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29 Feb 2008 : Column 1381

Stephen Pound: I am always unhappy about electronic equipment being used in the House, but that is the most valid use of it that I have yet heard.

Dr. Tanya Byron is conducting a review. I am not saying that it was the prompting of the hon. Member for Canterbury that led to that; rather it was the result of the coming together of a widespread and general public concern, and that shows the importance of the Bill. There are some who do not like the idea of scrutinising the classification process, and there are some who feel there is something philosophically wrong about any group in society trying to impose standards on another group in society. There are some who take a purely libertarian view, and there are some who take the view that people should be allowed to do whatever they will to anyone, and let the market decide. Those days have genuinely passed. We have come to the point where we have looked into the abyss. We have seen things of such foul horror that we cannot stand back and do nothing. We cannot simply have a system that allows this foul production, be it Italian schlock, sadism or snuff movies, to continue, and we must do something.

We have at least two options. We have the Bill, which is not perfect in every aspect, but it is perfect in about 99 per cent. of it, and we have Dr. Tanya Byron’s inquiry. I wish the Bill a fair following wind. I would like to see it succeed because I would like to see elected, democratic and accountable Select Committees of this House of Commons have a genuine and meaningful say in an issue that means an enormous amount to so many of our constituents. However, if owing to the travails of the parliamentary timetable and other calls on our time, it is not successful on the Floor of the House, it will be successful on the sounding board of the nation, because Dr. Tanya Byron’s inquiry will be informed by the points that the hon. Gentleman and his supporters have made here today.

I appeal to the House: let no one be in any doubt whatever on this issue. We can talk about structures and mechanisms; we can talk about the philosophical purity of allowing anyone to see anything, as against some sort of retrogressive censorship; we can talk about Mrs. Bowdler, or about attempting to hold back the tide and dam the flow. However, we have to do something. We have to recognise that there is a genuine concern out there that every one of us sees in our mailbags, in our e-mails and in our surgeries.

For Parliament to say, “Something must be done”, and then to do just anything is an abdication of our responsibility as parliamentarians. Simply to do something because something needs to be done is not what we were sent here for. We need to do something because it must be done, and to do anything other than that would be a double abdication of our responsibilities. We cannot simply say that the existing system is in place and we are happy with it, that it is not a censorship system but a classification system operated by the great and the good, and that there is no direct parliamentary accountability, as Parliament does not pay them any money and there can therefore be no link. There are many organisations that Parliament does not subsidise where Parliament has an overview.

We have a locus in laws such as the Obscene Publications Acts. We pass legislation on the Floor of the House that has to be taken into account by the British Board of Film Classification. There is therefore a second-stage
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link at present. However, laws are passed over a fairly long period of time on a fairly wide scale. We cannot structure a law for a specific film, DVD or game. We can set the broad outlines and indicate what is acceptable and unacceptable, not in Parliament but in a civilised society. We need to do more than simply set the guidelines.

Mr. Dismore: I presume that, in preparation for this debate, my hon. Friend has read the BBFC’s guidelines. Perhaps he could tell us what he disagrees with in those guidelines.

Stephen Pound: I have read them. They refer to two particular strands. The first is the legislative strand, which explains the law of the land. The second deals with the prevailing social mores. I forget the name of the judge in the “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” trial in 1960, who asked the jury whether it was a book that they would wish their wives or servants to read. That was a different world, and the British Board of Film Classification does not operate in that way. It operates within the reality of contemporary standards. I believe that the concept of contemporary standards is too often used as an excuse for no standards. Just because something is modern, it does not necessarily have to be gratuitous. Talking about modernity does not mean talking about a vicarious process whereby people can satisfy their strange lusts and desires by watching these bizarre films. The BBFC takes guidance from prevailing social mores and legislation. We have a link to it through legislation, but we need to have a tighter, more closely coupled link.

