Under the last Tory administrations led by Margaret Thatcher and then John Major, from 1979 to 1997, there was a fierce, moral backlash against the ‘permissive era’. In the name of ‘Law and Order’ many repressive measures were put in place – including censorship of videos.
In 1994, a report by Psychology Professor Elizabeth Newson argued that so-called media violence was turning young people into killers. The papers leapt on the story, blaming the ‘video nasty’ Child’s Play 3 for inspiring the killers of James Bulger.
Media teachers across the country tried to make the case against censorship, making the obvious point that no video ever killed anyone, and that ‘media violence’ was a made up moral panic to scare people into passing new censorship laws.
One media studies course broke ranks, though, and backed Newson’s report and the government campaign against video nasties: the Glasgow University Media Group, with Greg Philo and SpinWatch’s head David Miller making the case.
Philo attacked his peers, accusing them of sucking up to broadcasting profiteers, hell bent on pumping filth into our living rooms:
‘liberals in cultural studies have allied themselves with the media corporations and the likes of Melvin Bragg and Michael Winner’, he said.
(Eh? what? We can only guess that, for whatever reason, Melvin Bragg and Michael Winner are big hate figures north of the border, or perhaps just in Philo-Millerland)
‘They seem to be saying that the fear about TV violence has been generated by the newspapers’ (Observer, 2 June 1996)
Of course, the newspapers did create the panic about TV violence. There was, as was clear from a closer reading of Newson’s report, no evidence of any link between seeing violence on the screen and acting it out. Miller and Philo admitted that they had no evidence, but then went on, inexplicably, to tell the Observer that researchers cannot stick any longer to ‘vague assertions that there is no evidence’.
Worse still, Philo went on to produce what one academic called a ‘desperately weak report’ that claimed to show that the film Pulp Fiction caused young boys to identify with violence because its lead, John Travolta, was cool (though the whole point of casting Travolta was that he wasn’t).
How did Philo and Miller of the Glasgow Media Group get the video nasty question so arse about tit?
The answer is that they never really objected to censorship on cultural grounds. Back in 1982 Philo thought that ‘many of these censorship arguments are conducted on an absolutely ludicrous level, such as the number of swearwords per half hour that the BBC will allow’. And ‘the apparent arbitrariness of many decisions comes from their desire to placate any group that they see as a threat’ like ‘the Viewers and Listeners Association’ (Really Bad News, p 11).
The Glasgow Media Group just did not get the point that censoring what we watch on grounds of taste or morals was just as much an attack on our rights as bias against trade unions.
It was a fatal underestimation of the vicious attack on freedom of expression and equality that the Conservative government – claiming the support of the National Viewers and Listeners’ Association – would go on to make. Not only were videos censored under the Criminal Justice Act, but also the rights of women to abortion were attacked, as were those of gays to equal treatment, all in the name of restoring Victorian Values.
Philo and Miller, though, saw things differently. Their problem with the Thatcher years was that they were not Conservative enough. In a 2001 manifesto ‘Cultural Compliance’, the pair despaired at the ‘move away from the traditional concern with quality and “good taste”’ on television. Reminiscing about the elitist and patrician founder of the BBC, John Reith, Miller and Philo thought it was a bad thing that television, responding to its market, ‘erodes the original Reithian ideal that it should in some way set and lead standards’. (Miller and Philo, Market Killing, Longmans, 2001, p 11)
At least back in 1982 the Group had a more realistic idea of what Reith’s mission meant:
The BBC developed in close relationship with the state and under Reith it came to embody in its language and programme content a form of liberal capitalist ideology. In practice this was the belief that the clas system was basically sound and that as long as working class people ‘knew their place’ they were capable of improvement by gradual exposure to ‘high culture’. (Really Bad News, p 130)
‘Bring back Lord Reith!’ – it was a strange end to decades spent campaigning against ‘media bias’.