Television and Violence
he shocking murder of Merseyside toddler James Bulger in 1993 by two
older children was seen by many observers - expert commentators and ordinary
people alike - as one more piece of evidence of the link between real life
violence and the violence that we see every day in TV dramas, movies and
But even after such an horrific event there are, of course, many others - academics and film directors, as well as broadcasters and even a number of leading politicians - who still refuse to recognise any connection between violence on our screens and violence in our society. No wonder.
For them to admit a clear cause and effect would mean they would have to admit that they have been wrong about a major cause of social ill, and wrong not to take corrective action. Thankfully, there are some people in high places who have the right idea.
Viscount Caldecote, speaking in the House of Lords on 9th January 1996 said: "Broadcasting, and in particular television, is a very potent influence in our lives today. It can be a most valuable force for good and upward progress - or a degrading factor in our national life".
TV violence is an important issue because it affects us all, whoever we are, wherever we live, work or go to school, whatever we believe in and whoever we vote for. That is why we have published this booklet. It's one of a number of short booklets to help concerned viewers recognise the problems with our media and to respond to them.
Why not discuss this matter with your family, friends and local community groups? It is an issue that will not go away unless we do something about it.
Revd Graham Stevens (former chairman).
TV AND VIOLENCE
ven if you watch just a few hours of TV a day, you can't miss the fact
that violence is everywhere: terrestrial broadcast TV, cable or satellite. From
Hollywood movies through soaps like "EastEnders" and "Brookside",
adult dramas like "Cracker" and even children's programmes like
"Power Rangers", realistic violence is the stuff of our
Contrary to expectations of an improvement, the latest research report from mediawatch-uk, 'MORE CRUELTY AND VIOLENCE 3' published in March 1997, shows TV violence worsening. Despite the horrific real life mowing down of most of a class of primary school children at Dunblane and the growing demands for stricter gun control that followed, shooting remains the commonest form of violence on screen.
Our analysis of a total of 246 films on the four terrestrial channels - BBC1, BBC2, ITV and Channel 4 - in 1996 detailed a massive 1,076 incidents involving firearms, 706 violent assaults and 376 incidents involving knives or other offensive weapons. 108 films were repeat screenings - already shown at least once on terrestrial TV and now allowed to he seen once again.
Click here for 'Promoting a Culture of Violence' published in July 2002
These findings are a shocking disgrace. The Broadcasting Authorities
have done little to reduce screen violence despite mounting public and
Parliamentary concern. Showing such films at later times seems to be the only
action taken. The great - and the good - certainly know the power of television.
Our politicians use the TV to influence us to vote for them and to explain and
to justify their policies. Our leading charities use it to persuade us to part
with our money. They recognise that TV has a huge influence. But the most
committed believers in TV are the advertisers and their agencies. None of them
would spend the millions and millions of pounds they invest in TV every year if
it did not raise awareness of the message they are selling.
One alarming message that TV - not the advertisers! - increasingly sells us is that violence is acceptable. TV says violence is trivial, commonplace, everyday, mundane. It's part of life, normal. Part of our modern culture. And it can even be funny, in a sickly ironic way. TV violence also teaches something even more corrupting - that intelligence is out, brute force is in. Morality is out. The cops are stupid, the criminals are the clever ones. It's a jungle out there, it's every man, woman and child for themselves, and it's "cool".
The Broadcasting Act 1990 stipulates, in Section 6(1)(a), that "broadcasters should do all that they can to secure ... that nothing is included in ... programmes which offends against good taste or decency, or is likely to encourage or incite to crime or lead to disorder or be offensive to public feeling".
This requirement also applies to the BBC through Clause 5(1)(d) of the 1996 Royal Charter. This is the letter of the law. It sounds good on paper. But can it be enforced?
Click here for Helpful hints on Monitoring TV and Radio
Well meaning senior broadcasters wishing to buck the trend and bring a
climate of self restraint and responsibility into their organisation must find
the reality frustrating: neither the BBC nor the Independent Television Commission
has the power to preview programmes or feature films, and stop them being shown
if they fall short of requirements. This is the case even when the provocative
nature of the programme is widely publicised in advance so more people watch!
