1 In 1984 state censorship of video was imposed on Britain by the Video Recordings Act. This required the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) to classify every feature film released on video. Because these classifications carry legal force – unlike the classifications for cinema films handed out by the same body – it is a criminal offence to distribute, rent or sell an unclassified video, and to rent or sell a video to a person below the age stipulated in its certificate. Infringement carries a hefty fine ; between 1995 and 2007 there were 1703 convictions under the Act, and it is estimated that there was a similar number between 1984 and 1995. In 1994, the law was tightened still further, and the penalties for breaking it were increased. The fact that other EU countries, with the exception of the Republic of Ireland, managed to cope with the advent of home video without imposing wholesale state censorship on the new medium makes the UK something of an anomaly in this respect, and raises the obvious question of how and why this state of affairs came about. A convincing answer is provided by the notion of moral panic.
2 As Stanley Cohen famously explained in his seminal work on this subject :
Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests ; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media ; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people ; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions ; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to ; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible. Sometimes the object of the panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight. Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten, except in folk-lore and collective memory ; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes in legal and social policy or even in the way society conceives itself (Cohen, 2002 :1).
3 As I will attempt to demonstrate, the controversy over videos followed this trajectory remarkably closely. But first a little background information is necessary.
4 Home video took off rapidly in Britain in 1979 and soon became an extremely popular medium. However, because the major distributors were worried both about video piracy and denting their theatrical audiences (which in 1981 dropped by 15m on the previous year) they at first steered clear of the fledgling industry, which was thus dominated by a plethora of small independents. UK video rights could be bought for as little as £1000, and the video shelves were soon well stocked with cheap exploitation fare, inclusding soft-core pornography, housed in particularly garish and lurid covers. But, most important of all, video at this point was not subject to censorship by the BBFC. What cannot be over-estimated here is the shocking impact on the censoriously minded of the sudden availability, in a domestic medium, of a range of images which the combined forces of the Obscene Publications Act, Customs and Excise, the police and the BBFC had, for decades, done their very utmost to shield from British eyes. As BBFC James Ferman put it remarkably presciently in 1979 :
Audiences in Britain never see the worst the world’s film-makers have to offer. Films glorifying rape, the torture of naked women, the degradation of adolescent girls, the infliction of serious bodily harm through easily copied weapons, the casual slaughter of animals – such things are habitually cut or rejected in the British cinema. If they were permitted, I believe the public would demand that the police and the courts and Parliament take a far tougher line with cinema than they have so far (Ferman, 1979 :66).
5 Uncensored home video thus rapidly emerged as a “threat to societal values and interests”. The first complaints about video advertising were made to the Advertising Standards Authority in 1981. The first national press story about the dangers of domestic video appeared in the Mail under the headline The Secret Video Show on 12 May 1982. This warned that :
More and more children, well used to video recorders in school, are catching on to the fact that their parents’ machine can give them the opportunity to watch the worst excesses of cinema sex and violence […] The problem arises because video is now the fastest growing part of the home entertainment industry – and yet is too young to have developed its own controls.
6 And so there entered the second of Cohen’s actors, the media, in the shape of the newspaper which would later play the leading role in the video panic and its attendant campaign for statutory control of the new medium. The article also introduced the first of those manning Cohen’s “moral barricades”, Scarborough teacher Richard Neighbour, who expressed concern that «video gives the children access something that the parents may not be able to control».
7 The Mail’s intervention was followed on 23 May by another paper which played a key role in sparking off the video panic, The Sunday Times, with an article headlined How High Street Horror is Invading the Home. This was the first time that the term “video nasties” was used in the national press. The article warned that
Uncensored horror video cassettes, available to anybody of any age, have arrived in Britain’s High Streets […] They exploit extremes of violence, and are rapidly replacing sexual pornography as the video trade’s biggest moneyspinner.
8 It also explains that «The nasties are far removed from the suspense of the traditional horror film. They dwell on murder, multiple rape, butchery, sado-masochism, mutilation of women, cannibalism and Nazi atrocities».
9 Specific titles singled out included The Driller Killer, SS Experiment Camp, Cannibal Holocaust, I Spit on Your Grave and Snuff (which is described, wholly inaccurately, as “horrifyingly convincing”). The presentation of these videos in Cohen’s “stylised and stereotypical fashion” is thus already well underway. The article also introduced another fighter at the barricades, the Tory MP Peter Lloyd, at that time piloting through parliament a private member’s bill to toughen up the censorship of films shown in cinema clubs, who laments the arrival on video of these «really harmful sadistic films with details of violence, especially against women», and warns that «these video sales and rentals will be the problem of next year and the year after».
10 All of these, bar The Driller Killer, but with the addition of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Cataclysm and Macabre turned up on 28 May in a full-page article in the Express headed This Poison Being Peddled as Home “Entertainment” which elaborates on The Sunday Times’ litany by describing the films as showing «castration, sadistic attacks on women, and violence including the use of chain-saws and electric drills». Moral warrior Richard Neighbour is quoted again, but is also joined by Lord Chief Justice Lane, whose maiden speech in the Lords the previous year, we are reminded, warned about what he called «positive incentives» to commit crime offered by scenes of violence «depicted on various screens of all sizes». But this article also introduces the next set of actors in Cohen’s schema, the “socially accredited experts”, in the shape of the BBFC which, we are told, «has set up a working party to investigate the possibility of giving certificates to video films. If a film was deemed too horrific to get a certificate it would then be illegal to sell it». We also receive here the first hints at “ways of coping” with the newly emergent video problem ; these take the form of a suggestion that video shops should, like sex shops, be licensed by local councils, and the “exclusive” revelation that the Metropolitan Police Obscene Publications Squad has seized a copy of SS Experiment Camp and sent a report to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) with a view to his bringing a possible test case against the video under the Obscene Publications Act (OPA). Detective Chief Superintendent Kruger of the squad looms large in another Sunday Times article on 30 May, in which he states that «horror videos are a new concept, and I think we’re going to get involved in them more and more». The article also reveals that the BBFC and the British Videogram Association (BVA, the video distributors’ body) have set up a working party to devise a video classification system similar to that used in the cinema. In the following week’s paper it is revealed that The Driller Killer and also I Spit on Your Grave have been referred to the DPP. From June 1982 onwards, politicians begin to man the moral barricades, with a number of questions about videos being asked in both the Commons and the Lords.
