Time to Face Responsibility


by Mary Whitehouse CBE


First published by Bloomsbury in 1996 in the book Screen Violence edited by Karl French



t was the late Sir Hugh Greene, then Director General of the BBC, who described television as 'the most powerful medium ever to affect the thinking and behaviour of people'.  And one is bound to ask:  'If this is true of television, how can anyone doubt it is not also true of film?', especially as film forms the foundation of so much of what we see on our television sets, not least after the 9pm watershed.


The watershed has itself been established in order, so we are told, to protect the young from unsuitable material.  Not, of course, that it does, because we now live in a society in which well over 50 per cent of children have TV sets in their own bedrooms and are adept at switching them on long after Mum has kissed them goodnight, switched off the light, and gone downstairs - probably to watch the very films she did not wish the children to see!


There is a long history of concern about the effect of film upon the young.  Way back in 1950 the Home Office published a Report entitled 'Children and the Cinema'.  As I browsed through it again I came across the following, to my mind, very quotable quote: 'The harmful moral effects attributed to "bad" films are commonly centred on the exhibition and glorification of crime, violence and sexual licence, the latter none the less deplorable because it is often coated with a thin layer of conventional morality…that many films do contain sequences that are brutal, anti-social or licentious is undeniable.  Some of these sequences will pass over the heads of the youngest children and it may be that only a few films err seriously in these ways, but these few must, on the grounds of ordinary human experience, be accounted bad influences on the minds of those who see them.  We have no doubts at all about such films.  We think they are bad and we should like to see them banned altogether to children' - and that was best part of fifty years ago!


If that is true of the cinema how can anyone deny its truth when applied to television - not to mention video?


Concern grew as evidence of the use of violence in film multiplied as internationally respected psychologists and social scientists like Leonard Berkowitz, writing in Scientific American in 1964, concluded that 'film media violence is potentially dangerous…(it has) increased the chance that an angry person, and possibly other people as well, will attack someone else'.


The problem persisted and in 1975 Dr Michael Rothenburg appealed for 'an organised cry from the medical profession' against violence on television and its effects on children.  Working as a child psychiatrist in Seattle's Children's Orthopaedic Hospital and medical Centre he stated that '50 studies involving 10,000 children and adolescents from every conceivable background all showed that viewing violence produces increased aggressive behaviour in the young' and went on to call for 'immediate remedial action'.


How far did this get us?  The truth is - nowhere at all.  In 1994 the Independent Television Commission criticised Channel 4's Brookside for violence culminating in the use of a kitchen knife as a murder weapon during its omnibus edition - at 5.05pm on a Saturday afternoon!



 find now that I have a very real problem and it's this - in order to illustrate one's argument one has, as it were, to multiply the crime!  Take the film Nightmare on Elm Street, shown not only in the cinema but also - where else - on Channel 4 TV (17.10.94).  Here follows an assessment of some of the violence it contains:


Girl attacked by satanic force in bedroom.  Her body flung round room and hoisted to ceiling.  Her chest slashed.  Blood-soaked body flung onto bed, walls splashed with blood.  Young girl pursued by maniac with knife-blade fingers in dream.  Girl in bath with legs wide apart.  Hand with knife-blade fingers appears out of water between her legs.  Girl then pulled under water by satanic force.  Youth attacked in prison cell by satanic force and hanged by bed sheet.  Fountain of blood hitting ceiling in torrents.  Girl throws petrol on man and then sets light to him.


And then, of course, there was the film A Clockwork Orange, without an assessment of which no study of violence would be complete.  After watching the film sixteen-year-old Richard Palmer hit a tramp over the head with two lemonade bottles until they smashed, beat him with slabs of crazy paving and when the old man staggered away battered him with two bricks and beat him with a stick.  Then he left him, cycled home, and went calmly into his own home.


During his trial the prosecuting counsel told the Court that if robbery had been the motive it was only for 1/2p, the change the tramp had in his pockets after someone in the fish shop queue had given him 15p to buy his supper.  But, he added, 'the conclusion that the film has some terrible influence on what is happening is inescapable'.  And the psychiatrist who examined the boy said 'the real explanation is truly macabre and frightening.  It seems as though momentarily the devil had been planted in the boy's subconscious.  In my submission, it is the irresistible conclusion that whatever was planted there followed the violence of A Clockwork Orange which perpetrates violence in its ugliest form.  This is the only possible explanation for what this boy did'.


