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Violence et télévision

Jean-Michel Lacroix

The Broadcasting Standards Council and the Public's Concerns

Colin Shaw

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1The Broadcasting Standards Council (see Appendix) took a decision shortly after its formation in the second half of 1988 to invest a considerable part of its annual grant-in-aid from Government in research. It did so partly because it was required to do so by the Government at the time of its creation and because it felt that sound research would go a long way to underpin the views and opinions expressed by the Members on general topics within their remit or in their responses to complaints.

2The Council conducts an annual Research Survey. The topics, since the series was launched, have been:

31990 Violence in Television Fiction

41991 A Matter of Manners? (Bad language)

51992 Sex & Sexuality

61993 Violence in Factual Programmes

7Each Survey has included both qualitative and quantitative research, including trend-data. The latter three of the Surveys have also included essays on the theme of the book by professional writers and broadcasters, academics and broadcasting-managers.

8In addition, the Council publishes, in conjunction with independent publishers, a series of Research Monographs and a further series of Research Working Papers, sixteen of which have now been released.

9The Council has, in general, concentrated on attitudinal research, believing that effects research called for effort on a scale incommensurate with its results, despite strong political pressures to prove the existence of a causal link between, for example, television violence and violence in reality.

10The trend-data collected for the Survey each year has explored public attitudes towards violence, sexual conduct, and bad language, three important areas of concern in the minds of the Government in setting up the organisation. The findings over three years show that the public consistently believes that, of the three topics, there is too much violence (66 % of the respondents named violence, while only 57 % said bad language and 40 % said sex).

11These research findings differ markedly in some respects from the evidence of correspondence in the form of complaints sent to the Council. In the first six months of receiving complaints, some 8 % of them were to do with violence, a figure maintained between 1st April 1991 and the end of March 1992. In the following twelve months (April 1992 - March 1993), the total rose to 19 % of all complaints within the remit. The annual rate rose again in the spring and early summer of 1993 almost certainly because of the effects of the murder of the Liverpool child, Jamie Bulger. It subsequently declined, but we estimate that the 1993-1994 rate will probably be a little above 20 %. All these figures are slightly increased if a combination of violence-and-sex as the basis for complaints is taken into account. However, they are strikingly low when compared with the nearly 50 % rate achieved by complaints about taste-and-decency, almost all to do with bad language.

12We have not researched the reasons for this discrepancy between the reported levels of concern about violence in programmes and the level of complaints about violence sent to the Council, when contrasted with complaints about other things. I suspect that there are at least two factors at work:

  1. Programmes containing significant levels of contemporary violence tend to be transmitted late.
  2. Those disposed to complain, always a small proportion of those who feel particular concerns, may avoid watching programmes containing violence, while the element of embarrassment, which prompts complaints about bad language or sexual explicitness, is missing when watching violence.

13It is also probable that many of the complainants go early to bed and do not watch long programmes beginning late in the evening. The 9.00 pm Watershed, the boundary between programmes suitable for family viewing and programmes which may call for more parental responsibility over viewing-decisions, remains a key element in British programming, widely-known by the public and widely-observed by the broadcasters. It can also serve as a helpful signal to viewers who retire early.

14The Council has published three books which have dealt specifically with aspects of violence in programmes. Two of them figure in the list of Annual Research Surveys:

15Violence in Television Fiction

16Violence in Factual Programmes

17The third book is called "Women Viewing Violence", the results of a study conducted at Stirling University in Scotland by Professor Philip Schlesinger and two American researchers, the Dobashes, and Kay Weaver.

18The first of these studies, that edited by Dr. David Doherty in 1991 under the title of "Violence in Television Fiction", referred to a theory of deep play and shallow play. The audience felt itself detached from much television fiction because it was remote from them in style or content or, as Dr. Doherty put it, there seemed nothing at stake for the audience beyond entertainment. That was shallow play. Deep play arose when the subject-matter or the treatment drove home more acutely, when the action of a play look place in a setting with which the audience could identify or involved characters with whom they were familiar, possibly in a guise which led them to be trusted. Examples are the violent policeman when policemen are supposed to be trustworthy or the murdering nurse seen to be betraying the faith reposed in her.

19It seems a relatively short step from that perception of the causes of people's concerns about violence to the possibility that local News programmes can be more alarming, with their reports of violence in a familiar location, than national or international news which is distanced by its unfamiliarity.

