Censored: the V-chip's real aim

Julian Petley suspects that supporters of a device to screen out TV violence have a hidden agenda
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The Independent Online
At first sight the V-chip, which is being promoted by the Government as the answer to TV violence, looks like rather a good idea. Parents with their fingers on the electronic key would be able to protect their children from programmes that might disturb them, while they themselves would retain the ability to watch more "adult" material.

This way, we are saved from the television diet recommended by those politicians, such as Roger Gale, chair of the Conservative backbench media committee, in which nothing would be allowed on at any time that might disturb any child who might be watching. But would it work like that? I doubt it.

If we're concerned with irresponsible parents who let their children watch unsuitable television programmes, why should we suppose that they are going to discover a sense of responsibility towards their children when they acquire a new television fitted with this gizmo? Also, as it is a statistical fact that more children than adults can work video recorders, we can't be at all sure that some of them won't find ways of subverting the chip. Indeed, I can imagine some techno-brats fixing it so that it's the parents who can't watch their favourite programme if it clashes with their offspring's choice on another channel.

Next, who's going to work out the rating system on which the effectiveness of the chip will depend? Different verdicts are sometimes handed out on the same programmes by the Broadcasting Standards Council, the BBC Programme Complaints Unit and the Independent Television Commission. There is no consensus on the standards and values that would have to form the basis for any such rating system. And even if such a consensus could be forged among the terrestrial broadcasters, would the satellite broadcasters agree to it? The movie channels, for example, argue that their encrypted signal enables them to broadcast "stronger" versions of certain films that are shown cut on BBC, ITV or C4.

Satellite television is part of the internationalisation of broadcasting, which is why the EU is also considering introducing V-chips. Would any British ratings system have to be harmonised with a possible European one? This would present considerable problems, since most of our continental neighbours are far less troubled about what is shown on their televisions screens than we are about ours, and they are most certainly not going to be swayed by what they regard as Anglo-Saxon puritanism. It would indeed be ironic if, thanks to the proponents of the chip, Britain was eventually forced to accept a more, as opposed to less, liberal regime of television regulation.

Finally, what do the chip's supporters really want? The Liberal Democrat MP David Alton said yesterday that he intended to put down a V-chip amendment to the Broadcasting Bill if the Heritage Secretary, Virginia Bottomley, did not decide to legislate, and added that a number of Tory MPs had promised him their support.

But does he want a world where children are protected from disturbing images while adults sit around happily watching "stronger" stuff, safe in the knowledge that the satisfaction of their pleasures isn't causing distress elsewhere? I don't think so. It was Mr Alton who spearheaded the campaign in 1994 to make video censorship, already among the toughest in the world, even more stringent.

The lobby group Movement for Christian Democracy, of which Mr Alton is a member, congratulated itself on its "campaign triumph in video battle", and added that "the victory on violent videos is the first battle in a continuing campaign". Now the V-chip presents the campaign with an opportunity to do battle again.

By all means let's have a sensible debate about the V- chip. But let's have all the cards on the table please. If some of the proponents of the chip are trying to use this issue as a way of advancing their own, very particular agenda, let us know about it. And if their real object is not simply the protection of children but the diminution of what adults may see on television, then let's hear it loud and clear.

The writer, who lectures in communication studies at Brunel University, is co-editing a book on how the media influences people, to be published by Routledge later this year.