Palmer's defence counsel, Roger Gray, said there was no evidence whatsoever that the boy was suffering from any mental disease.  He was not drunk, neither had he taken drugs - 'what possible explanation can there be for this savagery other than the film?  The lawyer spoke of yet another 'callous comparison'.  He said that, in the book, the gang, following the attack on the old man, were quoted as saying 'then we went on our way'.  Palmer, after his attack on the old man, told police 'when I got home I noticed I had some blood on my trousers, then I went to bed'.  Mr Gray continued, 'how many impressionable young men have these sadistic tendencies which film directors and TV producers turn into mindless sensationalism producing a dreadful canker among them?  All responsible people desire to see this dreadful trend stamped out'.



ut far from being 'stamped out' the film, well launched with Stephen Murphy's X Certificate (1971), became a cult with a language of its own.  The film, with its masochistic setting, reiterates a theme which is fundamental to much now freely available pornography - woman is there to be raped, she deserves to be raped and raped she must be.  'Gang-bang' suggests a romp - give crime a jolly name and even depravity and multiple rape sounds fun.  The mascaraed, clockwork orange 'droogs' with their anarchic speech, mannerisms and clothes, engaged in tellingly formal acts of rape, robbery and murder, had become the 'heroes' upon whom, as Scotland Yard reported, a dozen gangs in Central London alone were modelling their life-styles.  And in May 1976, Herbert S. Kerrigan, one of Scotland's leading advocates, spoke of the three murder trials in 1975 which to his knowledge had been 'triggered off by seeing A Clockwork Orange'.


All this did not - could not - happen in a vacuum.  As Enid Wistrich, then chairman of the Greater London Council's Film Viewing Board pointed out in her book I don't Mind the Sex, It's the Violence (1972), the public backlash against the so-called 'liberalisation' of film and television resulted in the GLC itself coming under pressure to ban Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and Ken Russell's The Devils.  It is interesting, and significant, that Alexander Walker of the Evening Standard (29.1.72) made a statement to the effect that the Committee's decision to see A Clockwork Orange meant it would 'have to consider the social and political implications of such films in the light of the chaos in Ulster, the Aldershot outrages and the violence in the picket lines'.  He pointed out that the broadcasters were anxiously watching all these developments 'with their own medium of television in mind.  If such films were to be shown in the cinema where would that leave them?'



lastair Milne, Director General of the BBC, 1981-85, has told how the governors of the BBC became so concerned about the increasingly violent and obscene films becoming available for television that a private session was arranged for them in the office of the British Board of Film Censors in Soho Square early in 1973.  After, apparently, being handed a warm glass of gin, they were regaled with the burning at the stake in The Devils, the rape and mutilation scenes from Straw Dogs and the gang rape from A Clockwork Orange.


Apparently, Alastair Milne tells us, 'the Governors were stunned; indeed two lady Governors were speechless while the Chairman, Michael Swann, was moved to articulate their anxieties'.  However, Mr Milne and his colleagues at the BBC comforted the Governors by telling them that the Corporation already had 'pretty tough guidelines' to help them handle such productions.


That's as may be, but what is certain is that the problem didn't even begin to go away and it was Sir Michael himself who argued that violence and 'society's attitude towards it should be based on the assumption of adverse effect until that is disproven'.


It was around this time that I addressed the Royal College of Nursing and referred to the fact that the techniques of conditioning used in the film A Clockwork Orange were similar to those being used by the American Army to train assassins.  I went on to say:


When the movement which I represent was founded in 1963, we said quite simply that the constant presentation of violence on our television screens would significantly promote and help to create a violent society."  We were ridiculed for our pains, called cranks and accused of being squeamish.  We sensed then and believe strongly now, that the screening of violence, horror, shock and obscenity into the home, where the viewer sits comfortably, detached, in his easy chair, where he can switch off mentally or physically whenever he wishes, can have nothing but a destructive effect upon our sensitivities and our society.  So do the real horrors of war, death and poverty become no more than conversation pieces, fantasy worlds, increasingly accepted as no more than entertainment.


As an example of the conditioning power of television I referred to Dr Who.  I said I 'detected a pronounced increase in what one might refer to as conspicuous violence: strangulation - by hand, by claw, by obscene vegetable matter - is the latest gimmick, sufficiently close up so that they get the point.  And, just for a little variety, show the children how to make a Molotov Cocktail'.


The evidence for this corruptive power of the mass media, I argued, lay in the equation we now make between sadistic violence and entertainment - we are, I said, becoming desensitised as well as corrupted and that is good neither for the individual spirit nor the social climate.


I then went on to argue 'television violence has not only made man more violent and less sensitive, it has, paradoxically, also made him more passive.  The effect of television has, I suppose, never been more clearly seen than in the coverage of the war in Vietnam.  That is the other side of the coin'.  We increasingly took it in our stride.


To say that there is no end to the problem of violence on film and television is to put it mildly.  It not only does not lessen, neither does its impact decrease nor its contents soften.


This has been highlighted by the controversy, which has surrounded the release of certain 'Video Nasties' amongst them the notorious Serial Killers labelled, almost gleefully, 'Unbelievable True Horror', which includes graphic first-hand accounts from 'some of the most infamous sexual psychopaths'.  The film includes interviews with 'Harvey the Hammer', who bludgeoned to death with a claw hammer and also with Arthur Shawcross, 'The Monster of the Rivers' now serving ten consecutive life sentences.  Apparently, despite warnings that the film 'contains footage which is not suitable for television and material and language which some may find offensive' - really! - it was never submitted to the BBFC because its makers said that it was 'educational'.


