Geoffrey Johnson-Smith – 1985 Speech on Young People and Violent Crime

Below is the text of the speech made by Geoffrey Johnson-Smith, the then Conservative MP for Wealden, in the House of Commons on 6 December 1985.

I beg to move,

That this House views with great concern the problem of violent crime committed by the young; notes the important influence which parents, the schools and the media can have in their formative years; and calls upon the Government to lead a renewed and vigorous effort to develop in our young people an increased sense of responsibility and awareness of the interests of their fellow citizens, and to encourage their more active participation in their communities.

The motion has a broad canvas, and yet in the context of violence by young people it may be thought to be drawn too narrowly because it does not invite the House to consider the influence of unemployment, poor housing conditions or badly planned, inhuman and congested housing estates. That is not because I do not consider that any or all of those problems have no consequence whatever, but because I know that the House has addressed itself recently to their effects.

My purpose today is to call attention to those influences where the individual, by his own actions and example, can help to reduce the chances of young people committing acts of violence. I hope that my motion will enable us to concentrate on those more personal influences where people have a constructive role.

The growth of violence in our society has aroused great concern on both sides of the House. The figures for crimes of violence against the person—homicide, attempted murder and serious wounding—have nearly doubled in the past 10 years. What has caused most anxiety has been the level of violence among young people. There is no way of knowing how much violent crime young people commit. All we have are the figures of those cautioned or found guilty in the courts. The figures for 1974 show that 49,879 were found guilty or cautioned for crimes of violence. By 1985 that figure had risen to 68,500.

Of course, there are more young people today than 10 years ago, reflecting the baby boom of the 1960s. Nevertheless—this is what is so disturbing about the figures—the proportion of young people found guilty or cautioned for crimes of violence is higher. Most surprising of all, the biggest increase is among the 14 to 17 age group.

It is easy to seek scapegoats, but we are all involved in our society and the tasks of parenthood and teaching have become even more demanding. There is no one reason, but I believe that I shall carry the House with me when I say that the causes lie in the fact that we live in a country in transition, not only industrially and economically but socially and morally.

We talk of a return to Victorian values—discipline, hard work, voluntary service, a pride and involvement in the community, patriotism and a respect for law and order. All those we associate with the Victorian era. But it was also a time, so well described by Dickens, of grinding poverty, exploitation, hunger, human misery, harsh authoritarianism and moral hypocrisy.

The strides that we have made since then have shown that we have grasped the threads of humanism. Our social and welfare legislation of the 20th century ushered in a kinder and more tolerant society, greater respect for the individual and his desire for personal fulfilment and freedom of choice, and, I believe, a system of justice that has been shorn of much of its harshness.

However, over the past decades, and even longer, with those improvements have come a decline in moral values and discipline, less respect for our institutions and the rule of law, and a desire among some sections of the community for instant and selfish gratification—to be achieved, if necessary, by force. We have also had to contend with the effects of the second world war—the second world war this century—which may have had some effect on the problem.

To a large extent, the old rules have gone and the power of the Church has diminished, as has some of our traditional tolerance. We do not appear to know how or with what to replace them. We do not know how to reconcile the need for an orderly society with our need for a wider freedom or how to have discipline and regulation without unfeeling authoritarianism. Perhaps that is why parents and teachers find it so difficult to discharge their duties and why so many children, growing up in an unsure and ill-defined framework of rules and regulations, regard them as arbitrary and too dependent on whim.
Therefore, the ties of family have become weaker, families are smaller and fewer families have had the experience of their Victorian ancestors where the older children first learnt the art of rearing children by looking after their younger brothers and sisters.

Many families have moved away from their roots. Indeed, hon. Members will remember our debates about the effects on families of moving to new towns—known as the new town blues. Families were separated from their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, who, when the family lived within a nuclear unit, often lent a hand. Of course, we are all familiar with the growth of one-parent families, the problems that that causes, and the destructive effect on children.

Faced with all those difficulties, it is not surprising that there are parents—especially the poor and the less well-educated, those with criminal records or those living in the poorer areas in our inner cities—who, not surprisingly, have lost confidence in their ability to discharge their responsibilities, especially to their adolescent children.