The hon. Member for Canterbury is a man of profound decency. I do not know anyone in the House who has a bad word to say about him. He is widely respected. I cannot believe for a moment that he would have brought the Bill to the House had he not felt that this was an issue of such seriousness that the business of the House could, and should, be usefully employed to address it. His point is that there is something very nasty and very new out there—something that can cause harm to communities and to society and set people down a path that they might not otherwise have imagined treading. Instead of just throwing his hands up and being a nay-sayer, he has come up with a series of proposals. The House should give thought and credence to those proposals, although I am not entirely convinced that they will become law within a short time.

The debate has changed and moved on. Contemporary standards have changed. Too many people are now saying that they are unhappy and unprepared to accept what is happening, and we cannot ignore them any longer. For too long, people have stood back and said, “This is what the world is like nowadays. The country’s going to the dogs.” Whether it is “Straw Dogs” or any other dogs, those voices have now been heard, and those sentiments have been magnificently articulated by the hon. Member for Canterbury. I cannot see how anyone in the House today could do other than support him and his Bill, and support Dr. Tanya Byron. I hope that we can find some means whereby this evil—I do not use the word lightly—can be expunged.

11.45 am

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): You will be relieved to know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I did not come here today to talk about early-day motions. I
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came here to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on securing this slot for an important Bill, and to add a few comments of my own. I want to comment on what other hon. Members have said before making one or two points based on my own personal modest media experience.

The serial father of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark), said that we would be better employed discussing matters relating to the internet. There is real concern in the House about the internet, and about the matter that appears on it. If my hon. Friend wishes to introduce a private Member’s Bill to seek to regulate that, he can put me down as a sponsor, because I strongly believe that he is right. However, I do not think that that gainsays the importance of the measure that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury is seeking to introduce this morning; it might only be a small step, but it is an important one.

Far too often, we talk in the House about doing things, and stress the need to deal with certain matters, but then do nothing. We have before us this morning the opportunity to take a very small step. We have all been here on Friday mornings when Members have introduced their private Members’ Bills, and we are often told that the Bill is imperfect because it is badly drafted or does not go to the heart of this or that issue. In another life, I regularly chair Government Bill Committees, and I would not even begin to hazard a guess at the number of Government amendments that have been tabled in this Session of Parliament to the Government’s own legislation. So, for any Member to stand up and say that this or that piece of a private Member’s Bill is mildly imperfect is absolute nonsense.

The purpose of this morning’s debate is to take an issue and to ask whether it is important, and to determine whether the measure before us seeks to address it. If the answer is yes, the Bill will deserve a Second Reading. I shall try to demonstrate that I believe that the answer is yes, and that any Member, on either side of the House, who seeks to prevent the Bill from getting a Second Reading is doing a disservice to the House, to the legislative process and, dare I say it, to the public whom we represent.

My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) referred to age ratings, and to the fact that society had changed. He knows a great deal more about film than I do; it is arguable that he knows a great deal more about most things than I do. So far as changes in society are concerned, however, I can, simply by virtue of longevity, say that I have experienced slightly more than he has. As a fully paid-up aspirant geriatric, I am prepared to stand here and say that I do not believe that the fact that society has changed means that it has automatically changed for the better: quite the reverse, in fact.

The quality of programmes on television today is nothing like as good as it has been in the past. That is not to say that there are no good programmes being made today; there are. However, the quantity of nudity and bad language—and the paucity of invention and imagination—in many programmes leaves a huge amount to be desired, and I am certain that it has an effect on society. It is no surprise whatsoever to me that, by and large, the British nation is pretty depressed: one only has to sit and watch an evening’s viewing full of soap operas, which I think I am right in
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saying are universally depressing. Let us consider the storylines. When did anybody in a soap opera enjoy anything? When was anybody in a soap opera happy? I am prepared to put a small amount of money on the fact that that has an effect on society.

We will be told—I will be told—that television merely reflects society. I am sorry, but I believe that television takes a lead. I feel that very strongly, because for 20 years of the early part of my career, before I came into this House, I was a television producer and director. My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford mentioned my brief association with Miss Biddy Baxter. I am modestly proud of the fact that for six months of those 20 years, I was a director of “Blue Peter”, but I am much more proud of the fact that I made for Thames Television a series of programmes called “White Light”, which were made for teenagers. The first of that series was afforded a BAFTA nomination, and it came second. In all modesty, I have to say that there were only two entries.

