A collision course with censorship

January 10, 1997

The recent banning of the film Crash illustrates the need for protection from growing state interference with what is shown on screen, argue Julian Petley and Martin Barker.

Bottomley launches TV crackdown", "Curb the dark and brutal side of TV", "Ban this car crash sex film". They are at it again. Conservative politicians, hand in glove with the Daily Mail, are whipping up scare stories about the cinema, television and video.

The likely result? More censorship, more regulations (although our moving image culture is already one of the most heavily regulated in the world), and the cutting and banning of material which every other European country takes largely for granted.

All the major parties in Denmark have decided it is time to abolish film censorship (though not of course classification). While the British Government dresses up censorship as "consumer protection", British people are in dire need of protection from increasing state interference with what they can see on their screens.

There is nothing new in this. Every time there is a Dunblane or a Hungerford or a particularly awful murder, cinema, TV and video are dragged out as scapegoats. Never mind that there is no evidence of a "copy-cat" crime. The press will manufacture it, the politicians will parrot the press who will, in turn, quote the politicians back at themselves. A largely mythical "public opinion" will be invoked to justify more curbs and censorship. Real viewers, largely left out of this incestuous loop, find their films, videos and TV programmes further watered down and bowdlerised.

Britain, unlike every other European country, appears incapable of accepting the moving image culture. Debate has been dominated by the crudest version of "effects theory", the assumption that people will replicate behaviour they see on the screen. This is rooted both in American behaviourist psychology and a tenacious "common-sense" of the kind that once held that the earth was "obviously" flat.

"Effects" theory simply does not square with how people relate to the media. Viewers of films and TV are involved in a highly complex process of mediation; they are emphatically not passive puppets helplessly caught up in chains of cause-and-effect. Arguments for "effects" by analogy with advertising display a woeful ignorance of how advertising actually works, which is to raise product awareness, make certain brands appear more attractive than others, and generally foster a "buying mood".

There are influences certainly. But words accrue meaning through usage and, accepting "effects" in the way that a word has come to be used means accepting the entire behaviourist package and a good deal more ideological baggage besides. The more we investigate the alleged "evidence" for such effects, the stories of the "video rapists" and "clockwork killers", the more we discover these so-called "copy-cat crimes" to be threadbare myths.

We also find it impossible to accept the notion of "media violence" which is such a key ingredient of "effects" theory. Counting images of utterly different kinds of violent activity, irrespective of context, genre and meaning, is not only a completely pointless, intellectually bankrupt exercise, but it usually serves only to fuel yet more panic about our supposedly "violent media".

Our book Ill Effects had its origins in the conference we organised in 1994, called "Challenging the Effects Tradition". Our starting point was a series of three closely-linked events. There was a ludicrous press campaign, in the wake of the Jamie Bulger trial to pin the blame for the murder on the video Child's Play III. The Newson Report in March 1994 received vast amounts of uncritical coverage including the Evening Standard's statement that "Britain's top psychologists confess that they had got it wrong in denying a link between video nasties and real life violence".

Few of the authors were psychologists, none of them was a media specialist and the report contained no new evidence, instead selectively quoting old research in an attempt to prove a link between screen and real violence. The Liberal Democrat MP David Alton subsequently moved an amendment tightening video censorship to the Criminal Justice Bill.

Our conference was well attended, a gratifying number of people gave papers, debate was lively and friendly. Participants included the Broadcasting Standards Council, the distinguished American critic of "effects" research, Willard Rowland, the Video Standards Council, the British Videogram Association, journalists, TV producers, and James Ferman of the British Board of Film Classification. Hoping to stimulate more debate, we approached Routledge with the idea for a book about the "effects" of visual images on behaviour.

We have tried to present a many-faceted critique of "effects" theory. Our authors have different perspectives and points of view, and we have not imposed our own upon them. Sadly, however, Greg Philo and David Miller, the authors of one contribution which we invited (and turned down) have gone into print to accuse us of "censoring" them because we disagreed with their views. The truth is rather more mundane. After endless deadline extensions their chapter arrived after the book had gone to the publishers. Routledge agreed to accept it, providing we could edit it in two days. However, it soon became clear that the authors were quite unwilling to go through the normal editorial process (which all our other authors had done) and seemed to equate "editing" with "censorship". Since we thought as editors that the chapter in question was poorly written and even more poorly argued, and thus in desperate need of editing, we dropped it.

The debate is certain to continue. Not at the wish of media audiences, relatively few of whom complain that there is too much violence on the media. Rather, the furore is fuelled by the opportunism of populist politicians who appear not to have the foggiest notion of what is actually on our TV screens. These in turn are fed by, and have a symbiotic relationship with, newspapers, whose motive for telly-bashing is both commercial and ideological. Commercial because the press has always regarded the television as an unwelcome rival and never missed an opportunity for "knocking copy". Furthermore, hypocritical editors think that salacious (and wildly exaggerated) stories of TV turpitude sell copies.

Ideology comes into it because Britain's notoriously conservative and unrepresentative press is a vast reservoir of all those ingredients - anti-modern, illiberal, boorishly populist, brutishly "common-sensical" - which underpin "effects" theory and its fundamental dislike and distrust of moving image culture.

Thus it is hardly surprising that the press routinely underplays research which does not demonise that culture (ie the Policy Studies Institute project which showed that young offenders' media diet was much the same as that of other young people) but devotes acres of space to absolute tosh about Child's Play III, and tendentious nonsense like the Newson Report.

Julian Petley is a lecturer in communications and information studies at Brunel University. Martin Barker is head of the school of cultural studies at the University of the West of England, Bristol.

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