James Ferman, retiring BBFC director, looks back on 25 years at the cutting edge of entertainment
hen I took the job of "film censor" in 1975 - my tenure came to an end last month - I was warned to forget about following public taste: any decision I took would be too lenient for some, too strict for others. Nearly a quarter of a century later, the situation is much the same - as this weekend's Channel 4 special on censorship has shown. However, though society is still polarised, at least the grey areas in between have shifted. Nudity is no longer an issue, and sex is far more acceptable, in the right context. Even bad language is less contentious - people still find it offensive, but the words objected to are arguably far stronger than 20 years ago. Some call it freedom.

In recent years I have come under strong personal attack from various newspapers, especially those that specialise in frivolity and family values. But my early years as director of the British Board of Film Censors - its name was changed to the British Board of Film Classification in 1985 - were not accompanied by press carping. In those days we were seen as a modern, campaigning body. In the late 1970s we helped to reform obscenity law; in the 1980s we were largely responsible for sweeping away "video nasties"; and we laughed off Monty Python's Life of Brian by passing it uncut for teenagers.

But the religious right struck in 1988 over Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ, whipping up a tabloid storm over allegations of blasphemy, even before the film arrived in Britain. When I suggested mildly to a journalist that prominent churchmen might do better to see the film before commenting, it drew the front-page headline: CENSOR SAVAGES BISHOPS. I responded by inviting 28 church leaders in to see the film, including five Anglican bishops. They all agreed it was not blasphemous at law, so the furore receded. But not for long.

In the 1990s, a new wave of screen violence coincided with a rise in juvenile crime. Videos became the scapegoat, and video regulators the villains - too liberal for the tabloids and too strict for the arts crowd. The Jamie Bulger killing traumatised the nation, and the press was quick to allege corruption of the two child murderers by video violence. As tension grew, two more brutal crimes were attributed to videos, and it took some months for the Home Office to research the evidence and report in Parliament that "the police reports did not support the theory that those crimes had been influenced by exposure either to any particular video, or to videos in general". Unfortunately, truth is no bulwark against insidious rumours, and the allegations were stubbornly and mischievously recycled over the next few years.

The BBFC had become a good story, the stuff of Parliamentary debate, rent-a-quote MPs and tabloid hysteria, fuelled every year by one or two contentious titles. A climax was reached in 1997 when examiners were doorstepped by Daily Mail photographers as they left home to take their children to school. A gallery of mugshots was printed along with scurrilous condemnations of each for having put the social fabric at risk by passing Crash - in retrospect a non-event, since few bothered to see it.

I was the chief culprit. "Does nothing appal this man?" asked the Daily Mail. Well, yes, I murmured, rape as entertainment appals me, mutilation and torture appal me, as I've made clear year after year. I've always carried the can for Board decisions, even though most of them were reached by consensus. Crash was a unanimous decision, as was the decision to release The Idiots (with its nude orgy) uncut. But I was hired on the understanding that the buck stopped with me. What this meant became clear within weeks of my joining when both my predecessor, Stephen Murphy, and the Board's long-serving president, Lord Harlech, stood in the dock at Bow Street accused of aiding and abetting an indecent exhibition.

What they had done, after lengthy deliberation, was to pass a sex education film called Language of Love. They were swiftly acquitted, but the film was referred to the Old Bailey, and I spent much of the next year preparing its defence. Again we won, and the following year, 1976, I led the campaign on behalf of the local authorities and the film industry to bring films within the Obscene Publications Act, which meant that at last, in 1978, the courts would have to consider films as a whole, just like books and plays. It also meant that artistic merit could be argued in defence and that the test of criminality would no longer be offensiveness, but harm to the morality of a significant proportion of the likely audience. The "deprave and corrupt" test could have been conceived to hold the line against the exploitation of sexual violence and torture, the biggest problems of the 1970s. It might also have been framed to provide the ideal weapon against the video nasties of the 1980s, where it proved its effectiveness repeatedly.

I set out to establish within the BBFC a framework of full and frank debate. We recruited examiners who could argue their case vigorously and professionally, and we encouraged diversity to ensure a broad range of opinion, with every reasonable point of view likely to be put by the public canvassed first within the Board. We know that taboo themes, like those of Crash and Lolita, will engender controversy, but in a free society there should be no such thing as a taboo theme, only taboo treatments. In the 1970s, exploitation film makers were often irresponsible in their treatment of rape and sadism. Today, under a stricter censorship of sexual violence, such problems are far less frequent.

Last year the Human Rights Act wrote into British law the Freedom of Expression provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights. This, for the first time, puts the burden of proof on the censors, not the film makers. But unlike the American Bill of Rights, the Act recognises that freedom may need curtailing "to prevent crime or disorder" or "to protect health or morals". This echoes the 1994 amendments to the Video Recordings Act, which require the Board to consider "harm to potential viewers or, through their behaviour, to society". It is a good test, and one we have applied responsibly.

Having suffered my own share of heavy-handed censorship as a television director in the 1960s and 1970s, I took pride in transforming the BBFC from a board of censors to a board of classification. Few cinema films are cut these days, with the numbers declining from 40 per cent in 1974 to under 4 per cent in 1998. On video, cuts are averaging about 8 per cent of the total, reflecting the stricter standards for viewing in the home where there is far less control of audience age.

But if I began by refusing to cut works of art, I learned very quickly that art had little to do with violence or sexual violence or crass commercial exploitation. Violence is still the thorniest problem: to what extent should the goal of free speech vindicate scenes of brutality and blood- letting? Even in America, judges have begun to wonder if the test of "clear and present danger" remains adequate to stem the drip-drip effect of "designer violence" on inner-city teenagers with access to guns. I'll be glad to say goodbye to the violence of contemporary films and videos.

Sex is a different matter. In the last quarter century, both the Board and the British public have begun to accept increasingly frank depictions of sex on the screen. No sexual image has been cut from any cinema film in the last 10 years, and explicit sex education tapes now cause little comment on the shelves of W H Smith. But pornographic videos that offer non-violent sex between consenting adults as an aphrodisiac are still treated as criminally obscene by the police and Customs and Excise. The Board believes such material should be classified for adults-only sex shops, and last summer the Video Appeals Committee supported this view by granting a sex shop certificate to just such a video.

The extent to which this can be treated as a precedent is the subject of much high-level debate. If this approach is disallowed, then sex entertainment will be relegated once again to the black market jungle, where pornography is mixed with violence and degradation in a manner which is scarcely conducive to a healthy society.

I have no wish to encounter pornography ever again once I leave the Board, but 24 years have not convinced me that the meagre pleasures offered by voyeuristic sex are harmful to those who seek them out, provided the sex is legal, consenting and non-violent. Society has far more important things to worry about, and we should stop wasting public money pursuing non-violent pornography through the courts.