- 1 The charges were brought under section 3 of the OPA, which meant that the cases were heard in magi (...)
11 On 8 August 1982 The Sunday Times reveals that «prosecutions against the distributors of video nasties – the horror and terror cassettes first exposed in The Sunday Times – are to be made this week». In the event, charges were successfully brought against Death Trap and The Driller Killer, and, in a separate case, I Spit on Your Grave, but both the police and the veteran moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse clearly thought that the charges were not sufficiently serious1. Whitehouse, the head of the “clean up TV” campaigning body the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, was then given a great deal of largely uncontested space in the press to call for the resignation of the DPP, lambast the hearings as a «farce» and a «public scandal» and label the videos (which she admitted she hadn’t seen) as «appalling and utter filth». Whitehouse is the classic example of the kind of “moral entrepreneur” who plays a key role in driving moral panics forward, and, as we shall see below, performed this role to the hilt in helping to whip up the next stage of the “video nasty” panic, frequently in concert with the Mail. However, the DPP made it clear that now it had been established that violent videos could be classified as obscene under the OPA, which had hitherto been invoked mainly against pornography, future prosecutions would be brought under section 2. Police forces up and down the land then began raiding video distributors and seizing thousands of tapes which they claimed breached the OPA, a frightening process which is chillingly described by several of its victims in extras in the DVD sets Box of the Banned and Video Nasties : the Definitive Guide. Thus the final part of Cohen’s narrative fell into place : an extension of the law, specifically of the remit of the OPA. These ongoing raids and subsequent court actions are also a good example of what Cohen calls escalation, in which existing laws are enforced more harshly by the relevant authorities, a process which is legitimised by the initial and ongoing «exaggeration and negative symbolisation» of the panic-inducing objects (Cohen, 2002 :67).
12 What we have here, then, is in fact a classic moral panic, only in miniature, but it is one which mirrors in every respect the far bigger (and better known) offspring to which it would give birth the following year. Particularly significant here is the key role played by the press, and particularly The Sunday Times, in actually helping to ignite the panic in the first place. In its reports of the developing story, the paper repeatedly draws attention to itself as a leading actor in the events which it’s describing, and it is particularly notable that its early stories precede the parliamentary questions and police actions noted above, which can thus be seen partly as responses to its journalistic efforts. Similarly, as we shall see later, it was a campaign by the Mail which actually pushed politicians into creating and then supporting the Video Recordings Bill. Thus before progressing any further we need to examine, in general terms, the crucial role played by the media, and particularly the press, in the process of moral panic fomentation.
13 The media always play a crucial (though by no means the sole) role in helping to shape people’s perceptions of social reality, although the extent to which this is the case is all too frequently under-estimated. People have all sorts of thoughts and views about public figures whom they’ve never personally met and about events which they haven’t themselves experienced at first hand, and the ultimate source of many of these, even though mediated via friends, family work-mates and the like, can only be the media. Such figures and events are thus, on the whole, not experienced directly but via a whole series of processed images and coded representations, and in the case of panic-inducing events reported by the media it is largely on the basis of these that, as Cohen argues, «people become indignant or angry, formulate theories and plans, make speeches, write letters to the newspapers» (2002 :18). Cohen refers to the early stages of the media’s presentation of panic-inducing events as comprising an inventory, whose ingredients are crucial in determining the later stages of the reaction to these events. These are, firstly : exaggeration and distortion. These consist primarily in the «mode and style of presentation characteristic of most crime reporting : the sensational headlines, the melodramatic vocabulary and the deliberate heightening of those elements of the story considered as news» (Ibid. :20). Thus, for example, in the Mail’s Secret Video Show article we are warned of children watching «the worst excesses of cinema sex and violence» and «torrid sex and violence sessions», the Express headline speaks of «perversion and violence» and «poison», whilst The Sunday Times and the Express construct, as noted above, a particularly lurid litany of the contents of the generality of horror videos (which, in fact, is based on the highlights of an extremely small number of titles). The second ingredient of the inventory is prediction : the dire warning that the events in question will not only recur but actually get worse if nothing is done. Cohen also refers to this as the «prophecy of doom» (Ibid. :38). We have already encountered the Tory MP Peter Lloyd warning that «these video sales and rentals will be the problem of next year and the year after», whilst the Express argued that any delay in introducing legislation would be «giving more time for horror video to tighten its grip». The final ingredient is symbolisation, which denotes the process whereby certain words come to acquire wholly negative meanings and connotations, which is it but one aspect of a wider process of the creation of what Cohen calls «unambiguously unfavourable symbols» (Ibid. :28). And here we need look no further for an example than the invention, apparently by a Sunday Times journalist, of the highly resonant and evocative phrase “video nasty”.
14 As noted above, the media play an extremely important role in helping to construct people’s perceptions of social reality, and it can further be argued that they play a particularly important one in defining and shaping social problems. As Cohen argues,
The media have long operated as agents of moral indignation in their own right : even if they are not self-consciously engaged in crusading or muck-raking, their very reporting of certain facts can be sufficient to generate anxiety, indignation or panic (2002 :7).
15 This, it should be added, is particularly true of the British press, and especially of its moralistic and populist mode of crime reporting, into which journalistic domain much reporting of panic-inducing events falls. As Cohen puts it,
Such “news” […] is a main source of information about the normative contours of a society. It informs us about right and wrong, about the boundaries beyond which one should not venture and about the shape that the devil can assume (2002 :9).
