Eds, Martin Barker and Julian Petley, Ill Effects: the Media/Violence Debate – 2nd Edition

Eds, Martin Barker and Julian Petley, Ill Effects: the Media/Violence Debate – 2nd Edition – Book Review

Russell Kealey


Here I am again, going over the material I have collected over the years on media influence for my VCE Unit 4 Media class. Once again my misgivings about this area of study arise. Yes, I do believe the media has some influence. (Why else would advertisers spend so much?) No, I don’t agree with the morals campaigners that media violence is destroying our society and should be banned. But David Puttnam’s eloquently argued position that film-makers have a social responsibility also strikes a chord with me. On the other hand, I enjoy watching horror films. My own stance on this issue is obviously ambivalent, so how am I to teach my students effectively?

III ffects could not have come into my hands at a better time. The second edition of this collection of papers (primarily from the UK) is an invaluable resource not only for teachers of Year 12 Media but for all those interested in the ongoing debate over the influence of the media on violence in society. It presents an alternative view to that espoused in much of the popular writing on this debate.

The editors state at the outset:

there is no such thing as ‘violence’ in the media which can have harmful–or beneficial–effects … different kinds of media use different kinds of ‘violence’ for many different purposes–just as they use music, colour, stock characters, deep-focus photography, rhythmic editing and scenes from the countryside, among many others. But in exactly the same way as it is daft to ask ‘what are the effects of rhythmic editing or the use of countryside scenes?’ without at the same time asking where, when, and in what context these are used, so, we insist, it is stupid simply to ask “what are the effects of violence?’

This approach offers a refreshing alternative to the numerous press reports that appear with monotonous regularity bemoaning the terrible influence that violent films and videos (in particular) have on society. In their introduction Barker and Petley also refer to recent research on the ways in which children engage with film and television. Children are of course the major concern for those worried about the effects of violence in the media. This research indicates that children learn to make important distinctions between fantasy and reality by watching such material as cartoons. Ironically, cartoon violence is one of the major contributors to that hoary old chestnut about the average sixteen-year-old having witnessed so many thousands of murders, assaults, etc.

Barker and Petley also raise another very worthwhile point at the end of their introduction; namely, the paradox that the news media are the ones who blame other sections of the media for such events as the Columbine school shootings, yet it is the news media who themselves wield influence on politicians and an increasingly worried public as to the so-called effects of films, TV and video games:

But that is another kind of influence altogether, and one which, because of its very nature and because they themselves are so implicated in the process, press and politicians are simply not willing to discuss.

Unfortunately, none of the contributors to III Effects actually address this paradox directly. This is a great shame because it is a central issue in the effects debate. Nevertheless, the articles in III Effects are diverse in their approach. They range from Martin Barker’s attack on the supposed common sense of the Newson Report in 1994 which led to much more stringent controls on video censorship in the UK to Mark Kermode’s personal defense of his attraction to horror films. Between these two lie a broad range of articles that, to some degree, support the editors’ central position.

Barker’s contribution on the Newson Report directly addresses one of my own doubts. He states:

there is one classic sentence which has … become like a mantra. “The principle that what is experienced vicariously will have some effect on some people is an established one, and is the reason why industry finds it worthwhile to spend millions of pounds on advertising.” … The simple error the campaigners make is to assume that, if TV, or film, or whatever, has some influence, it must have the kinds of influence they want to ascribe to it.

Barker identifies another weakness in the ‘anti-media campaigners’ arguments as their propensity to assume that the ‘effects’ only work in one way: ‘horrible things will make us horrible–not horrified. Terrifying things will make us terrifying–not terrified.’ He then points out that advertisers understand that negative imagery is unlikely to influence the target audience and from this, Barker assumes that ‘The kinds of films which the campaigners attack are, on this principle, the least likely to be influential …’ However Australian readers well know that some types of ‘negative advertising’ (such as the TAC, Grim Reaper and anti-cancer campaigns) certainly appear to be quite influential.

David Gauntlett’s article ‘The Worrying Influence of “Media Effects” Studies’ contains a deliberately brief but valuable outline of ten things that are wrong with the effects model. These range from the effects model tackling social problems backwards (researchers assume that the media is to blame for violence so they start with the media and work backwards rather than starting with violent people, for example), to the effects model inadequately defining its own objects of study (for example, acts of violence might be defined as everything from ‘kicking a chair in frustration [to] a cruel and horrible murder’).