James Ferman, then director of the BBFC, admitted that film-makers use the 'educational' category as 'a loophole' and went on to say that he found the cover description of Serial Killers really alarming and that he had to admit that he had 'a good deal of sympathy' with Nigel Evans, Conservative MP for Ribble Valley, who called for the system to be reviewed - 'Films are coming in under the guise of education but they are going through sensational subjects to make a fast buck'.  Indeed.



ll that, of course, was twenty years ago.  So where do we stand now?  Readers will be aware of how, as I write in the summer of 1995, hardly a day goes by without the report of a callous murder, so often of a child.  The Times (17.8.95) carried the headline 'Wife stabbed sailor after watching Basic Instinct', and tells how 'a depressed housewife took a knife and went out looking for a stranger to stab only hours after watching the film on video.  The woman, aged forty-one, put her two young boys to bed, went to a Portsmouth night club and met a stranger - a sailor - who became her victim.  She led him down an alley and stabbed him with a serrated kitchen knife which she had taken from her home'.  She told the Court that the film had suggested to her that 'it would be good to stab a man'.  Basic Instinct was described as an 'erotic thriller' in which a naked woman sits astride a naked man, reaches for an ice pick and lashes up and down on the man in a frenzy until his body is covered in blood.  And that's by no means all.  The whole film is incredibly violent, finishing with police looking at photographs of teenagers lying dead with their throats cut.


So who can be surprised at the effect of all this on the 'depressed housewife'.  The Recorder at the Crown Court told her 'you were sadly suffering from a very severe depressive illness at the time.  But for the illness, you would be looking at a very long term of imprisonment'.  As it was she was committed to hospital under the Mental Health Act.


When one is involved in a fight - in itself a violent word - to reduce and in certain cases to eliminate violence on film and television, it is necessary to document the content of such material, and pretty harsh, evil and repetitive a great deal of it is.  Nothing original, nothing uplifting, nothing to inspire any generation to challenge and change.


It is, of course, necessary to know one's facts and between July and December 1994 members of mediawatch-uk watched and analysed sixty-four films all shown on terrestrial channels and transmitted, with one exception, on and after 9.00pm.  I dealt with the matter of film and TV violence at some length in my book Quite Contrary (Pan Books 1993) and I believe that what I said then is equally applicable today.


I quoted from Dr William Belson's report 'Television Violence and the Adolescent Boy' (1977):


Serious violence is increased by long term exposure to: plays or films in which close personal relationships are a major theme and which feature verbal or physical violence; programmes in which violence seems just thrown in for its own sake or is not necessary to the plot; programmes featuring violence of a realistic kind; programmes in which the violence is presented as being in a good cause; Westerns of the violent kind.


Dr Belson found, for example, 'that teenagers exposed to violent programming committed 49 per cent more violent and antisocial behaviour than those in matched low exposure'.


Violent video and computer images are desensitising young people, according to Sir Paul Condon, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.  In the age of electronic equipment, he said, there was compelling evidence that lack of family stability and a mistaken view of violence acquired in video arcades and from unlimited access to television can be very destructive.  Sir Paul said that some cities in the United States were now 'reaping a murderous harvest' as a result (The Times, 2.3.95); while latest crime statistics in Britain show that violent offences have increased by 17,300 to 311,500.



n 27 February 1995 the BBC's current affairs programme Panorama examined the question of screen violence and its effects on children and society as a whole.  The film Natural Born Killers had just been released at the cinema after a three-month delay while the BBFC investigated claims that this film had been a factor in a number of murders in the United States.  Panorama examined the case of Nathan Martinez, a seventeen-year-old boy charged with killing two members of his own family after watching Natural Born Killers ten times.


Oliver Stone, the film's director, said in the programme, 'film is a powerful medium, film is a drug, film is a potential hallucinogen - it goes into your eye, it goes into your brain, it stimulates and it's a dangerous thing - it can be a very subversive thing'.  Professor Rowell Huesmann of the University of Michigan said that he was in no doubt that 'fictional screen violence raises the level of belief in the appropriateness of aggressive and violent behaviour, it raises people's beliefs that this is a mean world, a violent world and it just makes aggression more acceptable'.


In the same programme Dr Susan Bailey said that "in the early eighties I encountered over a five-year period, twenty youngsters who had murdered and a quarter of that group presented me with descriptions of how they had watched violent and pornographic films in the weeks leading up to their offence of murder - films where there were particular issues of violence against one person or another and where quite often the message in the film was that being bad and being violent brought with it rewards and power and this seemed to be an important issue for them'.


Speaking on the same programme, James Ferman of the BBFC said, "I won't be here in the next century doing this job.  I think there will be a problem.  I think our children will be assaulted from all sides.  They will all have television in their rooms by then, probably video, probably satellite dishes attached to those televisions so they will all be seeing everything.  We must somehow give them the strength to resist".


And that, it seems to me, raises, as they say, the $64,000 question.  But there is another question, very much related: how do we fill the filmmakers with a sense of their own responsibility for the health and welfare not only of the whole of our society, but especially, for pity's sake, the welfare of the children who are the future?  



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