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8.15 pm

Mr. David Mellor (Putney): I shall make only a brief contribution to the debate so eloquently introduced by the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis), whose knowledge of Shakespeare I envy and admire.

We should all be concerned about violence on the screen. However, the idea that the V-chip can contribute to the control of that violence is completely untenable and unsustainable. To illustrate that, I shall expand briefly on the points that I made on Second Reading.

I am something of a veteran of these encounters, having started as a Home Office Minister with the Video Recordings Bill 1984--which established video classifications--introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Sir G. Bright). One of the tragedies of such debates is that they tend to polarise opinion, largely because the case for change is overstated. It is impossible not to have the highest regard for my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison), but to suggest that the Dunblane massacre is relevant to the debate was profoundly misleading. Thomas Hamilton had many problems in addition to being warped by television

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violence. If we wanted to do something positive about Dunblane, we would not wait until Lord Cullen produced his report before taking action.

As a Home Office Minister, I remember trawling endlessly through research on screen violence. Frankly, it is an abdication of our responsibility in the House to ask researchers to tell us whether such images are damaging. Researchers cannot tell us that. However, research has made it absolutely clear that damaged personalities can be further damaged by exposure to extreme violence. Most of us can watch scenes of extreme violence and merely feel repelled that we live in a society which produces such entertainment. It does not make us want to go out and hack somebody to bits. Although we should not underestimate the common sense of most of our fellow citizens, there is no doubt that some people are deeply warped and damaged by screen violence. It probably inflames their imaginations and causes some of them to go over the edge--it may be a precipitating factor.

Although it was interesting to hear about some of the curious responses to opinion pollsters--perhaps to satirise the whole process of opinion polling--nevertheless, one of the problems of addressing screen violence is the ambivalence of the public response. The very members of the public who say how much they deplore screen violence will watch it. Why are those films made? Why are those television programmes shown? Many of them are high-audience programmes. They are shown because they attract an audience and because sensationalism attracts people. That is why we can place very little faith in public opinion surveys. Surely we must place faith in our own common sense and the structures that Parliament has established to control those elements and ensure that those controls are exercised effectively.

The hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) referred to television news. There is censorship of television news. It is not applied externally, but by the editors of television news programmes who--perfectly honourably--often choose to reject footage that would be sensational because it is too awful to be seen. We should encourage them to do that. Scenes of a massacre are not made that much more attractive by close-ups of bodies and glorious technicolour shots of wounds.

By the same token, we must accept that, although television is in the firing line tonight, the real problem with extreme screen violence lies with Hollywood and our obsession with American culture. What Dustin Hoffman said is relevant because he is representative of an increasing trend in Hollywood, which should have begun before, of people who, having made millions and millions of pounds out of films, are suddenly becoming repelled by the very industry in which they have been involved.

I am glad that we have moved on to talking about violence. Years ago, when I started in the business, if one may so describe it, we talked about sex. Violence has rightly moved to the centre of the stage, and for that at least we can be grateful because we ought to be particularly concerned about violence, and certainly about extreme sexual violence.

Every film that a director makes, he makes to establish a certain notoriety; to push the frontiers forward. He also makes it on the basis that someone else will come along and do something more extreme. We do not need to add new clauses to do something about that. We have the British Board of Film Classification, which has the power to neuter

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such products by refusing to grant them a licence. We should encourage it to do so, but not in order to present some fairy-tale vision of the world or to suggest that the world outside may be awful but what will be shown will be only what would pass for entertainment 50 years ago.

One cannot turn the clock back. We should encourage the BBFC to take action if it sees a film that plainly and simply wants to reproduce exploitative violence to attract and create sensation and to draw people in to do nothing more profound than shock them more deeply than they were by what they saw the previous month.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Colchester, South and Maldon): Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that--I believe--only two films have been permanently refused certificates for video release by the BBFC? One was "The Exorcist" and the other was "Straw Dogs" which, of course, starred Dustin Hoffman?

