HC Deb 01 April 1993 vol 222 cc564-83

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Andrew Mitchell.]

8.6 pm

Mr. Jim Callaghan (Heywood and Middleton)

It is a great pleasure to raise once again the important subject of violence on television.

Last month, the Prime Minister warned of the serious effects on the young of a relentless diet of screen violence". Following his expression of concern, the Home Secretary urged television companies to show greater responsibility by reducing the "diet of violence" on British screens. He said: Graphic scenes of brutality and killing have a direct effect on young people and are partly responsible for the upsurge in violence in society … I think young people—all of us—become accustomed to watching violence as entertainment. Last month, the Secretary of State for Health, said at a conference organised by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children: A television diet of sex and violence can have a pernicious effect on children. There is undoubtedly a role for the Government to regulate what is broadcast, but parents also have a responsibility to establish the limits beyond which their children should not tread. The right hon.Lady urged parents to instill the three Rs—responsibility, respect and right from wrong—in their children. In many debates I find myself in total agreement with Mrs. Bottomley—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but he must refer to the Secretary of State as "the right hon. Lady", and to other Ministers as "the right hon. Gentleman" or "right hon. Lady".

Mr. Callaghan

I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I did not mean to be disrespectful in any way—just the reverse: I was praising the right hon. Lady. I beg both her pardon and your pardon.

Following the concern about television violence expressed by the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Health, it was announced that a two-week survey into violence on television would be undertaken by the regulatory body for commercial television, commencing on 24 March 1993. The output of ITV, Channel 4 and Sky will be monitored between 6 pm and midnight during that period. I welcome that survey, even though it is short.

Also reacting to the Prime Minister's warning of the serious effects on the young of screen violence, Mr. Yentob, the newly appointed BBC controller, pledged that the BBC would exercise more care and scrutiny to ensure that we understand the public sentiment and the public climate. I welcome his statement. He also said: I don't think in the end you can just defer the responsibility entirely on the broadcaster. I agree with him.

When asked about the problem of children being able to tape programmes screened after the 9 pm adult viewing watershed, he said: In the end, you can't avoid parental responsibility". He said that he was unconvinced of a direct causal link between violence on television and copy-cat crime on the streets.

In the same month, March, when Ministers expressed their concern about violence on screen, Sir Anthony Hopkins, the famous British actor and star of the film, "Silence of the Lambs", announced on 5 March 1993 that he may pull out of the film's sequel. He said that he was alarmed at the popularity of the cannibalistic Hannibal Lecter, the film's principal character. Sir Anthony is reported as saying: We are living in an age of such horrors and there are such terrifying films coming out, that I think it may be time to say enough is enough. I welcome that statement, and I welcome Michael Medred's new book, "Hollywood Vs America". His basic message is that Hollywood the American dream factory has become Hollywood the American nightmare factory. He charges that the Hollywood moguls of popular culture are foisting a torrent of violence and repulsive work on a public who want to cling on to old moral values. Although his book is about America, its implications for this country are self-evident. I have no doubt that the fat cats who are raking in the profits from each more audaciously violent movie, video or recording will continue to do so despite the criticisms in Mr. Medred's book.

The issue of violence on television is not new: it has been raised many times, both inside and outside the House. The right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), when he was a Minister, replying to a debate on young people and violent crime on 6 December 1985, said: Several hon. Members referred to concern about violence on television and its impact. Like so many of those matters, it is not easy to determine what that impact is. Many think—I am one of them—that we are entitled to rely on common sense, and common sense must lead us to suspect that the constant diet of violence, particularly for young and impressionable minds, leads to some desensitisation, and … can encourage people to go out and engage in violence. It can create the impression that violence is a normal response to everyday problems in society. We must also look at what research tells us. Again, the message is not entirely clear, but there is no doubt that the overall conclusion is that, despite extensive studies, it is not possible to demonstrate that films on television do or do not exercise a socially harmful influence."—[Official Report, 6 December 1985; Vol. 88, c. 585.] The subject is not a new one, and I may be asked why I am once again raising it on the Floor of the House. The comments of Ministers and Sir Anthony Hopkins led me to do so. Having viewed television programmes in various countries, I am convinced that those produced here are the best in the world. When I am abroad, I cannot wait to get back to look at our television. However, that does not mean that our programmes cannot be improved, as I am sure the broadcasting authorities would agree.

I became seriously concerned about violence on television and its effect on the very young when, two or three years ago, the world's press was focused on my constituency because of the alleged satanic abuse of children in the area. It was the word "satanic" that drew the attention of the press. The social services department in the Rochdale district had taken several children into care when they and their teachers in a local school became concerned about the strange behaviour of a disturbed child in the school. The boy was screaming, hiding in cupboards and talking about ghosts. The social workers and teachers were convinced that the child and those with whom he associated had been subjected to satanic abuse, so he was taken into care.

It was stated at the subsequent court case that the child, aged about six, had been allowed by his parents to watch horror videos such as "Nightmare on Elm Street" until 1 am. It is no wonder that the child, who was only six, was disturbed and screamed and hid in cupboards. The social workers were criticised in court because they had not followed the procedures laid down in the Butler-Sloss recommendations following the Cleveland case. If the social workers had done so, the case would not have come to court. There are many lessons to be learned about the behaviour of irresponsible parents, videos and codes of practice from that case in my constituency.

A Sunday Mirror survey taken in March this year confirms my fears about the use of videos by children, as did the case in my constituency. It found that half the children under the age of 16 had television sets in their bedrooms, and their parents had little idea what they watched or how late they did so, as they lay in bed videoing and replaying what they liked.

I am convinced that we need to tighten our laws on videos, even though the Video Recordings Act 1984 gave powers to control what is shown on screen. Sadly, some video nasties are still available under the counter, and some companies still put out videos that have never been submitted to the British Board of Film Classification, including videos with material that should not be available in any civilised society.