We live in an era of increased crimes of violence against the person or property, from child abuse to wife (or husband) battering, violence at football games, 'road rage', 'joy riding', vandalism and the mugging of the elderly or otherwise defenceless for a meagre handful of cash.
TV is our single biggest influence. Many young people have seen many thousands of crimes depicted on TV by the time they reach 18. It is not unreasonable to assume, on the balance of probability, that this preoccupation with violence is bound to have harmful effects. Violence on TV is glamorous and memorable. A scene lasting a few seconds - in during a tiny part of the programme - may be remembered long after everything else in the story. Violence has a very contagious message and often produces an immediate effect.
Children imitate what they see. They turn it into games where others get hurt. Violence brutalises, it coarsens and depresses others. Its impact is overwhelming and corrupting. Many scientifically conducted research studies have concluded that watching TV violence can have an effect on the behaviour and attitudes of everyone from Polynesian islanders to urban school children in Western Countries.
In the UK the conclusions of these studies are often dismissed. Thankfully in the USA people across the political spectrum are beginning to accept their vitally important message. When will we wake up to it here?
Some TV producers, film directors and broadcasters laugh at our concerns about violence. They call any such outcry a "kneejerk response". But their entrenched view is similarly automatic. They say: "It's realistic. It reflects reality. It's what the punters want. You don't have to watch it, do you? You can always turn off".
But we don't have much choice, especially when these scenes are unexpected. We don't buy or rent our TVs to keep switching them off! You can't turn off your mind or fast forward something unpleasant that's being broadcast that very moment. Parents can't be there all the time to watch with their children during the hours devoted to children's programmes - nor should they have to.
TV, of course, is not the only problem. The UK's free market economy allows increasingly violent video games, computer games and videos to be sold or rented to impressionable young people. And there is the worrying development of the growing number of youth magazines pushing the idea that violence is actually trendy.
But staying with TV, the imminent explosion of new digital television channels presents a very serious threat to the regulation of programme content as required by the Broadcasting Act and the BBC 's Royal Charter. Without Parliamentary intervention, the inescapable result of this expansion will he that responsibility for maintaining proper standards of good taste and decency will pass irretrievably out of the hands of the regulatory authorities and into those of the programme makers and service providers.
And in National VALA's past experience, safeguarding good taste and decency - not to mention reducing violence - are not the programme makers' top priority!
The powers that be in this country have yet to actually do very much about it but at least broadcast violence, and its influence on children, in particular, is increasingly the subject of research and declarations of serious concern among our decision makers.
We hope their words lead to meaningful actions soon. In the meantime we cannot turn our backs on those affected, the vulnerable.
WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?
e have a duty to ask: "What are we watching? What are the children
watching?" We also need to teach school age children to be discerning
about what they see. Encourage them to he more critical - discuss whether that
scene, that close-up, adds anything to the story? What could the director have
Ask them what they think that action they have just seen says about the character responsible. A family discussion can put things in perspective, remind us all that we must share responsibility for what we see, and our reactions to it.
We also need to ask children what they feel about what they have watched, to teach them to manage their anger or whatever other emotion that may arise. And we need to keep a close eye on ourselves, too!
Parents will have to say "no" to violent programmes sometimes. If they find themselves confronted by unexpected violent scenes or images, it is important to remember that by switching off or switching channels at this point the violent image is what stays in the mind. Better to let the programme play out and then discuss it critically. Don't just watch the next programme and let the violent imagery submerge into the sub-conscious.
In taking this stand, parents of course have to make sure they are credible. No child or young person who can reason for themselves will take seriously an adult who is known to revel in violent films and programmes, but does not let the children watch them. As with so many other aspects of being a parent, common sense, consistency and integrity must prevail.
WHAT CAN I DO ABOUT VIOLENT PROGRAMMES?
s consumers TV viewers have rights. We should - we must - make our views
and opinions known about the depiction of violence and other objectionable
material on TV. (Click
here for mediawatch-uk DIRECTORY) This responsibility
is particularly important for parents and others caring for children and young
The BBC Producers' Guidelines published in November 1996 suggest that the mere existence of the 9pm "watershed" is, in most cases, sufficient "signposting" to warn viewers of programme content they may find offensive after that time. Watersheds are surely outmoded by the video recorder, which enables easy "time shifting" of programmes.
