Leading Article: Viewers' death wish

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The Independent Online
WAS Mary Whitehouse right all along? Even in the midst of unprecedented national concern about violent crime - and particularly violent juvenile crime - the answer, to any liberal mind, must be 'no'. Censorship, which Mrs Whitehouse favours, is nearly always wrong, not only because it allows authority to tell people what is good for them but also because forbidden material becomes more desirable and glamorous. But that should not prevent serious debate about the effects of television, film and video violence, about how far such violence should go and about how it should be reduced, if at all.

Mrs Whitehouse and her disciples, far from assisting this debate, have trivialised it. Her first target was the growing tendency of television in the 1960s to question authority and to poke fun at it. A bare bottom, a four- letter word, an irreverent imitation of the Queen, a chain-saw massacre - all, in her book, were equal affronts to decency, equal threats to the moral health of the young. Violence, if anything, was an afterthought on her agenda. In this, she was assisted both by the traditional Anglo-Saxon prudery about sex, and by politicians' instinctive anxiety to protect their dignity. Allegations of political bias on television are far more likely to provoke House of Commons uproar than any amount of cannibalism or thuggery.

The debate has thus been polarised between those who favour restriction and those who do not. Sex and violence are treated as different sides of the same coin. It is perfectly true that some pornography can be violent, but much of it is not. Those who argue that pornography is itself an act of violence against women merely devalue the meaning of 'violence' in the same way as critics of the Conservative Party often devalue 'fascism'. Excessive violence should command our attention in a way that excessive sex should not. Most sex is legal, most violence is not. Most law-abiding citizens will commit sexual acts thousands of times in their lives, only a minority (unless you count slapping children) will physically assault another human being on more than a few occasions.

And this is the point about screen violence. The most violent films - which are often notably sexless - present the bullet in the head, the knife in the throat, the boot in the face as normal parts of life, normal ways of concluding arguments. Even the good guys, such as Edward Woodward in the American series The Equalizer, settle accounts with the fist and the gun. Films and videos can stylise and glamorise violence and provide some boys, in a society where fathers are too often a rationed commodity, with their only role models of adult male behaviour.

The defenders of screen violence insist that the link with violence in real life has 'not been demonstrated'. But it is hard to know what kind of demonstration they want. Nobody imagines that - as Michael Winner, director of the Death Wish films, so slickly characterised the argument last week - a 10 per cent reduction in punch-ups on The Bill will persuade muggers to help elderly women with their shopping. The social sciences have failed to establish a clear link because they cannot go much beyond this kind of calculation. If academics cannot help us, we had better rely on common sense. Do we really believe that the screen cannot influence human behaviour? Does anybody act as if it cannot? Do politicians? Do advertisers? Do campaigning journalists? There is hypocrisy in spades here. Producers and directors are perfectly capable of insisting, in one breath, that a violent scene will have no influence on its audience whatsoever and, in the next, that it is justified anyway by the need to communicate some important social 'message'. The truth is that intellectual rigour and honesty are in short supply on all sides of the debate.

In the age of the video recorder and the satellite dish there can be no easy answers. But the advertisers who buy screen time, the ministers who hand out television franchises, the producers, directors and actors who make films, the parents who control their children's viewing can all help to make violence less acceptable, less normal. Precisely because the solutions are so difficult, we should stop muddying the waters.