Our Video Culture

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Editor's Note: The horrific murder of a two-year-old boy, James Bulger, by two boys in Liverpool has led to considerable debate, especially after their conviction at the end of last year, about the growth of violence in British society and particularly the effect of |video nasties' on young people. David Alton, Liberal Democrat MP for Liverpool, Mossley Hill, has been leading a campaign to restrict the distribution of horror videos among children.

IN the aftermath of the James Bulger verdicts, Dr. Susan Bailey, Britain's only forensic psychiatrist for adolescents, confirmed that in one study of 40 murderers aged between five and 18, a quarter were found to have been influenced by violence and pornograpby on the screen. Meanwhile, the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, and his advisers were sticking to their hackneyed line that there is no proven correlation between real-life violence and that which is broadcast.

Earlier in the year I tabled a Commons Motion -- backed by more than 100 MPs -- calling for action against video and television violence. During Prime Minister's Question Time on the day before the Bulger verdicts, I had urged John Major to tackle television violence and the easy availability of brutal and horrific videos. I told him that an American pre-school child will have seen an average of 20,000 murders, broadcast on television, by the age of five and that the same culture of violence is being created in the United Kingdom. In the aftermath of the verdicts, and supported by MPs from all parties, I tabled a Commons Motion, supported by 40 MPs, drawing attention to the work of Elliot Aranson who, in The Social Animal, convincingly argues that children copy the aggressive behaviour of adults. My motion also calls for gratuitously violent material to be banned.

The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology says that there are video recorders in 68 per cent of British homes and that |material classified as "15" or "18" is routinely seen by younger audiences, whether due to failures at the retail outlet, lack of parental control, or evasion of rules' (for example, by televisions in younger people's bedrooms). The office goes on to say that 'studies show that the threshold of tolerated violence is raised in groups who have watched violent films'. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has also pointed to media violence as one area where tighter controls could help protect vulnerable children.

Videos which contain graphic and highly explicit scenes of violence are easily available. I strongly believe that this helps to explain why the level of violence today is higher than it was 15 years ago. Our tolerant society should not confuse the need to protect the vulnerable, such as easily impressionable children, with censorship.

Many families living in Liverpool -- and the same picture must be true everywhere else -- regularly hire videos. There is nothing wrong with that. Parents who are discerning in what they choose can ensure that the only material shown to their children is innocent and even educational. The Prime Minister, in his reply to me, said that responsible parents could and should vet what their children see. That is all right as far as it goes.

But what about parents who simply dump their children in front of a video; who allow the video to become a surrogate parent and a substitute for conversation? Or the parent who brings hundreds of videos into his home, which include material containing gratuitous violence or soft porn? He might say that his child would not be allowed to watch it, and is sent to bed. But that probably only increases the desire of the child to see the material -- and the parent will not know if the child watches it during his absence.

A video called Child's Play 3 is just such an example. Would you want a video lying around in your home which shows a doll coming to life as a child, to be attacked and mutilated, with its head broken, splattered with blue paint, and its battered, dead body left discarded? …