Porn, violence and what the public wants

`I was asked if it were true that we censors find explicit sex more acceptable if it occurs in a foreign-language film'

EVEN IN this age of fast-developing information technology, public meetings still have a valuable role to play. Because I am nervous that this may not always be the case, I am glad to report that my recent experience is positive. The British Board of Film Classification (of which I am president) has just started a round of public meetings and in the last week we have been in London, Edinburgh and Londonderry and we shall shortly visit Newcastle, Swansea, Bristol and Norwich. We covered a different set of cities last year. There were 60 people at the Derry meeting - and a very good occasion it was - but generally we attract between 200 and 250.

I view a public meeting as purely democratic in purpose. It is not an exercise in market research or opinion-polling. After all, the audience is self-selected and will include a disproportionate number of people who disagree with the BBFC's policy, or for whom the cinema in all its aspects is an engrossing hobby; or who are students of media studies. By "democratic" I mean that if you restrict citizens' freedoms you must regularly explain what you are doing and why, and answer publicly for your actions.

The BBFC's classification system may, for instance, prevent parents from being able to take their children to films that they may like them to see, such as, say, Shakespeare in Love, which was rated at "15". And the BBFC asks for cuts in about 5 per cent of the 400 films for the cinema and the 4,000 videos that pass through its hands each year. For being accountable for such actions, the public meeting is a valuable institution.

Moreover, organisations arranging public meetings obtain information and insights that standard market research techniques do not reveal. There is all the difference in the world between, on the one hand, reading the responses to questions when people are accosted in the street by somebody with a clipboard, and, on the other hand, being questioned by members of an audience.

Take the French film Romance, sub-titled in English, in which the sex is more explicit than had been passed previously but which has recently been classified at "18", uncut, for the cinema. In the public meetings a number of people asked whether we would have treated Romance so leniently had it been an English or American production; in other words, is it true that the BBFC finds explicit sex more acceptable if it occurs in a foreign- language film? To which the answer is that undoubtedly a production of Romance as utterly English as The Full Monty would have been passed in the same way; the fact is that British avant-garde movies tend to be more concerned with social deprivation than with sexual exploration.

But the questioners do have a point in this sense. The BBFC always asks itself what the likely audience is for a particular work. And art-house movies, particularly if they are subtitled, do have a restricted circulation - the questions about Romance came in London and Edinburgh, not in Londonderry. There was also an unspoken issue. Does the BBFC go further than its central task of helping parents to regulate the viewing of their children and further than reflecting both the laws that apply to screen entertainment, and public opinion about films, and simply act in a paternalistic way?

An opposite concern is whether the BBFC is vulnerable to commercial pressure. The point was put in a subtle way. It wasn't that the questioners supposed that we could be crudely brought to heel by film and video distributors. They understand that the BBFC is a licensed monopoly with strong powers. No, the question was whether the system is subverted by the way in which Hollywood studios aim straight at the mid-teen market with productions such as American Pie, South Park (transferred from TV to cinema) and Starship Troopers. To anybody older than mid-teens, the sexual vulgarity, bad language and fantasy violence of these productions may well be repugnant, but the target audience loves them and they were all rated at "15" for cinema.

The meetings have been valuable, too, in illustrating the very different attitudes to violence on screen as compared with explicit sex. One participant wondered why explicit violence in the context of war is acceptable (referring to Saving Private Ryan, classified at "15") when explicit sex in the context of a loving relationship is not passed for viewing by the same age group, although both are "realities". Or, as another questioner put it: "why do you think that strong and realistic violence is less harmful to `15' audiences than prolonged sex scenes? After all, consensual sex is enjoyable and sane, whereas violence is always a crime and should strongly be discouraged."

Until recently, I believe, cinema-goers in this country have been more tolerant of explicit violence than of explicit sex - illogically, when you come to think about it. This is still markedly so in America, where very violent movies are freely available but 18 minutes was cut from Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut because of its sex scenes (it is "18", uncut, here). But now, I think, as our questioners showed, there is a turning away from the depiction of excessive violence but no sign of any similar reservations regarding sex scenes. Such changes in social attitudes are like deep, slowly moving currents, strong in their impetus once a new direction is set.

The growing intolerance of explicit violence is reinforced by a strong, popular belief that what you see on screen can influence subsequent behaviour. The Video Recording Act is founded upon the principle that videos can harm both the individual and society. And although much academic research is sceptical, finding it difficult to isolate and measure the strength of the supposed relationship, and pointing to the great variety in the reasons for crime, none the less the notion of a simple causal link between viewing and subsequent action is widely accepted by people and was often mentioned at our meetings.

People referred to the recent court case in which two teenage students were jailed for hacking a college friend to death. Aged 18 and 17, they had watched and been influenced by violent videos, classified at "18", among them Scream, Children of the Corn and The Evil Dead. The comments of the judge, Mr Justice Newman, and the policeman who led the investigation, Detective Chief Inspector Stevens, were pertinent.

The judge told the defendants that "videos, not recognisably extreme, designed to be seen for entertainment, have served to fuel your fantasies and isolated you from conventional counter-balancing. They carried a potency that could not readily be predicted." And, afterwards, Mr Stevens said that the videos were pretty innocuous "in one sense" and that they were no different from dozens found in high-street shops; but he remarked on the "context in which they were watched; what they did to the minds of the defendants".

This is the point of public meetings. You learn what is on people's minds. We have also been constantly reminded that the UK does appear to have the strictest censorship in the Western world and that the rest of Europe seems to get by without our Draconian rules. There is no evidence that British society is less violent, or that the rate of sex crimes is less here than on the Continent, people told us.

Another participant observed that, as no guidelines can be exhaustive, would it not be better to leave the decision as to what people can watch either to themselves or their parents, based on advisory ratings by the BBFC, and to leave absolute bans to courts? That is an interesting point of view, but the system can be changed, if that is what is wanted, only by local authority councillors up and down the land, on whose behalf the BBFC classifies films for the cinema, and by Parliament, which has legislated to regulate the video market. At the moment I see no sign that our elected representatives are inclined to make a change in either direction, whether more restrictive or more liberal.

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