Therefore, I welcome Lord Birkett's Bill in the other place, which aims to tighten up the enforcement laws on videos. It will give trading standards officers power not only to seize illegal videos but to pursue their manufacturers. I hope that the Government will support that amendment. I also welcome the survey commissioned by the British Board of Film Classification a week ago to investigate the viewing habits of juvenile offenders. The survey also has the backing of the BBC, ITV and the Broadcasting Standards Council.

The problem is not new. In the late 1950s, the BBC issued a code on violence in programmes, a code that was periodically reviewed and extended. The Sims committee, chaired by Monica Sims, head of children's programmes, television, and later controller of Radio 4, drew up guidelines in 1979. It included in its recommendations the need to review and revise the guidelines at least every five years. The first review by a committee of programme heads took place in 1983.

In December 1985, the managing director of television asked a Mr. Wyatt, head of documentary features, to chair an internal BBC committee to review the BBC guidelines on the portrayal of violence on television and to consider their effectiveness, although at that time there was no sign that viewers had suddenly become more worried about violence on television. It came about because the BBC had monitored public responses to television.

The committee began by looking at existing guidelines. Those had stood the test of time, although the principles remained constant, the considerations relevant and the dangers well described. Some key issues emerged as the committee went about its work. The first was the complexity of the decisions made and the inadequacy of any simplistic solutions—there can be no simplistic solutions. The second was the concern for the totality of violence on television and its possible cumulative effect, rather than concern about individual incidents. The third was the importance of informing viewers by accurately labelling programmes, and the fourth the need to define the BBC's responsibilities. ITV has a similar code.

The committee then set up a series of seminars for producers to discuss the existing guidelines, to give their views on violence on television and to make suggestions. It asked members of the committee to prepare papers on news, drama and purchased programmes—the sectors that caused most concern. It met the director of the BBFC, looked at the classification system used by cable operators and obtained details of guidelines used by other European broadcasters.

The role of the British Broadcasting Standards Council, which came into being in 1988, is to monitor the portrayal of violence and sex and matters of taste and decency, to report on them, to undertake research and to adjudicate on complaints from the public. The BBC's constitution is set out in the royal charter and licence and agreement of 1981. It recognises a duty that, as far as possible, programmes should not offend against good taste or decency or be likely to encourage crime and disorder or be offensive to public feeling. Despite all those safeguards, mistakes can be, and are, made. I deeply regret the decision made by Channel 4 to screen an interview with Aileen Wuornos, an American serial killer who murdered seven men. I regret the decision of Central TV to screen a programme in which the mass murderer Dennis Nilsen was interviewed. However, no amount of legislation can ever ensure that creative staff will never make mistakes.

Besides keeping to the codes of practice, producers must be sensitive to outside opinion and take part in a dialogue with the audience about what is truthful, honest, necessary and appropriate to show. Television is a powerful and influential medium and any powerful tool needs careful handling. There can be no simple solution to the problem. Television programme makers must regularly re-examine what they are doing and their relationship with the public. They must be questioned, and must question themselves, about what they transmit and when.

Most worrying of all is the argument that television is blunting our sensibilities, that viewers, especially the young, are growing used to a world in which death comes cheaply, and violence is the way to solve problems. That is the "drip, drip" argument. What is at fault may not be the individual programmes, scenes or times but the accumulation of such items. It is prudent for broadcasters to work on the assumption that, to some extent, for some people, for some of the time, television may promote violence. That is not to say that television is a leading cause of violence. It may reflect it, it may exaggerate it, but violence is in people, and there is enough violence in human history for us to know that television's role may be tiny.

Television has much to be proud of, particularly in this country. The response to the Ethiopian appeals, Live Aid, "Children in Need" and "Drugwatch" show that people are sensitive as never before to the hardships and unhappiness of others, especially children. Much of the credit must go to television. Credit must also be given to its role as a provider of information and to the pleasure that it brings in entertainment, particularly to the lonely, the isolated arid the sick.

Broadcasters must take care about violence, about the overall picture of the world they present, and must ensure that they find a proper place for values other than the aggressive, the cynical and opportunistic. The programme makers' job is to think through their material and respect the audience. They can then seek new ways to exploit television's awesome ability to transmit to millions the humanity of others, to show us something of what it is like to be another human being.

8.27 pm
Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Mr. Callaghan) on presenting this complex subject in such a straightforward way and on not coming forward with the simple, easy solution in which some people believe—censorship. We want to encourage responsibility both in the media and the family. I agreed with much of what the hon. Gentleman said.

One of the difficulties that we have to face up to is the reluctance of some in the media to accept that there is any relationship between violence and what we see on the screen, be it the big screen at the movie, or its translation into video, which we then see on television, or the original creative work of television. The hon. Gentleman quoted a much-respected figure from television, who has great experience of television—Mr. Alan Yentob. He does not accept, according to the hon. Gentleman, that there is a relationship. In one respect he is right. No one has proved that there is a casual relationship, a point to which I shall return later.

The hon. Gentleman reflects a view that I accepted myself when I worked in television because I wanted the freedom that all producers and interviewers seek when they carry out their responsibilities.

Alan Yentob was recently reported as saying: I think we have real responsibilities … to try to make programmes that reflect the world as it is". A comment on that was contained in a letter to The Times which said: It might be to the benefit of us all if the BBC screened a greater proportion of programmes showing the more civilised aspects of our society and the need to aspire to an improved moral climate. That is an important point. Some of us recognise that there is some relationship between the media and public taste.

On the same day, in another letter in The Times, Mr. Waddington, director of criminal justice studies at the department of sociology at the university of Reading, referred to the question whether the impact of media violence on crime is as serious as some people make out. He concluded: If a link is not established, then mere entertainment might be needlessly restricted. If, on the other hand, there is a link which the ingenuity of researchers has yet to establish, the consequences of brutalisation might be calamitous. Given this asymmetry, prudence surely demands that the diet of media violence should be curtailed. The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton quoted reports which appeared in The Sunday Times by Michael Medved, who made a brilliant, cruel analysis of some of the products of Hollywood in recent times. Who can deny that in recent years we have seen an increasing diet1 of media violence?

