Orders of the Day — Television Violence

– in the House of Commons at 10:54 pm on 16th December 1993.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Robert G. Hughes.]

Photo of Ms Liz Lynne Ms Liz Lynne , Rochdale 11:34 pm, 16th December 1993

I am delighted to have the opportunity to debate a very important matter—the effect of violence shown on television, films and video on the behaviour of children.

We all know of the recent tragic case of James Bulger, and I believe that all hon. Members on both sides of the House were deeply distressed by it. When I heard reports of the trial and read some of the transcript, and found out that one of the young boys who had committed the murder had been watching a video called "Child's Play 3", I was absolutely horrified. The fact that a child that age was allowed to watch a video with that sort of content is cause for all of us to be gravely concerned.

It is also cause for grave concern that 181,000 children watched the same film on BSkyB, of whom 42,000 were under the age of nine. I feel strongly that it should not have been broadcast; but I also feel that the children's parents should not have allowed them to watch it. There must be parental responsibility. I cannot say much about the Suzanne Capper trial, except that the alleged perpetrators were apparently chanting the tune from the same film.

I believe that a royal commission should be set up to discover the causes of violence. I know that the Archbishop of Westminster and the Chief Rabbi have called for one, and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) has tabled an early-day motion which was signed by 100 hon. Members, including me. However, we have not managed to bring about the setting up of such a commission.

I do not believe that a matter such as this is or should be party political. Hon. Members of all parties are deeply concerned about the level of violence in today's society. We must establish why those children committed that crime—and, indeed, why there is so much violence in society nowadays. It is all very well to cite poverty and poor living conditions; although they may contribute to the problem, I genuinely believe that children especially are desensitised by the diet of violence that they are fed by television, films and videos, day after day, as they sit in front of their television sets.

The majority of parents are very responsible, but many are not. Instead of entertaining their children—taking them out and spending time with them—they much prefer to go to the video shop. Quite often, they do not check the content of the videos that they take out before sitting their children down in front of the television. Those children become more and more used to violence; the more they see, the more they feel that that is the normal way in which to behave. If they cannot get something by means of reason, they will hit out.

Some say that there is no link between the violence on television and the violence in society—that there is no proof. That is why I believe that more research is needed. The public, however, do believe that there is a link. A recent TV Times survey found that 59 per cent. of viewers thought there was a link between television violence and violence in society, while 85 per cent. felt that television companies were not careful enough about what they screened. Even the Broadcasting Standards Commission said that complaints had trebled in the 12 months before last July.

I know that television films and videos have changed a great deal in those 12 months, but they changed even more in the years before that. That is one of the main problems. Films, television shows and videos have become more and more realistic. When I was younger I used to watch "Dixon of Dock Green". It was a crime series, but we never saw the violence that we see today. There was not the realism that we see today. The same applied to popular children's programmes such as "Popeye". There was always a moral, Popeye always won through. That may be simplifying matters, but there was a moral and the goodie always won. Today, I do not believe that the goodie does win. We must ensure that we have a certain morality running through television, films and video.

It is a tribute to the directors, producers, writers and actors that there is more realism today. It is no longer like "Dr. Who" or cowboys and indians. Many people who do not believe that there is a link say, "I grew up with cowboys and indians and it did not harm me." Children do not see cowboys, red indians or daleks in the street every day. That is the difference. What they see on their screens today is something that they know. They see a real person who could be their neighbour, the man down the street or a child who they know, committing acts of violence.

Many years ago when I worked with children, I asked them about violence and television. I did not ask them whether it had any influence on their behaviour, but I asked them whether they were terrified by violence. Incredibly, they proved the theory. I asked about "Dr. Who". They said, "That is fantasy. I have never met a dalek. I do not have nightmares about that." Most of them had nightmares about real-life drama, things with which they could identify.

There are many television shows, films and videos that are not as extreme as those watched by the children in the James Bulger case. Some films appear to be totally innocuous. I went to see "Home Alone 2". It was the first film that I had been to see in about a year. I had an evening off and that was the only cinema in which I could get a seat. I went with some friends who have children, one of whom is seven years old. She did not come with us, but I asked her parents later whether they would have let her come to the film. They said, "Yes, of course. What about all the other children there?"

In the film, a little boy went to the top of a building and started hurling bricks on to the villain. He was knocked out, but got up after 30 seconds. Another brick came down on top of him and he again got up. He then went into a building and was electrocuted. His hair stood on end and he went black all over. He survived everything. We did not see the real effect of the violence.

