Leading Article: Is this a mirror?

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VIOLENCE in films and on television is making another of its periodic returns to the central ground of political debate, drawn there by wider concerns about crime and moral decay. John Major, speaking in Harrogate on Saturday, called on parents, film- makers and distributors to consider the effects on the young of a relentless diet of violence. Sir Anthony Hopkins, star of The Silence of the Lambs, has suggested the time may have come to say 'enough is enough'.

Even Clint Eastwood, who has done as much as anyone to glamorise violence, professes to be worried. Hollywood itself is deep into a debate provoked by Michael Medved's recent book accusing it of contributing to the collapse of urban America by churning out ever more sick and sickening depictions of violence. The cinema, he says, is now devoted to nightmares, not dreams.

Mr Major sensibly did not suggest that media violence was a principal cause of crime. He placed it in the wider context of social and family breakdown. Nor did he call for censorship. He was simply articulating common worries that there may be a link between crime and the quantities of violence to which young people are exposed.

That link has been researched and debated for many years. It is difficult to prove but impossible to dismiss. Research has shown that children are more prone to violent behaviour after watching violent films. Once they played cowboys and Indians or re-enacted war films. Now they wield laser guns. But in most cases, only those who are already disturbed will be unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

More dangerous than imitative behaviour is the desensitising effect of watching too much indiscriminate violence, particularly when it is treated as comedy. If the only defence of violence in art is that it mirrors reality it must remain related to reality. It cannot be violence as a joke, or violence without pain, or violence to attract publicity or to demonstrate the latest in special effects if it is to command respect.

Violence in Shakespeare and in other great literature is harrowing because it is treated seriously within a moral and dramatic context. Modern children see so much killing and brutality that they cannot possibly respond with real feeling, or relate to the victim. Often they are encouraged to believe that human beings, like cartoon characters, can be subjected to appalling brutality without dying or spending months in hospital. They are forced to detach themselves, laugh, or admire the special effects. This must surely hamper emotional development. The main problem is not television, which has become less violent, but films and videos. Hollywood has become too timid to depart from well-tried formulas and each production seeks to outdo the previous one.

A reaction is coming not primarily from governments and regulatory bodies, but from adult public opinion, actors and occasionally even from producers, who sense a change of climate. Support for Mr Medved extends far beyond the Bible Belt, and the occasional surprise success of a non-violent film suggests there is an unsatisfied market for better fare. This may encourage film-makers to start looking at themselves in the mirror that they hold up to society.

Mr Major joins the debate with nothing new or profound to say. As so often, he seems to be following public opinion rather than leading it. But he is right to place the subject on the agenda: it needs constant attention. What he must avoid is allowing it to hijack the debate on the more profound and demonstrable reasons for rising crime and social breakdown in Britain.