The hon. Gentleman referred to a quote concerning Sir Anthony Hopkins, who, in 1991, was one of those nominated best actor of the year. Mr. Medved said that, of the five men nominated for the best actor award, three played deranged and sadistic killers—Sir Anthony Hopkins in "Silence of the Lambs", Warren Beatty in "Bugsy" and Robert de Niro in "Cape Fear". Shortly before the release of "Bugsy", the screen writer James Toback said: It is a portrait of a tremendously charming sex and violence obsessed quasi-madman who is infatuated with creation and death. People are going to be astounded by Warren Beatty. He is a complete psycho. Those are extreme cases, but they are role models for others that we have seen in movies which have come on to the screen through the video. We have seen other cheaper, not quite so tawdry, but pretty tawdry, imitations on the box.

My interest in the matter stems not from my involvement in the BBC or from having been a director of a commercial television company; it goes further back to a time when I sat on a committee which considered violence on television. It goes back some 15 years when I was a member of a working party of the IBA which considered the current code on violence. We came to the conclusion that, in general, it was a useful guide to producers. Since then, various changes have been made by the BBC and the IBA.

We thought that the code on violence recognised the need for some form of introduction which would stress that, while evidence of a connection between televised and social violence is conflicting, the possibility of such a connection must remain an area of continuing concern for all broadcasters.

We made other comments about certain modes of behaviour as portrayed on television as admirable, but we noted that, even in those days in 1978, there had been an escalation in the degree of violent realism employed, the difference being that the realism of television is far greater than that of Shakespeare and the classic Greek dramas where much of the violent action is off stage. In any case, I shall be deliberately elitist and say that the thinking behind such productions is of a somewhat higher standard, not to mention the language.

On television we have increasingly seen the use of the hand-held camera, tape and the light, easy-to-handle mobile camera which allows the depiction of fictional scenes in horrific realistic terms and that has an effect.

When we considered the code in 1978 we said that there was no evidence that the portrayal of violence for good or legitimate ends was likely to be less harmful to the individual or society than the portrayal of violence for evil ends. We thought that there was no evidence that sanitised or conventional violence, in which the consequences are concealed, minimised or presented in a ritualistic way is innocuous. We also recognised that dramatic truth may occasionally demand the portrayal of a sadistic character.

However, we strongly objected to ingenious and unfamiliar methods of inflicting pain or injury, particularly if capable of easy imitation. We thought that if such portrayals were to be shown they should first have the most careful consideration. We discussed and made recommendations on other matters such as children's cartoons, and so on, and we did not think that, on balance, they did much harm.

However, we were to some extent influenced, and as time has gone by I have become more influenced, by research by Dr. William A. Belson published in a book entitled "Television Violence and the Adolescent Boy" in late 1978. I do not know what Dr. Belson is now, but he was then a reader in research methods at North East London polytechnic, a consultant in the techniques of social and business research and a fellow of the British Psychological Society. This research was funded by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

We considered some of Dr. Belson's evidence, but, since then, I have studied it a little more carefully. His most noteworthy conclusions were that high exposure to television violence increases the degree to which boys"— he is specifically referring to boys in the East End who were his subjects— engage in serious violence". On the evidence of the inquiry he adumbrated five types of television violence which appeared to be the more potent in releasing serious violence by boys. It is important that he concentrated on boys because on the whole, though not exclusively because there is an increasing trend towards violence among young girls, it is the young man who is the most violent member of the human race in modern society.

Mr. Belson said that the more potent types of television violence in releasing serious violence by boys were:

  1. "(a) plays or films in which violence occurs in the context of close personal relations;
  2. (b) violent programmes in which the violence appears to have been 'just thrown in for its own sake' …
  3. (c) programmes presenting fictional violence of a realistic kind;
  4. (d) programmes in which the violence is presented as being in a good cause;
  5. (e) Westerns of the violent kind."
He added: By contrast, there was but little or no support for the hypotheses that exposure to the following kinds of programme output increases serious violence by boys.
  1. (a) sporting programmes presenting violent behaviour …
  2. (b) violent cartoons including Tom and Jerry;
  3. (c) science fiction violence;
  4. (d) slapstick comedy presenting violence or verbal abuse."
Looking at the book afresh, that appears to me to amount to a lot of common sense. Mr. Belson wondered what could be done about such violence and that is the problem that we face; it certainly is for me because, as I said earlier, I do not advocate censorship, unless we are talking about video nasties, on which we have already had legislation. It may be that the tightening of the controls will be enough. As the hon. Gentleman said, such legislation has been debated in the other place. If one reads between the lines of a recent article in the Daily Mail by James Furman, director of the British Board of Film Classification, and of an interview that he gave to another newspaper, I would not be surprised if he would not have to buy and willingly buy a system of video nasties censorship. If I am wrong, and if I have maligned Mr. Furman, I regret it—and I am sure that he will find an opportunity to correct any false impression that I may have given.

We must accept, both in movies that are shown on television and in some television programmes, that there is a cheapening of human values. There is a nasty kind of violence. I take that seriously and Mr. Belson's research is still important and significant. He believes that we should cut the violence presented on television. He states that the necessary reduction in the amount of violence is significant. One cannot do without it altogether because many important matters, plots and stories depend on violence. He added: As far as serious violence in concerned, there is a well-supported case for a major reduction in the total amount of violence shown on television. At the same time … the cut-back in television violence does not have necessarily to be complete, for the increase in serious violence by boys does not appear to occur until the accumulated input has gone beyond a certain level. In other words, there appears to be scope for the presentation of a certain amount of violence without the production of serious violence in boy viewers. However, if we are interested in reducing the degree to which television stimulates the relatively non-serious forms of violence in boys, then the cut-back in television violence would have to be very drastic indeed". I guess that would go too far for most of us.

