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Plastic fantasy or real life, take it or leave it: Debate, not regulation, should control screen violence, says Andrew Graham-Yooll

THE RENEWED debate about television violence makes good reading. It also warns broadcasters and programme makers that their audiences are reaching saturation point or, more likely, that politicians have climbed on to the morality bandwagon.

The current season for bashing broadcasters was declared open by the Prime Minister with his remark against the 'relentless diet' of violence on the home screen. But if politicians are in a mood to encourage the idea that some form of censorship of television is advisable, or that a 'violence threshold' can be set, they are threatening the media with restrictions it could well do without.

Violence, in its degrees of objectionability, is as difficult to define as is invasion of privacy by the press. After publication of the Calcutt report in January, there was much concern about privacy and the need for a law to safeguard it. The outbursts from indignant politicians cowed that section of the press seen to be most offensive, and there the matter was dropped. In the meantime, lawyers had realised that, outside of a dictatorship, it was impossible to dictate the limits of privacy.

There is a whiff of similar tactics in the accusation that television might be the source of society's wave of evil. The charge is a useful distraction, but there is no evidence to prove it. Furthermore, British television, in spite of being excessively regulated, is the best in Europe, possibly the world. That is a personal opinion, but the strength of it will be obvious to anyone with a couple of languages who travels abroad regularly.

One kind of fictional television violence - the Schwarzenegger type - is little more than a masterly use of computers to produce crafty effects, but it should not be blamed for heinous effects on society. The young can usually deal with it because it is plastic fantasy.

The Silence of the Lambs is an example of the other sort of screen violence. Anthony Hopkins is to be praised for not wanting to do 'Son of Hannibal', but that is a personal professional decision which must not be seen as an example for society. He would have gained as much publicity whether he said he was doing a sequel or not. That's show business.

Anyway, The Silence of the Lambs was no more violent than, say, the abattoir scenes in a recent South Bank Show, or the scenes of the massacre of Sabra and Chatila in last Saturday's Fine Cut which told the story of David Yallop's search for the terrorist Carlos. And, of course, there is the daily violence of the civil war in Bosnia or scenes of war and starvation in Somalia. All this is brought to you with the pornographic obsession of the camera's eye as it settles on a burning church or the naked bodies of starving men and women. The broadcasters are not to blame for this violence; governments are guilty of not trying hard enough to stop it.

An excessive dose of violence on screen is offensive. But, at the end of the debate, violence on television is no more than an unpleasant experience which can be switched off, thereby telling the ratings-obsessed broadcasters that it is not desirable.

There are voices which argue that violence and pornography on the screen are good for some of us: they leave a majority of viewers drained of energy, their belligerent inclinations satiated.

But the main question about screen violence is how the excess is to be measured and the effect judged. Since John Major's remarks, numerous specialists have been interviewed, most of them in agreement that the effect of violence is difficult to judge, and that there are no reliable statistics.

Exactly the same difficulties arise when dealing with pornography and violence against women. A few years ago there was an earnest campaign aimed at showing causal links between the two. The results were inconclusive. Violence is a crime; peddling pornography is a crime. But the criminality of audiences who watch violent or pornographic scenes is unquantifiable and unclassifiable.

The threat posed by television violence will be removed ultimately by providing Mr and Mrs Viewer with the discipline to reject it. That is achieved by improving standards of education. In the meantime, the temptation to extend regulation of television should be resisted. Ventilation of these matters has proved, historically, to have more lasting benefits than censorship.

Andrew Graham-Yooll is the editor of 'Index on Censorship'.