To believe nothing flows from TV violence is implausible

As president of the British Board of Film Classification I do sentry duty in this area

ANYBODY INVOLVED in producing or scheduling television programmes, or in making films, or in distributing videos, or regulating these activities, must have a working assumption about the link, if any, between violence on screen and violent behaviour. After a series of mass killings at schools, America is once again agonising over this. It has been calculated that the average American child or teenager views 10,000 murders, rapes and aggravated assaults every year on television alone. To believe that nothing flows from this is surely implausible.

I think about the subject a lot because, as president of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), I do sentry duty in this area. I have found useful the work carried out by two British academics, Kevin Browne and Amanda Pennell - in particular their study of the effects of video violence on young offenders.

So, for me, Browne's inaugural lecture, given earlier this month on his appointment as professor of forensic and family psychology at the University of Birmingham, was an important event. How would he evaluate recent research, which is voluminous and stretches from the media pessimists who believe in a straightforward causal relationship between violent videos and antisocial behaviour, to the sceptics who say there is no evidence that films and television programmes cause harm?

Professor Browne starts off by making a distinction between what he calls violent drama films, violent action films and violent horror films. On this analysis, Schindler's List, Platoon and Saving Private Ryan are violent drama films, whose primary purpose is to express rather than to cause excitement. The violence portrayed is necessary to tell the story. Violent action films, on the other hand, trivialise violent interactions by treating them mechanically. Rambo and such films are designed primarily to excite and stimulate the viewer, and are thus a form of exploitation. Violent horror films are worse still in Professor Browne's ranking, being a form of obscenity in the way they invite the viewer to share in the degradation, humiliation, physical harm and death of people as entertainment.

In practice violent films do not always fit easily into Professor Browne's categories. In various ways violent action may be distanced from the viewer by its treatment, whether it be stylised or even comic, whether the characters be part of everyday experience or not ("zombies" do not persuade me of their authenticity); in short, whether they feel contemporary in location, in clothing and in cultural features. Horror films are a distinct genre with their own rules and only a minority precisely fit Professor Browne's third category. When they do, they are usually found only in video format; and in the worst of cases, they are refused a licence by the BBFC, which in effect is to ban them.

Violence starts in the home. It is now common ground that the nature of the family has by far the greatest effect on a person's eventual tendency toward violence. Poor parental role models, inconsistent discipline and abuse are all factors. Moreover, research on child-protection reveals that most children growing up in a violent family will have experienced aggression from a parent even before they have reached the age when they may have an interest in watching TV and videos.

As Professor Browne comments, the reciprocal of this is that those children who feel loved and cared for by their parents will be less interested in violent scenes on the television screen.

It is misleading to suggest that everyone is influenced by television in the same way. The unfortunate children who've grown up in a violent family are the most vulnerable to violent material in the media. Thus the equation, violent films induce violent behaviour, anyway requires two major qualifications - only certain sorts of screen violence; only certain sorts of people.

Professor Browne then goes on to identify what he calls a "volatile combination". Starting from his research into young offenders, who he found had a preference for violent films and sympathy with violent characters, and linking this with American work on television viewing, he argues that "the interaction of growing up in a violent family and experiencing real violence together with witnessing violence indirectly through the television screen seems to be the volatile combination that enhances the probability of committing violent offences".

So the rest of us, then, can go on watching as much violence as we like, safe in the knowledge that we are well-adjusted people, having been brought up in loving families? I am afraid not. There is the issue of desensitisation. This is hard to measure because there isn't an obvious outcome. Friends ask me whether I have become hardened to violence on screen, having recently had to watch more of it than I would choose. I can only answer that I am not sure. I haven't suddenly started kicking the cat.

I shall have to watch out, however, for all this leads Professor Browne to a simple but chilling conclusion: television and film violence influences people, but in different ways. On the one hand, those who are more disposed to violence will become active in their violent behaviour as their aggressive thoughts are reinforced and triggered. On the other hand, those less disposed to violence will become passive in their responses to violence as they become desensitised and habituated to violent imagery.

Thankfully, public tolerance of violence on screen seems at last to be declining. One piece of evidence is that for two or three years now, Hollywood's action blockbusters have done less well and actors specialising in violent roles, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, are finding fewer parts.

Another sign is that the annual tracking study by the Broadcasting Standards Commission, which was published last week, showed that throughout 1998 viewers noticed a decline in the amount of violence on screen. And for the first time since 1991 the incidence of violence, bad language and sex before the 9pm watershed had declined.

Perhaps, too, the nature of violent imagery is changing. It falls more often into Professor Browne's first category - violent drama films. TV viewers in the study declared themselves more accepting of violence if they felt it was justified and in context. In contrast, the violence that is always harmful is the kind that we would recognise as "exploitative". Its consequence is to weaken society's resistance to the real thing.

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

    Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

    After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
    The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
    10 best sun creams for kids

    10 best sun creams for kids

    Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
    Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

    Tate Sensorium

    New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
    Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
    Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

    Remember Ashton Agar?

    The No 11 that nearly toppled England
    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks