Knife Crime - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witness (Question Numbers 480-499)


24 MARCH 2009

  Q480  Martin Salter: Last year Parliament enacted legislation to outlaw the downloading of violent Internet pornography as a result of evidence that showed a clear causal link between watching scenes of rape, torture, snuff movies and all the rest of it and potential behaviour. Are there not direct parallels between what young people might be exposed to in terms of a violent nature and their subsequent behaviour? What about news footage—and this is where it becomes very difficult—of actual acts of violence and that impinging on how young people may subsequently behave?

  Professor Browne: As we have observed in scientific research in the past in the classic experiments carried out by Banjura on social learning, he shows that it is not just what is watched, it is the consequences that occur afterwards and are observed on film afterwards. No one would want to ban a film like Schindler's List, which is an extremely violent film, but the film is historical in context and it tells a story not to excite the viewer but to inform the viewer and you see the consequences of that violence in terms of the perpetrators eventually being punished for their acts. The danger of film or news reel is when you do not see the consequences of the actions. That is quite rare for news reel. You are at least told about the consequences even if you do not observe them. For film there lies the equivalent to pornography, eg the films by Quentin Tarantino where the violence in the film is there to excite the viewer, not to tell a story. Sexually violent films, again through the work of Malamuth in the States, are well-established in promoting sexually violent thoughts, fantasies and sometimes action. The debate is out on what effect non-violent pornography has.

  Q481  Martin Salter: Probably the most violent imagery I have seen in recent months was the assault on Gaza. The overwhelming response from people I spoke to about that was not that it was going to make people want to commit acts of violence; it was just sheer horror and revulsion at the violence that was being committed there. I am trying to get at the difference between images of violence that are designed to incite and images of violence which is factual and in context and could have the opposite effect on people.

  Professor Browne: Depending on someone's background, they are influenced by media violence, whether it is on the TV or in the game environment, but the game environment being interactive is much more powerful. If you come from a violent background you are going to act out what you see on the screen and learn strategies from what you are playing or observing. If you do not come from a violent background you probably will not act it out, it will not make you violent, but you will become desensitized to violence and therefore you are less likely to intervene and you will see more of a bystander effect in society. That is exactly what the news reels do that you have described, it desensitises us to violence, so we are less shocked by war, less shocked by violence on the screen and less shocked by what happens in Northern Ireland. That is what will happen to the non-violent population.

  Q482  Patrick Mercer: Michael Moss was killed trying to re-enact scenes from Reservoir Dogs. In that film Quentin Tarantino is quite clever to avoid actual violence on screen. The consequences of violence are shown but the violence is not. What is your take on that?

  Professor Browne: Quentin Tarantino rarely gives the victim perspective in these movies, he usually gives the offender perspective, so you see everything from the offender perspective, which is what makes his films dangerous. You need a balance. In telling a story you have to have the victim perspective as well as the offender perspective and Schindler's List is a perfect example of that.

  Q483  Ms Buck: I am very sympathetic to the idea about desensitization that you have described. In terms of people's exposure particularly to real life violence, to conflict and war, is it not the case that developed countries, where there has been a long exposure through television to conflict in a way that was unheard of historically, are much less inclined to support war than they were? If you look back 100 years at the great wars of the 20th Century and you look now at Britain and America and Europe and their reluctance to enter conflicts, those two things do not seem to go together.

  Professor Browne: I am not too clear of the evidence you are putting forward. What I do know is Johnson has done some naturalistic studies on the island of St Helena where he estimated that around about 40% of what was on the television was violent in some respect, it increased the amount of violence in a school playground and he measured this and that was good clear evidence of the effects of passive viewing. The desensitization argument is also supported by the increased tolerance of the British Board of Film Classification to what they allow through classification on DVD and in cinema. We have seen a dramatic change just over the past five years in what would have been banned five years ago which is now freely available for purchase or to view. This would give some evidence for this notion of society being desensitized.

  Q484  Tom Brake: Are you able to tell us how far down the scale of violence there is in fact an impact? Obviously with a slasher movie you would expect an impact. My eight-year old plays Star Trek on a Wii with cartoon characters. At what point can you see there is a real impact in terms of people's behaviour?

