Meet the censors: Who decides what's beyond the pale?

They have the power to ban a film, withdraw an advert or shut down a website. But how do Britain's censors decide what goes beyond the boundaries of good taste? Holly Williams meets the nation's moral guardians
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The Independent Culture

We might think of the UK as a country with few controls over what we view, listen to or watch. We champion freedom of expression; we don't have censorship here, thank you. Yet we also, it seems, love to complain. Viewers take umbrage at adverts showing spitting or burping, and complain to the Advertising Standards Authority. Puffed-up newspaper campaigns, re-printing an 'offensive' joke told on TV, can drive complaints to Ofcom through the roof.

Occasionally, the issue comes into sharper political focus – in June, David Cameron commissioned a report into the sexualisation of childhood, which proposed tighter regulations on music videos. Or a film gets banned; again in June, the British Board of Film Classification refused a certificate for Human Centipede II. That this is news at all is a reminder that people are watching what we watch.

What is deemed "not OK" ebbs and flows on the moral tides of the era – panic over Eighties video nasties has given way to concerns about the internet. Swear words go in and out of fashion (though a "Fuck" before 9pm on TV remains a no-no). And some changes are welcomed – who mourns the loss of adverts claiming smoking is good for us?

But what are these organisations – 'censors' is an unpopular term; 'regulatory body' is generally preferred – really like? How do they decide what is or isn't offensive? While each body has its guidelines, with an emphasis on 'transparency' and 'accountability', ultimately they are made up of ordinary people, who have to make fine judgement calls. We spoke to four at the cutting edge...

Rebecca Mackay

British Board of Film Classification

"I've been at the board for 17 years now. We're a good deal busier these days. There's more to watch and we're down to 14 examiners.

A day's examining will comprise watching basically six hours of material: anything from brand new feature films – which we will watch in the cinema – to DVDs of TV series, straight to video releases, pornography...

We start from the 'ground floor' that everything is appropriate and acceptable for everyone to watch. That's the 'U'. As we watch, we have in our minds a series of issues, everything from language to sex, nudity, violence and drug use. We have our public guidelines and under those we know what is appropriate for each age category. Sometimes thing fall right on the borderline, and that's when we have to be quite rigorous in our analysis of the work and its potential audience.

Context is everything: one use of strong language, ie, 'fuck', will take a work to a '12' as parents don't want strong language in anything below that. The guidelines say only infrequent use is acceptable – but what does infrequent mean? With The King's Speech, there was a very narrow precedent for quite a number of uses of strong language, but because of the context and how it occurred, we felt on balance it was not going to impact in a way that was negative – whereas perhaps two or three really aggressive or directed uses of 'fuck' would not be appropriate.

Every five years we do a huge public consultation exercise. It's hugely important because we do consider we are working to provide information for the public; it's not about us dictating. Of course there have been shifts in what the public thinks is acceptable, and not always in the direction one would expect. We are much tougher on issues like sexual violence and violence against children now; but consenting sex, we're reasonably liberal about – the general public is not as prudish as in the past.

We reject the granting of certificates very rarely. Fifty years ago, we were rejecting films that now we might classify as a '15'. Now, we're classifying things with greater potency, because shocking and offending is just shocking and offending. The only two films we've rejected in the past couple of years have been Grotesque, a Japanese horror with sexual assault, humiliation and extreme torture – we thought it was potentially harmful – and we cut Murder Set Pieces, an American feature about a psychopathic, sexual serial killer. Recently, we've rejected Human Centipede II – but I can't talk about that yet!

There are huge down points: I hate watching pornography, and at times I feel hugely dispirited by what some material is and for what purpose it is made. But mostly I just feel so bloody lucky – I do love my job. And I still go to the cinema; my favourite treat when I'm on holiday is going to the pictures in the afternoon."

Fred Langford

Internet Watch Foundation

"The IWF was started in 1996. There was pressure put on by the government to take action on child sexual abuse content on websites and the industry decided to pull together a self-regulatory body.

We also took on obscene adult content, so that's anything likely to deprave and corrupt – which is quite subjective. Because of the shifting landscape, we only act when the content is potentially illegal, and a legal precedent has been set. We don't see ourselves as censors of the internet. If it's criminal offline, it's criminal online. Simply inappropriate content isn't within our remit.

There's no place for vigilantes searching for this content, but if a member of the public stumbles across it, they can report it on our website. The number of reports vary from 150 to over a thousand, though that would be an unusually busy day. We have four analysts and a hotline manager. We always assess whether the content falls foul of the law, and use UK sentencing guidelines. We have five different assessment levels: level five is an act of sadism or penetration of a child involving an animal, while level one is child images depicting erotic posing with no sexual activity.

We only ever issue a notice for the removal of the page if the content is hosted in the UK; if it's in another country we report it to that country's Inhope [an international umbrella organisation] hotline, or reach out to their law enforcement. If it's in the UK, then we contact the host provider and issue them a notice for the removal of that page. It's usually legitimate providers who've had their services abused; they just don't have the correct security. Since the establishment of the IWF, the figures have really changed: originally, 18 per cent of sites that contained child sexual abuse content were in the UK; we're now down to less than 1 per cent.