As to the kind of violence most necessary to eliminate, he remarked If the amount of television violence is to be reduced, then one has to decide upon criteria for reducing it. At a purely commonsense level, this should not be difficult once production staff accept television violence first and foremost as potentially damaging rather than regarding it principally as potential entertainment. I agree with that.

8.42 pm
Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Mr. Callaghan) on choosing to raise a matter of particular interest to, and within the personal experience of, most of our constituents.

I spent the greater part of my professional career working in the mechanical media—as a sound broadcaster, radio producer, and television producer and director. It is a sad fact that over the years that I have been associated with the industry, I have watched and heard standards—particularly of language—decline. Many right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House are concerned about bad language, explicit sex and, above all, explicit violence on television and video and, to a lesser extent, on radio.

My personal concern is not individual programmes but the cumulative effect of a saturation assault on the senses of the audience. Some will argue that for a normal viewer—whatever or whoever that may be—exposure to a nightly diet of verbal and visual abuse that is the stuff of current programming has little or no long-term adverse effect. I cannot accept that. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith), I cannot believe that advertisers pay hundreds of thousands of pounds annually creating and broadcasting advertisements for the specific and powerful purpose of altering people's purchasing habits, and that right hon. and hon. Members vie for air time to alter the public's political thinking, but that what is seen on news programmes, in documentaries and in drama does not have a similar, brain-washing and perhaps brain-curdling effect.

Can any right hon. or hon. Member put hand on heart and say that reports of IRA atrocities in Northern Ireland or closer to home, on the mainland, and even such terrible events as the Warrington bombing and the sad and grim funerals that followed still have the same impact as those first reported far too many murdering years ago?

Is it not a fact that all our senses, not just those of the young and still innocent, are dulled by the grim repetition of death universally that we see reported night after night from the four corners of the earth? Do reports of war or famine in Somalia or Bosnia tear at the heart strings and purse strings in the way that Jonathan Dimbleby's first reports from Ethiopia did many years ago?

If the answer to those questions is no, is that because the human mind can only take so much of a battering of violence and that, as a result of relentless repetition, even the most sensitive and responsive have become inured to human suffering?

I have dealt so far only with events that one would expect to see on our screens, hear about on our radios, and read about in our newspapers. We must acknowledge, however, that modern technology has made the graphic reporting of war, pestilence and death more immediate and has brought them into the heart of our homes in a way that was not possible only a few years ago. For good or ill, that progress is irreversible. Today's children are subjected to far more scenes of death and violence on television than anything that most of us experienced in our own childhood.

We are compounding that quota of grim viewing by adding, under the guise of entertainment, still more scenes of violence and death. My wife and I try hard to monitor our 12-year-old son's viewing and to ensure that the programmes that he watches are suited to the capacities, sensitivities and tolerances of a young, active, inquiring and impressionable mind. However, all too frequently we discover that well before the much-vaunted threshold, material is broadcast that at least I find unacceptable because of its language and violent content.

There is no denying that my son and his young friends like blood-and-thunder films or that they revel in the more brutal action crime series, and the like. It is often argued, with some justification, that children are bloodthirsty little people by nature and that they have always been so. After all, the Punch and Judy shows that many of us enjoyed in the past are not the most peaceful of theatricals. There is, however, a world of difference between the Punch and Judy professor and the fictional and fantasy warmongers of, for example, "Dr. Who" and the much more realistic and foul-mouthed villains of today's television series and dramas.

I will not rehearse a litany of titles. Suffice it to say that on any given evening a family household is unlikely to be deprived of the dubious pleasure of finding on one channel or another, usually well within peak viewing time, something to satisfy any likely craving for televisual aggression. Were too peaceful an evening to occur, the video shop that is seemingly just around every corner is open all hours to offer lurid titles of extremely dubious pedigree.

We have supplemented the available domestic television services with a growing number of satellite channels. I make it clear immediately that I support the development of satellite and cable services and that I see great potential in the future of transfrontier broadcasting. We must, however, recognise that, as with any new technology, there is potential for good and for ill.

We have seen the potential for good in satellite news services and in sports and children's channels that are capable of delivering a variety of information, enjoyment and entertainment from Europe and the rest of the world. Few would deny that satellite coverage of the Olympics or, sparing recent performances, of Test cricket from halfway around the globe has not brought pleasure to millions of sports fans.

Nor can there be much doubt that coverage of famine in Somalia, war in the Gulf, or privation in the former Yugoslavia—however gruelling—has brought home the plight of human souls in other parts of the world with a vivid immediacy that has had a profound effect on international political response to those needs.

The potential for exchanges of culture—music, films, theatre and education—are immense. The sheer capacity of satellite transmission makes it possible to devote whole channels to, for example, religion, education or sport—or to hard-core pornography: that is the darker side of this most powerful of media. The launch of the Red Hot television service has, at least temporarily, driven a coach and horses through our domestic regulatory framework.

I am not one of the world's natural censors. In my time as a programme maker I pushed at the frontiers of some people's taste and, as a result, found myself answerable to the regulatory authorities. I do not want to curtail the creative and genuinely artistic expression of young producers and directors, even if they sometimes make what we may regard as errors of judgment. However, I defy any but the most brutalised to find any creative merit in a wall-to-wall diet of hard-core pornography of the kind that provides the sole format of the Red Hot service. I shall spare the House a blow-by-blow account of the channel's output; suffice it to say that the scripts are not the most inventive that I have had the dubious privilege of experiencing.

I concede that such material is available for open-channel daytime viewing in many hotels throughout mainland Europe; it is also true that hard-core pornography is broadcast by some European services—Canal Plus in France, for example—as part of a balanced programme. As far as I am aware, however, Red Hot is the only channel in the European Community that is dedicated exclusively to the transmission of hard-core explicit sexual activity. Let me make it clear that I am not talking about the television equivalent of top-shelf girlie magazines; the channel portrays much more than natural explicit sex. At least one of the three clips that I saw had heavy overtones of sado-masochism.