Children as young as four and five were watching that film. I do not think that they would have wanted to be violent or that it would necessarily have affected them in a violent way. However, films that do not show the consequences of violence are just as bad. Children will ape what they see on a television screen or in a film. They may go out and think, "I'll throw a brick at another child. It won't harm him. I saw it in a film and the person got up." I am not saying that we should ban such films, but we should ensure that their producers and writers look carefully at the sort of programmes that they are making.

Some time ago I watched "Kilroy" because it was specifically about television and violence. There were two prisoners on day release from prison. One of them was asked, "Why did you commit your crime?" He said, "I saw it on Crimewatch. I saw someone go into a building society, steal the money and get away with it and I thought, 'I'm broke and that's an easy way to make money. He was caught. How many people watch those sorts of programmes? I am not saying that we should ban them, but programme makers must be responsible.

I am very worried about real-life crime and its effect on children as well. Many of them see it, as many programmes now depict and dramatise what has happened in real life. Again, I think that that is a worrying way to go about things.

There has to be a link between crime and video nasties and all the violence that we see in the media. If there was not a link and people did not feel that television influenced them, why would advertisers spend £1·7 billion a year on advertising their products? They cannot say, on the one hand, that it influences people who watch television and, on the other, that it does not. It either does or it does not.

We must ask ourselves what we should do about it. As I said, I feel that we need a royal commission to consider why people, especially children, are violent. I would like there to be a new classification, "Not suitable for home entertainment", on videos so that when parents go into shops they know that they cannot show them to their children. I want broadcasters to mark programmes with a "V" for violence. Perhaps that is a step in the right direction. We will not be able to get them to change overnight, but we might be able to persuade them to do so gradually.

How do we make parents responsible? How do we teach them to teach their children the difference between fact and fiction? We must study that seriously.

The BBC guidelines already state that a blow to the head must be treated as a serious matter. I want television companies to monitor whether those guidelines are working in practice. I suspect that they are not. They read very well, but from watching some programmes, I do not feel that some companies are following their own guidelines.

I would like actors, writers, directors and producers, along with politicians, to come together into some form of organisation to try to change the way in which people think and the programmes that are made. Writers could write programmes and plays with a far more positive message and we could get away from the climate of violence.

I congratulate Sir Anthony Hopkins, who, when asked to make a sequel to "The Silence of the Lambs", refused because he suddenly realised what sort of effect the first film had had on people, and Stanley Kubrik, who abandoned "A Clockwork Orange" because a tramp was beaten up after its first screening.

People in the profession need to be mobilised and politicians on both sides of the House must mobilise with people in the industry and ensure that we do something to stop the diet of violence.

If negative images influence people, positive images must, too. We must persuade programme makers to put positive images on our screens. Most importantly, we must all treat the matter seriously. I know that hon. Members in the House tonight do so and that they are here because they know that violence has got totally out of control and that something has to be done. I sincerely hope that we will be able to set up a royal commission.

Photo of David Maclean David Maclean Minister of State (Home Office) 11:48 pm, 16th December 1993

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne) on obtaining this debate and raising this important issue. She is right. As she will know, it is unusual to have more than just a few hon. Members in the House for an Adjournment debate, but she is supported by her hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) and I see my hon. Friends the Members for Langaurgh (Mr. Bates, for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant), for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold), for Dover (Mr. Shaw) and for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) as well. I think that it was quite unique that, as the hon. Lady was talking, all around me I could hear murmurs of, "Yes, I agree with that", "She's absolutely right" and "She has hit the nail on the head" in response to so many of her arguments.

Of course, the debate has understandably attained particular prominence following the judge's remarks in the case arising from the tragic death of James Bulger. The whole House will be grateful to the hon. Member for Rochdale for her work, in association with my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) and others, in helping to draw attention to the challenge presented to society by the worst violent and pornographic material. In particular this evening, she has drawn attention to the paramount importance of protecting children from harmful influences.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has already made clear the Government's great concern about the murder of James Bulger and has expressed the sympathy that the whole House must feel for James's parents. I am sure that the House would like to take this opportunity to congratulate them on the birth of their new son, although of course nothing can make up for the son they have lost.

The murder of a child is always an appalling crime, whatever the circumstances. Nevertheless, it comes as no surprise that the James Bulger case has provoked such great concern, given the involvement of children both as perpetrators and as victim. Thankfully, murder carried out by young children is extremely rare. It may, therefore, be unsafe to draw any wider conclusions from that particular case.

Nevertheless, my right hon. and learned Friend and I have noted the remarks made by the trial judge, Mr. Justice Morland, who suggested that one explanation for the murder might be exposure to violent videos. We are currently studying these remarks, together with the views of the police officers who investigated the case. We shall also examine the results of current research into the viewing behaviour of juvenile offenders, which has been commissioned jointly by the British Board of Film Classification, the Broadcasting Standards Council, the BBC and the Independent Television Commission. The results of that research are expected to be published in the new year.