However, since the broadcasters still overtly uphold the "watershed" as an ideal, any programme shown at a time when children might reasonably be assumed to be watching needs to take this reality into account. Films deemed unsuitable for child audiences should definitely be, and usually are, shown later on. The 8pm rule, for example, currently favoured by SKY Movies, is too early for adult films to be screened, even if they are very well known and feature superstars.
Click here for comment on the Watershed (see blue text)
The BBC Producers' Guidelines also indicate that pre-screen announcements and warnings are thought necessary when content is likely to offend "significant numbers of viewers and listeners". But in our survey, 'MORE CRUELTY AND VIOLENCE 3', only 28 out of 246 films monitored were prefaced by an announcement or warning. These warnings vaguely referred to "disturbing or explicit" violence or "tough" or "strong" language. There is little consistency across the channels, and no clear rationale for prefacing some films and not others. In any case, the warnings rarely if ever convey the true nature of what follows.
Why not avoid offending in the first place? After all, television is a medium specifically designed for home viewing. It is not offered in a cinema or private club, or in a pre-recorded video form. Its unique role in the home should be respected. Audiences trust the broadcasters to fulfil their obligations.
Violent scenes are often shown in adult dramas, and defended on the grounds that the broadcasters simply want to portray the reality of our society. Such scenes might well be intended to foster wider understanding. 'Problem plays' are a legitimate part of drama. But showing the effects of social issues on individuals in terms of their appalling behaviour and accompanying language has a quite different impact to a dramatic presentation without these gratuitous excesses.
In any case, children's and teenager's programmes, broadcast early in the evening, should have a virtual guarantee of being free from violence. Emphasis should be placed upon non-violent solutions to problems. When we see something on TV which we recognise as harmful or damaging in terms of its violent content, we should write to, or telephone, the TV station. Note the programme's title, the time, the date and the TV channel. Click here for mediawatch DIRECTORY). Keep a copy handy near the TV set! If possible keep a copy of any letter you write or type.
Whatever concerns you, contact the Broadcasting Standards Commission. They have printed complaint forms available free of charge on request. Ask also for a copy of their Code of Guidance. (Visit: www.ofcom.org.uk) Click here for medaiwatch-uk comments on the Code. Why not contact your local Member of Parliament as well? Do not feel isolated. Talk to other people who share your outlook. If you objected to a programme, others may well agree. Six letters are better than one, but one is better than no letter at all!
ARE THERE ANY GROUPS I CAN JOIN?
ediawatch-uk has a useful 'newsbrief' (Click
here for menu page) carrying news of debates and of our
campaigns on the whole question of TV standards. We run regular conferences
with well known speakers looking at different aspects of TV. We have links with
similar groups in other countries, from the USA to the Netherlands, from
Scandinavia to Australia, and regularly publish the results of methodical research
on the contents of programmes, such as 'MORE CRUELTY AND VIOLENCE 3',
our recent survey of films on TV, referred to above.
mediawatch-uk is a voluntary, independent campaigning organisation. It is made up of, and supported by, concerned members of the public from all backgrounds and of all ages. (Click here for About Us) We campaign for better broadcasting - especially, for a generally higher moral tone in programmes and better-defined broadcasting codes of practice. We campaign calmly, rationally and peacefully. We work for wholesome family viewing, for respect for human dignity in programmes and more frequent portrayal of civilised behaviour and good moral standards.
Click here for 'A Fair Deal for Stakeholders'
for Parliamentary Briefing on Clause 319 of the Communications Bill
We have local branches in some areas - perhaps you could help to start one where you live! - and work closely with various like-minded groups, community organisations, churches and others. Over the years ours has been a voice for concerned consumers wanting better broadcasting. Perhaps this article has persuaded you that you would like to help us? Please get in touch.
Click here for 'How we make real a brutal make-believe'
Click here for 'Film can be a very subversive thing'
Click here for Joining Form