16 It is for this reason that Stuart Hall et al. aptly describe the press as «the populist guardians of public morality» (1978 :239) and the «range riders of discipline» (Ibid. :242). As Steve Chibnall puts it in a critical account of crime reporting which deserves to be better known :
Crime and the processing of offenders offers an opportunity for the celebration of conformity and respectability by redefining the moral boundaries of communities and drawing their members together against the threat of chaos … Crime news may serve as the focus for the articulation of shared morality and communal sentiments. A chance not simply to speak to the community but for the community, against all that the criminal outsider represents, to delineate the shape of the threat, to advocate a response, to eulogise on conformity to established norms and values, and to warn of the consequences of deviance. In short, crime news provides a chance for a newspaper to appropriate the moral conscience of its readership […] The existence of crime news disseminated by the mass media means that people no longer need to gather together to witness punishments. They can remain at home for moral instruction (Chibnall, 1977 :x-xi).
17 Newspaper stories, especially those about crime, are thus peopled less by “real” characters than by emblematic heroes and villains, personifications of good and evil acting out roles in a symbolic drama. This drama becomes particularly heightened – melodramatic even – at times of crisis for the agencies of social control. Specific anxieties tend to become generalised and rolled into one over-arching panic about the breakdown of law and order and “the end of life as we know it”. Discrete social problems come to be represented as symptoms of an underlying social malaise, signs of a generalised moral decline. Thus is provided a simple explanation of diverse and perplexing social phenomena, which all too frequently leads to the resort to hasty “solutions” which are both ill founded and badly thought out, the Video Recordings Act, which was the direct outcome of the “video nasty” panic, providing a particularly acute example of such a measure.
- 2 For more detailed accounts of the “nasties” narrative see Barker M., 1984 ; Kerekes D., Slater D., (...)
18 Thus let us now return to the development of the “video nasties” saga and continue our examination of it as an example of a moral panic2.
19 During the autumn of 1982, questions about videos continue to be asked in both the Lords and Commons. On 15 December the Labour MP Gareth Wardell introduces, with all-party support, a Ten-Minute Rule Bill which would make it an offence to rent or sell adult videos to children and young people. He describes a video recorder as «a potential weapon that may be used to attack the emotions of our children and young persons» (quoted in the Telegraph, 16 December 1982), and condemns certain (unnamed) videos as a «distasteful fricassee of pornography, rape and murder» and «a slur on British life» (quoted in the same day’s Guardian). Meanwhile work continues on developing a voluntary system of regulation by the BBFC and the BVA. As is usually the case with such measures, Wardell’s bill fails to win government support and falls by the wayside at its second reading on 18 February 1983. Crucially, it is this which sparks off what would become the Mail’s “Ban the Sadist Videos” campaign, with an article on 25 February headlined We Must Protect Our Children Now. The article castigates home secretary William Whitelaw’s unwillingness to contemplate statutory regulation as «ludicrous» (twice) and his faith in the BBFC/BVA measures as manifesting merely a «pious hope ». On 2 March the Telegraph reveals that in a letter replying to Mary Whitehouse’s request for stricter obscenity regulation, Mrs Thatcher had stated that «Like you I deplore those who seek to profit out of exploiting the weakness of others, and in doing so undermine our traditional standards of decency and respect for family life».
20 By the beginning of April 1983, Norman Abbott of the BVA was expressing the fear that because of the growing hysteria being whipped up by sections of the press and the consequent pressure on MPs, the voluntary classification scheme would not be given a fair chance to prove itself. Interviewed in the trade magazine Broadcast, 4 April, he stated that :
The Minister specified that while prepared to wait a reasonable time, the Government will go ahead and prepare legislation so there is a ready-made Bill prepared in all its pre-legislative details that can be rushed through immediately the Government deems the voluntary scheme to have failed. The indications are that reasonable may only mean months. The Government believes the problem can be controlled in a stroke of the pen but that is impossible whether by our scheme or legislation. The problem of policing will still be exactly the same.
21 The Telegraph, 8 April, reveals that in March Mary Whitehouse had written to all MPs asking for support and that 150 had replied that they would back video legislation. The Times, 11 April, also quotes her as urging the Tories to include proposals for stricter obscenity laws in their manifesto for the general election which had just been called. As she put it, in yet another example of the “prophecy of doom”, «No party can afford to ignore the threat, and if the law is not changed, the spread of pornography via video and cable television will do our children terrible damage».
22 In the event, the Tory manifesto stated that the government would respond to
[…] the increasing public concern over obscenity and offences against public decency, which often have links with serious crime. We propose to introduce legislation to deal with the most serious of these problems, such as the dangerous spread of violent and obscene video cassettes.
23 The BBFC/BVA regulatory scheme is announced on 14 April (and is promptly denounced by Whitehouse as “unworkable”). On 16 May, Broadcast reports that if the Tories win the election, statutory censorship of videos is highly likely, basing its forecast on remarks by Tory MP Timothy Sainsbury at a Video Traders Association (VTA, the body representing video retailers) meeting at which he announced that junior Home Office minister Patrick Mayhew was actively considering proposals for legislation. He called the industry’s efforts «well-intentioned» but continued :
They are not good enough – primarily because they lack the power to ensure that the regulations will be respected. The industry will not be persuaded just by moral arguments or a code of conduct, and respectable dealers will be damaged by outlets that ignore the system.
24 However, Derek Mann of the VTA, whose members had continued to be at the sharp end of the police raids mentioned above, is quoted to the effect that although in his view voluntary classification was a step in the right direction, «government legislation may not be a bad thing for the retailer».
