V-Chips Can't Keep Children Innocent or Protect Us from Harsh Reality Won't Make Society Less Violent or Any Child More Innocent the Idea of Paying to Make Television Unwatchable Is a 21st Century Joke

By Ascherson, Neal | The Independent (London, England), March 24, 1996 | Go to article overview
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V-Chips Can't Keep Children Innocent or Protect Us from Harsh Reality Won't Make Society Less Violent or Any Child More Innocent the Idea of Paying to Make Television Unwatchable Is a 21st Century Joke


Ascherson, Neal, The Independent (London, England)


I HAVE always been impressed by the small print on the television licence which says that blind people can have one at half price. Admittedly, it's not as daft as it sounds. One of the dismaying facts about television is that it can be used as radio without a great deal of cultural deprivation. Radio, in contrast, has integrity. You can't watch it, and nobody offers cut-price listening for the deaf.

These thoughts follow the stupid affair of the V-Chip. As the V-Chip is already forgotten history, an "issue" now more than five days old which came between Dunblane and Mad Cow, some readers will need to have their memories prompted. Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, and the Liberal Democrat MP David Alton were induced to raise in Parliament the idea of a scrambler device which can be built into a television and preset to obliterate programmes that parents judge unsuitable for the young.

The tabloids seized on the "V-Chip" - the V standing for violence. They did so because editors were still in the penumbra of the massacre at Dunblane, and - having worked through gun-law reform and paedophile control - needed some other Dunblane spin-off to fill columns. The chip was a way of connecting the horrors of Dunblane to the trusty, dreary old argument about the effects of violence on television.

The "V-Chip" is an idea so silly that it could not have arisen here spontaneously. If the censorship lobby had not expertly floated it down the stream of public anxiety, it would have sunk without trace rather than skim across screens and pages all the way into the House of Commons. First of all, television violence, whatever we decide that means, had absolutely nothing whatever to do with the Dunblane tragedy. Second, the notion of people equipped with normal eyes, ears, fingers and brains paying money to make their own television set unwatchable is a 21st-century bad joke, like the notion of a radio licence for the deaf.

When I lived in Germany, one of my neighbours was a Bundeswehr officer with severe views on morality. If he had to leave home, he always unplugged the family television set and took it with him in his car, in case wife and child were tempted into unsupervised viewing while he was away. It was easy to see that he was really a modern Crusader locking his wife into a chastity belt before heading for Palestine. The V-Chip is in the same category. It's not so much a way of turning off programmes for others; more an item of fetish gear for turning on the control freak.

And the chip would be futile for many quite practical reasons. Somebody on Radio 4 pointed out that when the new V-Chip-protected set was delivered to the living-room, the old unprotected set would migrate upstairs to the child's bedroom. The long-term effect would be to increase the gap between fussy, concerned homes that could afford the V-chips, and unconcerned homes that didn't give a hoot what the children watched and preferred to use spare cash in other ways. The latter are supposed to generate more crime than the former. If television violence plays any part in that, and we still do not know whether it does, then the V-Chip would make no difference.

The word "violence" is, in any case, rotten with propaganda in its modern usage. If Gustave Flaubert were still alive, he would enter it in his Dictionary of Received Ideas as: "VIOLENCE: inappropriate in demonstrations, revolutions, marriages &c. Always refer to V. as `spreading' or `increasing', or to `unacceptable levels of'."

In the old days, "violent" meant something like "forceful", but the force might be physical or moral. You could offer violent resistance to an arresting policeman, commit robbery with violence (which might not mean physical force against persons), hold violent convictions about the Trinity or fall violently in love.

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V-Chips Can't Keep Children Innocent or Protect Us from Harsh Reality Won't Make Society Less Violent or Any Child More Innocent the Idea of Paying to Make Television Unwatchable Is a 21st Century Joke
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