Censorship: New film watchdog more bothered by violence than sex

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The Independent Online
Britain's new film censor is far more concerned about violence than sex on screen. But Andreas Whittam Smith may find his tolerance of the latter tested when he faces up to his first controversial judgement on the new version of Lolita. He talked to Media Editor Rob Brown about the challenges of his new post.

Andreas Whittam Smith is, by his own admission, much more squeamish than most cinemagoers when it comes to watching films. Up to now, he has tended to avoid anything involving gore and violence.

So he had to think long and hard about abandoning this life-long policy and making a tough New Year resolution to confront all the awful images he studiously avoided for the first 60 years of his life.

"I am going to see some disgraceful things," said the new president of the British Board of Film Classification, with more than a hint of disgust in his voice.

"I will, for example, have to distinguish between varying degrees of bondage. But I hope to preserve a certain innocence and not be hardened by what I watch."

For some, this statement will confirm the "very saintly" reputation which this clergyman's son developed soon after he founded The Independent just over a decade ago and committed this title to a range of rigorous ethical policies, such as a boycott of the lobby system at Westminster, which some rival publications lampooned as pious. But Mr Whittam Smith's concern about video violence is evidently shared by a growing percentage of the British population.

His outlook is certainly shared by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who appointed him specifically to address what he saw as the BBFC's failure to respond to public concern on this issue.

"I regard this as an important job and see my prime task as helping parents to regulate their children's viewing," said Mr Whittam Smith, adding: "Rows have tended to relate to issues of violence because there is growing research evidence that violent images do affect behaviour. There is no evidence that sex on screen has the same harmful effect." He is referring to sex between consenting adults; of course, paedophilia is different, which is why he and his fellow board members will have to think long and hard before deciding what to do with the new version of Lolita, due for classification in this country in April.

"I don't know what we'll do about that one, but obviously the problem of paedophilia is at the front of many people's minds," said Mr Whittam Smith, who plans to watch the earlier adaptation of Nabokov's controversial novel before passing judgement on the latest version, starring Jeremy Irons.

Whatever decision they reach it shouldn't be too long before we are told the reasons behind it.

In a dramatic shift from away from its traditional policy, the BBFC will start to offer up a public explanation for its most controversial decisions.

The man who championed freedom of information in his time at the helm of this newspaper is strongly in favour of such glasnost: "Obviously, we can't throw every decision open for debate as we go along, or nothing would ever get classified, but we should, retrospectively leave a trail behind us, because we have quite an influence on what people in this country get to see."

He has seen three films in the past month - LA Confidential, One-Night Stand and The Full Monty - which he describes as "completely representative" of his general taste in films. Film buffs will observe that this is a fairly varied choice, but the trio have all one thing in common: none depended on extreme violence for impact.