Whatever's wrong, the box is always guilty

Mark Lawson
Monday 04 April 1994 23:02

IN DISTANT and more superstitious times, a community afflicted by misfortune would turn on the newest arrival in town, accusing them of having brought bad luck. In the, allegedly, less superstitious West at the end of the 20th century, this scapegoat role has often been taken by television. It has been around barely 30 years as commonly available entertainment - and many believe that society has declined over that time. Hence the standard wanted poster shows the strange square head and shining face of the new set in town.

Just last week, for example, television was publicly fingered for landing Italy with a maverick egotist as its likely new leader, and - by British psychologists and paediatricians - for making modern children violent and disturbed. These charges have found favour with the usual juries. So, not for the first time, I am going to offer myself as defence counsel for television.

Let us begin with Italy. The prospect of the televisual manipulation of democracy - of viewers turning on electronically to be turned on emotionally - has been a favourite liberal night-sweat since the Seventies. The achievement during the 1992 American election campaign of Ross Perot - going from nonentity to 19 per cent of the vote in six months - was generally taken as, if not a fulfilment of this prophecy, a confirmation of its possibility.

However, the apotheosis of Silvio Berlusconi - a television mogul who set out to become prime minister of his country - is a far more perfect manifestation of the spectre. Perot bought time on television; Berlusconi had taken the precaution of buying television. Roy Hattersley darkly declared last week that the nightmare had finally happened. Big Brother lived, speaking Italian. The dictatorship of the small screen was here.

But the enthusiasm of voters for untried political fly-by-nights such as Perot and Berlusconi seems to me evidence of the terrifying weakness of conventional politics, rather than the appalling power of television. The failures and dishonesties of the most recent 20 or so Italian political leaders who were not television moguls - and the American political candidates who spent millions of other people's money rather than their own on buying TV time - have done more to provoke the era of strong man politics than the little box in the corner of the living room.

The best example of the factual weakness of the fantasy remains the 1987 British general election, in which the party (Labour, including one R Hattersley) credited with dazzling media slickness came second, while the one awarded uniform zeros for presentation (the Conservatives) won by a landslide. In general, voters have to want to believe what they are told. Strong man politics also predates television. Hitler, at the Nuremberg rallies, exploited the techniques of theatre and opera. Goebbels harnessed the techniques of cinema. But the appeal of Nazism was not entirely due to these techniques. Similarly, Berlusconi may well turn out to be a disaster - and a future American president might well be a rich and bonkers non- politician - but, if this happens, politics and history should be called in for questioning long ahead of television.

Having defended the medium against charges of electoral fraud, I turn to the far more serious accusations of murder and causing social unrest. Much attention was given to last week's admission by 25 child behavioural experts, in a report called Video Violence and the Protection of Children, that they had previously been 'nave' to deny a link between vicious videos and violence in children. This has been widely regarded as a collapse of the liberal barricades, as there has been a reluctance on their side of the fence to accept such an easy connection. Conservative politicians and so-called 'family campaigners' were particularly excited by this recantation.

Personally, as a liberal, it has always seemed to me pretty obvious that sensible parents should keep their children from 'video nasties' and that - as a precaution against the shortfall in sensible parents, or even parents at all - the public supply of such material should be restricted. This is not because everyone who watches Killer Driller IV will kill someone with a drill - any more than a child who is taken to Macbeth will necessarily grow up cultured or, indeed, regicidal - but because there are better uses of time and mind.

However, what intrigues me are two other aspects of this most recent airing of the debate. The first is terminology. Several of last week's newspaper reports referred to the 'effects of television' on children. One added that British 'TV chiefs' were to be called in by the Heritage Secretary. The journalist Milton Shulman, an old supporter of censorship, referred throughout a radio debate on the subject to the responsibility of 'broadcasters'.

Yet this debate scarcely involves television at all. The videos in question are products of the cinema industry. None of the more questionable films would stand a chance of being re-broadcast on the exceptionally decorous terrestrial channels. If you sought video nasties, you would have rely on Rupert Murdoch's Sky Movies, which had bought and scheduled Child's Play 3, the video implicated in the James Bulger case.

Mention of Mr Murdoch's role in the dissemination of video violence raises the second point. Whether or not the psychologists' report represents a liberal recantation, government acceptance of it would certainly indicate a right-wing back- flip. In the Conservative free market ideology of the Eighties, the video shop and satellite dish had vast symbolic power.

They represented the empowerment of the consumer; the provision of data and entertainment by the market rather than by the imposition of (as the Conservatives represented them) a left wing elite in charge of British broadcasting. Hence the present political talk about 'regulation' and 'control' of visual entertainment is perhaps rather more of a U-turn than that by the authors of Video Violence and the Protection of Children.

So we see, in the Berlusconi and 'video nasty' stories, the modern equivalent of the hounding or drowning of the outsider when things go wrong. Television gets blamed for bad politicians, and television gets blamed by bad politicians. But what, apart from television, is the one constant in those two propositions?

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