RADIO: There is no safety in numbers

The Violence Files / In the City Radio 4
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The Independent Culture
Statistics have an undeservedly bad reputation - all those cracks about damn lies, and drunks and lamp-posts. The truth is, there are some very decent statistics, statistics you would be proud to be seen with in public; it's just a question of tr eating them right. Most importantly, you have to treat them with a certain amount of disdain, or they start getting all uppity; which is what seemed to be happening in The Violence Files (Radio 4, Tuesday), a three-part investigation by Edward Stourton i nto the role of violence in society.

Part of the problem was that the programme had commissioned its own telephone survey on public attitudes. Having spent all that money, it's only natural that they should want to flash the results about a bit; but some of the numbers they came up with were of dubious value.

For instance, summing up at the end of last week's first part, about violence on film and video, Stourton said that the first thing to do was to take television out of the equation, on the grounds that most people in the survey didn't think it was important. But there's at least a prima facie case for saying that television violence matters more, just because people think it doesn't.

Film and video violence can be outrageous but easy to set aside as fiction because of that. Television is the medium that most people are exposed to day in, day out; and the sorts of violence you see on TV crime shows - kickings, slappings, head-buttings- are generally far more plausible. That's the kind of violence, you might argue, that will leak out into behaviour.

Not all the statistics here were home-grown, but even the strangers were given a warm reception. An American professor claimed that violence in the media accounted for between nine and 12 per cent of aggression in real life; and while Stourton questionedwhether this was right, he missed the central point - that a figure like that can't possibly be right or wrong; it doesn't mean anything.

I felt 69 per cent unhappy about this, and between 36 and 48 per cent of all words in this review are 82 per cent connected to that fact. There were some good statistics: in particular, the survey suggested that on average we believe that around 26 per cent of people have suffered violent crime in the last year, when the real figure is less than 2 per cent. Apart from that little stab of reality, the over-riding impression you got, from Stourton's avuncular presentation as well as from the misuse of numbers, was that some vague things were being said in a rather definite way.

The tenuousness of the relationship between numbers and real life was explored more effectively in In the City (Radio 4, Thursday), a three-part feature on the role that the City plays in British life, presented by the Guardian's Will Hutton. Vagueness was not a problem here. Hutton's thesis was hammered home every time the opportunity came up, as well as several times when it didn't: the City's concern with money for money's sake, with generating numbers that have no bearing on anything that's actually produced, has strangled investment in this country. This was a probing, enquiring programme, in a way that The Violence Files wasn't; but too often the questions came with the reply prepaid. When Hutton asked, five minutes in, "Have we paid too high a p rice for the City's pre-eminence?", he could have had YES WE HAVE tattooed on his forehead and not been any clearer about the answer he was expecting.

It's not that Hutton's wrong; he's just arguing within a closed system.There's something disheartening about a polemic that doesn't want to persuade anybody. Where the programme scored was not so much in its crosspatch approach to the City now, as in itspointed analysis of British industrial investment over the past couple of hundred years. This brought us to the unavoidable conclusion that while the rest of the country has being going through post-industrial decline, the City hasn't quite got to gripswith the Industrial Revolution. As economics this is disheartening; from a purely artistic point of view, though, it was beautifully done. We will look back at it fondly when we are all queuing together at the soup kitchen.

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