I think it inevitable that, if such a service is allowed to continue, its client audience will demand ever more extreme and revolting material. Should that be in any doubt, as one of those who visited and were sickened by the exhibition mounted in the House by the obscene publications squad, I am in a position to say that films featuring extreme sexual violence and paedophilia are all too readily available. The latter is now being transmitted not only through the post in the form of still pictures and on videotape, but by computer link—in which form it appears to be outside the law.

We are told that the Red Hot films are shown only to consenting subscribers who have bought the necessary decoding equipment, and that they are only shown late at night. I concede that that is correct. If transmitted within the United Kingdom, however, the channel would not receive a broadcast licence; and its films, if seized by customs on their entry into the United Kingdom on videotape, would without doubt lead to prosecution. One need not be a genius to work out that, given the ease with which films can now be recorded off air and copied, the growth in cottage industries supplying hard-core videotapes is likely to be considerable.

That recording facility also makes it inevitable that, while the source material may be encrypted, children are likely to be able to see films that are, by any sensible standards, highly unsuitable even for adult viewing. One of my constituents complained recently that her children—on whom she keeps a watchful parental eye—had come back after playing with friends whom she had regarded as perfectly respectable, using bad language and describing scenes that they had witnessed on a videotape that they had been allowed to watch in someone else's house.

For all those reasons, I—together with many colleagues on both sides of the House—have pressed for Government action to end the Red Hot television service and other channels like it. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister and our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the recent announcement of their intention to try to proscribe the channel; I hope and believe that they will be successful should the matter come before the European courts.

I believe that a great deal is at stake. If we are not able to regulate what is broadcast to the United Kingdom by satellite—however abhorrent that material may be—not only will more channels spring up, but pressure will grow for still more deregulation of our domestic television service. Whatever lack of proof the experts may claim for any link between at least some of society's ills and the prevalence of gratuitous violence, bad language and explicit sex on television, common sense tells me that the decline in standards can and does affect the behaviour and attitudes not just of young people but of all of us.

I believe that not only the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, the House of Commons and even society but the programme makers themselves are coming to recognise that great scrutiny needs to be given to scripts and pictures to justify what is shown on the screen. At such a time, it would be a sad and dreadful irony if through transfrontier broadcasting, which may yet offer humanity so much, the floodgates were opened to a tide of filth and violence.

8.46 pm
Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

I join others in congratulating all who have spoken on the seriousness and depth of their speeches. My contribution will be very short.

Like other hon. Members, I am entirely opposed to the idea of censorship; equally, I believe that we must protect our children from the worst excesses of any possible medium. I do not wish to touch on what I regard as a separate issue—that of hard-core pornography—but I shall speak about the general diet of television, which other hon. Members have described as becoming increasingly violent, and about the lowering of standards.

My main point is this. I think it entirely wrong for society to blame one aspect for all its ills. The problem with television is that, because competition has become increasingly fierce and because the possibility of revenues from advertising, for example, has become smaller and smaller, programme makers are under incredible pressure to limit the amount of programme time between advertisements. In my experience of playing in live theatre, what has become increasingly noticeable over the past few years is audiences' inability to sustain concentration, and to equate conflicting points of view, for any longer than would, in domestic terms, constitute the time before the first commercial break.

At present, pressures on the medium itself mean that pressures on the programme makers who are at the behest of ratings—because if the ratings are not high enough, the possibility of selling their programmes with sufficient advertising space becomes increasingly small—are becoming stronger and stronger. Many years ago, I had a conversation with the vice-president responsible for daytime television programming. When I asked him why television in America was so appalling, he said, "You misunderstand the nature of the medium. Television is not about entertainment; it is a marketplace." That is what we are suffering from here, because of deregulation. The pressure on programme makers is not to make quality programmes, but to sandwich advertisements.

If we, as people, are being programmed to sustain and concentrate on smaller and smaller pieces of programmes, our requirement to be stimulated to watch beyond the next advertising break—to pick up the programme again—means that programme makers are continually leaving us on the edge of a cliff. That is their whole purpose: they must retain us beyond the commercial break, because if we are not there, the next commercial break will not be there the next time around.

The decay in television has come about because what was a great bulwark against cheapening pressures—the security that the industry as a whole could place in the solidity of the BBC, which, at that time, was not under commercial pressure—is being eroded. That has happened in America. It is a model for what television will become in the rest of the world.

I agree absolutely that there are unacceptable programmes and that not everybody exercises the right kind of control over their children's viewing, but it would be entirely wrong to blame television for the increase in violence or for the decay in our moral standards.

8.58 pm
Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Mr. Callaghan) on his choice of topic and in particular on the impeccable timing of the debate that he has won.

As the House heard from those who have contributed to this short debate, there is continuing concern about violence on the screens in our homes—not least, I suspect, because of still-rising levels of crime which cause growing concern among the public and a demand for more effective action to prevent and combat it. It is important, however, as the hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) said, to put concerns about television violence in context. It is the purpose for which it is portrayed—its nature and quality—which matters. Violence is an integral part of, for example, many of Shakespeare's plays, reflecting the violent times in which the events described are set, so Shakespeare's violence is in context—a dark part of those times—and not violence simply for the sake of it.

Concern among viewers about violence is remarkably even across the years. That is no surprise perhaps, for people react differently to the same circumstances. In its recent survey, the Independent Television Commission's "Television: The Public's View" records that 70 out of every 100 viewers of commercial television found nothing offensive about programmes, with 72 out of every 100 saying the same about Channel 4, but 11 out of every 100 viewers cited violence as a source of offence. Unfortunately, these complaints are not broken down into programme strands, so we do not know whether it was the harrowing scenes of violence from the former Yugoslavia in news bulletins or the violence in drama or works of fiction that caused offence.

As David Glencross, the distinguished chief executive of the ITC, comments: What we are seeing is a public revulsion against violence in society which is feeding through to a desire for greater sensitivity by television programme-makers and makers of films and videos. He added: Members of the Commission expect programme-makers and TV companies to take full account of that concern. As my hon. Friend and others acknowledge, there is no evidence to sustain any charge that our screens are awash with violence, or that programme makers and television companies are indifferent to public concerns, but in no way should that lead to complacency. The broadcasters need to continue to demonstrate that they both acknowledge and respond to public concern over violence on our screens.