“White Light” was screened well before the threshold in the early hours of the evening. As a result of an item that I put out in the first series, I was hauled before what I think was then called the Independent Television Commission and asked to explain myself. The item in question was about drug taking. It was put on the screen quite deliberately at a very early hour in the evening. I cannot recall every detail, but I can recall that the final shot of the item was a very explicit one of a body in a mortuary drawer, and of the drawer then being slammed shut. Not entirely surprisingly, that one shot caused very considerable offence to some people; indeed, that did not surprise me at all. My justification was that I believed that if we were to send out a message to young people that drugs are bad—and they are—we had to do so to an audience who might just be influenced by it, and at a time when they might see it. So when I was hauled before the bishops of the ITC, that was the argument that I and my presenter, who was also dragged up before the beak, deployed. The ITC accepted my argument without question, having heard what we were about.

The reason the ITC accepted that argument is that it understood, as we understood, that what appears on the screen influences people. It really is as simple as that. I am not going to try to intellectualise this—I am not even capable of doing so. What I do know is that, for example, companies spend millions of pounds on advertising on the screen to influence people. They do not advertise cornflakes, soap powder and cars into the ether for no good purpose; they do it because they believe that they will sell those products. They do it because they know that those fleeting, flickering images influence people’s behaviour. That is what this is about.

The argument is frequently deployed—to some extent it has been this morning, although less so than I thought it might be—that there is no empirical evidence to suggest that any of the filth, violence and degrading sexuality that is allowed to appear on the cinema screen, on the small screen and in video games has any real effect on people. Of course there is not, because it is not possible to exercise a control. One cannot expose 50 14-year-olds to violence on the screen, and take an identical group of 50 14-year-olds that are not exposed
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to that and say, “Well, the first group thinks this and the other group thinks that, so QED.” It does not work like that.

However, what we do know is that there are sufficient examples of what is known as copycat crime to indicate that it is very possible indeed—not in any normal person, probably, but certainly in those who may already have some leaning toward violence, physical or sexual—that such images will trigger a response. Are we prepared to go on taking that chance? We can intellectualise this as much as we like. We can be very liberal. We can say that people have a right to see and hear whatever it is they wish to see and hear, or we can respond to what I believe is the public mood and say, “Here is a generation of children and young people who deserve our protection—the protection of this House—from matter that may affect them adversely and may affect their lives”. I believe that we have a duty to take that step.

I am not here to say that I believe that every dot and comma of the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury is necessarily perfect, but I defy anybody in this Chamber this morning to look in the eye a constituent who is a parent and say that it does not deserve a Second Reading. It does, and I wish my hon. Friend well with it.

11.55 am

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on introducing his Bill. I think that this is the second time in recent years that he has been successful in the ballot. I have a little more sympathy with the aims of this Bill than I had with his previous one. As I recall, I had to explain at great length why my objections to the previous Bill were justified, and I am afraid that it made little progress as a result.

I have a lot of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman has had to say today. There has been an interesting debate, in which Members have elucidated well the serious harm that we in this House perceive is caused by some of the more obscene forms of video and film—obscene in the sense of violence in particular. I am not going to go through examples in detail. That has been done very adequately today, and if we do so there is a risk that we unwittingly give such examples publicity, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) made clear. If we give them publicity, people might want to watch or buy them.

What this debate is really about, or should be about—we have heard little on this from Opposition Members, except the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale)—is finding the right balance between giving people choice about what they watch, see and do without unnecessary restriction, and protecting the public from violence. In the context of this debate, we are often talking about the fear of copycat violence—people reproducing what they have seen on film. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who is no longer in the Chamber, gave the very graphic example of a case from his own constituency.

However, whether we like it or not, what is being proposed does amount to censorship. The hon. Member for Canterbury said in his introduction that it is not
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about censorship, but I am afraid that it is. The question is whether it is good or bad censorship, whether we should be censoring such material, and if so, what the appropriate procedure is for doing so to prevent that material from getting into the public domain.

