Scenes from David Miller’s formative years
In 1997 Media Studies lecturers Martin Barker and Julian Petley published Ill Effects: the media/violence debate. A brilliant collection of essays by leaders in the field, the book demolished the argument that television and videos were to blame for a rise in violence. This was the argument that had been made by psychologist Elizabeth Newson and had been used to make the case for the censorship of so-called ‘video nasties’.
In Ill Effects Barker and Petley showed that ‘media violence’ was a moral panic – hysteria whipped up by the press wildly exaggerating the problem and making a fantastic connection between real world violence and its fictional portrayal. Though the video Child’s Play 3 had been blamed for making Jon Venables and Robert Thompson kill toddler Jamie Bulger, Barker and Petley pointed out that they had never even seen it. Ill Effects was widely read by broadcasters programme-makers and journalists, and was an instant hit on media studies courses – all except one.
For SpinWatch’s David Miller, then second-in-command at the Glasgow University Media Group under Greg Philo, Ill Effects was a direct challenge to everything they believed in. If television was not to blame for violence, and the idea that the media had a powerful grip on us was daft, what was left of the GUMG’s project?
After all, the core proposition of the GUMG was that television ‘has a profound effect’, was the main force to ‘shape people’s thoughts or actions’, ‘very largely decides what people will think with’ and ‘controls the crucial information with which we make up our minds about the world’ (Glasgow University Media Group, Really Bad News, 1982, p 1).
The whole GUMG project rested on the idea that it was media bias that had undermined the trade unions, the Labour Party, its left wing and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. If, as Barker and Petley claimed, media had no such decisive effect, the GUMG project was in ruins.
Worse still, Barker and Petley had at first, asked Philo and Miller to write a chapter for Ill Effects. The piece they put together was an ill-made rant, insisting that ‘the media are powerful channels for the development of new ideas and potential behaviour’, and claiming – bizarrely, since we were at the time in the middle of a media storm over ‘video nasties’ – that ‘questions of television and violence have been ignored, played down and regarded with weary disdain’. Barker and Petley decided that Philo and Miller’s efforts were not good enough and dropped it from the collection (it was eventually published in the GUMG’s own collection ominously titled Message Received, 1999).
Outrageously, the Glasgow Media Profs called up a friendly journalist on the Observer – Nick Cohen (0r here), no less – and tried to sink the Ill Effects book before it was published, claiming ‘we’ve been censored’ (Observer, 2 June 1996). Now any GCSE media student would know the difference between editing and censorship, but Philo and Miller were in a hissy fit. They could not see the difference between the real censorship laws that were put into the 1994 Criminal Justice Act and the hurt to their pride in having their essay dropped.
Barker and Petley made sure that in the second – much anticipated – edition of Ill Effects they dealt with Philo and Miller’s arguments. In a new introduction they wrote that ‘unfortunately some among the Glasgow Group have not proceeded into the realm of fiction with the requisite caution’:
In a desperately weak report Greg Philo investigated the responses of ten 12 year-old children to Pulp Fiction. … [claiming] that the film “invites a vicarious pleasure in the actions of the central characters who are gangsters. In their world, killing and torture can be enjoyed, the total power which they exercise is “cool” and can even be a “laugh” at the expense of the victims.
But Barker and Petley showed that even in the children’s own words, they knew perfectly well the difference between fiction and reality.
In Philo’s monocular vision, however, it is “an extraordinary testament to the power of the film” and demonstrates “how images, style, and excitement generated by the film could overwhelm other possible responses to cruelty and killing”. Once again the search for some simple account of the “power of the media” has interrupted any chance of any sustained analysis of these children’s responses to the world of Pulp Fiction, which they clearly recognised as fiction, and its relations to the real world in which they lived. (Ill Effects, 2nd Edition, p 25-6, citing Philo, ed., Message Received, 1999, p 37, 49)
The second edition of Ill Effects also carried another essay, by Sara Bragg which heaped on the charges against Philo. She said Philo’s ‘paternalistic concern’ over the corruption of a girl ‘with a cherubic face and golden curls’ reflects ‘adults’ desires to control young people’s sexuality’, defending the ‘family against the influence of the public media’ (Ill Effects, 2nd Edition, p 97).
This was the knife in the GUMG’s heart. They thought of themselves as radicals, challenging the status quo. But Barker, Petley and Sara Bragg exposed them as moral conservatives, old fuddy-duddies shaking a fist at the filth on the television, like Mary Whitehouse or Alf Garnett.
In the world of Media Studies, it was a fatal blow. Their reputation would never recover. The years that followed the GUMG thrashed around, but was effectively finished as a force in the discipline. Soon it would be time for Miller, hurt and confused, to move on.