The broadcasting industry has more regulation and codes of practice than any other part of the media. I might add that, had the newspapers taken more account of them, they might now be held in higher esteem. The BBC's producers' guidelines are a good example. A section on violence in programmes opens this way: There is much confusing and inconclusive research into violence on television and society. While it may not be possible to establish the nature of any relationship, it is prudent to assume there may be one. No one can properly criticise that approach. It is one which is matched by other broadcasters and the regulators.

The Broadcasting Standards Council—no one's favourite body—offers an important warning in its code of practice. It says: There is an initial distinction to be made between reporting and reflection in programmes of real-life violence and the use of violent actions as elements in entertainment programmes. The BSC published a monograph called "A measure of uncertainty: the effects of the mass media" by Dr. Guy Cumberbatch, director of the communications research group at Birmingham's Aston university, and Dr. Dennis Howitt, senior lecturer in social psychology at Loughborough university. They conclude: The facts surrounding the debate"— the debate on how the media affects people— are impressive: over the past 10 years, 2,000 studies have scrutinised the impact of the media and 1,000 projects have researched the relationship between television and violence. What we don't know (about the effects of the media) is probably more important than what we do know. That reflects the sensible caution in the BBC producers' guidelines.

The ITC survey also tells us—a point that was made by the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale)—that more people, watching the commercial channels and the two BBC channels, are more offended by bad language than violence—that 17 out of every 100 ITV viewers find bad language to be more of a reason to complain, that 14 out of every 100 BBC1 viewers feel the same, and that that number falls to 11 out of every 100 BBC2 viewers.

The British Film Institute has published a book called "Women Viewing Violence", based on research commissioned by the BSC and carried out among women who had had direct experience of violence and those who had not. The book's authors refer to women's concern that televised violence against women be portrayed realistically and sensitively and used to effect some postive outcome, such as public education or crime prevention". It might have been expected that women—especially those who had themselves been victims of violence—would be more strongly against the portrayal of violence in any form than men, but the finding suggests that they accept it as a fact and as an unpleasant part of life. If it is to be done, they want it to be done in a realistic manner.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith

The implication of the research is that violence does not worry people nearly so much as does bad language in the form of expletives. In some programmes, language can be extremely violent in another way, and much more frightening. With regard to women, my concern has more to do with the more realistic, sadistic violence that is portrayed in movies, which are then produced in video form and thrown in to our homes.

Mr. Corbett

I accept that absolutely. As with much of this research, one does not know exactly which programmes are being looked at. In any event, bad language and realistic violence often go together. The distinction is perhaps not wholly sensible.

Most concern among viewers is caused by films and videos that are strong on gratuitous violence—what I shall call the Michael Winner effect. I took particular exception to Winner's "Death Wish", as it seemed to me that its sole purpose was to smother the screen with as much blood and gore as Charles Bronson could achieve. Then, to raise a bit more cash from this exploitation of violence, came "Death Wish II". More recently, the Independent Television Commission has expressed concern about real crimes that become the subjects of drama documentaries such as "Suspicious Circumstances" and Michael Winner's "True Crimes" and "Crime Story".

It is interesting that when Clint Eastwood—himself no stranger to screen violence—collected this week his two Oscars for his film "The Unforgiven", he argued strongly that it is not a violent film, as violence is used to overcome greater violence. That is another concept, and I have to confess to having seen "The Dirty Dozen" and "The Magnificent Seven" many times on the same grounds.

The jury is out on the question whether rising crime in our daily lives is simply reflected in what we see on television or whether what we see on television, in some way and among some people, helps to encourage crime. But we should also remember that the people of this country lived in times more violent even than these, a century or more ago, when television had not been invented. Certainly there is a need for more and continuing research into the effect of the portrayal of violence in news, drama, fiction and other television programme strands, not least for its possible impact on young and forming minds. It may well be a question which can never be completely answered, but all of us, including the programme makers, have a strong duty to ensure that proper sensitivity is always shown in the portrayal of violence on television and in films and videos.

I confess to doubts about the impact of what is shown on our screens on those who watch it. There must be some effect, or advertisers would not spend millions of pounds with ITV and Channel 4 trying to persuade us to buy their products. But again, the success of advertisements may have more to do with the way in which they are done for the purpose of achieving what is wanted by those paying for them. As Dr. Cumberbatch and Dr. Howitt observe, research which has examined audiences is rarely able to demonstrate clear effects of the mass media. They also make a further contribution to this complicated debate. They state that market forces inevitably mean that the media cannot stray too far from audience interest and that the perceived problems are caused not by television alone but by many factors, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) said. They add: Isolating the unique contribution that television makes to problems such as racism and sexism, which are deeply embedded in our cultures, is exceedingly difficult. Perhaps we should give the last word to Mr. John Birt, the director general of the BBC, who, in his Fleming memorial lecture to the Royal Television Society this week, gave this pledge: We can ensure that our programmes do not promote … cruelty and violence. We will do nothing to encourage anyone to think there is kudos or status to be earned by inflicting pain and damage to another human being. I hope that that pledge will be endorsed by all other programme makers and broadcasters.

9.10 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage (Mr. Robert Key)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Mr. Callaghan) for giving the House an opportunity to consider this important issue. I congratulate him on the way that he opened the debate. His contribution has been followed by a number of thoughtful and well informed speeches, but he started the ball rolling, and our thanks are due to him. All my comments will bear on what he said. I have known of his sensitive approach to the subject since I served with him some years ago on the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts. His interest is of long standing.

I know from the correspondence that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have received that the issue of broadcasting standards troubles many people. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) made a speech born of great experience; it was also the speech of a father. He mentioned Red Hot Television. I can say only that it has been granted leave to apply for judicial review. We believe our position to be correct, and we shall defend our action vigorously. The matter is now before the courts, and I know that my hon. Friend will understand if I do not comment further at this stage.