25 The Tories win the general election on 9 June. On 27 June there takes place the inaugural meeting of what would become the Parliamentary Group Video Enquiry (which is discussed at length by Martin Barker elsewhere in this issue, in Barker (1984 :68-87), and in the DVD set Video Nasties : the Definitive Guide). During the summer, the papers report various cases (discussed below) in which defendants argue that watching “nasties” had made them commit violent crimes. Police raids continue. On June 30, the Mail publishes its lengthy editorial, Rape of Our Children’s Minds (of which more below), and on the same day, and by no means coincidentally, Mrs Thatcher tells the Commons that : «It is not enough to have voluntary regulation. We must bring in a ban to regulate the matter ». Similarly, home secretary Leon Brittan announces to MPs that :
I am not satisfied with the current state of the law. The Government fully accepts the need for more effective control of the sale and rental of objectionable video cassettes, as we made clear in our election manifesto. I welcome the proposed introduction by the video industry of voluntary controls, but I do not consider that, by themselves, such controls will be sufficient. There will certainly have to be statutory controls and I am urgently considering what form they should take.
26 It then became readily apparent that a draft bill on the subject had already been nearly completed by the Home Office and would now be taken up by a Conservative backbencher, Graham Bright, who had just topped the ballot for private members bills. The use of this particular parliamentary device (one which normally fails very early in its progress through parliament) clearly demonstrated the government’s desire for speed, as it circumvented any need to consult the video industry. However, the absence of a timetable and of any mention of legislation in the current session of parliament angered the ever-impatient Mail, I July, which headlined its front page : MPs Back Mail Campaign and Tell Premier : Ban Video Sadism Now. Sure enough, on 14 July the broad outlines of the bill were announced, and the following day’s Express felt confident enough to run the headline Video Nasties Face Total Ban. That month the DPP also issued a full list of videos which had been subject to court action and made it clear that his office would recommend prosecution of any dealer stocking them.
- 3 It needs to be stressed that the articles cited here are but a tiny fraction of those published on (...)
27 The Bill was scheduled for its second reading on 11 November ; all that was now necessary was to ensure that it would be supported on the day, and therefore the fuelling of the moral panic continued apace, particularly in the press3. Stories about violent crimes committed allegedly under the influence of “nasties” continued to appear in newspapers at regular intervals (see below), but the two most important drivers of the panic were, firstly, Graham Bright’s screening at the House of Commons on 1 November of a farrago of extracts, compiled by Detective Chief Superintendent Kruger, from various “nasties”. Shown to MPs many of whom had probably never seen even a recent “X” certificated horror film, it succeeded admirably in its own terms and provided the next day’s papers with an absolute field day : Video Nasties Show Stuns MPs : Many Quit in Disgust (Sun), Film Show Sickens MPs (Mail), and Video Nasties Leave MPs Reeling With Horror (The Times). With remarkably good timing, Bright’s bill is published two days later.
28 The second key driver was the publication on 23 November of the first report of the Parliamentary Group Video Enquiry mentioned above. The entirely phony statistic (see Barker elsewhere in this issue) that four out of ten children over the age of six had seen a “video nasty” was the stuff of hysterical front pages right across the press, a press which, incidentally, is normally highly dismissive of academic research, which it likes to characterise as the work of “boffins” or inhabitants of the ivory tower. The Mail, 24 November, headlined its front page Sadism for Six Year Olds, with the strap-line, «Videos replace baby sitters … and the children’s party conjuror », whilst the Sun heralded the Birth of the “Video Nasty” Generation. Thus aided, by the end of the month the bill had sailed unopposed through both its second reading and committee stage, although by now a very few critical voices were being raised in papers such as The Times, Telegraph, Financial Times and Guardian, in particular questioning the bona fides of the above-mentioned report, and pointing out that the proposed new law would cover a great deal more than simply a few “nasties”, most of which had anyway vanished from the market thanks to police and court actions under the OPA. Such interventions, however, were to absolutely no avail. On 7 March 1984 the second report of the Parliamentary Group Video Enquiry was published, to coincide with the bill being debated in the Lords. Again the results claimed by the research are highly questionable (to put it at its mildest) and again press coverage is not simply uncritical but entirely unquestioning : thus the headline Half of Children See Film Nasties (Mail, 8 March). On 17 March the bill is given an unopposed third reading in the Commons.
- 4 For a useful discussion of its remarkably easy passage see Marsh D. et al., 1986.
29 And so it was that a measure which, throughout its parliamentary trajectory had received little serious discussion and met with almost no opposition, completed its journey through parliament and received the Royal Assent in July 19844. And yet it was a draconian, wide-ranging and far-reaching piece of legislation. The Video Recordings Act, as it now was, gave the BBFC statutory powers in the field of video, and required every feature film released on video, including those currently in distribution, to be classified and, where necessary, cut or even banned outright. It would be an offence to sell or rent an unclassified feature film on video, or to sell or rent a video to someone younger than the age stipulated in its classification certificate. Documentary and non-fiction films of one kind or another were exempt from classification, provided that they did not deal with certain specified subjects. Thus, returning to Cohen’s opening schema, the “video nasty” panic brought about not simply the extension of the scope of an existing law – the Obscene Publications Act – but the creation of an entirely new one, a process which Cohen refers to as innovation, whereby social control is extended not only in degree but also in kind, this extension being legitimated by reference to the threat to society allegedly posed by the objects of panic.
30 Indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of the “video nasty” panic was the speed and intensity with which a few horror videos came to be seen as nothing less than harbingers of the apocalypse. The way in which one phenomenon becomes linked to others and all them come to be seen as working insidiously together to pose a threat to “life as we know it” is referred to by Cohen as the «it’s not only this» syndrome (2002 :39). However, in order to analyse this aspect of the “video nasty” panic I will have recourse to what Hall et al. usefully call the signification spiral (which is not dissimilar to the notion of amplification employed by Cohen). This they define as
[…] a way of signifying events which also intrinsically escalates their threat […] The activity or event with which the signification deals is escalated – made to seem more threatening – within the course of the signification itself (Hall et al., 1978 :223).
31 Such a spiral consists of the following elements : 1) the identification of a specific issue of concern ; 2) the identification of a subversive minority ; 3) “convergence”, or the linking, by labelling, of this specific issue to other problems ; 4) the notion of “thresholds” which, once crossed, can lead to an escalating threat ; 5) the prophesy of more troubling times to come if no action is taken ; 6) the call for “firm steps” (Ibid. :223).
