Shanking the Messenger
MP Heidi Alexander’s proposal to ban internet videos glorifying gang crime is a stab in the dark
The most recent episode of the Politics Show London [available on BBC iPlayer until Sunday 27 November] included a debate on the topic of knife crime videos on the internet. The report that preceded it showed films displaying a frightening vision of the culture plaguing particular communities in urban Britain and although efforts are continually being made to tackle the issue - there was a representative from the Boyhood to Manhood Foundation whose work invariably involves children for whom gang culture is a potentially dangerous influence - there appeared to be a general consensus that more needs to be done to deal with the messages that the videos send to others.
One politician in particular believes the videos themselves play a significant role in perpetuating the problem. Labour MP Heidi Alexander has a more acute experience of gang culture than most of her Parliamentary peers; many rival gangs operate for dominance of the housing estates in her constituency of Lewisham East. So in tabling the Ten Minute Rule Bill calling for the law courts to intervene in the release of videos appearing to glorify criminal activity - aka the Internet Regulation of Material Inciting Gang Violence - Ms Alexander hopes to curb gang violence from spreading any further. The idea is that if the law can make internet service providers and/or multimedia hosting websites remove such inappropriate content, then fewer people will be exposed to - and therefore at risk of being affected by - gang culture in general. However, while her intentions are honourable - driven by a quest to satisfy the safety concerns of residents in her constituency - there are several problems with her approach to the situation.
Firstly, what concrete proof is there that videos influence more young people to join gangs? During the debate, Uanu Seshmi, co-founder of the Boyhood to Manhood Foundation who has considerable hands-on experience of dealing with gang culture, said that internet videos are ‘not the main cause of gang violence’. So what influence do videos have on children and can it be considered strong enough to warrant a mass takedown of films glorifying criminal behaviour? Ms Alexander couched her concerns in woolly language, claiming that even if the link is not made by the children who view these videos themselves, it was all part of ‘the context’. But this does not amount to clear-cut evidence of a significant causal link between carrying a knife and watching a clip of people committing violent crimes. I can’t claim for certain that it doesn’t happen at all, but I do know that I personally have never been driven to carry a weapon because one has been brandished in a YouTube film. Or joined a mob, taken drugs, run someone over, betrayed someone, or robbed a business, for similar reasons. And I could get all those inferences from watching the trailer to Pulp Fiction. I also do not know of anyone that is scared enough by a video pertaining non-specific threats of violence to start arming themselves in self-defence. This would lead me to believe that YouTube, Vimeo, SpiffTV et al were neither recruitment mechanisms for child footsoldiers, nor a rarefied take on cyber-bullying. Ms Alexander’s Ten Minute Rule Bill speech did not provide any examples to the contrary.
Another problem is her failure to be specific on what she means by ‘Inciting Gang Violence’. What constitutes a gang and not a group, collective, clan, gathering, etc? And how does one qualify for inciting violence? Many an internet video can be taken for loosely assuming either or both of these characteristics, especially rap ones. When asked directly by Tim Donovan just what exactly she was against, factual videos depicting violence, or the description of acts of violence in rap songs, this was her reply:
'Well, what I’ve come across... has been a whole load of videos on the internet, filmed in the hearts of our town centres, on our housing estates, groups of young men, stood around, often rapping, sometimes carrying weapons, rapping about knives, about stabbing, about gangs and I just think it's unacceptable.'
She may well think so and she is entitled to her opinion. But, having been invited to pinpoint the problematic material she wants removed from our computer screens, she did exactly the opposite. She instead referred to films in which actors stand about proclaiming things she simply does not want to hear. Her (lack of) choice material implies that her argument is actually based on the whims of what she and some of her constituents find offensive, not reason. If I were to do the same, I might find a video where a celebrity sits on a sofa boasting about their latest autobiographical release unacceptable, but it is no grounds for requesting a ban on all chatshow programmes.
It also opens up a can of worms about the problem of enforcing law regarding factors such as obscenity and hate speech. This legal minefield will not be cleared up easily by cases brought before the law based on Ms Alexander’s proposal. Ultimately, any further revisions to the law in this regard will inevitably play in favour of greatly increasing censorship; hence her claim that the 2003 Communications Act ‘does not seem to me to be of any use’.
But supposing the Bill did become law. Would it actually reduce knife-led gang-related crime? In the report accompanying the debate, a journalist asked two kids whether Ms Alexander was ‘on the right track’ demanding the removal of such threatening material from the internet. They disagreed, effectively saying that the Bill would be would be impossible to enforce in practice because they [the gang members] would find other ways to showcase their films and that although they did glorify gang violence, this had no bearing on the kids as viewers. Ironically, despite Heidi’s implied charge of naivety on the kids’ part during the debate, their answers offer precisely the kind of pragmatism that her proposal lacks, which will render a well-meaning Bill ineffective where it wishes to make an impact and potentially devastating where it intends not to.
The desire to try and act upon constituents’ concerns is understandable, but Ms Alexander’s actions are in fact symptomatic of a value-effort fallacy, which assumes that because she is trying a new approach to solving the issue at stake, it will yield success. It may satisfy her constituents to know that she cares enough about the problem of gang culture to do something about it, but that does not mean that her proposed Bill is the right path to take. It rather manifests a desire to conceal the dilemma from view, instead of addressing it face-to-face.
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