Violence on the news has also been mentioned. It is a subject that alarms many parents, who believe that even the "Six O'Clock News" and earlier news broadcasts can sometimes be very frightening and can make a deep impression. I am drawn to the BBC producers' guidelines on real life violence in the news: There is a balance to be struck between the demands of truth and the danger of desensitising the audience. With some news stories a sense of shock is part of a full understanding of what has happened. But the more often viewers are shocked, the more it will take to shock them. That is the type of detailed guidance which the BBC gives to producers and which the ITC gives to other television companies. It would be wrong to assume that everyone who works in television is dedicated to the pursuit of violence. I know that that is not the case, and I do not believe that any hon. Member or anyone outside the House thinks it is.

I am also grateful for the contribution made by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) in a speech also born of great experience of working in a number of media. I do not blame television for all our ills, any more than I blame politicians or teachers, who seem to be the other whipping boys or girls. She said that there was pressure—not only commercial pressure—on programme makers from many quarters.

If I could introduce a lighter note to our proceedings, I must say that I have always thought that, however boring a programme, it is almost worth waiting for the adverts, which tend to be of a higher standard and which, if I am not mistaken, are a rather important source of revenue for actors who are otherwise resting. We should not simply dismiss the art form of advertisements, of which I am quite fond.

I also do not quite agree with the hon. Lady that commercial pressure always leads to lower quality. In fact, one could argue the reverse. A number of commercial enterprises on television have led to very high standards. One thinks, for example, of Channel 4's involvement in commissioning films, not least its involvement with "Howard's End". There are many examples of good, too, coming out of commercial pressure. Nevertheless, I take the hon. Lady's point.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington. (Mr. Corbett) made a thoughtful speech, which stole many of my best lines—not, I dare say, for the last time, although I shall always seek to be there ahead of him. He, too, talked about the problem of violence and the contradiction involving the use of television as a powerful advertising medium. The argument is that, if television is powerful enough to attract enormous amounts of money as an advertising medium, we cannot at the same time be told that it does not affect the personality or character of those who watch it.

I thought back to the remarkable study on the problem of violence carried out by Will Wyatt for the BBC. In considering that issue, he said: There is the argument that broadcasters cannot claim television works as an advertising medium and at the same time claim that television violence has no effect. But television adverts are radically different from programmes in that they give persuasive messages about a particular product. They are designed to raise awareness of that item's existence and are expressly aimed at making the product attractive. They are also part of a complex selling strategy mix, including marketing, promotion and pricing. Television programmes, on the other hand, are not designed to sell objects or ideas, certainly not violence. which is very often presented as something repugnant. This is not to argue that television violence definitely has no effect, merely that the advertising analogy is false. I am much drawn to that argument.

I shall now make my own case, before referring to the contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith). First, I want to remind the House of the regulatory position for television in this country. Responsibility for what is broadcast rests with the broadcasting regulatory bodies and, of course, with the broadcasters themselves. The regulatory bodies—the BBC governors, the Independent Television Commission, the Radio Authority and S4C—are independent of Government and are responsible for safeguarding the public interest in broadcasting. Indeed, they must lay their annual reports before the House.

It is a long-established principle—and a good one—that Ministers do not seek to intervene in the day-to-day content or scheduling of programmes. Our whole regulatory framework is based on that arm's-length approach. Freedom from Government intervention in the media is an essential component of a democratic society.

The Broadcasting Act 1990 has created a clear framework within which the independent broadcasters will operate with regard to broadcasting standards. Section 6 puts a clear statutory duty on the ITC to ensure that every licensed service includes nothing in its programmes which offends against good taste or decency or is likely to encourage or incite to crime or to lead to disorder or to be offensive to public feeling". Similar provisions are contained in the annex to the BBC's licence and agreement.

It was precisely because of the concerns of many members of the public that the Government decided in 1988 to establish the Broadcasting Standards Council. The council acts as a focus for public concern not only about the portrayal of violence but also about the portrayal of sex and about standards of taste and decency in all forms of broadcasting.

The BSC also produces a code of practice which broadcasters must reflect in their own codes. The code was widely debated, not only by the broadcasting industry but also by many interested bodies, such as the National Viewers and Listeners Association and, perhaps most importantly, by ordinary members of the public.

This country is fortunate in having the best broadcasting system in the world. We will not let it be destroyed by a gradual erosion of standards. On that the Government will stand firm.

A number of hon. Members have referred to films. If films are shown on television, the usual television regulatory framework applies.

I shall now deal with the precise functions of the regulators. The ITC must draw up and enforce a general code, which includes a carefully thought out section on the portrayal of violence. All ITC licensees are required to ensure that any programmes they transmit comply with that code. If they do not, the ITC can impose a financial penalty, demand an apology, reduce the term of the licence by up to two years, or revoke the licence.

The BBC also maintains guidelines for programme makers. The governors reaffirmed their commitment to maintain standards in the annex to the BBC's licence and agreement, and have produced guidelines for all levels of production staff to which I shall refer later. In summary, the BBC guidelines prohibit the use of gratuitous violence, require that the consequences of violent acts are not overlooked, require attention to the scheduling of programmes with violent content, and give guidance on the use of clear warnings. Perhaps most importantly, the BBC guidelines warn of the dangers of broadcasting material portraying dangerous behaviour, which children might imitate, at times when large numbers of children are watching.

I am sure that hon. Members are aware of the broadcasters' family viewing policy. We know it as the watershed, which in the United Kingdom is at 9 pm. This means that programmes before the watershed must be suitable for family viewing, while programmes after 9 pm may be suitable for a more adult audience.