  Professor Browne: It depends on the individual. It depends on whether the individual identifies with the character in the film and how realistic the portrayal of the game or film is to reality. So the further removed from reality in terms of historical context or science fiction the less impact. Reservoir Dogs is a film about American society. We find that British children are more influenced by British films like I.D. about football because it is in a British context. So the more relevant the film is to their current everyday experiences the more powerful the effect, and the same with computer games.

  Q485  Tom Brake: You mentioned in your opening comments that this should be treated as a public health issue. What do you mean? Do you mean warnings on DVDs? Do you mean no more than three units per week? What sort of thing are you advocating?

  Professor Browne: I would not suggest such draconian measures because they are difficult to police and implement.

  Q486  Chairman: What is wrong with a very big label stuck on the front of a DVD?

  Professor Browne: There is nothing wrong with that, that is informing the parent, but the British Board of Film Classification would argue it is already there in terms of the classification system. I would argue that we are being irresponsible in protecting children in the way that we market games, film and toys. Where we are being irresponsible is that a child looks for continuity. He will pick up a Batman toy or a Spiderman toy or a Superman toy in a shop and these are marketed at three and four-year olds, but then when the film arrives it is a 12 or a 15, which makes it difficult for parents to control, makes it difficult for the child who demonstrates that he wants to see this superhero that he has played with for so long, and we have inconsistency in the way that the film is presented to the public. James Bond, for example, has been a very popular film with children for years and all of a sudden they turn it into something much more violent, make it a 15 and every child cannot see it, but they will try and see it because they have watched all the PGs and the Us beforehand. This is irresponsibility in the way we are marketing films. The most important point I want to make from a public health perspective is the laxity and control over what is available to the most vulnerable population in our society and that is young offenders. If you go into local authority secure units or you go into YOIs you will find that they are able to borrow from the library DVDs and computer games which are completely inappropriate given that they have been convicted of violent offences. So they can watch Rambo or play a computer game like Armageddon despite the fact that we recognise they are the most vulnerable people in society.

  Q487  Mr Winnick: Where is the evidence, having watched these video games, some of them pretty horrible, which I would not have wished to have seen or my son, of those who could be vulnerable going and trying to commit those sorts of acts?

  Professor Browne: There is always anecdotal evidence. I can give you an example that Scotland Yard has in their Black Museum. There is a film that I am sure you are all familiar with because it is a cult film now called Nightmare on Elm Street with Freddy Krueger. In that film there is a glove that he has with knives on the end of the glove. This was copied by a young offender. He took a garden glove and added razor blades to the ends of the fingers and this glove was found in the back of a car with bloodstains on it. The bloodstains were not the same bloodstains as the offender; they checked that out biologically, so it had been used on someone else, but because they could not find the victim he was done for possession of a dangerous weapon. That is evidence of direct copycatting.

  Q488  Mr Winnick: There is no evidence that some of the most notorious murderers who have been convicted in the last 20 or 30 years were drawn to such horrifying crimes because they had watched videos or such material, is there?

  Professor Browne: It would be a mistake to suggest, and I would never suggest this and I did not in this article, that media violence is the only and most powerful influence; it is not. Aggression and violence to others is a complex phenomena and multi-factorial. However, by statistical procedures we can estimate the contribution of media violence to any one person's predisposition to be violent and we estimate it to be around 10% of any person's predisposition to be violent will be media influenced. That 10% is a massive public health effect size. So if we could reduce violence by 10% in our society by being more responsible in the way that we portray media violence that would have a massive public health impact.

  Q489  Mr Winnick: As you will appreciate, part of our job here is to be the devil's advocate in examining witnesses. You are in favour of a degree of censorship.

  Professor Browne: No.

  Q490  Mr Winnick: As I understand it you are with some qualifications. You will correct me if I am wrong, but I thought you were in favour of some censorship with some qualifications.

  Professor Browne: It depends what you mean by censorship.

  Q491  Mr Winnick: You do use some other word.

