Main content

TV Violence - 13 April 1986

I'm told, I can't swear to its truth, that lion cubs will totter off to the waterhole even before they've been taught to do so.

I think it must have been a similar tribal impulse, maybe going back to those 4th-Century Christian war paintings in Lullingstone, Kent – maybe not – that made me set out on Good Friday to find a hot cross bun.

Well not exactly set out. I simply went round the corner to our French bakery and asked for a hot cross bun. The girl couldn't have been more startled if I'd asked for a hut-sut with a rillerah. A what? I made the sign of the cross over the nearest bun and said something of Woodhousian simplicity like "Icing, you know!" There was no point in embarrassing her, we let it go. And then it was that I set off.

I was not so stupid as I sound. I thought that a French bakery with French girls in attendance would be the most likely waterhole. I certainly wasn't going to start to search in the nearest delicatessen or any other of the lush stores whose counters are piled in the early morning with fresh bagels.

But I went on to Patrick Murphy's store. Same thing. By now, the search was becoming a mission. Where, in this teeming city can you buy a hot cross bun? Well, eventually I found a store run by immigrant Arabs of all people which had, hidden under stacks of boxed cakes and cookies, a single box of hot cross buns.

The name of this bakery chain which covers the whole of the east coast from Massachusetts to Florida is a German name. And when I got home with my find, I said to my secretary, who is a German – I mean she came to this country in 1958 – I said, "Trust a German to know about hot cross buns!" "Hot cross what?" she said.

She's been with me for 17 years and the topic had never come up before. She had never heard of a hot cross bun. I was staggered. She was unimpressed. But she did agree that you could walk around New York on Good Friday and have no feeling, get no impression that it was a great, or even a minor, religious festival. If you went looking for banks, you'd find that some of them were closed. That was about it.

Whereas I remember a cover, long ago, on the New Yorker magazine which showed Times Square and Broadway at high noon. Absolutely deserted. Not a human or a vehicle in sight. The cover, like all New Yorker covers, bore no caption. None was necessary. It was the weekend of Yom Kippur.

I have an old friend, a very big man in American golf who once ran the United States Golf Association, then the professional tour. Who, I suppose, has been attending the Masters, the annual golf festival in early April in Augusta, Georgia, since it started in 1934.

I've been going there for 20 years, and only once in that time did he fail to show up. The failure was deliberate. It was a time, several years ago, when the four days of the tournament fell across the Easter weekend. He's a conscientious churchman, a Protestant, too. And he did not like the idea of seeing people play golf on Good Friday. I don't recall that any other familiar figure was missing, Catholic or Protestant, that year.

This memory came back to me when I read this week that a New York publisher, like all big publishers these days, owns a whole group of smaller houses, has decided not to appear or exhibit at the annual Frankfurt Book Fair which is always arranged for six days in October. There will be other American publishers who will not attend, without going so far as to say that they are boycotting the event.

The reason is quite simple. The Frankfurt Fair this year is from 1 to 6 October which takes in the two days, from sunset on the 3rd to sunset on the 5th, of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. While no other American publisher has announced its absence, several others are planning what they call symbolic protests. And one famous literary agent, a gentile, has said he will not be there.

This is not the first time that Frankfurt has suffered from a similar embarrassment. In 1984, Yom Kippur fell during the Book Fair. And the American Jews who were there had a rabbi conduct services in the convention centre. But it was assumed here that one unintended embarrassment would alert the directors of the fair to avoid another. In fact, the director said that this year's festival had been shifted to the first six days in October in order not to overlap Yom Kippur once more. So they moved it on a week, incredibly failing to see that they were thus arranging to have it happen during Rosh Hashanah.

Surely the organisers must know by now that the bulk, or at the very least half, anyway, of the most famous New York publishers are Jews, and most of them religious practitioners. So it did not come gracefully from the director of the fair when he said that, "Jewish participants suspect, surmise and fear that the scheduling of the fair was rooted in anti-Semitism". Having floated this unnecessary balloon all on his own, he then shot it down by saying that this underlying accusation was unfounded, since the fair, and I quote him, "for all its commercial orientation is deeply inspired by the spirit of humanism, without political, religious or ethnic discrimination". It might well, you'd think, be also inspired by common sense.

