How we make real a brutal make-believe 

By John C Beyer, Director of mediawatch-uk

Violent crime 'worse here than the US' said a recent headline in a national newspaper.  Apparently, an international crime report, produced by Professor Michael Hough from the South Bank University in London, has reached the conclusion that Britain has a higher crime rate than any other rich nation apart from Australia.   Can we be in any doubt when we hear stories of 92 year old ladies being raped?  Or a young boy on his way home being stabbed to death?  Every day on television and in the newspapers we hear about unprovoked attacks and mindless violence that intimidate us and leave us in a state of anxiety.

Social violence and aggression have become so serious a national problem that the Prime Minister, Tony Blair MP, and the Home Secretary, Jack Straw MP, have promised a raft of new punitive law and order measures aimed at curbing "street crime" and other violent behaviour.  The courts will be given powers to remand in secure accommodation young offenders who repeatedly commit offences while on bail.   It has been proposed that the courts will increase their sitting days by 7000 in order to clear the backlog of cases and there will be another 300 CPS prosecutors. Significantly, government ministers are reported to be considering ways to make it illegal to sell, manufacture and import replica firearms, possession of which in a public place would become a criminal offence.

It is true, of course, that there are a number of factors which can be said to influence social behaviour and this association, from the outset in the 1960s, warned that the constant portrayal of violence on television would help to create a violent society.   The presentation of violent role models would give the impression that behaving in this way is glamorous and without real consequences.  The Director General of the National Crime Intelligence Service, John Abbot, recently criticised the film industry for glamorising violent crime and portraying gangsters as heroes.   I would add that the portrayal of police and law enforcement agencies is frequently as bad or worse than the portrayal of criminals and this is surely a serious impediment to fostering good relations between police and the communities they serve.

Those in the film and television industry have always rejected the common sense approach that their media is influential but when we consider the impact of film and television in our sophisticated world this is an absurd position to take up.  A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation in America estimated that more than half of American children have a television in their bedroom and that the typical child will witness some 200,000 acts of televised violence by the age of 18.  In Britain too, many children have their own TV sets and are susceptible to just as much violence.

Over the last ten years this association has monitored more than 1000 films screened on the five terrestrial TV channels.   Our latest Report entitled 'Yob Culture on TV', published last week, analyses 193 films shown in 2000. Our monitors identified 1021 incidents involving firearms, 799 violent assaults and 207 incidents involving knives and other offensive weapons. The crimes portrayed included murder, rape, grievous bodily harm, assault, robbery with violence, burglary and vehicle theft.   Apart from the guns and machine pistols the offensive weapons shown being used included flick knives, scissors, razors, baseball bats and a chain saw.

The shocking findings in this Report show that the broadcasting authorities  pay little attention to the public and parliamentary concern about the portrayal of violence and they continue to schedule, year in year out, many of the same violent films.  It is difficult to appreciate the full impact of the violent fantasy world portrayed by film makers who perpetuate cruelty, killing, maiming, destruction and sexual aggression in their productions.

Writing in 1997 in the UNESCO newsletter 'News on Children and Violence on the Screen' Professor George Gerbner, of Temple University, Philadelphia, said "What drives violence.. is not popularity .. it is global marketing producers need a dramatic ingredient that requires no translation, speaks action in any language and fits any culture.   That ingredient is violence. Formula-driven media violence is not an expression of freedom it is a defacto censorship that chills originality and extends the dynamics of domination, intimidation and repression.   The media violence overkill is an ingredient in a global marketing formula imposed on media professionals and foisted on the children of the world."

In his momentous book, "Hollywood vs America", published in 1993, Michael Medved concluded that Hollywood's addiction to graphic violence is the most destructive feature of popular culture's emphasis on ugliness. Its obsession with brutality encourages far more serious sorts of anti-social behaviour, with devastating consequences for our civilisation.  A wealth of scientific studies in recent years has removed most of the doubts about the link between make-believe brutality and real-world aggression.

Following the release in America of the ultra violent film 'Natural Born Killers' Oliver Stone, the film's director, was interviewed by 'Panorama' on BBC TV.   He said "... 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 its a dangerous thing  - it can be a very subversive thing". In the same programme Professor Rowell Huesmann, of the University of Michigan, said "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."

Dr Susan Bailey, a forensic psychiatrist told 'Panorama' "In the early 80's I encountered over a five year period 20 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 ... they described very vividly the films they had watched and how that had influenced their final act."

The British Board of Film Classification, in an Annual Report published in December 1997, wondered "if Hollywood would ever wake up with a conscience about teenagers and the drip-drip effect of films which teach violence, glorify it and celebrate the rewards it brings."   "Academic researchers", the Board said, "analysed both the pleasures of violent entertainment and the dangers.  They surveyed the prevalence of screen violence country by country.   America has the highest crime rates in the developed world and produces the most violent entertainment.   The most popular stars are the macho heroes who use violence and therefore demonstrate and validate its use."   How curious it is that the BBFC continues to classify violent films   and is even now advocating a policy which shifts responsibility for children's film viewing entirely on to parents.

In recent years television has become a 24 hour global operation and digital technology is capable of bringing into our homes, at the touch of a few buttons, programming from around the world.  The Internet has additional capabilities to enthral us with everything that is known to humanity.  It is important to educate ourselves in how to handle all this technology and to be aware of the obvious benefits but also of the possible harm.

Another recent study produced by Stanford University, California, is the first to demonstrate that rationing the time children spend watching television can make them less aggressive - violent behaviour can be "unlearnt" by cutting back on television, video games and videotapes.

Violence in entertainment remains a matter of public concern and much more must be done in future to address this matter.  It is the one factor that is the easiest to deal with.  Politicians talk of joined up government where different departments co-operate and harmonise the application of policy with others.   It is clearly pointless to have stringent law and order policy, for example, aimed at encouraging good and responsible citizenship, if it is continually undermined by lawlessness and disorder glorified and celebrated in entertainment.

The Film and Broadcasting industries, and those who regulate them, have much to answer for by failing to respond to society's ills - but our silence about violent entertainment gives tacit agreement to the programming they prescribe.   Clearly a more socially responsible approach to programme policy is essential but this will not happen without demands from the public that it should.  With a General Election in prospect it is opportune for such matters to be moved up the political agenda.

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