Television Is Accused of Creating a Society of Violent, Illiterate Slobs. Yes, It Can Show Us How to Kill - but It Can Also Teach Us How to Love

By Jeffries, Stuart | New Statesman (1996), May 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Television Is Accused of Creating a Society of Violent, Illiterate Slobs. Yes, It Can Show Us How to Kill - but It Can Also Teach Us How to Love


Jeffries, Stuart, New Statesman (1996)


The average American spends 11 years in front of a television set during a 72-year lifespan. At least that's what a pressure group called TV-Free America claims. The group blames television for insomnia, depression, obesity, illiteracy, profligate spending and the decline of the American sonnet. Actually, TV-Free America doesn't mention the sonnet, but if it were being consistent, it really should.

The average Briton probably doesn't watch any less television than the average goggle-eyed stiff from Des Moines, Iowa. So no wonder anti-television campaigners have inaugurated Britain's first TV Turnoff Week, copying what has been going on in the States for the past three years.

In fact if England had progressed further in Euro 96, if the UK's gold medal tally at Atlanta had even approached double figures, if the British sitcom wasn't in its death throes and if Coronation Street had had a really juicy incest storyline last year, then according to my scrupulously researched estimates, the average Briton would have spent the equivalent of 12.75 years in front of the idiot box. Given the illiteracy, depression, horrible sandwiches and bad sonnet-writing endemic to our inner cities, not to mention our rural parts, something has clearly gone wrong with British society. And it's all television's fault. No, it is. Why, I was watching a really good documentary about it only the other day.

You'll notice that I'm being sarcastic. This is because television in particular and the media in general are regularly on the receiving end of the blame for a vast range of social ills. Take Virginia Bottomley. In December 1996, the then national heritage minister promised she would protect children from squalid and seamy programmes with a tough new package; a package which, you notice, never arrived. In her condemnation Bottomley mentioned not one programme, not one image or news report, but instead told interviewers that she was worried about the "very haunting, very powerful" pictures of violence and trauma on screen. But such images can be perfectly defensible: news images of, say, the crush at Hillsborough, or Jimmy McGovern's dramatised recreation of the same events. Haunting? Powerful? I should hope so.

Similarly, according to White Dot, a monthly anti-television magazine published in the States, the average American child will have witnessed 8,000 television murders before he or she finishes elementary school. But what should we infer from this? That it is better for children to see no violence on screen? That television destroys innocence? That television turns children, the suggestible and unsuggestible alike, into violent youths? No, what we are meant to infer in this rhetorical deployment of murder is that television is a demonic force out of control. In this histrionic climate, distinctions are steamrollered along with the difficult ethical issues about the proper role of the parent in protecting children from horrifying or degrading images, or which horrifying images children should see.

Or take researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Centre. The Daily Telegraph reported earlier this month that these researchers had "found a direct correlation between juvenile obesity and the hours spent viewing. Children who watched four or more hours of television a day were significantly fatter than those watching fewer than two hours - having been robbed of exercise time and encouraged to consume high-calorie snacks and fizzy drinks."

If this is a fair report of the researchers' findings, then they should be taken from Johns Hopkins and placed in a darkened room with only a television for company and force-fed supplies of pop and crisps until they recant their belief that their evidence leads to the conclusion.

Clearly, these fat, square-eyed kids are fatter because of the pop and crisps, and because, after four hours in front of the box, they or their parents don't think it appropriate for them to go into the street to chase hubcaps or kill cats or whatever passes for healthy exercise these days. …

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