The ITC's family viewing policy goes slightly further. It assumes that as the evening progresses there will be fewer children present in the audience and this will be reflected in the content of programmes. But within that there remains the fixed point. Before 9 pm, nothing which is unsuitable for children must be shown.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden, again with great experience and the wisdom of many years' interest in the subject, talked about sanitised violence. When my children were younger, I felt that sanitised violence was the insidioius and dangerous violence on television. Therefore, many years ago, I took an interest in it, and I remember speaking about it in a debate in the House some time ago. The Independent Television Commission programme code has addressed the issue as follows: There is no evidence that 'sanitised' or 'conventional' violence, in which the consequences are concealed, minimised or presented in a ritualistic way, is innocuous. It may be just as dangerous to society to conceal the results of violence or to minimise them as to let people see or hear clearly the full consequences of violent behaviour, however gruesome: what may be better for society may be emotionally more upsetting or more offensive for the individual viewer. That is very good sense.

So much for the regulatory position. Despite the care that we and the regulatory bodies have taken to ensure a strict regulatory regime, I know that many hon. Members believe that the policy is not working. The evidence that I have seen, much of which has been quoted in the debate and of which there is much more, does not support the view that the guidelines are widely flouted by the broadcasters; nor do I believe that there has been a demonstrable decline in standards. Similarly, we need to look carefully at the available evidence before we jump to the conclusion that there is some automatic link between a perceived drop in standards and any increase in violent crime.

There has been much research over the years on the possibility of a link between violent television programmes and violent or criminal behaviour. There are, as one would expect in such a controversial and high-profile field, claims and counter-claims. The balance of research has not produced any conclusive evidence that such a link exists. For each study which seeks to prove a damaging effect on behaviour, there is another to disprove it.

Perhaps even more interesting than the academic research is the research among viewers themselves. The Broadcasting Standards Council has done valuable work in this area, as has the ITC. Hon. Members may well have seen the recent report from the ITC—indeed, the hon. Member for Erdington referred to it—published on 24 March, called "Television: The Public's View 1992". That has produced many interesting findings. Unfortunately, it does not extend to the BBC, but, as I think the hon. Gentleman reminded us, 70 per cent. of the viewers surveyed found nothing offensive on ITV, with 72 per cent. saying the same of Channel 4. Even fewer viewers were offended by satellite and cable. That I found surprising, because so often we are told that there is more that is offensive on satellite and cable. That survey showed that only 4 per cent. of viewers saw violence as a cause of offence. Indeed, the majority of viewers—some 71 per cent.—thought that programme standards had at least been maintained, or even improved. Once again, only 4 per cent. of viewers surveyed criticised the amount of violence.

I realise that surveys involve samples. Sometimes they are self-selected, and sometimes they are people who want to make their views known because they have especially strong views one way or another and are more inclined to answer surveys. Nevertheless, the survey goes some way to helping to put things into perspective.

I am reminded, and therefore gently remind my colleagues in the House, that it is often said that the worst judges of what is on television are Members of Parliament, because they hardly ever watch it. There is a grain of truth in that, but we must put things in perspective. John Thaw in "The Sweeney" has been replaced by John Thaw in "Inspector Morse". If hon. Members look closely at their television viewing, they will find other comparisons. "The A-Team", which used to worry me a lot when I had young children, has gone, and so have "The Professionals". Sanitised violence itself has been sanitised, so let us not leap to easy conclusions.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said recently, television is a powerful medium which must be treated with respect. Common sense suggests that it must have an effect on the perception of the world of at least some of the audience. Broadcasters must exercise caution. They must assume that there may well be some relationship between television and behaviour. It is for that reason that I was especially pleased to see that the BBC was prepared to admit that it had got it wrong in showing that now notorious episode of the drama programme "Casualty". For me, that was a clear example of the type of programme in which broadcasters need to be aware not only of when such material is shown but whether it should be shown at all. I am pleased that that seems to have been taken on board.

It was a breath of fresh air—I congratulate him on this—to hear the controller of BBC 1, Alan Yentob, saying of "Casualty" that the BBC got it wrong and would take more care and use more scrutiny to ensure that it understands public sentiment and the public climate. Let us not forget that that is a statement of success—a recognition that things needed to happen and have happened.

We have had enough of violence on our screens. Common sense is beginning to prevail. Programme makers and broadcasters know it. Judging by the comments of Sir Anthony Hopkins, actors have had enough of violence, too.

I should like to turn to another point raised by the survey conducted by the Independent Television Commission. It showed that 68 per cent. of viewers thought that praents should be responsible for children's viewing, with a further 23 per cent. seeing children's viewing as a joint responsibility between the broadcaster and the parents. Only 9 per cent. of viewers thought that broadcasters should be solely responsible.

I say now to that 9 per cent. "Think again". It does not matter whether the programmes that children are watching are in the family living room, in their bedrooms, at a friend's house or on video. Parents know what is suitable for their children. Broadcasters cannot be held responsible for parents who do not take the time to care about what the children watch. For goodness sake: where are the parents when their children are watching all that television? This is a partnership in which both sides must do their bit, and in which both sides have the option of the on-off switch.

We need to recognise that most television producers are trying hard. Certainly, the BBC has tried hard with its production guidelines, which go into great detail. For example, it suggests that all people involved in production have a responsibility, whether it is the make-up artist deciding how much blood, the editor, the cameraman and the shots which he uses or anyone involved. That is something which must be commended. Not only the controller but everyone involved in the television studio, in scriptwriting, and all the important and technological parts of producing television programmes must be aware of the problem.

As the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton said, the problem is not easily solved. There are certainly no final solutions to the problem of violence on television. There is no cut and dried solution. Opportunities for viewing and listening will continue to proliferate. Technology is not on our side in respect of the number of channels available. Anyone who goes to the United States of America or a dozen other countries and has flicked through the television channels will know what I mean.

Therefore, we must have particular regard to our approach to the problem. The best way of maintaining the standards that common sense tells us are right is for broadcasters and programme makers to share responsibility with viewers, including parents, and with the regulatory authorities.

Parliament will continue to express its opinion and the Government will continue to listen and monitor the position carefully. We in the Government will not be bullied into any general censorship of the media, but we have shown already that when there is a need for action, we will act.