Earlier this month a young Frenchwoman began a 20-year jail sentence for her part in a gun battle in which four people died. The case caused a sensation in France where the press dubbed Florence Rey and her boyfriend Aubry Maupin - who died in the shoot-out - the "Natural Born Killers" after police found a poster for the Oliver Stone film on a wall in the couple's flat.
The newspapers were tapping into a popular belief: that television and video do harm, particularly to children. (Rey was 19 when she and Maupin embarked on their killing spree.) It is widely accepted that too much TV diminishes children's powers of concentration, or that it subliminally primes them for a life of consumption. A more controversial extension of this argument is that children are encouraged to commit anti-social and even violent behaviour, particularly by video, which is easily accessible and difficult to monitor.
Public surveys invariably conclude that there is too much violence in the media, although, when asked, many people cannot name films or videos that they consider to be "too violent".
It is commonly asumed, for example, that the killers of toddler Jamie Bulger were influenced by the horror video Child's Play 3. But an inquiry by the House of Lords in 1994 concluded that police reports "did not support the theory that those crimes had been influenced by exposure either to any particular video, or to videos in general", and no evidence about the role of videos was presented in any of the prosecutions.
However, concern has been sufficiently widespread to attract parliamentary support. In 1994 an amendment to the Video Recordings Act, 1984, contained in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, required the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) to consider the "likely harm to potential viewers (including potential under-age viewers) and - through their behaviour - to society", in the treatment of sex, horror, criminal activity, violence and drugs. The "harmful effects" of the media are, therefore, enshrined in law.
The BBFC reflects these concerns in its policy. It accepts, for example, that viewers may copy what they see. Neck and joint breaks, kicks to the head, double-ear claps and chops to the throat are examples of violence that are routinely removed, even at the 18 classification.
In other areas the board takes a more contextual approach. Genre and audience expectations are important considerations when classifying violence. Starship Troopers, for example, was passed 15 on film, on the grounds that it was clearly fantasy science-fiction. But for video it was decided that the strength of the horror was not in line with audience expectations of a 15 classification. The video was subsequently raised to an 18. A film such as Saving Private Ryan may be passed 15 because the "educational" value or quality of the film overrides concerns about the depictions of extreme violence.
Educationists remain ambiv-alent about the media. On the one hand there is a recognition that its study helps to nurture core skills such as literacy, and encourages children to appreciate the cultural and artistic value of film; on the other there is a lingering suspicion of the damaging effects of the mass media. There is, surprisingly, no orthodoxy among teachers. In my experience, the most liberal teacher has reservations about the depiction of sex, for example. Sometimes these anxieties are stronger - the fear, for instance, that the highly stylised violence of a John Woo martial arts film (routinely described by critics as "balletic") or the post-modern irony of films such as Desperado are genuinely desensitising, whatever the theory says.
At the heart of regulation lies a belief that children must be protected.This is reflected in different approaches to teaching on the mediaviolence debate. Some projects encourage children to explore the difference between fictionalised film and television violence and the real-life impact of violence.
The BBFC runs workshops and seminars to explain the classification process. It may sound like a media studies topic, but this debate is also about personal, social and health education. Any discussion of censorship and regulation can also raise important questions about the nature of citizenship.
For the media teacher, the mediaviolence debate offers a broad sweep across the curriculum by exploring representation and language, audience theory and institutions.
The conventions of specific genres, the issue of realism, and the ideological context of violent action are particularly fruitful for moving students beyond platitudes and into meaningful discussions.
The British Board of FilmClassification produces a student pack on the history, legislation and processes of classification. For more information,contact: The BBFC, 3 Soho Square, London, W1V 6HD; tel: 0171 439 7961.For more information on workshops on violence in the media and in-service training on the subject, contact Film Education, tel: 0171 976 2291Ros Hodgkiss worked as an examiner at the BBFC for three years. She now runs workshops on the mediaviolence debate