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Britain Sharpens Scissors for TV, Film Violence

By Alexander MacLeodSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 8, 1996



LONDON

Britain is launching a campaign on three fronts to cut levels of violence and explicit sex on television and in home videos.

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Simultaneously, British police are to get greater powers to stop and search people suspected of carrying knives and other potentially deadly weapons.

Government ministers say the new measures announced this week are a direct response to rising public concern about crime and indications that there is a direct link between on-screen and real-life violence.

Concern has been heightened by the killings last March of 16 preschoolers and their teacher in Dunblane, Scotland.

Home Secretary Michael Howard led off the campaign Tuesday by ordering the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), which censors and gives ratings to all films shown in Britain, to submit plans for reducing the amount of violence and explicit sex in home videos.

Home Office Minister Tom Sackville also told the British Video Association (BVA) at its annual conference Tuesday to make "significant cuts" in films before they go on sale. The BVA is responsible for editing the violence and adult material in all movies and TV programs before they are shown in Britain.

Targeting TV violence

National Heritage Secretary Virginia Bottomley called for meetings with the chairmen of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and leading commercial TV companies. "I would like to explore what more we can do to protect vulnerable groups of viewers, particularly children, from unsuitable material," she said.

In what appeared to be a pre-emptive strike, Tuesday the BBC issued a 10-point "statement of promises" to the 21 million people who hold TV licenses. (In Britain it is unlawful to operate a TV set without a license. License fees are used to pay for public TV.) The statement said the BBC would adhere scrupulously to a "program watershed" under which extreme on-screen violence and explicit sex are shown only after 9 p.m. It also promised to "protect existing guidelines on taste and decency."

BBC Chairman Sir Christopher Bland said the corporation would monitor viewers' reactions to the portrayal of sex, violence, and strong language in its programs.

Home Secretary Howard said the bid to put tighter controls on TV and videos reflected "a mood of considerable public concern."

The BBFC had been wrong to give films such as "Natural Born Killers" and "Executions - the Video" ratings allowing them to be seen by young people, Mr. Sackville said. "Those who make handsome profits out of the production and sale of videos have also a moral responsibility to ensure that their products do not have a detrimental effect on society as a whole," he added.

The BBFC cleared "Natural Born Killers" in the same month as the Dunblane killings.

More than 81 percent of British homes have a VCR. There are signs that the video industry is unhappy with the pressure applied to their output.

"We believe sound legislation should be based on solid research and sound evidence rather than knee-jerk reactions. The UK already has the most highly regulated system in Europe," said Lavinia Carey, director-general of the BVA.

In the media, on the street

Public concern about a possible link between violent video material and criminal violence was awakened four years ago when two young children, who had beaten a toddler to death and left his body on a railway line, were found to have been habitual viewers of violent films.

The Broadcasting Standards Council (BSC), an independent watchdog body, welcomed the government moves. In a statement Tuesday it said: "For the last four years, violence has topped our list of the things viewers are most concerned about. Fifty-five percent of people rate it above sex and bad language."

After the Dunblane massacre, an all-party parliamentary committee recommended an urgent review of the laws controlling sex and violence on television and film, noting that there was "overwhelming evidence" of its links to crime. The committee had before it the findings of a panel of teachers, psychiatrists, and academics who urged tighter video classifications and the setting up of a body to monitor computer games.

A poll commissioned by the committee showed that 85 percent of viewers believed pornography encouraged sexual assaults on women. More than 66 percent wanted stronger safeguards to protect children from seeing violence and sex in the media.