David Buckingham’s contribution centers on the construction of children as ‘passive victims … of media manipulation’. Buckingham quickly dispenses with this view; his own research indicates that children are in fact quite an active audience. Buckingham notes that a more constructivist approach has been adopted in psychological circles whereby viewers (including children) are seen less as simply responding to external stimuli (the ‘magic bullet’ approach) and more often defined as consciously processing and interpreting the messages they receive. He also points to the lack of precision in the effects campaigners arguments, noting that the effects may be behavioural, emotional or ideological. As to whether any of these individual effects are harmful or beneficial, he sees the jury as still out but points out that ‘… it is clear that television frequently has very powerful effects–and, indeed, that children often choose to watch it precisely in order to experience such effects.’ As to government regulation, Buckingham observes that this is often targeted at so-called inadequate parents (often workingclass) but that in fact most parents do wish to control their children’s viewing; not because they fear their children will be influenced to become murderers or criminals but because they do not want their children to be upset or frightened. This is a different sort of influence to that espoused by the moral campaigners.

Sara Bragg introduces the idea that media education is a more productive antidote to media violence than government regulation or intervention–an approach sure to win favour with media educators. As she says, ‘Media education would seem to be both a less authoritarian and a more practical response to the challenge of new technologies, which make centralized control of media within national boundaries increasingly difficult.’ Bragg also notes that such an approach may enhance the status of media education in the UK. (Thankfully, media education in Australia seems to have been accepted much more readily by politicians and the press than in the UK!) She goes on to describe in some detail two projects, one Dutch and one American, which aim to give children the tools to critically evaluate television violence.

Bragg’s article seems to accept that violent media does have an impact on children; its emphasis is on giving them the tools to protect themselves against undue influence. She proposes media education as prophylactic. Whatever your personal opinion, her article is worthwhile reading.

Sue Turnbull’s Australian perspective is one of the most cogently argued. She incorporates her research with a personal writing style that is very effective. Turnbull does not argue against the notion of media influence as such. Rather, she highlights the distortions and hypocrisy of press reporting on the media violence debate. Turnbull focuses on the Port Arthur massacre and what she says is of special relevance to Australian readers. She notes the deliberate demonization of Martin Bryant, the misreporting of his video collection–which included three copies of The Sound Of Music–and the selectivity of government as to which experts it should heed in the media violence debate.

Other contributions to III Effects are less worthwhile and/or less relevant to Australasian readers: Mark Kermode’s personal essay on why he enjoys horror films is eminently readable but contributes nothing to the debate in question. Annette Hill’s contribution on women’s responses to shocking entertainment is similarly worthwhile but would be more suited to a book on feminist film theory as it says little of relevance to the media violence debate. Graham Murdock’s ‘Reservoirs of Dogma’ traces the history of both ‘moral panics’ and the media violence question, pointing out in the process that from the very beginnings of the debate there was no agreement amongst experts as to whethter violence in the media had any influence or not.

Julian Petley’s ‘Us and Them’ points to the predilection of many British effects campaigners to base their arguments on class distinctions. That is, being artifacts of popular culture, film and television are often seen as cheap entertainment for the masses and the fear is that the uneducated working-class audience will be more prone to influence than the educated middle and upper classes. This fear is as much a fear of the working class itself as it is of media influence. Petley traces this tendency back to the 1920s and ’30s. He notes that this class snobbery continues to resurface, often quite blatantly. In 1972, one of Britain’s chief censors was quoted as remarking to a film critic ‘… it is all very well for sophisticated, educated people like you to go to the ICA cinema and see Warhol’s Trash. But think of its effect on your average factory worker in Manchester.’ This tendency is perhaps not so obvious in Australia, but is certainly still present, particularly in press attacks on horror films.

The media violence debate is clearly much more heated in the UK than in Australia, as can be seen in the vitriol many of the contributors to III Effects pour on their opponents. Although the focus of most contributions is on the situation in the UK, the points raised generally have much wider relevance. This revised edition is a worthy addition to any media educator’s collection.

Russell Kealey teaches Media at Berwick Secondary College in Melbourne.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Australian Teachers of Media

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