20The second Survey to deal with Violence was called "Violence in Factual Programmes". It contained the result of a MORI enquiry which was based on the findings of a study by the Institute of Communications Studies in the University of Leeds in Yorkshire. At Leeds, small groups of viewers, divided according to age and sex, were given television material to re-edit in accordance with their own beliefs about what it was right to show. They were invited to view the material and comment on it. From their experience, it could be seen that, for example, a sense of duty is attached by many viewers to watching News material of a kind which they would prefer to, and ultimately perhaps do, switch-off. It was also apparent that some factual programmes are seen to have the values of entertainment programmes and, as such, are not treated with great seriousness. The techniques used, however, are not always tolerated in the name of entertainment and the groups showed a concern about the directness with which information is conveyed. They did not relish suspense, but wanted to know, in factual programmes, what was going to happen even before it did.

21The groups also showed different attitudes towards violence displayed towards different characters. So it was thought wholly wrong to maltreat an innocent dog, but not entirely wrong for the police to beat up a man suspected of a particular crime, despite the lack of a trial. As might be expected, the old were less robust in their attitude towards televised violence than was a younger generation, although younger women were less robust than younger men men in what they were willing to watch.

22From this study, the MORI pollsters explored four principles:

  1. Closeness — Violence nearer home is more alarming than violence further afield.
  2. Certainty — Acts of violence shock less if their outcome is known.
  3. Status — Violence to a villain is more acceptable than violence to an innocent party.
  4. Minimalism — Graphic detail is tolerated only to the moment when its point is made.

23Their results tended to endorse the views which had emerged from the Leeds studies.

24We hear much of the tide of violence which is said to be flowing so strongly. We hear a great deal about the extern of public concern and there is the evidence of research and of correspondence to bear witness to its existence. We know that a belief, possibly fostered by television, in the pervasiveness of violence diminishes the quality of life for many people: driving them home early like an untolled Curfew-bell, keeping them inside like a gaoler, and warping their view of the world like a distorting mirror. All these things are to an extern at least, undeniable. But they have their roots in real-life as we as in the fantasies and shadowlands of television. Ask people how often they find things which offend them on television or how often they feel obliged to turn off: they will give only a handful of instances in any period of twelve months. It is a paradox ripe for exploitation by the unscrupulous, even if it is a cautionary lesson for those who operate in or regulate the television medium.



  1. The Broadcasting Standards Council was established by the British Government on an experimental basis in May 1988. The Home Secretary, in announcing the creation of the Council, said that its remit to consider the portrayal in radio and television programmes and commercials of violence, sexual conduct, and matters of taste and decency would enable it to meet some perceived public concerns about the broadcast media. The intention was to stage a three-year experiment, but, in the event, the passage of a Broadcasting Bill through Parliament in 1989-90 provided an opportunity for the organisation to be put on a statutory footing with effect from January 1991.
  2. The Council consists of eight Members, appointed by the Secretary of State for National Heritage (successor to the Home Secretary in responsibilities for broadcasting). It is intended that they should act independently and not as representative of any particular interest or political party. They serve for a period of five years and are taken from a representative variety of experience: as teachers, doctors, broadcasters, clergymen, and journalists, for example. Their average age, which has been an object for criticism, has been in the late fifties or early sixties.
  3. The Broadcasting Act, 1990, gave the Council five main tasks:
    1. To prepare a Code of Practice on the matters within its remit: the broadcasters arc required to give general effect to the Code in those areas where it operates.
    2. To conduct research into public attitudes towards broadcast material falling within the Council's area.
    3. To deal with complaints arising from the portrayal of the matters within the remit given to the Council.
    4. To monitor programmes depicting violence, sexual conduct, and matters of taste and decency.
    5. To represent the U.K. Government, if invited, at relevant international meetings.
  4. It should be understood that the Council is neither a Government Department nor a branch of any Department. Although its conduct in administrative and financial matters is governed by the British Treasury, the staff are not Civil Servants. The Council's budget in the current financial year, ending in April 1995, is approximately £1.3 million (or about ten-and-a-half million francs). The money is provided by Grant-in-aid from the Government.


Director of the Broadcasting Standards Council, Londres.

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1997

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