Permissiveness, Violence and the Producer 

24 February 2023



Where does the responsibility lie for presenting violent or permissive material to a wide audience in the home environment? A report on the recent discussion meeting.


Cover of the Royal Television Society Journal

From the Royal Television Society Journal for January-February 1970

A topical and controversial subject of deep significance, a distinguished panel representing a wide range of informed opinion, a reasonably good turn-out supported by CCTV links with several RTS Centres, two hours of talk not entirely serious – an evening which promised much, came to life intermittently, and yet left one strangely dissatisfied. Was it all too urbane and civilised, too sophistically superficial, too lacking in profundity, or in preparation, or in verbal violence?

Yet, by presenting this generous helping of ideas, whether fully thought-through or not, the panel in reality was on target, unquestionably succeeding in their prime objective of providing a useful interplay of ideas, some cross-pollination of ‘the other fellow’s point of view’ that may later germinate into something a little more solid. But one must regret that this ‘mirror to life’ ignored completely one of the major pressures on producers and broadcasters to sail near the winds of sex and violence – the knowledge that such sailing may often result in wide publicity and press-cuttings. A row about censorship, which may or may not be based on genuine beliefs, can reap a harvest of column-inches: not all the kinky violence and titillation are basic to the story-line. That this does not happen more often is a tribute to the integrity of most broadcasters, producers, and writers.

The panel that assembled in the ITA Conference Suite, under the baton of the Society’s president, Lord Bowden, comprised Lord Soper, J. S. Shields (chairman, BBC advisory panel), Rex Firkin (LWT), Peter Black (Daily Mail), J. Oxley (Westward), Professor Wedell (Manchester University), Malcolm Hulk [sic – Hulke] (TV writer), and Andrew Osborn (BBC). All were earnest, though the occasional anecdotes hinted that permissiveness has its lighter moments.

Lord Bowden, introducing the debate, said this was concerned with what the BBC and ITV are doing to themselves and to modern society, the way in which permissiveness and violence may or may not be influenced by TV, and the way in which the producer discharges his function.

Lord Soper doubted whether producers have adequately studied the twin manifestations of permissiveness and violence. He noted that despite the talk of permissiveness, society was still basically conformist, and this could result in making things harder for the non-permissive. The breakdown of religious convictions removed guiding principles on sex. There was obsessive concentration on sex and violence in advertising and newspapers, leading to an unbalance which was to be deplored – if TV producers add to this they are in danger if not of damnation then of hell-fire.’ He feared that with the continuous presentation of violence, people would think of this as a natural part of life. Producers must have an integrated view of what life is all about. Most people, in one sense or another, now carry a gun in the pocket. He believed sex has a root relationship to violence.

J. S. Shields differentiated between state violence (which has increased in effectiveness), criminal violence, and what he termed citizen’s individual violence. He believed that so far from TV making citizen’s violence worse, it has made things very much better. Historically, the citizen was more likely in earlier times to be involved in violence than today. More important than the limited influence of routine programmes was that of the professional communicators. It is what the Richard Dimblebys and Ed Murrows say that conveys conviction, not the Westerns or the Wednesday Plays.

‘I maintain that what we have to ensure is that the communicator knows his responsibility and carries the complete load, rather than depend on an ITA or BBC code – the man in charge has got to have his own standards,’ he said.

Rex Firkin quoted the view that nobody ever tries to make a bad programme. In his view, permissiveness and violence were totally different matters; similar only in that both were areas where producers face problems – but, he insisted, these are different problems.

In the matter of violence, a producer is a member of society and finds it as difficult as others to make his own judgments. But, he added, censorship is always ‘grey’, and nothing is more harmful than grey TV. He was opposed to the rule that where political views are presented, you must always present the opposite viewpoint – Permit TV to have some political views, just as a newspaper editor does’.

Peter Black was uncertain what ‘permissiveness’ meant. Too often it was a phrase adopted by people who did not wish to use their brains – ‘a rallying cry by people who are attracted to bossing people’. Modern society was more humane, more aware of the need for consideration, more certain that judgments are not simple, than ever before. TV, he suggested, has acquired an inflated importance as an influence, largely because it affects us in our own homes.

J. Oxley considered the most important member of the production chain is the writer who has the original responsibility; second came the producer who has the responsibility of interpreting what the writer has written – the producer changed this at his own and his audience’s peril. Many of the problems of the smaller broadcasting organisations arose in the field of news and current affairs programmes.

Essentially it was a matter of trusting the production people; this meant they must be chosen carefully, with similar standards of taste. The definition of good taste could vary in different regions of a country.

Professor Wedell recognised that the number of people who have actually died as the result of TV must be very small indeed. He felt that to date all the research into the effects of TV was ‘inconclusive, patchy, and reflected the defeat of a number of scientists – there were too many variables which could influence findings’. Yet if firms were prepared to spend £100m [about £1.3bn in today’s money, allowing for inflation –Ed.] on TV advertising in order to persuade people to buy, it was important to discover TV’s persuasive effect on criminal violence. He noted recent American research (the Eisenhower report) suggests that TV may be a substantial ingredient, and at least it was impossible to ignore that TV may be a contributing factor in violence. While he did not regard permissiveness as so much of a problem, he noted the difference between the act of volition required to go to a cinema or a theatre, and the involuntary access that TV has to the home. Violence was less a problem in the UK than across the Atlantic, but there existed the question of the quality as well as the quantity of violence. He referred to the American tendency to sanitary violence – ‘this cosmetic approach is something we ought to think about.’ Nobody could believe in rigid broadcasting codes -yet codes did provide a baseline. He also questioned whether there was not an element of ‘chicken’ in producers daring each other to go farther. Broadcasting should set and endorse professional standards.