32 I want to concentrate here specifically on the notions of convergence and thresholds, since the other elements have effectively already been discussed, albeit under different headings, via Cohen.
33 Convergence, according to Hall et al., occurs when
[…] two or more activities are linked in the process of signification so as to implicitly or explicitly draw parallels between them […] Another, connected, form of convergence is listing a whole series of social problems and speaking of them as “part of a deeper, underlying problem” – the “tip of an iceberg”, especially when such a link is also forged on the basis of implied common denominators. In both cases the net effect is amplification, not in the real events being described, but in their “threat potential” for society (Ibid. :223).
34 In the case of thresholds, Hall et al. note that
In the public signification of troubling events, there seem to be certain thresholds which mark out symbolically the limits of societal tolerance. The higher an event can be placed in the hierarchy of thresholds, the greater is its threat to the social order, and the tougher and more automatic is the coercive response (Ibid. :225).
35 They set out three thresholds : the moral, the legal and the violent, and the echt moral panic (like the “nasties” one) moves inexorably from the first to the last as the signification spiral gathers momentum. The moral threshold is concerned with questions of “permissiveness”, and events which cross it contravene conventional moral norms, thus mobilising moral sanctions and social disapproval. However, if any of these acts break the law (or if new laws are passed which criminalise some hitherto legally permissible but morally frowned upon activity) then the legal threshold is crossed. This transgression raises the threat-potential of any action, challenging not simply the moral consensus but the legal order and the social legitimacy which it enshrines. Usually such acts involve crossing (or are signified as leading inexorably across) the violence threshold, and violent acts are frequently construed as constituting a threat to the future existence of the very state itself. Thus every action which can be signified as violent or leading to violence can be represented as a symptom of widespread social disorder, the tip of an iceberg, and any form of action thus identified immediately becomes a law-and-order issue. Hall et al. conclude that :
The use of convergences and thresholds together in the ideological signification of societal conflict has the intrinsic function of escalation. One kind of threat or challenge to society seems larger, more menacing, if it can be mapped together with other, apparently similar, phenomena – especially if, by connecting one relatively harmless activity with a more threatening one, the scale of the danger implicit is made to appear more widespread and diffused. Similarly, the threat to society can be escalated if a challenge occurring at the “permissive” boundary can be resignified, or presented as leading inevitably to a challenge at a “higher” threshold. By treating an event or group of actors not only in terms of its/their intrinsic characteristics, aims and programmes, but by projecting the “anti-social potential” across the thresholds to what it may cause (or, less deterministically, lead to), it is possible to treat the initial event or group as “the thin end of a larger wedge” […] The important point is that, as issues and groups are projected across the thresholds, it becomes easier to mount legitimate campaigns of control against them. When this process becomes a regular and routine part of the way in which conflict is signified in society, it does indeed create its own momentum for measures of “more than usual control” (Hall et al., 1978 :226).
36 The “video nasty” panic was particularly rich in convergences. For example, the videos were linked to the anti-social family. Thus in the Mail story about the “video rapist” (see below) the director of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children reveals that «I had a case where a worker was not able to interview a family until all of them, including children, had finished viewing the rape scene in I Spit on Your Grave».
- 5 In a further example of convergence, Holbrook, like many other commentators, here simply lumps tog (...)
- 6 On its website, the London Dungeon describes itself thus: «1000 years of London's darkest and most (...)
37 And according to the social commentator David Holbrook in The Sunday Times, 2 January 1983, in an article whose headline The Seduction of the Innocent irresistibly recalls the campaign against US horror comics in the early 1950s, «children are actually deliberately being shown films of buggery, rape and mutilation»5. He also links children viewing videos (although it is quite unclear which kinds he actually means) to their being taken to the London Dungeon museum6, as well as their being exposed to the sex education book Talking Sex ; in his view, «One cannot but see such manifestations as forms of coarse seduction of the innocent. But what is more startling is the total absence of protest on part of teachers, parents or the authorities».
38 Thus the net is widened – this is not just a problem of bad parenting on the part of the usual culprits, namely working class families. A similar line was taken by Tory MP Jerry Hayes in the Commons on 11 November 1983, when he stated that
I bitterly regret that those middle-class people who sit on beanbags wearing Gucci accessories in their Hampstead flats which are bedecked with Laura Ashley decorations and talk about world affairs should allow their children to see the type of video films with which we are dealing.
39 “Nasties” are also linked to fears about the spread of organised crime, for example in the Mail’s We Must Protect Our Children Now article on 25 February 1983, which cites the above-mentioned MP Gareth Wardell as referring to «evil video gangsters» and as having «[…] a conversation with a Welsh video dealer who came to say ‘Look, take care. You are dealing with some pretty tough customers. You might even get visits from some who carry shooters’« .
40 Similarly, the News of the World, 13 November 1983, lambasts the «evil sex-kings» and «get-rich-quick gangsters» of the video trade. Meanwhile the Mail’s remarkable Rape of Our Children’s Minds editorial, 30 June 1983, which is one of the clearest examples of «the end of life as we know it» trope in the whole “nasties” saga and is reproduced in full in Barker (1984 :28), compares the contents of “nasties” to real-life events in the Third Reich (a regime which, incidentally, the Mail ardently supported right up until the outbreak of WWII), and asks : «Are we insane ? Are we bent on rotting our own society from within ? Are we determined to spur to a gallop the forces of decadence that threaten to drag us down ?»
