Who controls the censor?

The official censor is running scared of a controversy-hungry press, argues Tom Dewe Mathews. And the clues are all there in the annual report from the British Board of Film Classification
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The Independent Culture
In Britain, unlike most other countries, it is almost impossible to find out what has been censored from films. One of the few chinks of light that exists in this information blackout is the annual report published by the British Board of Film Classification. But don't expect any grand revelations from the BBFC's current 1994-95 audit, published two weeks ago. For any anticipation is quickly replaced by a mixture of weariness and wonder: weariness because BBFC obfuscations have to be analysed with the rigour of a Cold-War Kremlinologist, and wonder because this report is so thin it could be folded into a paper aeroplane.

The report's brevity is all the more surprising since 1994 was probably the most active, as well as the most contentious, year in the board's 80-year history. A moral fall-out from James Bulger's murder in the early spring of 1993 led, last summer, to a new video censorship Bill being passed through Parliament; while, at around the same time, over 200 films were either cut, banned or had their releases into the cinema or on to video "postponed" by the BBFC.

Curiously, the report opens with the claim that the board fathered the new video Bill "after discussions" with Parliament. The BBFC, in fact, had the Bill foisted on it after newspaper demands for stricter video censorship fell on receptive ears in Westminster. And the BBFC, the Government's film quango,was granted a massive increase in power. Which goes some way to explaining why so many films were affected by censorship in the past year.

At least, this is what the BBFC's current report would like film-goers to believe. But the actual reason why titles such as Reservoir Dogs or The Bad Lieutenant were banned on video last year had less to do with opinions held by the official censors than with a newspaper campaign for more films to be banned. For Tarantino's thriller and Abel Ferrara's cop movie were both initially passed "18" uncut for a cinema release, and even praised by the head censor, James Ferman, for their treatment of violence. But then the Daily Telegraph published an article focusing on the films' more "scandalous" scenes. The BBFC annual report claims the "distributors preferred not to release them on video", but Ferman revealed at the time [in an interview with Tom Dewe Mathews for his book] that both films were banned because "they simply happened to be around".

So far, so conspiracy theory: but consider the treatment given to a film by the great conspiracy theorist Oliver Stone. What happened to Natural Born Killers follows a similar pattern. Again, the initial response from most of the BBFC examiners who viewed the film was that it should be passed "18" uncut. But then another press furore blew up which, according to the report, "makes it difficult to classify the film dispassionately", so once again Ferman was provoked by the media to claw a film back into the censorship system: NBK's release was postponed.

That the BBFC annual report does not name the films that have been banned does little to allay suspicions about their motives for censoring films - since it is impossible to trace the censorship of an anonymous movie title. So in among moralistic advice, such as that one particular sex film "must" be "damaging to the viewers, [and] to their future sexual partners", there is a lot of obscure information along the lines of "one other video was rejected". There is, however, one little-known film which, in spite of being nameless in this report, does indicate that all too often it is the press and not the BBFC that ultimately decides what goes on the British screen.

After defending the decision to certify the anodyne horror film Child's Play 3, the report praisess the board for tempering its tolerance with the mysterious remark that the board "had refused to classify another video" which it thought "would have been far more dangerous. It was argued," the report adds, "that the board had a duty to balance the needs of dysfunctional families against the rights of ordinary families with decent responsible standards."

The film is Warner Brothers' Mikey, which opens with a boy killing his parents. Mikey had, in fact, been passed "18" uncut by the BBFC in November 1992. This film - unlike, say, Reservoir Dogs and other banned titles - had officially been "passed out" of the BBFC: in other words, Mikey's distributor had the certificate in his hand and now all he had to do was find a theatre to screen his film.

In February 1993, however, James Bulger was killed by two 11-year-old boys and the Daily Mail immediately pointed out that the upcoming Mikey also featured a child killer. Ferman didn't need any more persuasion. He was already, as one ex-censor puts it, "running scared" from the effects of the Bulger case. So the head censor demanded the return of Mikey's certificate. And got it.

This kind of covert censorship makes it difficult to take much of the report at face value, such as the statement that "in the board's view, the scapegoating of films does not further knowledge or understanding" or, "we shall continue to resist giving into pressure or taking the easy way out, since what matters is not the short-term decisions but the long- term results."

If the BBFC wasn't the most powerful media regulator in Britain, such assertions would be laughable. But, as the report itself concludes: "In the end, of course, every decision is a matter of discretion and judgement." Discretion the BBFC has in spades, but judgement? That, it seems to me, is a gift it made to the press long ago.

n 'Censored: the Story of Film Censorship in Britain' by Tom Dewe Mathews is published by Chatto & Windus, pounds 14.99