Stephen Pound: Sir Isaiah Berlin’s aphorism that freedom for the shark does not equal freedom for the minnow has been quoted in the House before. Does my hon. Friend not agree that some forms of censorship, if that is the word we choose—protection is the word that I would prefer to use—are absolutely essential for the conduct of a civilised society?

Mr. Dismore: I most certainly do agree with my hon. Friend about that, as do the Human Rights Act and the European convention on human rights. I hope to talk about that later on. The point, first, is where the balance lies; and, secondly, who exercises the decision making.

My concern is about skating around the issue and calling it something that it is not. My hon. Friend mentioned protecting the public, but that is the object, not the exercise; the exercise is censorship with the aim of protecting the public in the end. That is a better way of looking at this debate. If we skate around and pretend that that is not what we are about, we run the risk of ducking the issue.

Mr. Brazier: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s kind remarks, but I am puzzled by one of his early comments. Unless I slipped up somehow, I did not say that the issue was not about censorship; at least, I did not intend to. Of course it is about censorship, for exactly the reasons that he has just outlined.

Mr. Dismore: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; I had the impression that he had said that the issue was not about censorship. Perhaps I was thinking of another contribution.

If we are to go down the proposed route, we have to be very careful because we operate within a free society and what we do should be based on clear research into cause and effect.

Stephen Pound: I am not going to ask who guards the guardians, but before my hon. Friend moves off his point, I want to ask to whom the classifiers are accountable. I entirely understand his philosophical point, but there has to be accountability. To whom are they currently accountable?

Mr. Dismore: They are accountable in a variety of ways—in some respects to the Secretary of State, and in others to their own board, the public at large, Parliament and, ultimately, the local authorities that have the final say. There is a complicated set of arrangements, to which I shall refer in more detail in a moment.

I disagreed with the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) when he said that there was no empirical evidence and that none had been referred to. Most of this debate has been about empirical evidence—about examples that we have seen. However, we do not have a proper scientific and statistical analysis and there has been no proper attempt to show where the linkage lies.
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Personally, I believe that there is a clear link between some of the things that we have heard about today—between “SS Extermination Camp”, for example, and the violence mentioned. Having listened to the case presented by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East, I certainly think that there is a clear connection between the video game that he mentioned and the foul murder committed in copycat style. To my untutored, unscientific eye, that is self-evident. However, if we are to legislate and try to introduce different controls, we have to make sure that we do so properly and on the basis of proper scientific analysis. That is why I am pleased that the Government have set up the review being carried out by Dr. Tanya Byron; I understand that she is due to report next month. That will be a helpful contribution to our debate.

The debate today has been much more about the philosophy and need for censorship and control in the circumstances that we are discussing than about the Bill itself. That is one of the problems with this debate. I entirely agree with where the hon. Member for Canterbury is coming from on this issue; this is a serious matter that must be addressed. We have to address it on the basis of evidence. To the public, there is clear general evidence that there is a problem, but we need to firm that up to check whether what they—and, by the sound of it, all of us here today—believe is actually the case, or whether we are speculating. Is it coincidence, or is there a causal connection?

If we think that there is such evidence, we ought to think about how we go about regulating and dealing with the issue. I am not sure that the Bill is the right way or sets out the right mechanisms to do that. We have had an interesting debate, but it has been more of an Adjournment debate on the general issue of the problems of foul and violent video games and films than a Second Reading debate on what the Bill proposes or what is missing from it. That, however, is what a Second Reading debate should be about.

Stephen Pound: One of the Bill’s proposals is that the Home Affairs Committee should have the power to require the British Board of Film Classification to re-examine its guidelines and tighten them if necessary. Does my hon. Friend not at least agree that that is an essential mechanism to allow the voice of the people to be heard through this place?

Mr. Dismore: I should like to say a little about the proposal on the Home Affairs Committee later. I do not wish there to be a turf war, but as the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford said, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which he chairs, would be more appropriate in the first place.

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