41 Similarly in an article for the Mail on 1 February 1984, Mrs Whitehouse paints the “nasties” as symptoms of «the corruption and gross exploitation which has invaded our culture». At another point these videos were linked with another favourite newspaper folk devil, the National Union of Mineworkers, when both the Mail and Telegraph, 4 July 1983, revealed that the miners’ pension fund held shares in a company which distributed “nasties” ; this was Centre Video, but even a cursory reading of the text beneath the screaming headlines reveals that only eight (Telegraph) or six (Mail) of the 3000 videos which it distributed were “nasties”, that the pension fund trustees had no idea of the contents of the videos in which the company traded, and that the manager of the firm had offered to withdraw the offending titles as soon as his attention was drawn to them. And at times the process of convergence threw up “links” which can only be described as ludicrous ; thus when the highly sanitised US TV movie about the after-effects of a future nuclear war, The Day After, was shown on British television, Roger Scruton in The Times, 13 December 1983, hitched it to the right-wing campaign against those opposed to nuclear weaponry by stating that :
The Day After is, by report [he hadn’t seen it] a particularly disgusting video nasty, larded with the moralising cant that one must expect from people who let their thoughts dwell upon the image of human suffering.
42 But even this absurdity was outdone by an article headed Pony Maniac Strikes Again, in the Mirror, 3 January 1984, in which a series of sexual attacks on ponies elicits the comment from a police spokesman that «the maniac could be affected by video nasties or a new moon».
43 In terms of thresholds, we saw at the start of this article how rapidly the “nasties” crossed the moral and legal thresholds, but what I want to concentrate on here is how they were portrayed as crossing the violence threshold as well. Our discussion of convergences has already shown how the distribution of “nasties” was linked by commentators to organised crime, and thus to violence, but what I want to concentrate on here is how they were portrayed as potential or actual causes of violence.
44 In the Telegraph, 5 September 1982, David Rosenberg reports that «The social impact of the “nasties” is infinitely more menacing [than that of pornography], said top policemen and psychologists I talked to last week».
45 Chief amongst these is the ubiquitous Kruger, who states that «The police are here to prevent violence for violence’s sake, which is precisely what these films glorify. The prospect of just one person mimicking Driller Killer is horrifying».
46 In his Sunday Times article cited above, David Holbrook quotes a study carried out for the US government by the National Institute of Mental Health into the effects of violence on television, which, he states, «Came to the conclusion that the evidence is overwhelming that it leads to aggressive behaviour in young people».
- 7 For critical accounts of “media effects” see Cumberbatch G., Howitt D., 1989 ; Barker M., Petley J (...)
47 What he fails to mention, however, is that its results, like those of so much research of this kind undertaken in the States, are highly questionable, as are the findings of H. J. Eysenck, also quoted approvingly in the article7.
48 On June 28 1983, under the headline Fury Over the Video Rapist and the strap «Boy, 18, attacked women after seeing films», the Mail reported that «Demands for action on video “nasties” mounted last night following the case of a teenage rapist who struck twice after watching pornographic films».
49 However, according to the rest of the article, it was not pornographic but horror videos that the rapist liked to watch, and it also quotes his defence lawyer as saying that his client «lived out the fantasy brought on by the videos, which often portrayed women as enjoying rape». However, the only video actually mentioned in the article is I Spit on Your Grave, in which a woman who has very clearly not enjoyed being raped murders all her assailants ! The Mail does admit that Austin was emotionally immature, had a low IQ and was an habitual glue-sniffer, but omits the fact that he had seven previous offences for theft and burglary and that he had just been released from a detention centre when he raped the two women. However, the shakiness of this story did not deter the Mail’s Lynda Lee Potter, another key player in the “nasties” saga, from using her column on 29 June to warn that «The impact that this sick, beastly money-making corruption is having on innocent minds is going to make previous anxieties about violence on television look like worries about the impact of Enid Blyton!».
50 She also warned that
If video censorship of the most stringent kind isn’t brought in pretty damned quick we’re going to have an upsurge in violence and terror and abuse in our land and homes the like of which we never suspected in our wildest terror.
51 Further “proof” that violent videos actually cause violence was apparently offered by the case of Christopher Meah. On 5 August 1983, under the headline Rapist “Was Addicted to Video Nasties”, The Times reported his wife as saying that
He was loving, kind and considerate until he became addicted to watching an endless string of horrifying video films containing detailed scenes of the most depraved and vicious kind […] I am convinced that they changed his personality and that they should be banned.
52 However, in the same day’s Mail it is revealed that his two favourites were The Thing, which has an all-male cast and features no sex at all, and The Last House on the Left which, though certainly unpleasant, does not contain «multiple sex attacks», as the paper suggests. Rather more to the point was that Meah had undergone a severe personality change after suffering brain damage in a car crash in 1979, had taken a cocktail of drink and drugs before the rape, and at the time of the offence was on bail – which had been strongly opposed by the police – for two previous assaults.
53 The Mail also found judicial backing for its journey across the thresholds in the shape of Lord Chief Justice Lane. Proudly announcing on 9 November 1983 that «The Lord Chief Justice Backs Our Fight Against Corrupting Films», it quoted him as stating that «What our legislators seem not to realise is that it is not merely children who need to be prevented from seeing these frightful publications. There are others upon whom the effects may be even more disastrous».
54 He warned that unless strict censorship was imposed on videos, «It will not be long before these scenes are enacted in real life […] Human beings are imitative, and the less strong-minded the more imitative they are».
55 And, bringing is back neatly to convergence, he concluded that «So long as permissiveness increases, so will crime, both in quantity and nastiness».
56 In the preceding pages, drawing on the work of both Cohen and of Hall et al., I have attempted to map the “nasty” saga, as it developed between 1982 and 1984, as a moral panic. However, it needs to be stressed that moral panics do not simply appear out of the blue, but have deep social and historical roots. As some of the sentiments quoted in the course of this article indicate, the “nasty” panic drew on a very considerable reservoir of fears about popular culture and its supposedly corrupting effects. As Geoffrey Pearson puts it in his seminal history of “respectable fears” :
Popular entertainments of all kinds have been blamed for dragging down public morals in a gathering pattern of accusation which remains essentially the same even though it is attached to radically different forms of amusement : pre-modern feasts and festivals ; eighteenth-century theatres and bawdy-houses, mid-nineteenth-century penny gaffs ; the Music Halls of the “Gay” Nineties ; the first flickering danger-signs from the silent movies ; the Hollywood picture palaces between the wars ; and television viewing in our own historical time. Each, in its own time, has been accused of encouraging a moral debauch ; each has been said to encourage imitative crime among the young (1983 :208).
