A report to be published today will provide further ammunition to opponents of censorship when it is expected to reveal that young criminals do not watch more violent television or films than non-offenders, and are not obsessed with programmes that depict violence and horror.
The debate over the influence of screen images on criminal activity and violent behaviour has been heightened by an amendment by David Alton, a Liberal Democrat MP, to the Criminal Justice Bill, which proposes a new video classification, 'Unsuitable for Children'. It has the support of 220 MPs, including 80 Tories.
James Ferman, director of the British Board of Film Classification, said: 'I firmly believe Mr Alton's amendment is misconceived. It is unworkable and over-restrictive. By going too far, it risks discrediting the system and alienating the public.'
Writing in the Mail on Sunday, Mr Ferman, known for his conservative attitude towards screen sex and violence, added: 'We all agree that no video is worth the death of a child, but cause and effect have to be demonstrated. We must keep things in proportion.' He said under the Alton amendment, 'half the films made in the past quarter of a century' would be banned, including the Oscar winners Schindler's List and Dances With Wolves.
While conceding that the growing availability of violence on videos and television was a cause for concern where children were involved, he argued it was still primarily the role of parents to police viewing habits.
Using the example of the James Bulger murder, he said it showed that 'children are not born good; they have to be schooled in goodness' and that violent videos were merely being used as a 'scapegoat' for their actions.
He concluded: 'Seventy per cent of households in Britain have no dependent children. Are all those to be denied the right to enjoy legitimate adult entertainment in the privacy of their homes, merely because some parents shirk their parental duties?'
Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, has announced that he is to press the film censors to tighten curbs on children's access to violent video, but will oppose the Alton amendment. The BBFC and other broadcasting organisations sponsored today's report on the viewing habits of young offenders.
The Policy Studies Institute examined a group of 78 young offenders aged 12 to 18 and compared them to a sample of more than 500 schoolchildren of a similar age. The results are expected to show that, contrary to popular belief, the groups had similar viewing tastes, preferring soap operas, such as EastEnders, Home and Away, Brookside, and The Bill - which was the offenders' favourite - to video nasties. The most popular film for both sets was Terminator 2.
A standard for videos suitable for under fives -is to be launched today. The guide for parents has been devised by the Pre-School Playgroups Association, which has set up a special panel of experts to award certificates. The successful tapes will carry a sticker.
Leading article, page 15
Exorcist anniversary, page 21