Clarke: TV violence creates bullies

Education Secretary demands summit meeting with broadcasters

December 28, 2003
The Observer
By Kamal Ahmed

Education Secretary Charles Clarke launched a tough attack yesterday on television aimed at children, saying much of it was overly violent, led to bullying in schools and did too little to improve Britain's social and educational good.

Clarke said regular scenes of confrontation on television led to violence among children and too many broadcasters were complacent about this link.

His comments, in an interview with The Observer, will reignite the debate about the effect of violent TV imagery on the young.

Studies show that children mimic what they see on television and that the 9pm 'watershed', the self-imposed borderline that broadcasters are supposed to adhere to before showing adult material, is often ignored.

Asked if the watershed had become too blurred, Clarke said: 'I do worry about that. I don't think it is clear.'

The Education Secretary revealed he will now demand a meeting with broadcasters to discuss ways of improving children's programmes, and he wants the broadcasting authorities, including the new watchdog, Ofcom, to launch an inquiry into the issue.

'What goes on television does have an impact on children's view of violence,' Clarke said. 'The main argument I want to challenge, about which there is too much acceptance, is that violence on television has no effect on children. I think it does have an effect on children.

'It needs investigating and I think it is for the broadcasting standards organisations to do that. Violence on television encourages people to grow up thinking that violence is an acceptable way of operating.'

Surveys show that TV and its effect on children is one of the most worrying issue for parents, particularly of children aged between nine and 13. One poll revealed that children watch up to six hours a day, much of it unsupervised and meant for adults.

Nearly 60 per cent of them have TVs in their bedroom and the growth of satellite and digital TV has brought new channels devoted to cartoons, often violent and imported from America.

Clarke said: 'Not enough resources are put into children's programming. When I was young there were a whole series of programmes for children, classically on a Saturday and Sunday afternoon, which the family would watch. That is now very much not the case.

'The relative cost of children's programming and the very high number of cartoons does not help. Children's television should be educational in its broadest sense, I don't mean teaching them maths, I mean adding to the social good.'

The Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC) says the amount of drama shown on children's TV had fallen from 24 per cent to 9 per cent since the Nineties, and factual programmes are almost completely absent from most channels aimed at children.

Clarke said the level of violence on TV aimed at children was so high it was undermining Government anti-bullying policies.

'We all know what a serious problem bullying is at school,' he said. 'Bullying is the classic statement that violence is right, that might is right. It destroys people.

'We work very hard to try and drive out the culture, to get children to talk about the problems they face rather than bottle it all up inside them, but while TV goes around suggesting that might is right in certain respects then it makes it more of uphill struggle.'

Earlier this year a major study on the effect of television violence on children revealed that 13 year olds had become 'desensitised' to it. Researchers for the report, 'How Children Interpret Screen Violence' by the BSC and the Independent Television Commission, showed children scenes of confrontation from Grange Hill, EastEnders, Spiderman and the Lord of the Rings films.

Many youngsters did not regard the scenes as violent or a problem, saying they 'had to happen' or were 'just TV'. Many thought violence was comic and had few consequences.

Following the report, the BBC said it was exploring ways of flashing warnings on programmes to alert parents to violent scenes.

Clarke warned that children who watched a lot of TV alone were most at risk. 'If parents are involved with their children [when they are watching TV], the problem is less acute,' he said. 'Their parents can put it in context, and it is not as damaging as it would otherwise be.'

The BBC, the biggest broadcaster of children's programmes, defended its record. 'We spent £118 million last year on original children's programmes,' a spokesman said. Much of it was educational.