- 8 For full accounts of this process see Barker M., Petley J., 1997 ; Petley J., 2011, pp.87-114.
57 And, of course, each successive panic simply deepens the reservoir of fears upon which subsequent panics draw – thus within hours, literally, of the massacres at Hungerford in 1987 and Dunblane in 1996, and of the conclusion of the trial of the two boys who murdered James Bulger in 1993, the papers were once again awash with stories blaming horror videos for these crimes. Indeed, so great was the renewed outcry against “nasties” in the aftermath of Bulger case that it led to the Video Recordings Act being tightened still further8.
58 The “nasty” panic also has to be understood within its contemporary political and ideological contexts. It took place near the start of the Thatcher regime, one quite overtly committed to rolling back the tide of what it perceived as 1960s “permissiveness” and imposing what it liked to refer to as “Victorian values”, a crusade in which it was daily cheered on by the majority of Britain’s newspapers. As James Curran has put it, the 1960s
[…] symbolised for some all the negative changes that had taken place in the recent past : the country’s decline in the world, the rise of crime, the erosion of a sense of community, young people with more money than sense, the decline of courtesy and respect. Indeed, a growing legion of folk devils – black muggers, punk rockers, flying pickets, Irish terrorists, football hooligans, single parents, illiterate youngsters, and “race” rioters – came to be viewed as facets of a common problem : the loss of authority and erosion of tradition that had begun in the 1960s (Curran et al., 2005 :23-24).
59 In such a situation, moral panics, which, given the nature of the British press, are not exactly difficult to ignite, are a useful means of attempting to gain the consent of the population, or at least significant sections of it, to the imposition of increasingly coercive measures on the part of the state, thus lending democratic legitimacy to exceptional or “more than usual” exercises of control and containment on the part of the authorities. As Hall et al. note, in the later stages of this process, discrete moral panics tend to become «mapped together» into a more general panic about the collapse of the social order and the onset of anarchy, with the result that,
Minor forms of dissent [such as distributing or watching “nasties”] seem to provide the basis of “scapegoat” events for a jumpy and alerted control culture ; and this progressively pushes the state apparatus into a more or less permanent “control” posture (1978 :222).
60 The cycle of moral panics thus issues directly into the law-and-order society, in which at the
[…] expense of certain of those liberties which, in more relaxed times, we enjoyed […] the state has won the right, and indeed inherited the duty, to move swiftly, to stamp fast and hard, to listen in, discreetly survey, saturate and swamp, charge or hold without charge, act on suspicion, hustle and shoulder, to keep society on the straight and narrow (Ibid. :323).
61 This is not to suggest in some conspiratorial fashion that moral panics are simply “got up” by state agencies in order to extend their powers over the population. Indeed, in the case of the “nasties” it is abundantly clear from the narrative advanced in this chapter that it was reactionary newspapers and moral entrepreneurs, frequently acting in concert, which played the major role in igniting the panic in the first place and prodding the police and DPP into action, with the government unwilling to become involved until impelled to do so by the intense pressure generated by newspapers, backbenchers and the Whitehouse brigade. However, the important point to grasp here is that all of these, and not simply the state agencies, constitute the “control culture”, which, as Cohen explains, «[…] contains not just official institutions and personnel but also typical modes and models of understanding and explaining the forms of deviance which give rise to moral panics (2002 :57)».
- 9 MORI was one of Britain’s leading public opinion survey companies. In 2005 it merged with another (...)
62 It may well be objected that the one element which has not been explored in this article is public opinion in the matter of “nasties” and video censorship. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, there is actually very little evidence of any such opinion being gathered, although what little there is does not support the idea that the “nasty” panic was widespread in the population at large. Thus a What Video/Popular Video survey in 1982 showed that for 60 per cent of those who rented or bought videos, horror and science fiction were their favourite category, a MORI poll9 in October 1983 revealed that 92 per cent of those polled had never been offended by the contents of a pre-recorded video cassette, whilst another MORI poll in March 1984 showed that 65 per cent of those interviewed were opposed to the government deciding which videos were available for home viewing. However, in the matter of moral panics, as indeed in all other matters, newspapers habitually claim to represent or speak for public opinion, in a process which Hall et al. call «taking the public voice» and the «enlisting of public legitimacy for views which the newspaper itself is expressing» (1978 :63). Never mind that the opinions thus presented by newspapers, whose values are predominantly reactionary and illiberal, may be anything but representative of the views of the population as a whole, these are the opinions which, in Britain at least, carry the greatest weight with politicians of all parties. Given that this is demonstrably the case, it doesn’t actually matter what the public really think about subjects which have been given the moral panic treatment by the press. As Chas Critcher argues, «in moral panics, support from the public is a bonus, not a necessity. In any case, it can be constructed, largely by the media» (2003 :137). Similarly Ericson et al. argue that the media are an integral part of a «deviance-defining elite», with everyone outside this elite simply being left to «watch, listen to, or read the distant representations that form this symbolic spectacle» (1987 :351).
63 What we have here, then, is less a circuit of communication between the press, the public and politicians than a process involving, for the most part, just two sets of actors : the press and politicians. In other words, it’s a short-circuit of communication. Thus, in the case of the “nasties” at least, it is possible to resolve the problem identified by David Miller and Jenny Kitzinger with moral panic theorising, namely its alleged lack of agency. According to them :
It is never very clear who is doing the panicking. Is it the media, the government, the public, or who ? One reason for this lack of clarity is that distinctions between the media and the state, between the media and public belief, and between the state and other social institutions and groups are dissolved into Cohen’s notion of the control culture (Miller et al., 1998 :216).
64 Here, as noted above, it was very clearly newspapers and moral entrepreneurs which actually made most of the running, particularly in the early stages of the panic. Indeed, in the case of the Mail the distinction largely collapsed anyway, but what this episode all too clearly illustrates is the quite remarkable power which a stridently populist press has managed to exert over the British political class for decades, although it needs to be added that this is largely because politicians have allowed it to do so.