We also put a list out of sites outside of the UK which contain illegal content. This is an entirely voluntary list for internet service providers to download [so they can block sites]; 98 per cent of broadband customers in the UK are covered by this. People get concerned about the list; we do have detractors who think we're some sort of secretive organisation but that's not the case – we're reasonable and pragmatic about what is or isn't illegal.

I've been here seven years, and before I worked for the Ministry of Defence, the American Air Force and as an internet engineer. I answered a job advert – I wanted to do something to make a difference, to help society. It is a tough job. We have a full counselling service provided quarterly. There's always going to be content that shocks you, but it's not always what you would expect. You're expecting to see child sexual abuse – but you're not expecting a beheading, so that shocks you more."

Louisa Bolch

Advertising Standards Authority

"The ASA judges adverts which are complained about against the industry's codes and works out whether the advert needs to be withdrawn or whether it's OK. We uphold complaints on about 2,500 adverts a year and there are millions, so it's important to get a bit of perspective – that's a tiny, tiny proportion.

I've been on the council – there are 13 of us – for just over three years, but the ASA has been judging adverts for almost 50. There's a locked-down website where we will all look at adverts and comment on them in a forum. But there are some things that can't be resolved online, so we meet once a month for a day-long meeting and look at cases in really forensic detail.

We administer the codes written by the Committee of Advertising Practice. We've just been through a review – anyone can comment, but they also go to representative groups and ask for their input. And it's our Bible! You have to be able to hold [your decision] to account against the code – that's how the industry and the public can have some sense that the system works. It's definitely not good enough to go, 'I don't like it'; that really doesn't fly.

If an advert says 'This product can do x' and this product can't do x, that's really straightforward. More interesting is the stuff around taste and decency, and harm and offence. We ask, is this something the majority are going to find offensive? Or is this something which is going to offend a much smaller number of people, but offend them so much that actually when you weigh in the balance the advertisers' right to freedom of expression versus the amount of offence it's caused, you say it's too great. That's a really grey area – we will discuss them for quite a long time. We don't withdraw adverts lightly; it's a serious business. The meetings can be really good fun, but there's a lot at stake. If it's not clear cut, at the end of the day we have a voting mechanism.

My background is in television journalism. I always liked the governance aspects of working for a channel; I like fixing things and I like puzzles, I'm analytic. And I like knowing lots about lots of different things. It's kind of a perfect job for that. My dinner party conversation is now really rocking!

You never know what you're going to get – there was an advert which had farting in it a couple of years back, and a sizeable chunk of the British public don't really like bodily functions in adverts. You have to take it seriously, and we do, but you can spend 45 minutes discussing, in this context, whether farting is socially irresponsible or not...

The most complained about advert was a KFC one, where KFC employees were singing while eating with their mouths open. Some people found it offensive, but being proportional, in the grand scheme of things – well, we didn't uphold."

Alison Marsden

Ofcom

"Ofcom is the independent communications regulator; the area I work in is enforcing our rules on broadcast television and radio. Ofcom has a number of very specific legal duties which are set out in the Communications Act and we have transposed that into our code.

People feel very, very strongly about a number of issues. Complaints usually result from offensive language or the broadcast of a certain kind of material at a certain time of day – protection of children is a very key issue – and violence gets quite a lot of complaints, too. We're also doing lots of work around preventing harmful claims being broadcast – for instance, a small religious channel claiming certain products can cure cancer.

Ofcom isn't a censor; we don't have any powers before broadcast. We have to take into account freedom of expression – broadcasters' and audiences' rights to impart and receive material. The counterpoint to that is that, intervening post-transmission, we have some pretty strong legal powers to impose sanctions where necessary, so there is an incentive for broadcasters to comply.

On average we get about 25,000 complaints a year. But that can vary enormously; our most complained about programme – Celebrity Big Brother in 2007 – got 45,000 complaints [of racism towards the contestant Shilpa Shetty].

Every single morning there is a triage meeting where we look at the complaints that have come in overnight and every complaint is carefully assessed. There's five people in that team. It's the first thing we do each day; so you come into the office, watching adult material with your cup of morning coffee... I'm not sure I could really be shocked anymore.

If we judge that a breach is serious, repeated, or even deliberate, then we can start to impose sanctions. The more substantial sanctions are financial penalties which can be quite significant sums of money, or even suspending or revoking their Ofcom licence to broadcast. With the scandal over premium-rate audience voting, we imposed fines of about £13 million in total.

There's no prohibition on broadcasting material that is offensive – that's really important. A lot of complainants don't know that; they think it's their right not to be offended. What we require is that if you're going to broadcast potentially offensive material, it has to be justified by the editorial context: it might be about the scheduling of the programme, the type of programme, the audience expectations of that channel at that time. But it can be very, very difficult and we have to be very, very careful. In most cases it's clear to us that the broadcaster has tried to comply with the rules.

After working in TV production for 10 years, I've been at Ofcom since 2007. It's a unique job, I love it! It's a fascinating insight into what offends people, but also I think we're doing an important job of protecting people."

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