Violence – what is the truth? 

16 May 2016

The just man

Probably no Briton of our time has been more praised for his fairness and shrewd ability to sum up a complicated case than 77-year-old Lord Birkett.[1] He earned the world’s acclaim for judicial fairness in his handling of the Nuremberg War Trials 15 years ago. In the early part of his long career he was famous as Norman Burkett, one of the greatest advocates of this century. Later he spent nine years as a Judge of the King’s Bench and seven as Lord Justice of Appeal.

Lord Birkett is no stranger to the entertainment and mass communications media. As a young barrister in Birmingham he often spent spare time prompting for a repertory company. He has made frequent radio and television appearances in England and America. And his son Michael[2] is a film director. For TV TIMES Lord Birkett has turned his skilful, analytical mind to consider television trends.

From the TVTimes for week commencing 2 April 1961.

Television has now become such an integral part of the national life that, in common with every other public institution, it is the subject of continuous criticism from almost every quarter.

There is scarcely a programme of any kind that is not praised or blamed in some publication, from the daily newspapers to the weekly periodicals and magazines.[3]

And it is not unimportant to observe that whatever the nature of the programme there is almost always a deep cleavage of opinion.

It is still true to say of this department of our life that one man’s meat is another man’s poison.

This is because the mighty audience of television viewers is made up of all sorts of men, women and children.

But however varied in taste and outlook the viewers may be, they are all entitled to consideration from those who decide what the public shall see. Science has given this great boon to the world, and we all now know its power for good or evil in our daily lives.

I am one of those who believe that the power of television should be wisely employed to amuse, to entertain, to instruct, and to enlighten, and that in no circumstances whatsoever ought its great power to be used to pander to unworthy things or exert an evil influence, particularly upon young people.

At the present moment public criticism is directed mainly to the programmes of Independent Television. The source from which this criticism springs is no doubt the frequently expressed dislike of commercial television in itself.

It was argued that so great a power as television should not be in the hands of those whose interests are such that financial considerations may affect their choice of programmes.

There is, it is said, a temptation to be swayed by lower standards of taste to please a wider public, and the quality of the programmes inevitably suffers in consequence.

For such critics, too, the vulgarity of some of the advertisements seems in some strange fashion to lower the tone and impair the quality of the entire range of the programmes.

The Pilkington Committee which has been set up by the Government will report, probably, next year, but the Lord Chancellor has already made it quite plain that although all aspects of sound broadcasting and television well be considered by that Committee, the terms of reference ensure that both the BBC and Independent Television Authority will continue to exist, and the problems confronting television must be dealt with on that footing.[4]

Putting aside, therefore, for the moment, the objection to commercial television in itself, can it be said with truth that the programmes of ITV produced by the various organisations are not the balanced programmes they ought to be, and fall short of the standards that an informed public taste is entitled to expect?

In fairness, I think it should be remembered that ITV has not had the long years of experience of the BBC, and moreover it would be unreasonable to expect ITV to be merely an imitator of the existing programmes, and not to produce an alternative programme of its own.

I think it is right to say in this connection, as Lord Rea has said, that the standards of taste that have been set up in this country have been created by a minority of citizens who have enjoyed privileges that have hitherto been denied to a great majority.[5]

Now that the programmes of ITV have brought in a great new viewing audience, it would be folly to succumb to the temptation to cater solely for what is called “popular taste,” whatever the shifting public taste may happen to be.

Experience has shown that higher standards of appreciation and taste do bring the deeper satisfaction and the greater pleasures to men and women; and the ideal ought to be to reach those higher standards even though the process is necessarily gradual.

For these reasons I am an advocate of more and more educative programmes, because taste is sharpened and improved principally by education.

For example, there is some evidence from the Library Association and the Publishers’ Association that the best kind of programmes actually foster the desire for reading, and reading is without doubt one of the highest educational agencies within our reach.

Think of the millions who have had the fine arts brought home to them by Sir Kenneth Clark, or those who have lasted the fascination of history from the talks of A. J. P. Taylor.

I recall with pleasure other ITV programmes such as Questions in the House, the presentation of Edwin Drood, Free Speech, and the interviews with visiting statesmen who spoke on the problems of the Commonwealth, and educative programmes of the like kind. One particular criticism being made at the moment is that too much violence is shown on television and this is not confined to one particular channel, but applies to all. Here again it is difficult to get the exact facts.

