This essay shall endeavour to critically examine the extent to which the current portrayal of violence on television is responsible for violent behaviour in society. Arguments both giving strength to the proposition and those against it shall be presented. Attention shall also be given to the way in which television is regulated, along with a comparison between UK and American case law. Concern that violence on television is harmful to individuals and only serves to encourage criminal tendencies and violence has been ongoing for many years.
Back in 1964, the issue of programme standards on the television was brought to public attention when Mary Whitehouse launched the ‘Clean-Up TV Campaign’. The campaign sought to remove the ‘exhibitions of sex and violence’ on television, with Mary Whitehouse asserting that: ‘If violence is constantly portrayed as normal on the television screen, it will help to create a violent society’. Over the following months, police incidents were recorded where there were strong grounds for believing that minors had been influenced into committing the act as a result of what they had viewed on television.
Hansard records from December 1965 record Mr Anthony Wedgewood Benn (the then Postmaster General) as stating that ‘Radio and television exercise enormous importance in the lives of the community.. They have a greater impact – particularly television – than almost any other medium and they are major forces in shaping the thinking of young people’. Many feel that limited progress has been made in this area: 1978 saw the enactment of the Protection of children Act and the Video Recordings Act 1984 entered into force following a strenuous campaign against obscene and violent videos.
The latter Act introduced the regulation of films by the British Board of Film Classification. The organisation Media Watch UK provides statistics for the year 2003 relating to the number of films shown on television by the five terrestrial channels. Certainly, in light of these statistics (1120 incidents involving firearms and 765 violent assaults were portrayed in the 206 films shown), there is little doubt that violence and serious brutality is all too prevalent upon our screens. It is now essential to evaluate whether these depictions could reasonably be said to have an effect on the levels of violence in society today.
The cases and arguments which give weight to the proposition that television violence does indeed contribute to crime shall first be examined. Much research has been carried out in this area over the years. A report recently carried out by Professor Kevin Browne at Birmingham University and published in The Lancet (February 2005) assets that violence on television (and computer games) does indeed increase the risk of children acting in a violent manner and suffering from emotional disturbances. The report states that the effect was ‘small but significant’ in the short term and of particular relevance in relation to young boys.
Yet it also concedes that the effect is less clear as regards the effect on older children and in the longer term and goes on to state that factors such as family and social environment cannot be underestimated either. Another point which suggests that violence can be very influential and cause an increased level of violence in society is based around the concept of advertising on our televisions. There is an argument that what appears on our screens does have an affect upon those watching it, otherwise the multi-million pounds that are spent on advertising would be in vain.
Obviously advertisers strenuously believe that portrayals shown upon the screen do indeed have a very convincing effect. However, Dr Guy Cumberbatch1 has carried out research into this area and places great importance upon the element of objectivity. He differentiates between advertising which generally seeks to encourage consumers to purchase one brand of product over that of another, and this argument which claims that an actual change in behaviour itself is effected.
Indeed, Dr Camberbatch stresses that campaigns, on their own (without the force of the law behind them) to bring about a change in behaviour of individuals have had little effect upon the behavioural trends of society. Examples include the campaigns relating to the encouragement to wear seat-belts and those to discourage drink driving and smoking. A mention should be also given to the issue of film. There have been some awful tragedies for which these have been blamed. In the eighties, the Hungerford massacre by Michael Ryan was linked to the film ‘Rambo’. Ryan shot dead sixteen people, including his mother, before turning the gun on himself.
The fact that he carried a Kalashnikov AV 47 rifle and wore a headband led to a belief that he imitating the Rambo film, ‘First Blood’2 However, as was concluded by Jeremy Josephs in Hungerford: One Man’s Massacre (1993): ‘The truth was a lot less colourful. For it is simply not known whether Ryan ever saw any of the Sylvester Stallone films’. Furthermore, a BBC documentary later disclosed that there was no evidence to suggest that Ryan even possessed a video recorder and none that he had ever rented a video. In the nineties, the murder of two year old James Bulger in Bootle, Liverpool, was linked to ‘Child’s Play 3’.