Malcolm Hulk [sic] considered that only muddled thinking could lump together permissiveness and violence. There were questions of honesty and the ending of hypocrisy. ‘There were never “the good old days” – the nineteenth century had mass infanticide and child killers, there was the violence of the two World Wars, the razor gangs of the ‘twenties and ‘thirties. Permissiveness always existed – everyone’s adult relatives seemed, when I was young, to have some scandal that must never be mentioned – all that has happened is that we are now more honest-and women are no longer the passive partners. If TV drama and documentary has any contribution to make, it is to present the world we live in.’

Andrew Osborn reflected on the problems of the large drama group responsible for some 700 programmes a year ‘with little time to theorise’. Creative people, he felt, are seeking to penetrate deeper into life as they see it. While it was necessary to exercise restraint in the form of editorial control, he was opposed to the following of specific ground rules. ‘If we go too far, we have to spend a lot of time dealing with letters of complaint it is largely a matter of exercising common sense and good taste.’ Broadcasters were concerned that the content of a series should be as intelligent as possible, and he disputed the need of sex, violence, or blood to tell a good story: ‘If a producer continuously exercises bad taste, then that man is removed from the series.”

The open discussion

In the discussion which followed, many of the earlier points were expanded upon, often in the form of anecdote.

On national violence, it was suggested that people had become aware of the nature of the war in Biafra as a result of ITV news coverage, and that the shift of opinion in the US against the war in Vietnam ‘happened because of colour TV’. On the other hand, Peter Black felt that advertising influences because market research has previously indicated the way the public wanted to go ‘TV coverage of Vietnam has gone on for many years – so has the war.’

Lord Soper was worried at the concept that violence might have a therapeutic effect – a regular diet of blood may have a corrupting effect; ‘people do enjoy this sort of thing’.

Andrew Osborn wondered whether the ‘ratings battle’ between ITV and BBC resulted in too much attention to programmes which ‘we know are going to be popular’.

Stephen Murphy, from the floor, felt that it was deeply humiliating to those who work in TV to hear the type of argument being put forward-such a debate could have taken place 10 years ago. Speakers had ignored the research that pointed the way to a sensible programme policy. Of the recent Eisenhower report he regretted that no commentator had noted that every one of its specific recommendations had for long been implemented within ITV. He disputed that such research could be labelled inconclusive. For example, it indicated clearly that violence is more dangerous the nearer it approaches to the way in which a viewer can identify with it – such as family rows leading to the use of domestic’ weapons. While research may not be 100 per cent, it does give guidelines, and too little had been said in this debate about this material. He recognised the problem of conveying the results of sociological research to the people who make programmes.

Lord Soper commented: ‘We’ve heard tonight of sociologists but not of parsons – many of the difficulties depend ultimately upon theological questions.’

Peter Black stressed the conditions in which TV is watched, with no constant pitch of attention, and with the small screen tending to trivialise the material: viewers had ‘a view from a moving train’.

This led Miss Goddard, from the floor, to suggest ‘life is like that also’. Although she found censorship distasteful, a recent talk by the British film censor had demonstrated that much of the material censored from films was of kinky violence ‘so extreme that we were right to be worried about such things’.

Malcolm Hulk [sic] was concerned that we still have a society where a good solid sock in the nose proves that your argument is right: ‘provided that you swing an efficient club, people think right is on your side.’

Rex Firkin underlined the problem of presenting drama which can be widely viewed and appreciated-series inevitably tend to resolve around ‘cowboys, cops, and spies’. Broadcasting should not be regulated by written codes – in his own case the fact that he usually watched TV in the company of his two teenage daughters had an important influence. Rather, he thought, there might be acceptable guidelines. He recognised that his most violent programme had been The Power Game, which was a matter of intellectual violence.

In a second effective intervention, Miss Goddard was concerned that ‘people enjoy violence – a public hanging would get high ratings’. She considered The Power Game an immoral programme. ‘We are not discussing what people like, but rather what violence is doing to our society… we must look at history and at the research and find a formula for possibly “phoney” barriers against that violence which is just too much.’ It was a matter of the quality of the violence.

Nobody referred to November 5, 1969 – when it could be argued that the visual violence of a BBC programme was instrumental in delivering a shock that cut – at least for one year – the number of firework injuries. But perhaps as with the famous myth that TV gave Kennedy his presidential victory over Nixon – later research may prove that even here TV played only a marginal role.


Dramatis personæ

  • Bertram Vivian Bowden, Baron Bowden (1910–1989); scientist and educationist
  • Donald Oliver Soper, Baron Soper (1903–1998); Methodist minister and socialist peer
  • John Sinclair Shields (1903-1997); headmaster and Pilkington Committee member
  • Denis Rex Firkin (1926–2014); television producer
  • Peter Black (1913–1995); television critic for the Daily Mail
  • John Oxley; programme controller, Westward TV
  • Eberhard Georg (George) Wedell (1927-2020); professor and former secretary of the ITA
  • Malcolm Ainsworth Hulke (1924–1979); television writer
  • Andrew Frank Charles Osborn Smith (1910–1985); producer and actor


Your comment

Enter it below

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Thursday 18 July 2024