Ill Effects: The Media/Violence Debate

By Martin Barker; Julian Petley | Go to book overview
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A case study in 'common sense'

Martin Barker

In June 1994, the Christian Democrat celebrated a famous victory. It had forced the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, to amend his Criminal Justice Bill to make the British Board of Film Classification much more stringent about what was allowed on to video. Howard hadn't adopted their amendment-one which had been drafted at a meeting of the Movement for Christian Democracy in March-outright. But its main thrust, without question, was accepted.

How had they done this? By a combination of arguing and lobbying. They had talked of the need to protect children. They had spoken of gratuitously violent films and videos, and how bad they are for the young. And they had played on memories of recent cases where young people, even children, had so obviously gone to the bad. And they got their argument into every newspaper in the land, and on to many radio and television programmes. The effect, as their Parliamentary sponsor David Alton himself put it, was that they had 'changed the terms of reference' in which 'films of this kind' would henceforth be discussed.

That was no small achievement. And it owed much to one thing: a report by Professor Elizabeth Newson published in April 1994, just two weeks before the 'Alton Amendment' reached the floor of the House of Commons-a report which, as this essay aims to demonstrate, was wildly misleading (Newson, 1994). But the most important thing to note is not just its appall-ing quality of evidence and argument, but that, because of the nature of what it was arguing, those weaknesses went wholly unnoticed. What we have, in the Newson Report, is a classic case of 'common sense writ large'. By this I mean that its claims have the same status as medieval witchcraft accusations. When a 'witch' was denounced, a whole array of evidences and proofs could be adduced; but these could only ever convince because those hearing them were already completely persuaded that these were the only likely explanations. You can only believe someone to be a witch if you believe there


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