V-chips can't keep children innocent or protect us from harsh reality won't make society less violent or any child more innocent The idea of paying to make television unwatchable is a 21st century joke

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I HAVE always been impressed by the small print on the television licence which says that blind people can have one at half price. Admittedly, it's not as daft as it sounds. One of the dismaying facts about television is that it can be used as radio without a great deal of cultural deprivation. Radio, in contrast, has integrity. You can't watch it, and nobody offers cut-price listening for the deaf.

These thoughts follow the stupid affair of the V-Chip. As the V-Chip is already forgotten history, an "issue" now more than five days old which came between Dunblane and Mad Cow, some readers will need to have their memories prompted. Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, and the Liberal Democrat MP David Alton were induced to raise in Parliament the idea of a scrambler device which can be built into a television and preset to obliterate programmes that parents judge unsuitable for the young.

The tabloids seized on the "V-Chip" - the V standing for violence. They did so because editors were still in the penumbra of the massacre at Dunblane, and - having worked through gun-law reform and paedophile control - needed some other Dunblane spin-off to fill columns. The chip was a way of connecting the horrors of Dunblane to the trusty, dreary old argument about the effects of violence on television.

The "V-Chip" is an idea so silly that it could not have arisen here spontaneously. If the censorship lobby had not expertly floated it down the stream of public anxiety, it would have sunk without trace rather than skim across screens and pages all the way into the House of Commons. First of all, television violence, whatever we decide that means, had absolutely nothing whatever to do with the Dunblane tragedy. Second, the notion of people equipped with normal eyes, ears, fingers and brains paying money to make their own television set unwatchable is a 21st-century bad joke, like the notion of a radio licence for the deaf.

When I lived in Germany, one of my neighbours was a Bundeswehr officer with severe views on morality. If he had to leave home, he always unplugged the family television set and took it with him in his car, in case wife and child were tempted into unsupervised viewing while he was away. It was easy to see that he was really a modern Crusader locking his wife into a chastity belt before heading for Palestine. The V-Chip is in the same category. It's not so much a way of turning off programmes for others; more an item of fetish gear for turning on the control freak.

And the chip would be futile for many quite practical reasons. Somebody on Radio 4 pointed out that when the new V-Chip-protected set was delivered to the living-room, the old unprotected set would migrate upstairs to the child's bedroom. The long-term effect would be to increase the gap between fussy, concerned homes that could afford the V-chips, and unconcerned homes that didn't give a hoot what the children watched and preferred to use spare cash in other ways. The latter are supposed to generate more crime than the former. If television violence plays any part in that, and we still do not know whether it does, then the V-Chip would make no difference.

The word "violence" is, in any case, rotten with propaganda in its modern usage. If Gustave Flaubert were still alive, he would enter it in his Dictionary of Received Ideas as: "VIOLENCE: inappropriate in demonstrations, revolutions, marriages &c. Always refer to V. as `spreading' or `increasing', or to `unacceptable levels of'."

In the old days, "violent" meant something like "forceful", but the force might be physical or moral. You could offer violent resistance to an arresting policeman, commit robbery with violence (which might not mean physical force against persons), hold violent convictions about the Trinity or fall violently in love. Yeats wrote that "Even the wisest man grows tense/ With a sort of violence/ When he must encompass fate ..."

This change of usage helps to explain why it is a platitude to say that "violence is increasing" - and why the platitude is plumb wrong. It is true that Dunblane and Hungerford belong to our own times, as "Me Massacres" typical of an epoch when individuals act out their rage against their own lack of significance; they are not Victorian episodes (though I am not so sure about the Wests of Gloucester). But a hundred years ago, gratuitous physical brutality was not always called "violence", which was not yet a distinct category although it was almost omnipresent. The point is that our great-grandfathers used fists, whips, sticks and stones with a freedom that we cannot now imagine.

Fathers belted sons, teachers lashed and caned pupils, husbands punched and kicked their wives, street traders fought over stalls, petty-officers flogged midshipmen, boys daily gave one another nosebleeds or black eyes in the playground. Above all, there was the extreme but routine brutality towards animals, especially horses. Black Beauty is no myth, and a liberal soul of today who could somehow walk down a busy city street in 1896 would be reduced to tears of rage and horror within half an hour. Nothing so suddenly and drastically reduced human cruelty as the invention of the internal combustion engine.

"Violence" in its current sense is a recent invention. It arose in the turbulence of the late 1960s, and was promoted by governments and their tame journalists as a verbal weapon against mass protest. The ploy, eventually successful, was to persuade protesters and public that a rally at which policemen or counter-demonstrators were thumped, or glass broken, was wrong and wicked, while a "non-violent" demonstration was at least legitimate. In practice, this was deeply hypocritical. Demonstrations against the Vietnam war were condemned as "violence", while the war itself was not. Student militants, particularly vulnerable to this sort of emotional bludgeoning, floundered about in self-justification; the German students in 1968 produced a tortuous defence of "symbolic counter-violence against objects" which allowed them to bash water-cannon with sticks. The most serious effects of the V-word in Britain were felt in industrial disputes; during the miners' strike of 1985-86, Neil Kinnock was rendered almost helpless by a ceaseless roar of challenges to "condemn violence".

So was the rightness or wrongness of the miners' struggle to be judged only by the number of arrests and injuries on the picket line? The government, backed by almost all the mass media, managed to enforce this absurd criterion. Most people probably still accept it. But until only a few years earlier, public opinion had always assumed that a big strike or protest demonstration was liable to involve some broken heads and broken glass. This was regrettable but marginal, unless it ended in widespread bloodshed. The 1956 demonstration against Suez involved a collision with mounted police in Whitehall, but we in that protest never thought that the "violence" invalidated our cause - and, interestingly, neither did the Tory press.

Since then, the concept of "violence" has been artfully extended to distort many social realities. Secondary picketing and even the closed shop are described as "violence" by Conservative politicians. But that is a two- edged use of words. When I visit a colliery I used to know, when I look for all the headworks and noise and people, and when I see only a field of willowherb with a concrete plate capping the old shaft - then, too, I am aware that I am on the site of an immense act of violence. And no V-chip is strong enough to hide it.