In the aftermath of the conviction of two 11-year-old boys for the murder of toddler James Bulger, Catholic MP David Alton considers the rising influence of TV violence
DURING PRIME Minister's Question Time last week, I urged John Major to confront the problem of television violence and the easy availability of brutal and horrific videos. I told him that an American pre-school child will have seen an average of 20,000 murders, broadcast on TV, by the age of 5 and that the same culture of violence is being created here.
The easy availability of videos, often containing graphic and highly explicit scenes of violence, should not be under-estimated. I strongly believe that it helps to explain the level of violence today compared with 15 years ago.
What Happened To The Age of Innocence?
Up until my election to the Commons in 1979, I worked with children with special needs in Sefton. Some had been excluded from school because of unacceptable or uncontrollable behaviour. One young man almost six foot and built like a wrestler had taken a throw at a teacher. And yet, neither in Sefton, or before that in Kirkby, where I worked for two years as a teacher, did I ever meet a child so conditioned to violence that I believed him capable of killing another child. In the aftermath of the James Bulger trial we must ask what has changed since then?
First there is the all pervasive culture of violence, with crime against the person becoming an everyday and acceptable occurrence.
As President of Liverpool's branch of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and as a trustee of a local Victims of Violence shelter I am only too painfully aware of the brutal and dark side of life. But it isn't only in my city. Throughout the UK there are 47,000 children on child protection registers; one in three of those born in the '50s had a criminal conviction by the age of 31 one in three for violent crimes. Half the country's prisoners are inside for acts of violence.
Drugs are also daily more available, with some of our neighbourhoods now awash with drugs. There has been a corresponding decrease in the levels of personal responsibility. The flaccid language of entitlements, the idea that there is no truth, that everything is just a matter of opinion, are the worth which should be written on this generation's collective tombstone.
The absence of fathers and the disintegration of the family have also played their part. A swathe of children is now growing up with no father figures of any kind, with fathers becoming non existent as a moral presence in whole communities.
But, above all else, as family and community life has disintegrated, children are no longer able to grow up as innocents.
They have been brutalised.
Many families regularity hire out videos. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, if you are discerning in what you choose you can ensure that the only material shown to your children is innocent and even educational. The Prime Minister, in his reply to me, said that responsible parents could and should vet what their children see. That's all right as far as it goes.
But what about the parent 'Who brings hundreds of videos into his home and which includes material which contains gratuitous violence or soft porn? He might say that his child would not be allowed to watch it, and is sent to bed. But that probably only increases the desire of the child to see the material and how does a parent know if the child watches it when the parent is not at home?
A video called Child's Play Three is just such an example. Would you want a video which shows a doll coming to life as a child, and which is then attacked and mutilated, with its head broken, and its battered, dead body left discarded, lying around in your home? And yet, this and many other similar examples, are freely available here and everywhere else.
The Home Office say there is no proven link between this sort of material and violence. Don't be so daft. Common sense tells you that if you are exposed to something often enough it has an effect on you. And, as I told Parliament, advertisers wouldn't spend £1 .7 billion a year on television advertising if they didn't think it has some effect on the people they want to sell their goods to.
If we continue to dress up unspeakable acts of violence as entertainment, we shouldn't then be surprised that children can't tell the difference between right and wrong. What chance have parents or teachers got in the face of the barrage of material which children see on TV?
Broadcasters should have to mark programmes with "V" for violence if a programme contains violent material. Each week they should have to publish the number of violent incidents which they have broadcast; and horror videos and computer pornography should not be made available for sale or hire.
In each of the past ten years between 30 and 80 under-5s have been killed and the writ ing has been on the wall for all to see. Contrast today's climate of fear where women are frightened to travel alone on public transport in the evening or to leave their children alone in a public park with the freedom we once enjoyed. We call this a free and permissive age but what has happened to the true freedom and the things which we were once permitted to do without fear?
And please, spare us the sociologist explanations about bad housing and unemployment. I was brought up in a home without a bathroom and then we were rehoused in a block of flats.
Compared with their predecessors the gap between rich and poor was far more obvious in the law-abiding first half of this century than it is now. Considerable periods of the law abiding '20s and '30s had unemployment as bad as, and worse than, that during the past 30 years. What is more, crime rose throughout the extended periods of extremely low unemployment in the '60s and '70s. Deprivation, unemployment, poverty and poor housing all need to be tackled. They may be a fertile breeding ground, but they are not themselves in the cause of crime.
Every person and every community in Britain must be given a new sense of responsibility and direction and guided away from the paths of violence.
Instead of tantalising them with materialism and greed, nurturing them on violence and porn, watching them become profoundly disconnected from orderly society, and telling them we will invest in their future but ultimately giving them nothing, we must re-build community values and ideals.
This nation needs to remember that it has a soul and it should start searching it.