Tougher censoring of screen violence examined

The Telegraph
January 14, 2003
By Rachel Sylvester

A sweeping review of Britain's censorship laws is being launched by the Government's adviser on youth crime amid growing concerns about the influence of violent films, games and rap music on young people.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Lord Warner, the chairman of the Youth Justice Board, said there had been a coarsening of attitudes towards violence caused by screen images which have a negative impact on teenagers.

"It's very hard to escape the concern that violent videos, violent films, violent music, violent games do influence some of the more impressionable minds," he said. "I think there's a case for reviewing whether we should regulate more rigorously.

"There's certainly a coarsening of attitudes. We are at risk of a gradual acceptance of a more violent culture in which we take it as given that a proportion of people will behave like that."

The board, set up to advise ministers on young offenders, is launching an inquiry into the link between on-screen violence and crime. It will then recommend possible changes in the law.

It is also planning to set up a working group involving representatives of the film, music and television industries to consider changes.

Ministers have expressed concern about the negative influence of "gangsta rap" - which often includes violent lyrics - following the shootings of two girls in Birmingham on New Year's Day.

Lord Warner was worried that the preoccupation with violence in some films, lyrics and computer games encourages aggression among young men in particular. He cited the example of Robert Stewart, who beat Zahid Mubarek to death in the Feltham Young Offenders' Institute after watching a violent film called Romper Stomper.

"The starting point is that all people who are going to produce music, videos, films, television programmes have some kind of public responsibility. And the more they move to the extreme positions which come close to inciting violence or dangerous sexual behaviour, and influence vulnerable minds, the more you have to exert public pressure to get them to desist."

Although Lord Warner raised particular concerns about violent feature films and videos, he also singled out television soap operas for criticism. "I watched one soap, broadcast in the middle of the day, which portrayed a man's assault on his wife in front of the children."

He criticised the manufacturers of computer games that encourage players to kill on screen.

"The traditional argument is that everyone knows it's a game, and it doesn't influence them - but I find that difficult to believe," he said. "There's a game where you have to kill police officers - that seems to me pretty difficult to justify as a game."

Lord Warner also backed Kim Howells, the culture minister, who criticised "gangsta rappers" after the Birmingham shootings. "Some of the more extreme versions of rap music do include extraordinary incitement of hostility," he said. "I find the cultural attitude to women very distasteful. One can't help but wonder whether this doesn't distort the attitudes of young men towards women, and exacerbate their instinct for a violent response. It does seem to me that if you are a performing artist with a large following, you also have some social obligations."

An artist's freedom of expression needs to be matched by a sense of social responsibility, he said. "One man's freedom is another man's inhibition. We don't accept that you can knock down your neighbour's wall and break into his house - we accept in many areas of our lives that we have some social obligations as well as individual rights."

A former senior civil servant, Lord Warner is politically to the Left. As a mandarin, he admired Barbara Castle before leaving when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister.

When Labour won power, he returned to Whitehall, serving as a special adviser to Jack Straw at the Home Office before his current job.

Despite his instincts and loyalties, however, Lord Warner is anything but a Government stooge. He resigned the Labour whip in the Lords when he was offered the job as chairman of the Audit Commission and - after Stephen Byers refused to appoint him - decided to keep his place on the independent crossbenches. "I haven't gone off in a sulk," he said. "It was a rather sad story, but Stephen Byers got his just deserts."