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8.20 p.m.

Lord Merlyn-Rees: My Lords, I wish to speak briefly on two matters. I declare an interest in that I am president of the Video Standards Council. I am not a consultant or a lobbyist. During 35 years in Parliament I have been neither and I do not intend starting now. It is because I was concerned about violence that I went to the council and I suppose that as a former Home Secretary it was thought I might be of some use to it in the work that it does. The industry sets out in an admirable way to ensure that it carries out the classification terms of the various pieces of legislation, culminating in the 1994 legislation. As a whole, the industry tries extremely hard.

I heard tonight of the problems. Occasionally, I go down to the shops and it is difficult for the assistants in video shops to tell whether a girl is 12, 17 or 18. No Act of Parliament will put that right; there are innate problems with that.

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The other problem is one with which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, dealt: the issue of video games. They are in a quite different category. If one is asking for video games to be brought under the same aegis as videos, that is a different matter. We met the video games people who run a voluntary scheme. They come under the BBFC if parts of the game are a video in the normal sense of the term. It is a complicated business.

The aim of the industry is to maintain standards. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, said that there would be another occasion for discussion and this is not the time for it. I wish to suggest only one thing tonight: a better way of dealing with the issue. There is the matter of the Bulger case. God knows! it was a bad enough tale, but I do not believe that the judge made a direct connection between the Bulger murder and the boys seeing a certain video tape.

The problem of violence is real and we have touched on the difficulty with stolen cars and having one's family robbed in the street. I do not say that that is caused immediately by the children and young people having watched or played video games, or having watched a video tape. They are complicated matters and it is too easy to make a simple connection between the two.

I wish to make one suggestion. Over the weekend I have been reading the report of the British Board of Film Classification. It was late arriving. It is an annual report which makes interesting reading. It concerns the investigations that have taken place; the work undertaken; and so on. The noble Lord, Lord Birkett, is here tonight, and he was serving as acting president. He makes one point that:

    "it is worth remembering that 1996-97, like any other year, produced a vast majority of films and videos which were uncomplicated and unproblematic. The Board sees roughly four thousand films, videos and video games every year. Most of them are aimed at a minority audience. Put all the many minority audiences together and you have contemporary British society."

What we see in contemporary British society we may not like. Sometimes I am glad that my children are well into adulthood and beyond; but I have grandchildren. What one sees on the BBC and ITV is under less control at certain times of the day than the video industry. There are means of dealing with those issues.

I received a note from Mr. Whittam Smith which states:

    "I have asked that the 1997 annual report should be made available in April or May this year--6 to 7 months earlier than the 1996 report! If the appropriate select committees of the two houses of Parliament wished to examine the President and Vice-Presidents on the annual report, I would welcome the opportunity."

That is a much better way than having a short debate like this. No doubt it pleases us to have the chance to say something or to make a couple of amendments to another piece of legislation. A much better way is for the subject to go before a Select Committee which will bring people forward so that we can have a real discussion on the issues. That would be far more useful than amendments which will be defeated eventually by the use of the Whips. It is better to have a Select Committee investigate the matter.

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There is a real problem; the solution is not as easy as many people suggest. The connections are not as simple as is made out. With the violent society in which we live, videos, films and the like are part of that society, not the cause of it--though in certain instances they might well be. I suggest to the Government--because only they can decide--that the subject is put before a Select Committee of this House. That Select Committee should question people and bring experts in and question them as well. That is a better way of doing it than a short debate of this nature.

8.25 p.m.

Lord Birkett: My Lords, I am and have been for some 12 or 13 years one of the vice-presidents of the BBFC, so I am very much concerned in this matter. I listened carefully to what the noble Lords, Lord Campbell of Croy and Lord Alton, had to say about video games. In particular, it is interesting that "Carmageddon" should have been mentioned. As noble Lords know, by and large, video games are exempt from classification by the BBFC unless they contain matters which mean they ought to be classified, such as scenes of violence.

That is exactly what happened in the case of "Carmageddon". We considered it and declined to give it a certificate in its present form. The matter then went to the appeals committee which, by, I think I am right in saying, a majority of three to two, overturned our decision. It does not behove me to complain about the appeals procedure or a higher court than mine. But that was not entirely helpful. The reason the decision was overturned was that the manufacturer of the game, like most manufacturers in these cases, maintained that the whole thing was a joke and it was not intended to be taken seriously, it was purely for fun. Of course, one can take that line even with something as potentially brutal as "Carmageddon". It was that line that triumphed in the end and it was not helpful to the case.

