You can't blame it on the box

A recent study shows there is no direct link between TV and real- life violence
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"The search for direct 'effects' of television on behaviour is over," writes David Gauntlett with challenging confidence. "Every effort has been made and they simply cannot be found."

This is the contention of a detailed book of research published this week by the Institute of Communications Studies in Leeds, Moving Experiences: understanding television's influences and effects. Yet it is a racing certainty that this conclusion will be ignored by a range of commentators, moralisers and politicians.

It is important to distinguish here. There are those who challenge the evidence for comprehensible and thoughtful reasons. But there is also a fanatical phalanx fundamentalist in its belief that TV has a direct effect, particularly on violent social behaviour.

A key question is, why is there so much fanaticism to advance a view that has proved to have so very little substance?

Gauntlett refers to the phenomenon of moral panic and points out that we have been here before. In Victorian Britain, music halls were alleged to cause violence and immorality; so were Penny Dreadfuls; so, unbelievably, in the 1890s were bicycles - cyclomania - and who can forget the dire predictions of the effects of rock'n'roll in the Fifties and Sixties? It is significant that moral panic always seems to rear up in front of vivid popular culture. The mass-beast has to be controlled, and any sign of liveliness is interpreted as proof of potential insurrection.

A consistent feature of these panics is the Lady Chatterley syndrome: somehow those in authority are unaffected by the same material that corrupts and so directly affects others. Why is it that our chief film censor is not the most depraved man in Britain? And, given Mary Whitehouse's devotion to truffling out the dreadful destructive powers of British peak-time TV, why is she such a sweet and impish old lady who, when you meet her, will tell you that of course these things don't affect Us. She is protecting the Others.

Though it is often omitted in this argument, TV has become the whipping boy of a society that feels it is impotent to address corrosive problems. Drugs, crime, violence, general disorder, a too rapid change in values, the downward spiral of poverty and unemployment - these are frustratingly hard to tackle. Blaming TV gives a welcome vent to that frustration. So it is very important indeed to some "opinionators" that this insistence on the causal link between TV and, say, violence goes unchallenged.

TV can be knocked into shape and we can all feel that something is being done. When, as with Gauntlett's book, contrary and cool research comes on to the table, great anger is whistled up. For example, there was Paul Johnson leading the attack in the Daily Mail this week. We must have our simple solutions, it seems. There are, of course, dangerous precedents in the search for simple solutions.

Gauntlett has ranged over the mountains of research into TV, a great deal of it tenaciously determined to prove the box to be the villain. In effect, this case does not add up to a row of beans. Of course TV has an influence. Like newspapers, movies, novels, parents, peers, heroes, work, non-work, genes and so on. No one denies that. What Gauntlett does deny, authoritatively, is the repeated assertion that - to take the hottest area - acts of violence on TV cause acts of violence in society. The most careful sifting of decades of research shows this to be mistaken. Gauntlett offers many examples that ought to prevent any repetition of the gross rush to judgement on, for example, the effect of videos in the James Bulger case.

It has been proved that young offenders watch the same sort of TV (though rather less of it) as young non-offenders. Their favourite programmes are similar - Home and Away, The Bill, Neighbours and EastEnders. But individuals do not react in similar ways to similar programmes.

The vast majority of attempts at "scientific" research intended to prove that television affects behaviour comes from extremely simple laboratory experiments which are always contradicted by field research. Far from opting to imitate the anti-social behaviour of those in crime series, children are much more likely to want to imitate the positive actions of the police and the goodies who are the heroes and get the rewards. One of the most telling arguments is the report by Karen Hennigan and her colleagues in 1982. From 1949 to 1952, there was a freeze on broadcasting licences in the US. This enabled a vast research project to be set up, focused specifically on the "effect" issue of TV and violence. The results were wholly negative. Those areas that had TV were neither more nor less violent than those which did not have TV. Those that were later licensed to take TV saw no consequent upsurge in violence.

Yet all the patient researching in the world will not deter those who want to see TV as the prime suspect. Playground behaviour is often cited as proof positive of the deleterious effects of the box. Surely, remembering our own play, we recall that, in the case of boys, it was often an imitation of something violent - war films, boxing, cowboys and Indians. There were toy battles every break-time, but they were absorbed into play and they remained just that - playground behaviour. Just as there is an obstinate refusal to believe that the ordinary viewer can distinguish between fantasy and fact, between what is worthwhile and what is not, so there is a blank disregard of the conscious element of play and make-believe in the overwhelming number of children's games, however much threatening noise they make. This is not to say that some children's behaviour now, as then, is not worrying; but research points to a mass of causes for this and refuses to isolate TV.

There is also that sturdy perennial - the advertising argument. TV can influence millions of people to buy soap powder; therefore it is powerful, and able to influence millions of people to behave against a host of other influences and follow its dictates. To sell a product, however, is not an attempt to change fundamental behaviour. Simply to switch from one brand to another, or be reminded to buy more of something you want, does not go against a complicatedly implanted moral code. There is no theory that links screen violence to real-life violence in the way you can link advertising a product to selling a product. The analogy does not hold.

There remains a stubborn will on the part of a relentless section to ignore everything that would take away their need to believe that TV is the cause of most of the ills that modern society is heir to. Shooting the messenger is an old sport. The problem is that it was most usefully the mark of tyrants, or insecure authoritarians. Thankfully, we live in neither of those camps.

As well as his media activities, the writer is chairman of the Institute of Communication Studies at Leeds University.