Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Professor Julian Petley

  This submission to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport Committee enquiry into harmful content on the internet and in video games is from Julian Petley, Professor of Film and Television in the School of Arts at Brunel University. The author of numerous books and articles on the media, his publications most relevant to the present debate are the two editions of the edited collection Ill Effects: The Media Violence Debate (Routledge 1997 and 2001) and the soon-to-be-published Censorship of the Moving Image (Index on Censorship/Seagull Books 2008), co-written with Philip French.

  1.1  There is, at the present time, a good deal of concern about allegedly harmful content on the internet, in video games and indeed across the media as a whole. For example, as well as the DCMS enquiry we have the review being conducted by Dr Tanya Byron, the Criminal Justice Bill which makes it an offence even to possess certain kinds of pornography, a Private Members Bill introduced by Julian Brazier MP which would introduce a degree of parliamentary oversight of the day-to-day workings of the British Board of Film Classification, and a proposal by the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, to remove certain kinds of "extremist" material from the internet. Add to this the daily drip-drip of not always accurate press stories about the evils and dangers of the new media and we can see that these are matters of widespread concern. However, we also know from experience that such a backdrop is not necessarily one which is conducive to the bringing forth of sensible, proportionate and workable legislation.

  2.1  I would therefore like to take this opportunity to ask the Committee to try to analyse the issues with which it is concerned as dispassionately as it can, and to try to gather as much sound and reliable evidence as possible before making its recommendations. In my view, the Byron Review, with which I have had some dealings, would be an excellent model to follow in this respect. On a more negative note, may I respectfully request the Committee to avoid at all costs the modus operandi of the Home Office, followed by the Ministry of Justice, in the matter of the pornography proposals contained in the Criminal Justice Bill, which, not to put too fine a point on it, consisted of first deciding on a policy and then finding the "facts" with which to back it up.

  3.1  As no doubt other respondents to the Committee will have stated, evidence on the "effects" or influence of the media, new or old, is hard to find. And, even if found, it is almost always disputed. The reason for this is not difficult to pinpoint—namely that the research comes from entirely different academic disciplines: on the one hand, media and cultural studies, and on the other, not simply psychology but a very specific, usually US-based, form of behavioural psychology. In my view, it is important to understand that an unbridgeable chasm yawns between these two entirely different kinds of research, and thus to read the massive literature on influence and effects in order to try to reach some kind of consensus or synthesis is as impossible as trying to reach a compromise between atheists and creationists.

  3.2  To put it extremely briefly, behavioural psychologists (unlike many of their more cognitively oriented colleagues) tend to look for direct "effects" of exposure to certain kinds of media messages, usually under laboratory or other artificial conditions. The main argument against such work is that it focuses on "effects" that are extremely short-term and may not be generalisable or valid outside the laboratory. It is frequently undertaken by researchers who have little or no specialist knowledge of the media per se. Meanwhile, media studies approaches (amongst which I would include my own) are suspicious of what they see as a hypodermic or "monkey-see-monkey-do" model of direct and causal "effects", and tend to be concerned with longer term issues of media influence, a process which they regard as complex, diverse and intermingled with all sorts of other kinds of societal influence. Perhaps the main problem with such an approach, from a politician's point of view, is that it may appear not to offer much concrete help in the formation of policy or legislation.

  3.3  Should members of the Committee wish to acquaint themselves with these debates as a background to their deliberations I would recommend the following books: Cumberbatch, Guy and Howitt, Dennis, A Measure of Uncertainty, John Libbey, 1989; Cumberbatch, Guy, Video Violence: Villain or Victim?, Video Standards Council, 1994; Barker, Martin, and Petley, Julian, Ill Effects: the Media Violence Debate (Routledge 1997, 2001); Gauntlett, David, Moving Experiences, John Libbey, 2005 (2e); and Millwood Hargrave, Andrea and Livingstone, Sonia, Harm and Offence in Media Content, Intellect 2006. Only the last of these discusses the new media in any sustained fashion, but many of the arguments about the new media are not so very different from those about the "old", which are the subject of the earlier books.

