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Reports which claim new evidence that videos can cause violence are more fanciful than factual, says Andrew Calcutt

'A scientific case for censorship'?

'Official: violent videos cause crime' announced the Sunday Times front-page headline (17 August 1997). After years of debate about the effects of screen violence, 'Home Office researchers have established the first official link between crime and screen violence'. The report concluded that a two-year study by forensic psychologists Dr Kevin Browne and Amanda Pennell at the University of Birmingham 'makes out a scientific case for stricter censorship'.

The triumphant tone of the Sunday Times story was at odds with a press release about the study, issued by the University of Birmingham itself the following day. Noting that 'one hypothesis of the research is that those youths who have grown up in a violent family will remember more details of the violent and aggressive acts portrayed' which 'may have the consequence of making their own aggression more frequent', the press release conceded that 'statistical and scientific analyses of these concepts have yet to be conducted to confirm or refute this hypothesis'. Browne's analysis is due to have been completed in time for publication of his full report this month (October).

In the wake of the alleged link between the video of Child's Play 3 and the murder of two-year old James Bulger in 1994, the Home Office commissioned Browne to carry out a study of the effects of video violence on young offenders. Browne interviewed 40 violent offenders, 40 non-violent offenders and 40 non-offenders, all males aged between 15 and 21. He showed them a film and questioned them about their recollections of it. In August of this year, the Sunday Times learned from the Home Office that Browne's report was close to being published.

The subsequent story was published under the byline of Nicholas Rufford and Nicholas Hellen, who has covered this area for the paper for years. It quoted Browne as saying that 'videos cannot create aggressive people but they will make aggressive people commit violent acts more frequently'. This is in keeping with Browne's contribution to a 1995 Panorama programme on claims that Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers induced 'copycat killings'. Then he said that it 'would be wrong to say that people who watch violent material are going to be violent'; but 'a small number of the population is predisposed to be aggressive when they're frustrated or in a situation of conflict. For that 3-10 per cent, these films are unhealthy'.

The text of the Sunday Times account of Browne's research stops short of making a simple causal connection between violence on screen and off. But it is suggested in the headline 'Official: violent videos cause crime'; and this was the creative reading of Browne's research which swiftly passed into the realm of common sense. Browne made no further comment to the press, and the University of Birmingham statement was presumably issued as a spoiler. But the idea of a causal connection had already become 'official'; and when media studies academics complained to the Sunday Times, their protests went unreported.

The 'effects' bandwagon was rolling once again. The day after the Sunday Times story, the Daily Mail announced that 'Study links screen savagery to real-life attacks. Movies "can make young more violent"'. The Mail's editorial was jubilant: 'Common sense tells you it must be so, and now academics commissioned by the Home Office have proved it. Violent videos do cause crime.' (18 August) The causal connection erroneously ascribed to Browne's research quickly passed into media folklore. In a story on a booklet published by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children advising parents about young people's viewing habits, the Guardian mentioned in passing that 'this most recent study has found a link between videos and violent crime', and Elizabeth Newson, author of the notorious Newson 'report' which gave pseudo-scientific credence to calls for more censorship in the wake of the Bulger murder, castigated the NSPCC for 'shilly-shallying around and saying there is no proven link when research proves this exists' (3 September).

The Browne research has been reported as a highly innovative piece of work which finally delivers the coup de grace to the 'liberal, media studies agenda' against censorship. Yet Browne's hypothesis, referred to in the Birmingham statement, represents a retreat from the unequivocal pro-censorship position, now recognised as scientifically untenable, that screen violence per se causes real-life violence. Instead, Browne suggests that screen violence may have an exaggerated effect on a small minority whose upbringing has rendered them peculiarly susceptible. But the grounds for making even this claim are as spurious as the case for a causal effect on general behaviour.

Browne's provisional conclusions seem to be twofold: that on-screen violence is more readily remembered by violent offenders; and that, as he said to Panorama in 1995, 'children that come from a violent background...have poor understanding of others and poor empathy with others, and their moral development may be slow. They will transpose their own experiences into certain scenes...and that's how they are reading the film differently to a non-offender'.

Browne's findings may show that, when interviewed, his sample of 40 violent offenders was more likely to recall violent incidents on-screen. But what of it? Showing one film to 40 people (under-18s watched a certificate 15 movie, while the 18-21s viewed a certificate 18 film) and asking them about it (immediately afterwards, 3-4 months later and 9-10 months later) in circumstances which, judging by the Panorama footage showing Browne at work, resembled a youth club discussion group, hardly constitutes incontrovertible evidence of the mindset of violent offenders. The responses of the 40 violent offenders could indicate merely that they had more experience of giving interviewers what they thought was required of them.

Besides, in and of itself the ability to recall instances of screen violence says nothing about subsequent behaviour. The people with the most encyclopaedic memory for celluloid gore are horror movie buffs like Mark Kermode, film critic for Radio 1 and contributor to horror fanzines such as Fangoria, also known as 'Exploding Heads Monthly'. As yet, the police are not scouring conventions of horror film fans in search of axe-murderers.

The claim, that those who have been witnesses to violence or victims of abuse during childhood are predisposed to perpetrate acts of violence themselves, is hotly disputed. Such claims are usually based on self-reporting by violent offenders or their parents, not the most reliable sources. Furthermore, for every 'aggressive' adult who experienced violence in childhood, there are at least as many child-victims who display no such tendencies in later life. The 'cycle of violence' theory, which closely resembles the biblical notion of the sins of the fathers being visited upon their children, has no substance.

The two halves of Browne's hypothesis amount to not very much. Moreover, they are only brought together by the conjecture that violent scenes 'excite them' (the 3-10 per cent), and 'trigger their memories, and because it's so real for them that triggering off their memory may also trigger the need to do it again' (Panorama interview, 1995). It would be equally valid to ruminate that experience of violence in childhood is likely to underline the desire to avoid violence in later life. But in Browne's case, the 'cycle of violence' theory has been used as a springboard from which to make an illegitimate leap from the retention of images of fictional violence in the memory, to the alleged propensity to perpetrate violent acts in real life.

As we go to press, Browne's research has not been formally published, but already it, and the conclusion ascribed to it, are fixtures of political debate. Lord Alton (formerly David Alton MP) will take the opportunity to resume his campaign for 'higher standards in film and video'; and videos deemed violent (excluding, presumably, patriotic war films) are likely to be barred from young offenders institutions. Meanwhile, against a background of renewed concern about the alleged effects of violent videos, Jack Straw has let it be known that the Home Office will keep a tighter rein on the British Board of Film Classification, the censoring body which has hitherto been formally independent of government control. All this on the basis of simplistic coverage of what seems a flawed report.

In today's climate, the hypothesis that videos contribute to violence does not need to be backed up by hard evidence. It is automatically accepted as true because it connects with the wider mood of the times, when many are given to believe that other people are lowlife who cannot rise above their circumstances or keep their heads in the face of media images.

In fact, the police officers investigating the murder of James Bulger discounted the influence ascribed to Child's Play 3, pointing out that the two boys who killed Bulger had never seen the film. But more than three years later, the Sunday Times report spoke unquestioningly of 'concern about the role of screen violence in influencing the child killers' which prompted the Home Office to fund Browne's research. In the same way, the Browne report, regardless of how much or how little evidence it contains, is guaranteed a good press as an advert for further censorship, in the country that already has Europe's toughest controls on the contents and distribution of videos.

Reproduced from LM issue 104, October 1997

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