My following remarks will be addressed to ways in which we can strengthen the family. The findings of an investigation known as “Delinquency: its roots, careers and prospects” provide some hope. The first step is to help people in poverty. It is better to spend money supporting those families than to spend even larger sums employing social workers after the damage has been done. I hope that that is what the reform of our welfare services, promised by the Government, will achieve. In addition, a whole raft of measures, from day nursery provision, parental guidance centres and, not least, opportunities to inculcate into deprived children a different sense of values, should be pursued.

I believe that that means paying more attention in schools to the problems of the troublesome child. The earlier that is done, the better the chances of success. It means giving them an opportunity to achieve at school, even if it is not academic achievement. I sometimes think that the emphasis placed on academic achievement, at the expense of simply achievement, can do more damage to the psychology of children than anything else that happens during school hours.

The influence of the teacher cannot be emphasised too strongly. I accept that teachers quite rightly say that it is not for them to take on the role of parents. Teachers have a great many responsibilities. However, they also say that ​ schools are not just examination factories and that education should be concerned with turning out good citizens. All the more reason why our schools in areas of high criminal activity should play a greater role in combating juvenile delinquency.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister and his Department to call upon my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science to encourage the growth of pastoral care. The earlier that the emotional problems of the child are observed and treated, the better the chance that that child will not turn to crime.

I am not simply espousing theory; research has been carried out, and experience has been gained. What we need is action, and something more. The decline in religious teaching and worship in our schools is leading to a moral vacuum. If people do not go to church, where else can our youngsters expect to develop a sense of what is morally right? Should it be in the home? Yes, of course, where that is possible, but it should always happen in school. Did not that great headmaster Dr. Thomas Arnold say about schools:

“What we must look for here is first, religious and moral principle, second gentlemanly conduct and third intellectual ability.”?

The phrase “gentlemanly conduct” may sound a little old-fashioned these days, but perhaps such conduct leads to less violence—does it not?

Can the media, especially television as it is the most powerful medium of communication, play a more active role? A recent report by 15 teachers—with no axe to grind, and the BBC and IBA knew all about it—said:

“It became clear in the course of discussions with producers and others working for the BBC and ITV companies that there was little agreement among them about the wider educational influence and possibilities of television. Producers often assumed that any discussion of the educational role of the programmes was an attempt to press them into taking a more didactic stance in their productions … It is not possible to separate the responsibilities to educate and to entertain into such self-contained boxes. Yet it seems that programme makers often do so. As a consequence they fail to recognise or act upon the conflict and continuity between the duties to educate and to entertain. It is this failure to link the two that causes concern to teachers, parents and others.”

Many people find it strange that so much television is preoccupied with violence. It is estimated that young people aged between nine and 14 years of age spend an average of 23 hours a week watching television, sometimes far into the night. What a waste. Just think what could happen if some of them spent 23 hours practising a musical instrument; they would learn to play it and would achieve something of lasting benefit.

Be that as it may, those youngsters watch television and there is violence on television. I accept that it would be inconceivable to have television without violence, for television must reflect the world as it is rather than as some of us would like it to be or therein lies the road to censorship. However, I ask parents to remember that there is such a thing as the on-off switch. It is their responsibility not to allow their children to watch late-night movies.

We often praise the system of broadcasting for its quality. Indeed, its products have earned world-wide admiration. Therefore, it is only fair to say that the same people who lead that industry with considerable skill, imagination and integrity are the very same people who must make very difficult judgments about what is suitable ​ for a wide-ranging audience. They must bear in mind the well-researched fact that individuals vary considerably in their perceptions of violence.

Only recently, a senior research officer of the IBA said about people’s perceptions:

“The more closely a fictional setting approaches or resembles everyday life and the more graphic the portrayal of pain and suffering, the greater should be the care we take over the decision of whether such a portrayal should be shown and whether a programme that contains it should be transmitted.”

It is precisely because the broadcasting authorities are perceived by Mrs. Mary Whitehouse and others to, have neglected that fact that has led to demands for censorship and more effective controls over the showing of violence on television.

Such people are bitterly offended and, to judge from some of the examples that they put before us, that is not surprising. In my view, the critics have a point, and the origins of it stem from technological innovation as well as criticisms of personal judgment. Many of today’s programmes which contain violence are made in real life settings because the new lightweight cameras are very portable and require little, and at times no, additional lighting, so that they can be taken to locations where the acting has a reality that is difficult to simulate in a studio.