  Professor Browne: Certain images I would not want children to see and therefore theoretically should be censored, but because of the Internet censorship is horribly a thing of the past and is practically impossible now to do. I would go down the road of education and public health education to parents and to health visitors. Health visitors should be checking what children are seeing in the home environment, but now we do not have a health visiting system that visits homes so we cannot do that sort of thing. We need to re-establish our interest in the homes of children and how they grow up and make sure that there is not inappropriate imaginary and that parents are responsible and we need to help them in that.

  Q492  David Davies: I have a lot of sympathy with what you are saying, but should it not also apply to violent lyrics in music?

  Professor Browne: Yes, I completely agree. Imagery in music videos can be extremely violent and also extremely damaging to things like gender issues, et cetera.

  Q493  Mrs Dean: From your perspective as a forensic psychologist, what is the key to preventing young people from carrying and using weapons?

  Professor Browne: I move away now from media violence. You have heard that I think if we were responsible on media violence it would have an effect. If someone asked me what one thing I would do to reduce knife crime and violence in society, it would be to introduce treatment orders in the family courts. Children role model on their parents. Unfortunately a small proportion of children grow up in violent families and role model on violent fathers. Often these violent fathers, because there is not enough evidence to convict them in a criminal court beyond all reasonable doubt, go from one family to another because under the balance of probability in a family court they are not allowed to see their own children because they have been violent, so they move on and join another family and set a violent environment there. That is because we do not have treatment orders in the family courts. Only convicted violent criminals are given any form of treatment. This is where we go wrong. I work in the family courts and I see many men leave those family courts just to move on, separated from the current family that we are discussing. They are the problem. The problem is not the mother and it is not the children that are being protected. The problem is this violent man that moves around from one family to the next and what that man needs is treatment. The judges are extremely frustrated. They have the power to ask for assessments paid for by the Ministry of Justice but they do not have the power to ask for treatment. Often you get health and social services arguing the toss for a year, while the children are expensively in foster care, about who is going to pay for any form of treatment for the violent offender. In order to break the cycle we must introduce treatment orders in the courts.

  Q494  Chairman: You are very clear that in your view there is a link between violent video games and the violence that is being administered by young people against each other as far as knife crime is concerned. Is there no doubt in your mind?

  Professor Browne: No doubt whatsoever.

  Q495 Chairman: Why then does the Government in your view continue to resist the arguments that have been put forward? Is it the power of the video games industry?

  Professor Browne: I think it has a lot to do with the glamour and the power of the film industry.

  Q496  Chairman: The video games?

  Professor Browne: Both, the film and the game industry. There is a lot of money in it. They know that violence sells. The approach I am suggesting is not one of censorship, it is one of education. I think the best comparison is to look at the concept of paracetamol. It is freely available in any shop. However, we know it is misused by a minority to attempt self-harm and suicide and yet we do not try and ban it from the population as a whole because it is a useful product. Therefore, what we need is to take this same approach with violent media. We need to keep violent media away from those most vulnerable to be affected by it, those who are mentally ill, young offenders, drug addicts and alcoholics.

  Q497  Chairman: Do you think there is a responsibility—you have mentioned the World Wide Web—on the service providers to ensure that they do not make these violent games available on the Internet?

  Professor Browne: With both sexual and violent imagery I think that the service providers and the telephone providers are getting away with "murder".

  Q498  Chairman: Following the excellent research by the University of Michigan, do you consider that there is a strong case for the government initiating further research on the link between violent games and knife crime?

  Professor Browne: What is required in my view is longitudinal research on vulnerable groups, which the United States has not done much about, longitudinal work with young offenders and also with those people who are in mental health institutions because of violent behaviour to see how people with mental illness and personality disorders perceive film differently to the average person and then understand that. There is no research in that area. These research areas are extremely important to build up knowledge about how to intervene and respond.

  Q499  Chairman: Professor Browne, this Committee is extraordinarily grateful to you. Thank you very much for coming to give evidence to us today. If you have missed out anything in your evidence that you think is relevant to the Committee's deliberations, though we are completing the formal evidence today, please do not hesitate to write to us.

  Professor Browne: Thank you.

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