However, the subsequent director of the police investigation, Albert Kirby, later concluded that there existed no link and produced evidence to show that the only relevance of the video was that the father of one of the boys had rented it some months earlier (at a time when his son was not living with him). Moreover, psychiatric assessments confirmed that the son disliked such horror films. In America, the passing of the Telecommunications Act 1996 required all new television sets over 13″ to be fitted with a ‘V’ chip by 1st January 2000.
The purpose of this chip is to ‘read’ the information relating to a programme which has been provided by the broadcaster allowing more selective viewing. The extent of its benefits has been doubted, however, since many children are unsupervised whilst watching television and many Americans claim not to use it. Many believe that its introduction by Congress was merely to allay public concerns relating to the content on television, as opposed to any inherent belief that it would make a real difference.
Further research and surveys into the impact of television on children were carried out by Hilde Himmelweit in Britain3 and by Wilbur Schramm in Amercia4. Anderson and Dill5 suggested that media violence (and violent video games) were ‘probably’ a factor in the massacre at Columbine High School in America. Yet they have been widely criticised by other academics in the field, not least for offering merely second hand undocumented hearsay as grounds for their assertions. In contrast, Himmelweit and Schramm concluded that: ‘In our survey, we found no more aggressive, maladjusted or delinquent behaviour among viewers than among controls’6.
Indeed in the American survey, the first study carried out amongst eleven to twelve year olds found that those with television were less aggressive than those without, with no distinct differences being concluded in the older range. The authors were of the opinion that for some children under certain conditions, some television may prove harmful; yet for other children under identical conditions, or for the same children under other conditions, it may actually be beneficial. Yet overall, they concluded that under most conditions, television is neither harmful nor particularly beneficial.
It could be argued that continual exposure to violence on television will ultimately make actual violence in society less unacceptable and shocking. However, this theory holds little weight because an individual would be no less distressed about being the victim of violence (or witnessing it around him) merely due to having seen it happen before on the screen. Many argue that reality is altogether distinguishable from what adults choose to watch on television (and responsibly allow their children to view).
Professor David Buckingham, from the Institute of Education asserts that: ‘Children are not going to commit a violent act just because they see it on television’. He feels that the media has become a scapegoat and whilst perhaps, television violence may alter the form of the violence, it does not cause the commission of the violence in the first place; i. e. it does not cause a person who did not have underlying violent tendencies all along to act in such a manner. As pointed out by Lusted, there is ‘considerable difficulty in establishing causal connections between television violence and violent behaviour’7.
Claims that television violence is a significant cause of violence in society are very common, and whilst they often sound very plausible, they have never stood up to stringent scrutiny. James Ferman, director of the British Board of Film Classification, informed the Home Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons in 1994 that, despite having extensively investigated this area for over twenty years, he was unaware of particular cases where somebody has seen a film and subsequently committed a serious crime as a result of what they had seen8.
In 1988, Kate Adie, the BBC’s Chief Reporter, investigated eight of the best evidenced cases whereby a crime had been linked to the media. The current affairs documentary, Panorama, broadcast her findings that there was no substantial or satisfactory evidence in even one of these cases linking the crime with media violence; she concluded that each of the allegations had been based on mere speculation alone. Conclusion
In light of such weak evidence to support the argument that portrayal of violence on television leads to increased violence in society, a popular argument suggests that only the particularly vulnerable sector of viewers will be aversely affected; an obvious group to investigate would be those who have already committed criminal offences9. Whilst the importance of close supervision of minors and the vulnerable should not be under estimated, it could be argued that the general concerns relating to television violence are less significant than the broader concerns relating to the nature of our society and its apparent collapse.
Furthermore, with appropriate controls in place for the above vulnerable sectors (not to mention due recognition of moral, philosophical, religious or humanistic grounds10), there is certainly strength in the assertion that the media of television should not be held accountable for crime levels in society, but rather be recognised merely for what it is: something not to be relied upon and trusted as a window on the world, but merely one of the available sources of entertainment in modern day society.