Leading Article: Censorship and sensibility

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If Mrs Virginia Bottomley were a Roman Catholic, the toughest penance she could be set would be to forswear soundbites. Yesterday she gave way to temptation again by jumping on the media and violence bandwagon given a hefty push at Cannes by Dustin Hoffman. The actor, who is also a would-be film producer, is perfectly entitled to his views - though it is not clear, if behaviour is directly influenced by the screen, why his celebrated seduction by Anne Bancroft in The Graduate did not inspire a global epidemic of stocking unrolling by attractive fortysomethings. The minister, however, has responsibility for public policies and her remark that the regulation of screen entertainment needs "improvement" must be subject to a tougher assessment.

Dustin Hoffman's proposition, scarcely original, is that film fiction has effects in people's behaviour. The film market is global thus, he said, what Hollywood produces can have effects in places as far from California as Dunblane and Tasmania. To be fair, Mr Hoffman put his argument inversely: are we saying that screen violence did not have anything to do with these massacres? But even in that form, the answer could plausibly be no, these crimes were not the work of people unhinged from watching too much Terminator. Put in the broadest terms, our values, our behaviour, our ways of thinking are influenced by the stock and flow of images and pictures, some of which we derive from film and television. One of the great puzzles of the 20th century is how, after all these decades of motion pictography, we lack for any single or consistent model of what the relationship is between our consumption of mass media (active and passive) and our individual and collective behaviour.

All Mr Hoffman may have been doing was making a more personal point, that he does not like much of the recent output of Hollywood. There are, though he did not make them, serious points about the effect on the content of film of the changing ratios of domestic (US) and foreign revenues in film production - reducing the scope for language and place-specific plotting in favour of action and universal story-lines.

As for the Heritage Secretary, she wants to condemn "unnecessary" violence while extolling the recent success of Sense and Sensibility, The Madness of King George and Co. What she is really saying is that public taste is hugely diversified and, thankfully, not as easy to predict as producers and film financiers might wish. That taste is shaped, in part, by the existence of an official scheme of classification for which, with occasional exceptions, there is a good deal of public support because, by and large, it conforms with public opinion on what constitutes material suitable for younger viewers. Her veiled threat that tightening (aka censorship) may be needed is gratuitous because it is unargued. Mrs Bottomley has every right to try to shape and lead public taste, though her influence would probably be larger if she were a better film critic. Similarly the actors and actresses who star in films. Mr Hoffman has an easy remedy, which is to make kinder, gentler films that people want to see. By his own admission at Cannes the finance and production markets are open enough. Let us see what he can do as the latest tycoon.

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