For the unsophisticated and undeveloped mind—the juvenile mind—it can be difficult to separate what is real from what is not. It is not surprising that such developments have made possible the new television phenomenon known as the docudrama, where fact and fiction meet, and it can even deceive the sophisticated adult.

It is argued by responsible people inside and outside broadcasting that there is no causal proof of a link between violence on the screen and violence on the street. Looking at the research, it is difficult for a layman such as myself to know where the balance of the argument lies because research by responsible researchers can point either way. Much depends on the methodology and, as a layman, I find it hard to make a judgment as to who wins that argument.

It is clear, however, that over the years more and more research findings have concluded that the frequent viewing of television can influence some people to commit violent crime and that repeated exposure to television violence increases the chances that a spectator will act violently. Even some of those who deny a causative effect admit that television can have a reinforcement influence.

One of the most interesting pieces of research was done in the early 1970s by William Belson. His report, “Television violence in the adolescent boy,” contained the principal finding that there was strong evidence to support the view that long-term exposure to television violence increased substantially the extent to which London boys engaged in acts of serious violence.

That finding does not stand alone. Many others, here and in the United States, support that opinion. The most recent study, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health in America, reported in 1982 that

“the consensus among most of the research community is that violence does lead to aggressive behaviour by children and teenagers who watch the programmes.”

That concern is shared by exalted people such as Lord Lane, the Lord Chief Justice. It could be argued that in this area his opinion should carry no more weight than that of ordinary mortals. He is an expert on the law, but that does not make him an expert on research into behavioural ​ attitudes and responses.

Nevertheless, I should have thought that Lord Lane would be a cautious man when giving opinions on such an issue. He was reported in July of this year as saying that violence in films and on television, including in news reports, had contributed to an alarming increase in the nastiness of crime. He went on to say that it was

“now accepted as common form that once you have your victim on the ground, you kick him, preferably on the stomach or on the head, where the blows are likely to do maximum injury.”

Lord Scarman, in his report on the Brixton disorders, saw the broadcasting medium as bearing some responsibility for the escalation of violence. A former colleague of ours, Eric Moonman, who conducted interviews among the people of Toxteth, wrote:

“The influence of television on their responses to the situation could not be doubted. TV made it look easy. They knew what kind of thing to do.”

The BBC and IBA are statutory bodies and among their duties is the duty to listen to and heed public opinion. Indeed, both organisations claim that they do so. The IBA has a code of conduct which it was statutorily compelled to compile. It is a lengthy, detailed document which was drawn up with great care. One paragraph referring to the portrayal of violence states:

“There is portrayed violence which is potentially so disturbing that it might be psychologically harmful, particularly for young or emotionally insecure viewers.”

Every producer must have regard to that comment.

The BBC has no code, but it has its own guidelines, and they too are lengthy, well constructed and the consequence of a great deal of thought. They include the passage:

“a consensus of research suggests that de-sensitisation can result from an excess of violence and the amount and treatment of violence needs to be carefully examined all the time.”

To judge from comments that are being made, it is possible that the public and the broadcasting organisations are getting our of step, in which case it would be helpful for the BBC and IBA to explain in greater detail to the public their policy towards violence. They might provide examples of when they think it appropriate to apply the code or guidelines to producers and when not to apply it. They could say whether they are contemplating revising their practices and, if not, why not. They might also tell the public about research that they carry out into the effects of their programmes.

There is another reason why it would be in the interests of British broadcasting to set a lead and take the public into its confidence. We are on the brink of an expansion in the number of television channels we can receive. Not all of even the English language programmes will be in British ownership or transmitted by British companies. There is a distinct risk that more will not mean better, that more will not lead to more choice, and that standards will fall. Standards cannot always be upheld by popular choice in the market place. As with many things in life, the people may not have a will to uphold decent and fair standards. We need the institutional framework.

Britain has a reputation for creating authorities by which, as in the broadcasting world, regulation can coexist with freedom of expression. Our broadcasting organisations will continue to carry influence abroad and help to shape international regulation and a decent framework only if they are seen to observe higher standards at home, and in that respect I look to the Government to give their every assistance, for their sake and for that of our children.