Of course, there has already been extensive research into the possibility of a link between on-screen violence and violent behaviour. Many hon. Members will have seen the reports in the press only yesterday about a new study which suggests that the playing of violent computer games encourages aggression in about one in five of the children who play them.

The balance of the research undertaken so far has failed to produce satisfactory evidence that a direct causal effect exists between exposure to violent material and the commission of violent crime. There are probably insuperable practical limitations to what it is possible for such research to achieve in investigating the causes of human behaviour.

None the less, we shall all accept that films, videos, television and computer games are powerful media. Simple common sense tells us that they must have some effect on at least part of their audience. I look at it this way: last year in the United Kingdom, our two commercial terrestrial channels alone generated some £1·7 billion in advertising revenue. Is it likely that advertisers—hard-faced capitalists —would be prepared to spend such vast sums if they did not believe that television could have some influence on people's choices or form their opinions? Of course it does. The Government therefore take the view that all broadcasters, film-makers and video games manufacturers should exercise due caution and assume that there may be some relationship between what they do and the way in which some people behave.

Following the murder of James Bulger there have been calls for the Government to take tough action to ban video nasties, violent videos and computer games and violence on television. I can well understand the concern that has led to such pressure, but as my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has made clear, it would not be right for the Government to rush into snap judgments on the issue, particularly on the question of any wider implications for the criminal law. We need to consider it carefully.

The Government have considerable sympathy for those who say that there is too much violence in the media and that too often children are exposed to violent films or videos which can turn any child and which we would prefer them not to see.

Photo of Mr Michael Stephen Mr Michael Stephen , Shoreham

Does my hon. Friend accept that it is a fallacy to suppose that we can protect children from watching violent material simply by screening it after 9 pm or any other hour? Does he agree that, whatever we do, if such material is broadcast young children will see it and, therefore, the only answer is to ban it altogether?

Photo of David Maclean David Maclean Minister of State (Home Office)

I largely accept that argument. We all know that it is usually only young children who can work the latest video recorders. I do not know whether watching violent films or videos can turn any child or adult into a murderer. But, as I have said, I believe that violent and horrific material must have some effect on a susceptible minority. That is one reason why our controls on videos, films and broadcasting are already among the most stringent in the world.

I shall briefly describe those controls, but before I do, I shall remind the House that they form only part of a much wider system of regulation over what children watch and how they behave. Of course, I am referring to the exercise of parental responsibility, to which the hon. Lady so rightly and wisely referred. That is a much more effective means of controlling children's behaviour than any system of regulation the Government could hope to establish. There is an obvious need for all of us who are responsible for children to ensure that they are not allowed to see unsuitable material. There is also a clear need for film makers, video producers and broadcasters to think very carefully about their wider responsibilities to society.

The Government recognise that there is considerable concern about the availability of violent and horrific videos, including video and computer games. The hon. Lady's comments about the difference between fantasy films and reality struck a chord with me and my hon. Friends. We can all watch films, including some of my favourites such as "Star Trek". They are wonderful escapism and I do not think that people realistically put themselves in that position.

I agree with the hon. Lady that some of the films which might—I say "might" because I do not have research to back this up, and I do not have research to prove I am wrong either—be the most dangerous do not appear to be the most obvious ones. I am referring to "The Termminator" and "Rambo". Those films may seem to be nice family videos, but the hon. Lady correctly said that there is a lot of violence and the baddies continue to gel up and appear completely uninjured. I would love to know the effect of that on the susceptible minority.

We must all remember that we are not so much worried about the 95 per cent. of people who can watch a violent film or any type of material and not be affected or be depraved or corrupted. The problem is the susceptible minority who might be depraved or corrupted. I digressed slightly because the hon. Lady made a very good point.

All of us know where we might draw the line on the sort of violent material that we would not like 18-year-olds, 15-year-olds, children or, indeed, other members of our family to see. The difficulty is that if we redraw the line on violence, how do we transcribe that into guidelines or language to give to broadcasters or video producers? That is a difficulty that I am addressing at present.

Despite those difficulties, our existing system of video censorship and classification is already one of the most rigorous in the world. Under the Video Recordings Act 1984, all video works, apart from a small category of innocuous exempt material, must be submitted to the British Board of Film Classification for classificiation. The BBFC is an independent body and Ministers have no power to control or review its classification decisions. Under the Act, it is a criminal offence to supply a video which has not been classified by the BBFC or to supply a video in breach of the age classification awarded. The maximum penalty for supplying an unclassified video is a £20,000 fine, and the maximum penalty for the offence of under-age supply is a £5,000 fine. The hon. Lady suggested that perhaps we could legislate to introduce a new category of films not suitable for viewing in the home, but that would be no different from the present system.