65 It is for this reason that it is impossible to accept, in the UK context at least, what one might call the “postmodern critique” of moral panic theory put forward by Angela McRobbie and Sarah Thornton (1994, 1995). In their view :
The proliferation and fragmentation of mass, niche and micro-media and the multiplicity of voices, which compete and contest the meaning of the issues subject to “moral panic”, suggest that both the original and revised models are outdated in so far as they could not possibly take account of the labyrinthine web of determining relations which now exist between social groups and the media, “reality” and representation (1995 :560).
66 McRobbie also notes that
The moral panic is the right’s campaigning arm, but the right has increasingly had to contend with the pressure groups which have become the campaigning arm of the opposition. No sooner does a moral panic emerge than it is angrily disputed, and its folk devils are fiercely defended by any one of a range of pressure groups which have emerged as a key force in opposing the policies of the new right during and after the Thatcher years (1994 :199).
67 So far, so unproblematic, apart from the revealingly po-mo bracketing-off of “reality” in the first quotation. After all, no-one would disagree that new, and indeed older, forms of media have mushroomed in the past twenty years, and that the authoritarian turn taken by both the Tories and “New Labour” has produced an extra-parliamentary oppositional backlash. It is also the case that the oppositional forces have well understood the important role played by the media, and especially the national press, in helping to whip up moral panics and create folk devils, and have attempted to intervene in and defuse moral panics by providing information and analysis which run counter to dominant media representations. But the operative word here is “attempted”, since most of the mainstream media, and in particular the vast majority of the national press, have remained resolutely closed to such incursions. McRobbie and Thornton argue that
When Labour and Conservatives take the same line on law and order, arguing for “effective punishment” and the need for the moral regeneration of society, many media are inclined to give voice to other, sometimes dissenting, groups (1995 :566).
68 But the truth is quite the opposite, in that the shifting of the parliamentary consensus sharply to the right has served only further to naturalise the thoroughly illiberal world view pedalled by most national newspapers, and to narrow the range of voices heard on radio and television, since the broadcasters (in spite of recent protestations to the contrary by the BBC) still insist that the impartial stance on political matters which they are required by law to adopt is best achieved by “balancing” the views of the mainstream parties at Westminster. Extra-parliamentary views thus tend to find themselves at best marginalised, at worst demonised or simply silenced.
69 However, as indicated earlier, McRobbie and Thornton also draw attention to the presence of minority and specialist media, observing that «Folk devils now produce their own media as a counter to what they perceive as the biased media of the mainstream (1995 :568)».
70 They also note that :
Moral panic is a favourite topic of the youth press. When the mass media of tabloids and TV become active in the “inevitable” moral panic about “Acid House”, the subcultural press were ready. They tracked the tabloids’ every move, re-printed whole front pages, analysed their copy and decried the misrepresentation of Acid House. Some 30 magazines now target and speak up for youth (Ibid. :568).
- 10 For accounts of the genesis of the Act see McKay G., 1996 ; Collin M., 1997.
71 But whilst the proliferation of alternative media of one kind or another is undeniable, and indeed thoroughly welcome, the question of its political effectivity, particularly in defusing and contesting moral panics simply has to be addressed. Thus in the case of raves, the subcultural press, and even the liberal rump of the national press (Guardian, Observer, Independent), may have done their best to counter the hysteria and disinformation pumped out on a daily basis by politicians and illiberal newspapers, but this did precisely nothing to stop the passing of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, Section 63 of which criminalises raves, in so doing revealing the depths to which the bureaucratic mind can sink by stating that «“music” includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats». One has little idea of what people actually thought of such a blatantly authoritarian measure, but nor in the present context does it actually matter, since the Act was the result not of a plebiscite nor of a referendum but of an entirely circular, self-reinforcing process involving newspapers and politicians10.
72 McRobbie and Thornton argue that :
In the old models of moral panic, the audience played a minor role and remained relatively untheorised. With few exceptions, they were the space of consensus, the space of media manipulation, the space of an easily convinced public. A new model need embrace the complex realm of reception - readers, viewers, listeners and the various social groups categorized under the heading of public opinion cannot be read off the representation of social issues (Ibid. :572).
- 11 For a chilling and remarkably well detailed account of this process in action see Dean M., 2012.
73 And, from a theoretical perspective, they are indeed quite correct : moral panic theory certainly does need to take on board modern work on audiences and how they read actual media texts. But, in terms of contemporary political reality, the inescapable fact is that, as noted at the start of this section, either politicians believe that the opinions expressed by the majority of newspapers do indeed reflect public opinion, or these are the opinions to which politicians are most highly sensitised and thus liable to react in policy terms. Consequently, what the public actually thinks counts for little11.
74 However, at long last, the fall-out from furore over the phone-hacking at the News of the World has shone a spotlight onto the true nature of the relationship between the press and politicians, one in which the former, far from acting in the public interest as a “Fourth Estate” or a watchdog over the latter, has behaved far more like an attack dog, bullying and threatening politicians into supporting policies which gel with its own extreme and narrow ideological views and, in the case of the Murdoch press in particular, with policies which facilitate the untrammelled expansion of its owners’ media interests. The fact that the Tory government in 1983 finally acceded to the loud and insistent demands for statutory video censorship expressed both through and by papers such as the Mail should not be allowed to obscure the fact that they first attempted to resist these demands. It should also be noted that this process was repeated in every detail in the events leading to the toughening of the Video Recordings Act in 1994 in the wake of the Bulger murder. It has suited both sides in this unhealthiest of relationships to swathe it in thoroughly mystificatory rhetoric about press freedom, public accountability and so on, but the cat is now well and truly out of the bag, and it would be extremely difficult to stuff it back in again. As a consequence, moral panics, one profoundly hopes, may be rather more difficult to ignite in the future.