Television and violence

Believe it or not, this used to be my nightmare and I became a sort of expert in something I knew very little of. I came back from Oxford with my young family in the mid Eighties and our first task was to find a flat to live in. Our personal effects were scattered in a few places in Hong Kong and being shipped back across the oceans. We had no television set for a while, for it was not a priority. It was therefore pretty ironic when I found that my next job was to be responsible for the programme and advertising standards on radio and television. Justice Power had published the famous Report of the Broadcasting Review Board in the run-up to the renewal of the terrestrial broadcasting licenses and the viewing public were getting increasingly vocal on what should and should not go into the living room through television.

An English television and entertainment magazine was in the vanguard in taking us to task and in generating public opinion – at least among viewers of English television programmes viewers – on what was and was not acceptable on television. The magazine sent a reporter to interview me a few weeks after I was in office. The reporter was visibly shocked when I revealed to him in passing that I did not have a television set at home. I had to assure him that I had plenty in the office and that I intended to acquire one as soon as I could organize my flat. Indeed, those days, I became a compulsive television viewer and I could never relax watching television. On the other hand, my staff hated it when I watched any television at all, for I always came up with ideas and fundamental questions which they never thought of, but the answer to which would require work and research. Little did they know that I had asked those questions out of sheer ignorance.

I had the equivalent of Mary Whitehouse coming to see me demanding the reinstatement of a bare breast scene – very tastefully presented – in Brideshead Revisited featuring Jeremy Irons. It was then I had my baptism of fire on film censorship and programme standards. I was assured that we had a good and experienced staff who knew what they were doing. We had a meeting every morning to discuss what went wrong the previous night and they would ask me to take decisions on each case. In the beginning, I followed their advice most of the time, believing they were good and experienced. When I settled down, I began to ask questions; and I asked them to justify in writing why certain scenes were acceptable or proper while others were not. It did not make me very popular.

Television had always been an easy scapegoat for social mishaps and was often blamed for real life violence. So we established the Broadcasting Authority with a Complaints Committee to deal with complaints. And it seems to be working.

It was déjà vu when I read the published research by Jeffrey Johnson of Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute. The researchers had studied more than 700 people from upstate New York counties over 17 years with a view to establishing whether there is a link between television and aggression. Their conclusion is that parents should not let their children watch more than one hour of television a day. For the findings show that of the children who watch less than an hour of television a day at the age of 14, only 5.7% turned to violence between the ages of 16 and 22, while those who watch between one and three hours, this jumped to 22.8%. The rate went up for those who watched more than three hours a day.

The findings immediately drew criticisms that they were flawed and highly misleading. Well, it does not require a genius to come to the view and one wonders why anyone or any institution would finance such a project which spanned 17 years. It reminds us of a recent local survey on attitudes of young people; and I ask why anyone would carry out such surveys. Have they forgotten the long held tradition that no surveys ought to be conducted before one knew the results?

Television can now be brought to the viewers through network, cable and satellite. Regulation or censorship is justified for network television on grounds that they use airwave which is a rare and public commodity. The arguments are weakened for the other two modes of transmission. On the other hand, the balance between creativity and freedom of expression and the need to protect the young mind is a difficult one to take and will be a perennial debate in every community which prizes the rights of the individual, including the social, economic and cultural rights, in addition to the political and civil rights.

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