On 8 January 1998, the Guardian, the liberal UK newspaper, prominently featured a story with the headline 'Film violence link to teenage crime' and the sub-head '"Vulnerable" young people may be influenced by screen killings'. A new study, the article stated, had shown that violent films could encourage certain people to commit crime. On the same day, readers of headlines in two other newspapers learned of the same study in rather different terms: 'Research fails to link crime with video violence' (The Times) and 'Research fails to link crime with video violence' (Daily Telegraph). These articles explained that this study had found no evidence that violent films provoked real-life violence. Telegraph readers, though, would also have seen a feature article by Theodore Dalrymple, inspired by the new research, whose sub-head stated in large letters that 'the admission that screen violence and the real thing are linked is long overdue'.
Over in the Daily Express, meanwhile, a menacing piece headed The Rambo culture' revealed in its sub-head that 'Violent videos are linked to real-life brutality'. It then went on to explain that 'A disturbing report… shows that screen violence reinforces violent behaviour'. Confused news-hounds may have turned for a more balanced analysis to the Independent. There, however, the issue was further muddied by an article which reported that a study had shown that 'violent videos do not make people violent' but which, bizarrely, carried the headline 'Video link in violence chain'!
The study which promoted this feast of contradictory reporting had been commissioned by the Home Office in 1995 from Kevin Browne and Amanda Pennell, members of the Forensic Psychology Group at the University of Birmingham. It was intended to meet the inevitable calls for 'further research' in the wake of speculation about the possible influence of violent videos on the two schoolboys who murdered toddler James Bulger in 1993. The research that was actually carried out, however, focused on which videos young offenders preferred to watch, and on what they could remember about 'violent' videos which the researchers had shown them. Although it was