We already require the BBFC to follow certain guidelines when performing its statutory classification duties. It must take into account the fact that videos are seen in the home and may therefore need to be censored or classified more restrictively than video films because children may replay them and see the one piece of violence repeatedly, which they would not normally do in the cinema. The BBFC must also seek to avoid classifying any work which could be considered obscene or otherwise unlawful.

When classifying films for video, the BBFC scrutinises every work in its entirety and adopts an active editing policy. It does not simply extend the same classification as was granted for cinema release, and frequently places films in a more restrictive age category, as well as requiring additional cuts of violent or explicit scenes which may be played over and over again in isolation and which are therefore unsuitable for viewing in the home, where access is not as strictly controlled as at a cinema. If the BBFC believes that a particular film is simply not suitable for home viewing in any circumstances, it will refuse video classification altogether.

We have already taken action to improve the enforcement of the 1984 Act. During the previous Session, we supported a Bill introduced by Lord Birkett—a vice-president of the BBFC—and in this House by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Mr. Brandreth), which extended the time limit for the commencement of prosecutions under the Act. It also streamlined the procedure by which the BBFC may give evidence as to whether a particular video work either has or has not been classified. That Bill came into force on 20 September.

We will be taking further action under the forthcoming Criminal Justice Bill to give local authority trading standards officers stronger powers to enforce the 1984 Act by enabling them to investigate an entire chain of video supplies which is outside their area. The Bill will also contain other provisions designed to strengthen the enforcement of our legal controls on obscene material and child pornography. They will create new police powers of search and seizure; a new power of arrest for obscenity and child pornography offences; increase the maximum penalty for the mere possession of child pornography and extend the law to cover simulated child pornography that is manufactured by computer, where a real child is the basis of the photograph. We will also consider carefully the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which is currently inquiring into computer pornography.

Video and computer games constitute video recordings for the purposes of the 1984 Act, but most games are exempt from the classification requirement under the Act. However, such games forfeit their exemption if they depict, to any significant extent, human sexual activity, the mutilation or torture of or gross violence towards humans or animals, or human genital organs. Games of this nature must be submitted for classification in the usual way. Probably the most famous one is the Sega game, "Night Trap", which has already been classified as "15" because of its use of real actors. As technology advances and the number of video games using realistic footage of real actors increases, the number of games requiring classification and possibly censorship is also likely to increase. In future, I believe that there might be a great expansion in such games as the technology improves. We are keeping a close eye on that sector.

I acknowledge the work done in a recent survey by Dr. Mark Griffiths and Mr. Nigel Hunt, which suggests that there may also be room for concern about the effects of those games which use what are very clearly computer graphics and which do not resemble real life or real people. This is why I welcome the work which the computer games industry itself, led by companies like Sega, has done under the aegis of the European Leisure Software Publishers AssociationELSPA—to establish an effective code of practice and a voluntary age classification system for those computer games which are exempt from classification as videos.

We have developed a system of media regulation in the United Kingdom based on arms-length principles and it is a long-standing tradition that the Government do not seek to intervene in matters such as programme content or scheduling. Within this framework, the responsibility for what is broadcast rests with the broadcaster and the broadcasting regulatory bodies, the BBC, the Independent Television Commission, the Welsh Fourth Channel authority and the Radio Authority. They are independent of Government and responsible to Parliament for safeguarding the public interest in broadcasting.

The Broadcasting Act 1990 places a clear framework for the independent broadcasters to follow with regard to broadcasting standards. The Act sets a statutory duty on the ITC to ensure that all its licensed services include nothing in their programmes which offends against good taste and decency, is likely to encourage or incite to crime or to lead to disorder, or to be offensive to public feeling". Similar provisions are also contained in the licence and agreement which set the framework for the BBC's operations.

Our broadcasting regulatory bodies also maintain detailed codes of practice for broadcasters and programme makers. In July this year, the BBC and the ITC issued revised tightened guidelines for their programme producers and purchasers on the portrayal of violence. Those guidelines prohibit the use of gratuitous violence—although we could all argue about what that is. They also require that the consequences of violent acts are not overlooked; that close attention is paid to the scheduling of violent programmes and advice given on the use of clear "on-air" warnings; and that warnings should be given of the dangers of broadcasting material depicting violent behaviour which children might imitate.

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at four minutes past Twelve midnight.