People were stupid, violent and sentimental before its invention. Were they also less tolerant, informed and stimulated? Hester Lacey puts the case for the goggle box

WHAT A MONSTER John Logie Baird unwittingly unleashed. The black box in the corner of the living room is a direct conduit for all the vilest poisons of the twentieth century, up to and including American pulp talk shows. Television is killing the art of conversation and stifling family life. It spews out a constant stream of mindless filth that corrupts the nation's children, turns adult brains to mush, shocks frail old ladies, terrifies the family cat, etc etc. Or so one might think, given the amount of telly-bashing punditry that goes on. But is the box being unfairly accused? New research suggests that there is a plausible case for the defence. Meanwhile, the latest report from the think-tank Demos, published last week, would like to see television harnessed as a positive force for social benefit, with broadcasts on relationships and parenting, and soap operas incorporating positive role models.

Television is supposed to have a hand in many of the ills of modern society; most notably it is held partially responsible for escalating levels of violence, particularly amongst the impressionable young. Try telling that to the citizens of St Helena, the remote island where everyone's mental purity remained unsullied by television until 1995, when the children were assessed as the best-behaved in the world. Psychologist Dr Tony Charlton, professor of Behaviour Studies at Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education, has been monitoring the effects of TV on the children of St Helena and has found that, not only have they maintained their standards, they are actually less likely to fight and tease each other. "The research we are analysing now shows television's potential for pro-social effects," says Dr Charlton. "In fact, the potential for pro-social effects is much larger than for anti-social ones." The existence of this positive effect, he explains, is borne out by comparative study of many different reports.

The children of St Helena have gained "enormous educational benefit", says Dr Charlton. The older students have expressed their delight at being able to see the outside world for the first time, rather than reading about it or hearing about it on the radio. And, while they have the advantage of living in a close-knit community and most of their viewing is supervised by their parents (which reinforces television's potential for good) a two-year study of young British men commissioned by the Home Office and published earlier this year was also unable to find a link between on- screen and off-screen violence.

As well as being blamed for social ills, television is also regularly slated for its trashy standards. But, observes Dick Fiddy, television consultant for the British Film Institute, "There are also trashy books. But there's no point in burning down the library. The people who are attacking television haven't really understood that the notion of television is like the notion of literature; if television is like a library then the programmes are the books. I'm not saying that all programmes are brilliant, it's true that there is a worrying tendency towards tabloid television, but a lot of the criticism levelled at television is misguided - it's throwing the baby out with the bathwater."

He believes that the cornerstone of British television's quality is a strong BBC. "If there is a strong BBC, that means a strong ITV and strong other channels, because television really is a jungle and it's survival of the fittest." Such standards also mean we are protected from the worst- quality imports, particularly from the US. "We get lots of good American programmes, and not much of the worst stuff," says Dick Fiddy. "And we present it better. In the States now shows are built around ads; in a half-hour show there will be five or six commercial breaks. You can see it in shows like Seinfeld, which are becoming more like short series of sketches that are easy to fit breaks round."

And, he adds, some newspapers have their own reasons for not being friendly towards terrestrial television stations: reasons that are not necessarily tied up with an altruistic crusade to raise standards. "It's now a global picture: some of the newspapers which have encouraged people to criticise terrestrial television week after week are owned by those who also own extra-terrestrial stations."

Viewers, however, may be more selective than hitherto believed. After all, can it really be true that we are ready and indeed happy to gulp down any old tripe if it comes via the medium of the small screen? It's a very common misconception that people believe everything they see, says Ellen Seiter, professor of communication at the University of California. Dr Seiter, who is working on a book, Television and New Media Audiences, to be published by the Oxford University Press, says, "People often assume that viewers are swallowing programmes whole, that they sympathise with what is being said on screen, that they are aligned with the point of view of the producers. Historically, scares about television have always been about brainwashing, particularly of children and women, who are assumed to be more susceptible. But the people who say this are usually men, intellectuals and politicians, who of course have every confidence that they themselves can watch what they like without these effects."

Rather than mind-numbed zombies, she says, it is far more common to find that viewers are "ironical and detached. They see the programmes and say, `That's phoney', or, `I wonder how they set that up' or `Oh, they're only doing this for the ratings'. And people deliberately watch shows they don't agree with, shows they love to hate." So, watching Jerry Springer occasionally and cheering on the woman-pregnant-with-triplets-whose-bigamist- husband-ran-away-with-her-own-grandmother as she goes in for a sock on the jaw won't actually do any harm. Phew. (Though, points out Dr Seiter, this won't stop the compassionate worrying about all those other, less- bright viewers who won't see things from the same post-modern, ironical viewpoint. "There is the perception of the duped and vulnerable viewer who Jerry Springer is bad for, but of course we always think `That's not me'," she observes drily. In fact it's unlikely that this sad creature exists in any great numbers.)

So, if links to violence and bad behaviour are unproven and along with the trash there is plenty of quality viewing, why does television come in for so much stick? Dr Tony Charlton says it is "morally convenient" and that it is easier to blame television for society's ills than blame ourselves. Dr Seiter agrees that many deep social anxieties and worries have been pinned on television. "For example, unease about violence, and people's sense of helplessness in the face of it. People say if we didn't have television we wouldn't have violence, but if you look at what we know about violence, it leads to much deeper, more complex issues, such as the way that child abuse, which is increasing, has been implicated in violent behaviour in later life. Television is an easy target."

Some campaigners, however, believe that telly is a Good Thing; for example, the think-tank Demos, whose report argued that the government needs to introduce public policy on parenting. Ed Straw, chair of the board at Relate and the author of the report, suggests that schedules should include programmes on relationship and parenting education, and also that soap operas should incorporate more examples of these issues into their storylines. "We are not looking for moralising, stand-up-straight-and-we'll-tell-you- how-to-be-parents broadcasts," he explains. But, he argues, soap operas already represent a significant part of adolescents' social education. "Soaps have done a good job, they have brought up situations and issues like foster parenting and counselling and shown different reactions to them. These are not pie-in-the-sky ideas; we have already had soap opera script writers coming to Relate to see how counselling works, and we would like time and funding to do more."

Why television? Because, he says, the medium is so powerful. "There is a lot you can criticise television for, but it has been a huge force for good. You can argue that it was the medium that brought down the Soviet Union - it opened the eyes of the average citizen there to the outside world, that they didn't have to live as they were doing." The Berlin Wall coming down, the tanks in Tianenmen Square, David Attenborough's natural history documentaries, Pride and Prejudice: examples like these surely make up for every gruesome talk show or dubious low-budget made-for-TV film. Dick Fiddy remembers being allowed to stay up all night to watch the first moon landing as though it were yesterday. "It was so dramatic and striking," he recalls. "It will stay with me for ever."