Leading Article: Common sense and video violence

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NOBODY will ever prove conclusively that violent films cause violent crime. Researchers can demonstrate that children behave more violently after watching violent films, or that a particularly nasty criminal was influenced by a particularly nasty film, but the reasons for crime, both individual and general, are too many and varied to be disentangled and pinned on a single culprit.

This is not to denigrate the efforts of researchers: the more we can learn about the roots of human behaviour and the influences that shape it the better. Nor does it mean that, because video violence is only one of many influences, it is unimportant. Still less does failure to prove a connection disprove its existence. Last week's change of heart by a group of respected experts headed by Professor Elizabeth Newson shows how little solid ground there is in this long-running debate.

It is as much about values as science. People choose sides on the basis of assumptions about the sort of society they want and where the limits of individual freedom should be drawn. These assumptions change with shifts in the climate of opinion, to which even social scientists are not immune. The reaction against video nasties is part of the reaction to rising crime, educational failures and other social problems that are felt to derive from the liberalism of the Sixties.

It also reflects an assertion of common sense. Obviously people are influenced by what they read, see and hear. A diet of violence and obscenity must therefore have some influence, and it is scarcely likely to be good, especially for children or people whose personalities are already disturbed. Some imitate what they see, others become desensitised. In either case, damage is done. That much understanding can be achieved without scientific research.

The problem is how to respond without putting excessive constraints on artistic expression or shielding children too much from the violence of real life. Further legislation is likely to be either unjust or unenforceable. What is needed is a combination of better enforcement, pressure on the industry to regulate itself, and the cultivation of a climate of opinion, especially among parents and teachers, that is more confidently opposed to the exploitation of cruelty in entertainment.