Mr. Mellor: That is not quite true. It is probably true of films that were given a cinema classification but were then refused for home release. There is a restricted category that was taken out of any classification, which was introduced by the Video Recordings Act 1984. Indeed, I had to watch some of those films, such as "Faces of Death" and "Driller Killer". Does anybody want to join me on this trip down memory lane? There is nothing new under the sun--we were into all that sort of stuff 12 years ago.

One of the reasons why I disagree with the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) is that he sells his own case short by using all the profound points that he made about the damage done to already damaged lives to suggest that the V-chip has something to contribute. The V-chip is a piece of escapism. Does anyone understand what its introduction would mean? It is a crude piece of equipment. It operates only on a scale of one to five. It does not have a mind of its own. If five represents extreme violence, it is triggered and shuts off only because the material has been pre-censored and said to be of category five.

Although I agree with what the hon. Member for Mossley Hill said about sink estates, they are precisely the areas in which nobody would bother with the V-chip. Middle-class parents who do not have to worry that their child will turn into some teenage werewolf are probably the ones who will have their V-chip humming away. With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, the V-chip is a sad delusion.

We must say that good people sit on the Independent Television Commission, that good people are governors on the board of the BBC, that--one hopes--good people sit on the Broadcasting Standards Council, or whatever the wretched thing will be called now that it has been amalgamated with another equally wretched body whose purpose has never been particularly clearly established in my mind, although I think that I was responsible for some of the legislation that created it.

Leaving that aside, there are mechanisms of control and--on a sensible, all-party basis, one hopes--we must encourage and support them, to create not Toytown but a sane world within which people can be exposed to powerful and even shocking entertainment out of which

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we take the kind of extreme violence that has no place in our society and that we know is damaging. We do not need some fellow from Essex university to conduct a survey for five years to tell us what is damaging. We know in our own minds that such stuff is not needed.

With respect to those who propose the V-chip, there is no technological answer to the problems that we face. Above all, there is no answer which, in effect, goads people who want some adult entertainment into feeling that they must defend some extreme things to get away from some of the quite impossible arguments that are raised against it. Surely we can reach some kind of common-sense consensus based on the principle that we in this House charge the broadcasting authorities with responsibility and it is up to them to discharge such responsibility and not escape through technology if they do not do so. It is for us to hold them to account for the powerful tool that we have put in their hands.

Dr. John Cunningham: I congratulate the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) on bringing some clarity to the debate. I should say straight away that I sympathise with the aims and objectives of the hon. Members for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis) and for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton). Parents and, indeed, many people who are not parents, would be generally sympathetic to what they have said about gratuitous violence or explicit sex and its potential impact on young people.

I share the view of the right hon. and learned Member for Putney that to seek a solution in technology is almost amusing. The idea that parents know more than their children about how to use electronic gadgets is--I speak for myself, at least--somewhat amusing. The idea that children would not find which of their friends' parents did not have a V-chip in their television and be off round the corner to watch programmes in their friends' homes should also be borne in mind. Children and young people are extremely ingenious and will find ways around such things, even if the solution is practical.

I am not particularly against the V-chip proposals. If people want to be able to buy such technology, they should have the right to do so and there is no reason why it should not be marketed either as an option in new television sets or to be retro-fitted to existing sets. I am not opposed to that, but when we realise that there are about 36 million television sets in the country it becomes clear that retro-fitting the V-chip would be quite a long job even assuming a significant number of people wanted to do it.

There is also the problem of V-chips in video recorders and the need for them in personal computers. The number of pieces of equipment that, in theory, would need a V-chip to protect young people is colossal. To talk about the V-chip as a permanent solution or even as a readily available solution is to raise false hopes. Such a solution will not happen on anything like the scale that is necessary to have much of an impact.

I agree with another point that the right hon. and learned Member for Putney made. Responsible parents--parents who want to exercise some control and guidance--are the ones who would be most attracted to the V-chip, and the very parents who abdicate parental responsibility and do not exercise it in any way are the least likely to invest in the technology.

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