The Nuffield Report on “Television and the Child” said that Westerns were nor harmful to children, and that children who watched television were no more violent than those who did not; and in the Report of the World Health Organisation, a professor of the London School of Psychiatry found there was no reason to believe that television and radio provided an inducement to crime.

Isolated examples to the contrary have occurred, and have been widely reported in the Press, but whatever the truth may be, my own opinion is that we can very well do without any violence in television programmes.

There is no need for it, and l cannot think it serves any useful purpose.[6]

It is notorious that almost every single thing has been denounced at one time or another as one of the causes of crime and juvenile delinquency; and it may well be that television has now been added to the list because of the immensely important part it plays in our modern way of life.

If so, it would only be in accordance with past experience, for it seems to be a national characteristic to criticise or even denounce those institutions such as the Cinema, the Stage, the Press and Literature which appeal to the millions and affect public taste and opinion.

Television could scarcely hope to escape. I would rather rate the standards of an audience on a high level than a low one, and programmes of instruction and education are much to be commended.

I am quite sure that viewers will always respond to the worth-while programmes, and I am equally sure that they are tired of the petty and trivial and merely meretricious.[7]

Viewers are, of course, entitled to see programmes that have no other purpose than to amuse, but amusement programmes can be of high standard and quality.

Let us hope that the evidence now being sent in such volume to the Pilkington Committee will result in a television structure that provides for the developing taste to which I have referred, and will halt the deterioration that comes from the narrow and restricted policy of merely meeting “popular taste” however poor that taste may be.


    1. William Norman Birkett, 1st Baron Birkett, PC, QC, Kt (6 September 1883-10 February 1962). Liberal MP for Nottingham East 1923-4 and 1929-31. High Court of Justice of England and Wales judge 1941-50. Court of Appeal of England and Wales judge 1950-6. Lord of Appeal in Ordinary 1958-61.
    2. Michael Birkett, 2nd Baron Birkett (22 October 1929-3 April 2015) would later be deputy director of The National Theatre, executive director of the Royal Philharmonic Society, chairman of BAFTA, chairman of Governors of the BRIT School for Performing Arts and Technology and stepfather of Star Trek actor Alexander Siddig
    3. Plus ça change
    4. That the Lord Chancellor had felt the need to say this shows how the Committee was thought to be running away with itself. When eventually it did report, it treated the BBC as so lily-white and perfect and the ITV system as so black-hearted and venal that its recommendations were largely forgotten immediately
    5. I have repeatedly re-read this sentence and I am still none the wiser as to whether the noble lord is for or against this state of affairs
    6. One begins to wonder if drink had been taken before or during the writing of this piece. That a Lord of Appeal of such experience should note that all the scientific evidence showed that violence on television had no effect on children and then call for it to be banned anyway is somewhat breathtaking
    7. From the vantage point of mid-2016, let me tell the late Lord Birkett now: nope

Notes by Russ J Graham


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5 responses to this article

Paul Mason 18 May 2016 at 2:59 am

Another pre-Mary Whitehouse article, from someone who is stuck in the Edwardian era of his earlier life.

The only thing that spooked me as an early 60s child was some of the early Doctor Whos.

Mass audience TV in 1961 was only 5-10 years old and hadn’t matured until
Mary Whitehouse (1910-2001) started to haunt broadcasting from 1964 onwards, when both channels started to get more adventurous

This judge was tame compared to the infernal Mary.

Paul Mason 18 May 2016 at 3:15 am

Although my parents didn’t watch it, in 1969 ITV (unsure which company) screened on a Friday evening a crime drama called Big Breadwinner Hogg which contained a scene whereby a criminal threw acid into another’s face. So controversial was this that the series was shelved after just one episode. But with so many channels and the ability to record shows over the last 35 years or so the only workable censorship is the OFF switch.

Paul Mason 18 May 2016 at 3:23 am

Big Breadwinner HOG, starred Peter Egan as a young criminal Hogarth, from where his moniker comes from. Oddly enough it was GRANADA who produced it, despite being set in London, but then Granada had London links.

Paul Mason 20 May 2016 at 6:11 am

Come to think of it Transdiffusion started out in the same year as Mary Whitehouse’s Viewers and Listeners Association! Two organisations following TV and Radio with different aims!

Alan Keeling 24 May 2016 at 10:47 am

Regarding Paul Mason’s comments regarding “Big Breadwinner Hog”. The first episode was screened at 9pm on a Friday evening, following complaints about it, the series was moved to a 10.30 slot from the following week onwards.

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