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08 January 1998

Negative images

Andrew Calcutt relates how one academic study which found no causal link between video violence and violent behaviour was nevertheless widely interpreted as further evidence of human weakness

On Wednesday 7 January 1998, the Home Office Research and Statistics Directorate published Research Findings No 65, a four-page document entitled 'The Effects of Video Violence On Young Offenders'. Commissioned in 1995, the research was undertaken by two forensic psychologists at the University of Birmingham, Dr Kevin Browne and Amanda Pennell.

In August 1997, the Sunday Times pre-empted publication of the Browne report under the headline 'Official: violent videos cause crime'. This interpretation quickly became an 'official' fact of life, verified by the Daily Mail ('Common sense tells you it must be so, and now academics commissioned by the Home Office have proved it. Violent videos do cause crime') and by the Guardian ('this most recent study has found a link between videos and violent crime'). Browne and Pennell, meanwhile, were far less bullish. A press release issued by the University of Birmingham at the time of the leak stated that 'statistical and scientific analyses of these concepts have yet to be conducted to confirm or refute this hypothesis'; and in the conclusion of their published report, Browne and Pennell find that 'the research cannot prove whether video violence causes crime'.

The Sunday Times' scoop may have been at odds with the Browne/Pennell findings, but it was very much in tune with the calls for tighter censorship and restraint which have become a fixture of British public life. (This is especially the case since the murder of toddler James Bulger by two boys from Merseyside in 1993 - the unfortunate occurrence and the overheated response to it were what prompted the Home Office to commission the Birmingham research in the first place.) Back in August 1997, the actual details of the Browne/Pennell findings were swamped by the ongoing wave of post-Bulger panic. With the publication of the full report in January 1998, it was harder for journalists to sidestep the text of the research and the noticeable absence of a causal link between violent videos and crime. However, none of the journalists, public figures or the researchers themselves found much solace in this rebuttal of 'effects theory' at its most crude and demeaning (people see/people do). Instead of expressing relief that here was one spectral notion of human weakness that had finally been laid to rest, in their various interpretations of the factual material in the research they all emphasised some form of inadequacy or degradation, and thus contributed to a negative image of humanity which is as stylised and unrealistic as a Schwarzenegger film.

Browne's interviews with a small group of violent offenders seemed to indicate that they spent more time watching videos than their non-violent and non-offending peers, and were more likely to identify with fictional violence perpetrated by celluloid action heroes. Browne could have concluded from this that incarcerated youths are simply desperate to escape the tedium of life in a young offenders' institution. Instead he sought to locate their responses within the fashionable framework of cycle-of-violence theories, leading him to suggest that 'both a history of family violence and offending behaviour are necessary preconditions for developing a significant preference for violent film action and role models'. This in turn would suggest that the entire readership of horror fanzines like Fangoria (aka 'Exploding Heads Monthly') is made up of criminals from broken homes.

In discarding the superstition enshrined in crude effects theory, Browne nevertheless adopted the ancient Biblical prejudice that the sins of the fathers are visited upon their sons, and found a way to incorporate postmodern action films into this pre-modern notion of everlasting life-cycles. Moreover, while observing, correctly, that people bring their own particular experiences to their interpretation of films, Browne downplayed the extent to which human beings by definition also carry with them the ability to see beyond their own immediate circumstances. Without this ability we would not even be able to identify with characters on screen; and it is this same innate capacity which frees us from the alleged inevitability of acting out our parents' mistakes all over again. In distancing himself from effects theory and attaching his findings to cycle-of-violence theories, Browne has merely substituted one unsubstantiated notion of human weakness for another.

Most of the commentary which followed the publication of Research Findings No 65 was equally bleak. Under a series of photocaptions which recapitulated the main video nasties panics of the past five years (including the long-discredited statement from Judge Morland at the Bulger murder trial: 'I suspect that exposure to violent video films may in part be an explanation'), the Guardian announced a 'film violence link to teenage crime'. The Daily Telegraph recognised that 'opinion [is] divided over effect of video violence', but gave one Jonathan Bartley, general secretary of the little-known Movement for Christian Democracy, plenty of space in which to endorse cycle-of-violence theories and Browne's adherence to them. Home secretary Jack Straw was reported to have said that the research would be passed on to the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), with an instruction to study it closely - as if the BBFC does not already exert close control over film and videos released in Britain. Meanwhile BBFC director James Ferman took the publication of the report as an opportunity to declare that 'our job is to get the message across that certificates are important. If it says 18 on the cover then children below that age should not be watching it' - as if parents are currently too ignorant or irresponsible to either know or care what their children are watching. Laurie Hall, secretary general of the Video Standards Council, was also concerned about alleged parental shortcomings. Hailing the report as a clean bill of health for the video industry, he claimed that in relation to youth crime, 'video is a sideshow' compared to 'parental violence'. The British Video Association called on the government 'to consider introducing parenting skills' (already under consideration at the Home Office), and dedicated itself to help 'create a more media literate consumer'.

So, we may not be directly driven to violent behaviour by fictional violence, but significant numbers of people are assumed to be inadequate parents or illiterate consumers or unwitting components in the reproduction of cycles of violence. The Browne report and the various comments which it prompted all reflect a low opinion of humanity. This says more about today's public figures and their loss of confidence in themselves than it does about the real lives of the general public.

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