Nor is it helpful that young children are often able to watch videos which are classified for those over age 18. It is not so much that they can get them in the shops. In the last criminal justice legislation we brought a great deal of pressure to bear to ensure that the legislation was as tough as it could be on supplying over-18 videos to under-age youngsters. It is always easier in the cinema because a person may or may not be admitted.

The real danger is not so much in the video shops as in the home. As the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees said, in many cases there is no control whatever. Children of all ages can run games or videos for over 18s of all kinds because there is not enough parental control to stop them. I do not know how one copes with that problem, except by education.

Education is also to some extent the secret as to how children can come to terms with what they see on the screen. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, pointed out, from his research in schools and among teachers, that many children do not seem to be capable of coping with what they see on the screen. I believe that one of the reasons is that they are not properly educated in the media, what the media mean, how the media work, how videos work,

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how films work and the nature of the animal--how videos are put together. There is a provision that all schools shall teach these things. It is part of the national curriculum. It is obligatory that media studies should be taught in schools. Last year, when we went into the matter, we were appalled to find that of all the Ofsted reports we could gather, not one commented on the subject in the schools at all, either for good or ill. Was it being done well? Was it being done at all? There was no mention of that by the Ofsted teams. We complained about that, and I hope that somehow the position can be improved. It seems to me that educating children in the media is one step, albeit a small one, towards protecting them from the more dire effects of the increase in violence.

I share with all speakers so far a distaste for an increasingly violent industry. Not by any means all of it, but certainly some parts of Hollywood have an increasing taste for violence and I regret that. The BBFC can control the violence in its wilder excesses, but it cannot control the media and the nature of film making in Hollywood, much as it would like to do so.

Reference has been made twice this evening to the Bulger case. I should remind noble Lords that in this Chamber the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, in answering a debate on this subject, pointed out clearly that there is no police evidence that the video concerned was seen by the children involved. The judge made a reference to a video; it was not backed by any fact. So far as I know, there has never been a criminal prosecution for violence in this country where a video has been a major factor. Certainly it was not in the Bulger case. We asked particularly that police evidence on the subject should be repeated in this House and the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, did so.

The film "Natural Born Killers" has become a much feared and in some cases a much disliked film--it is not a film that I liked. However, when considering whether or not to certificate it, there was an enormous amount of rumour that in the United States copycat killings based upon the movie were rife. Around 13 cases were quoted. The director of the BBFC took the trouble to talk to the police chiefs involved in those cases to discover whether or not there was anything in the rumour. In no case was there any evidence to suggest that. All the police chiefs in charge of those cases said that there was no connection between the film "Natural Born Killers", as a video or as a movie, and the crimes concerned. We took the greatest trouble over that because everybody is frightened of copycat killings; indeed, everybody is frightened of the effect that videos and films may have on people.

It is right that films and videos must have some effect upon their audience, otherwise, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, why would anybody put them on the screens and why would advertisers pay all that money to advertise their products if it did not have any effect? The trouble is, rather like the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, said, whatever the connection, it is not a simple one. Many people would love there to be a simple connection--violent videos, violent society; put

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an equals sign between them and that sorts out the matter. Unfortunately, it is infinitely more complicated than that.

A piece of research came out recently, sponsored by the Home Office, suggested by ourselves and carried out by the University of Birmingham. It takes a group of violent offenders, a group of non-violent offenders and a group of perfectly innocent students who have not been in any trouble at all and examines the difference in their reactions to violent videos and movies. The interesting conclusion of that research is that it is not so much the effect of the video; it is the effect of the family background on violent offenders which triggers further violence. They may thereafter, indeed do by a large proportion according to this research, have much more liking for violent videos than the others, but it does not seem in any case to be the trigger. It is merely a concomitant of an already violent background. It is the family background that has infinitely more effect than any video in the world.

The whole question of appeal raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, is interesting. I shall consider and look at his proposals carefully; I have not seen them before. It is true that it is the industry which is allowed to appeal and it always appeals when we are either too strict or, in some cases, decide not to give a certificate at all. It is always the maker of the film who complains--and sometimes wins. On present scoring, the results are around 50-50 between those whose appeals have been successful and our decision of classification overturned and where our decision has been upheld. I like to think that, with an appeals committee, it is not too bad if one wins about half the time. If one wins all the time, it looks too autocratic and if one loses all the time, one is obviously getting it wrong. A record such as ours is nothing to be ashamed of.

I was extremely alarmed by the terms of the Motion tonight. I was pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord Alton, say that he approved of Andreas Whittam Smith. I met him and he seems to be an amazingly good choice; he is an extremely civilised man. I add my wishes to those noble Lords who have spoken for his continuing success and good fortune in the BBFC.

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