppers Andrew Neil's wishful thought in his Sunday Times column that there was some past golden age when "popular culture sought to lift our spirits and encourage what was good, honourable and just in our society". Again and again such selective recall is exposed here for what it is - a fear of popular culture. Because, as many of these essays make clear, that fear has in fact been directed at every form of mass entertainment in history, from medieval festivals to videotape and the Internet.

Yet even more insidiously, as Petley points out in his own essay, "Us and Them", ignorance about the actual effects of the screen are exploited as a means of marginalising and excluding less privileged sectors of society. So, ignoring the fact that all forms of hardcore porn are heavily restricted in this country, Brian Appleyard still feels confident enough of his convictions to ask, in the Independent, "Would you allow an ill-educated, culturally deprived, unemployable underclass unlimited access to violent pornography?" This exclusion borders on demonisation in Lynda Lee-Potter's assertion in the Daily Mail that "thousands of children in this country with fathers they never see and mothers who are lazy sluts ... sniff glue on building sites, scavenge for food and, until now, they were free to watch increasingly horrific videos."

Such opinions would barely merit space in a press that researched its subject, but Ill Effects points out that this sort of relentless hysteria about popular entertainment is all the more scary because it receives equally favourable treatment from the broadsheets. Thus Edward Pierce insists in the Guardian that as far as the sale of videos is concerned, "it won't do just to restrict juveniles. Let's be plain."

But why stop there? If, as Barbara Amiel suggested in her Sunday Times column on 17 April, 1994, so-called "video nasties" are being watched by a working-class "residium" (her term) then, according to this self- appointed pundit, we should dismiss any idea of "an inclusive culture. We can segregate the underclass and forget about egalitarian principles." Even for the Murdoch press, Amiel's statement that we don't have to sacrifice our liberal freedoms "just because some of the rooms in our house have been taken over by pigs and donkeys" is astonishing.

After this ominous survey, other contributors move on to shoot down the alleged screen influences that have been all too readily attached to specific crimes like the Bulger case. This they do with well-researched precision. But even more importantly, within a discipline that is usually accused of equivocation by the press, none of the contributors to this book try to sidestep an essential truth of media studies: namely, that the media does have an effect. For instance Ian Vine, a social psychologist, cites the chilling example of Rwanda, where a private radio station helped to organise the genocide of the Tutsi minority. Vine, though, concludes that, scapegoating media imagery "is an easy and perhaps comforting, but ultimately futile and self-defeating, way of avoiding uncomfortable realities in our real and conflict-ridden social worlds".

In Britain, such distinctions are usually swept aside by populist demands for immediate action; and Ill Effects ventures even further into murky (and largely uncharted) waters by asking what exactly media violence is. Is it Rwanda or Rodney King? Is it cartoons or Grange Hill, or is it zombie horror, cannibal horror or even Hammer horror? Of course it can be all of these, and this point was rammed home recently in the murder trial of Evelyn Howells. Yes, admitted her teenage son, he'd killed his mother after watching a Jean-Claude Van Damme video that afternoon - but then he claimed that he had learnt his cover-up tactics and forensic know- how from watching police investigations on Crimewatch.

Little wonder, then, that Ill Effects argues that the very term "media violence" has "dissolved into meaninglessness". Yet by asking difficult questions, instead of providing easy answers, by revealing inconvenient truths instead of relying on facile formulas, the contributors to this important book have provided an essential armoury against ill-thought- out effects.

! 'Ill Effects: The Media/Violence Debate' is published by Routledge at pounds 12.99

Tom Dewe Mathews is the author of 'Censored: The Story of Film Censorship in Britain'.