  4.1  There are, of course, problems posed by the new media, especially for children. They may unwittingly encounter content which they find offensive, upsetting or disturbing; they may encounter people online who are not who they say they are, and who may even wish them harm; they may unwittingly give away personal information that can be used to steal their identities. But these are all problems for adults too, and we should no more assume internet literacy in all adults than in all children.

  4.2  In these circumstances, and as the Criminal Justice Bill all too clearly shows, there is a strong temptation to reach for legislative and censorial instruments. In my view, these should be avoided, except occasionally, and then only as a very last resort. Firstly, they risk putting the UK in the same internet-unfriendly camp as China and Saudi Arabia—an image which does this country not the slightest good and indeed a great deal of harm. Secondly, we have to understand that in modern societies it is simply not possible (nor even desirable) to avoid the slightest degree of risk; furthermore, if in the name of protecting allegedly "vulnerable" minorities we attempt to do so, we run the severe risk of infringing the rights of the robust majority and of inviting the criticism that we are living in the "nanny state"—or indeed something far worse.

  4.3  What is, however, necessary is to reduce risk to a sensible minimum in this area (as in others). In order to do this, what is needed above all is a combination of sensible, proportionate regulation, and good consumer advice and education. Some is already in place—for example, the British Board of Film Classification puts a great deal of useful information on the packaging of DVDs and video games, and it is illegal to sell or rent these products to those younger than the age stated on the packaging. It may be that some retailers are more lax than they should be in this area, but, if so, trading standards officers and the police should be more vigilant. It may also be that some parents let their children watch films or play games meant for those older than themselves, either because they are irresponsible or, conversely, because they have made an informed judgement that to do so will not harm their child. But this is precisely one of those areas in which a degree of risk is absolutely inevitable—and to try to legislate against such occurrences would be both impossible and an entirely undesirable intrusion into the private, domestic sphere.

  4.4  Similarly, in the realm of the Internet, UK ISPs are members of the Internet Watch Foundation, and have committed themselves to taking down illegal material once they have been notified about it. Of course, the material may then move onto ISPs hosted abroad, but again there is little proportionate that can actually be done to prevent this. For example, to try to criminalise the possession of material which is perfectly legal in every other Western country, and readily available from, as the government is currently trying to do under the Criminal Justice Bill, is to invite international ridicule, domestic outrage and sure-fire challenges under the Human Rights Act (as well as the difficulties with the Bill which the government is currently facing in the Lords). And again, there are other remedies available, such as filters. Of course, these are by no means fool-proof, they depend on a degree of parental responsibility and computer literacy, and some are extremely heavy-handed (for example, trying to filter out anything to do with sex could deny access to useful sex education sites as well as anything pertaining to Middlesex) but, properly used, they are better than nothing at all, and will no doubt improve with time and increased demand.

  5.1  In conclusion, the gist of my submission to the Committee is not that there are no problems associated with the internet and video games, and that there is thus no cause for concern or for any kind of regulatory or educational intervention in this area. In terms of problematic content, my contention is that some (but not all) of the problems are not really new, and that some (but, again, not all) have been exaggerated and distorted by ill-informed and sensationalist reporting. I would also argue that the research which purports to show that the new media do indeed have harmful effects needs to be understood in its proper academic context, outside of which its validity is far more questionable than its proponents and supporters suggest.

  5.2  I would ask the Committee to examine the effectiveness of the regulation, controls and consumer advice currently in place, and to examine whether these can be improved, and if so, how. I would also ask them to take on board the proposition that it is neither possible nor desirable in modern societies to reduce the degree of risk of any kind to zero, and that attempting to "solve" the problems posed by the new media by recourse to heavy-handed and disproportionate legislation risks both damaging the rights and freedoms of the robust majority and doing nothing—except on a largely symbolic, rhetorical level—to protect the genuinely vulnerable minorities who most certainly do exist, both in our society and on a global scale.

January 2008

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