But I gather from other sources that the blunder is due to a common European assumption that most Jewish publishers are publishers first and probably not noticeably religious. If so, it's a mistake. And a pity. And one that other European businesses should remember when they plan a convention that expects to entertain a large contingent of New Yorkers.

To go from the spiritual to the mundane with a bang, I was fascinated and disturbed this week by a very intelligent network television special which might well be bought for showing in Europe, as a change from buying and showing only the worst of American television. It was a programme called Sex, Violence and Values.

Very old theme no doubt, usually discussed hotly by very earnest people for an hour or so with no conclusion at all. Or, more usually, with a stand-off between the participants, some saying doggedly that violence on the screen leads to violence in life, and some saying it has no effect whatever.

I don't know how it is in other countries but in America the fear that what is seen in films could be a stimulant to what is done in life led, nearly 60 years ago, to the founding of the Motion Picture Producers' Association and a code of self-censorship which, after a particular scandal involving a film comedian, elaborated a set of rules, some of what today seem like ludicrously prim taboos. Like if a male kissed a female, one of them sitting on a bed, the sitter had to have one foot on the floor; adultery must always be punished and end in shame, or as with Camille, tuberculosis. Bad guys who used guns, whether cowboys or gangsters, must die, preferably by the gun.

For some years after the producers got out their production code, there was very little public discussion about violence as a stimulant to violent behaviour because the violent ones were doomed from the start to very sticky ends. The producers had censored themselves.

The first arousal of interest by the Congress that I remember was not about the movies or television, but about comic books. A posse of senators looked into the effect of comic strips on juvenile crime. They came to the topic too late. Late enough, at any rate, to run into a rising tide of literary critics who began to elevate the comic strip into a special American form of art.

But since about the mid-50s when there was a famous Senate committee investigating organised crime, the studies on movie and television crime and behaviour have been endless. In the beginning the protests came mostly from church people and the reassurances came from psychiatrists. On very sparse evidence on both sides, the church people said that screen violence was bound to produce violent behaviour, especially among the young. And the psychiatrists told us to take it from them that it had little or no effect. That, indeed, fictional violence tended to act, as one school of psychiatry said, as bad dreams acted, as a purge, clearing the mind of violent impulses that might otherwise erupt in life.

Well, in the past 20 years, much more responsible digging has been done by social scientists and psychologists. As early as 1969, a national commission on the causes and prevention of violence came up with the conclusion, exhaustively documented from court and prison records and the testimony of social workers, that people, in particular the young, who watched television violence were, indeed, more likely to act violently in life, than youngsters who did not.

This conclusion was confirmed three years later in a study done by the Surgeon General's scientific advisory committee and again four years ago by the National Institute for Health. You'd have thought that by then enough had been done to force the networks to mend their ways. But what they did was to undertake a huge study of their own and come to the exactly opposite conclusion – that there was no evidence that television caused aggressive behaviour patterns.

What to do? The present stalemate has come about through a general horror among Americans of censorship, any censorship, as a violation of the First Amendment's protection of free speech. This is particular true about any proposal to censor sex scenes. The Supreme Court, like the supreme judicial bodies of other lands, has backed away from defining obscenity, so that movie makers and magazine publishers, having first numbed or bored their audiences with the representation of mere nudes, must increase the stimulus by constantly increasing the dosage of more and more clinical sex. The problem seems to be that the people who are exercised by violence are not the people who are exercised by sex.

I think that the New York Times critic, John Corry, summed up the present American debate, and the dilemma, as neatly as anyone. "Liberal politicians worry about violence. Conservatives worry about sex. The Americans' Civil Liberties Union worries about everyone being worried. And the television networks protect their flanks".

THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING OF THE ORIGINAL BBC BROADCAST (© BBC) AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

Letter from America audio recordings of broadcasts ©BBC

Letter from America scripts © Cooke Americas, RLLP. All rights reserved.