Video Nasties
Robert Skidelsky
Hansard | Sunday, February 08, 1998

My Lords, I understand that the motions before us are not in the nature of objections to Mr. Whittam Smith’s appointment as President of the British Board of Film Classification per se. They seek to provide an opportunity for airing the question of the BBFC’s accountability to Parliament for its work.
Even this short debate has revealed a variety of opinion on the working of the Video Recordings Act of 1984, and the general question about the effects of some videos, colloquially known as video nasties, on the character & behaviour of those, especially young people, exposed to them.
The noble lords Campbell of Troy and Alton of Liverpool have voiced concerns which are surely widely shared beyond this House.
The gist of their argument is that certain videos do harm, both to vulnerable individuals and to society, by desensitising people to violence and sexual promiscuity, and by causing some people to commit illegal acts. The result is an increase in anti-social and illegal behaviour..
They point to weaknesses in the present regulatory system, and want it strengthened. They seek to amend the Crime and Disorder Bill later this week to allow a right of appeal against a video work’s classification.
It should be noticed that the present regulatory system, which includes classification, banning and cutting, already implicitly accepts that screen violence may have an important effect on viewers, even if that effect cannot be quantified. The controls are more rigorous for videos because of the much greater difficulty of controlling access.
Before proceeding to stronger regulation we have to be persuaded that there is a definite link between watching certain kinds of video and criminal behaviour; and secondly, that even if such a link were established, it would be desirable or possible to go beyond the present regime in denying households access to this material.
On the first point, the majority view of researchers is that the link between specific filmic material and behaviour is both unproved and unprovable. I won’t repeat what has already been said about this. I merely point to the well-known difficulty of separating out the effects of an element such as ‘violence’ or ‘sexual depravity’ from context in which it appears or the context in which it is viewed.
I don’t think we should be complacent. The fact that you can’t prove an assertion doesn’t mean that it is not true. In such cases one has to fall back on common sense and one’s best judgement. I can’t believe that an unrelieved diet of video nasties is good for either individual character or society. . But here the finger of suspicion points to the households which allow this to happen.
The one reasonably secure correlation we have, brought out in the research of Dr. Kevin Browne of Birmingham University, commissioned by the Home Office, is between violent behaviour and domestic violence, family dysfunction, and low intellectual ability. It is in such families that there is likely to be least control over the viewing habits of young people, and where screen violence is likely to have the greatest impact on behaviour, since it reinforces the reigning cultural norms.
But that is no argument for changing a regulatory system which works well for the great majority.
In this matter we have to balance the rights of people in a free society to watch what they want and the scale of the social problem which such freedom may create. The BBFC already operates the toughest censorship regime in Europe. It already removes more material from video films than many people find desirable. I’m not sure it is possible to toughen the present system without creating a black market. Also the problem of the Internet.
We have probably struck the right balance between freedom and regulation and I see no compelling reason to disturb it.