The Prime Minister has undoubtedly picked on a subject that has long exercised broadcasters, film-makers and moral watchdogs. More than 1,000 pieces of research, covering psychology, psychiatry and sociology, have been commissioned - making it one of the most studied questions in mass communications. But, at the end of the day, there appears to be no firm conclusion about whether violence on screen breeds real-life violence or crime.
In fact, research indicates that there is far less violence on British screens than elsewhere in the West. Guy Cumberbatch, of Aston University, who has undertaken one of the most detailed reviews of the wealth of research available, has found that British viewers are subjected to about half the volume of violence shown in the United States, Canada, Australia and much of Europe. 'In that context, the concerns about on-screen violence here seem a bit misplaced,' he said.
Dr Cumberbatch also found that, over the years, there had been a marked decline in the volume of violence on television. He suggested, too, that most violence is portrayed on television with a firm moral message that it is wrong and that the perpetrators will be locked away.
He said that no firm conclusions could be drawn over links between crime and on-screen violence but patterns in stimulating crime were emerging. 'It strikes me that there are areas like imitation - where people have claimed they have acted out or imitated a film. But we are talking about one-off cases . . . if a dozen or so were imitating, then we might have to do something about it.'
While he found that about 77 per cent of research studies supported the view that there was a causal link between media violence and crime, 'in most respects the research has been quite inadequate and on close examination simply does not concur in the way most reviews argue'.
He cited a study of 1,500 boys aged 13 to 16 which concluded that boys with high levels of exposure to television violence commit 49 per cent more acts of serious violence. A close look at the results showed that people who watched a lot of television violence were less aggressive than those who watched less, he said.
Lord Rees-Mogg, chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Council, which monitors broadcasting, said yesterday: 'The council regards the issue of violence as the most important one with which it has to deal, in particular feature films, where it has risen to an alarming level.'
But Steven Barnett, a media expert at the Henley Centre, the social and economic research body, said yesterday: 'Nothing can be proved empirically and it comes down to a battle of prejudices on either side of the debate about who or what is to blame.' The current concern over crime was the result of 'another moral panic'.
Crime in Britain, page 6
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