`Crash' tackling

The censors' scissors have been working overtime this year, in what is seen as a heavy-handed response to government pressure. Robert Verkaik looks at a legal quagmire

The film censorship laws in this country are enjoying something of a revival. Civil liberty lawyers believe that bans on the films Crash and Visions of Ecstasy is evidence that we are in for a prolonged bout of politically instigated censorship - the same sort of moral outrage which followed the Oz trial in the 1970s and the stage play Romans in Britain in the l980s.

The British Board of Film Classification, which originally invoked the law of blasphemy to censor Visions - a portrayal of St Teresa of Avila in erotic scenes with Christ - has just reported to the Home Secretary with its findings on the levels of violence on video.

The close relationship between Michael Howard and the BBFC's director, James Ferman, worries many lawyers.

Frank Panford, a barrister with Doughty Street Chambers, the human rights lawyers, used to be one of the board's senior examiners. Between 1984 and 1990 he watched hundreds of films and reported back on issues of classification. Now he advises film-makers and distributors on how to get around what he says has become a maze of secret classification criteria.

He believes the current censorship crackdown stems from the Government deliberately putting pressure on the BBFC. When he first worked for the board he remembers an era of more liberal interpretation. "Now," he says, "they pride themselves on being tough on film issues. James Ferman will treat Michael Howard inviting him to report on violence on screen as a signal to get even tougher."

Adds Mr Panford: "Every time things become problematic we start careering towards social causes and pick on a folk devil to attribute all evil." The folk devil chosen this time, says Mr Panford, is sex and violence on the screen.

Mark Stephens, of Stephens Innocent, represented Visions of Ecstacy film- maker Nigel Wingrove. He shares Mr Panford's concerns: "The BBCF has become the poodle of the Home Secretary. It's surrendering to political values by giving in to greater political interference."

Mr Ferman sees it rather differently, insisting: "We are our own masters. We have never taken advice from the government on any decision at all."

Nevertheless lawyers believe it is the board's role as video film censor which has blurred the line between government censorship and the board's independence. This relationship was created by the 1984 Video Recordings Act which empowered the Board to carry out statutory classification.

Mr Panford describes the Act as "an overreaction to a few bad videos".

Counters Mr Ferman: "We carry out our statutory duties independently and if Parliament is unhappy with us they can de-designate us." Mr Ferman is keen to remind people that this year the board passed Natural Born Killers on video, in spite of a public furore over fears that it incited copycat killing.

"We checked up on every single allegation that it had led to crime, I even spoke to the FBI, and we could find no evidence that could stand up to analysis."

Nevertheless, the board has refused film certificates on six occasions this year - one of the highest numbers in recent times.

The film censorship laws in this country are still based on the Cinematography Act of 1909 introduced to provide for the "health and safety" of audiences frequenting the first picture palaces during the golden age of silent cinema.

"Film content" also came within this definition of health and safety, and was, at first, left to the discretion of local authorities. Since then councils have deferred classification decisions to the BBFC, still retaining the right to censorship in their own name. The 1909 act was consolidated in the Cinemas Act of 1995 but the provisions remain the same. Nowadays most councils are still happy to let the board handle the controversial business of film censorship.

Not Westminster City Council. Last month its licensing committee decided David Cronenberg's film Crash, which includes scenes of sex with car crash victims, was too much. So they banned it before the BBFC had even had a chance to look at it.

Mr Panford says Westminster, which looks after all the West End cinemas, was acting well within its powers but has made it very difficult for the BBFC - which has called in all its examiners to look at it - to come to an apolitical decision.

Other councils which have taken similarly courageous action include Glasgow where it's still illegal to show Monty Python's Life of Brian, and Runnymede which banned the same film although it didn't have a cinema in the borough.

Last month's decision by the European Court of Human Rights to uphold the BBFC's ban on Visions of Ecstasy exposed further contradictions in the laws of censorship.

Mr Stephens insists the real reason the court supported the board's decision was not because of the film's perceived blasphemous content but because of a change in the political climate. Last year a number of cabinet ministers expressed their concern about a string of human rights decisions which had gone against the UK - the most newsworthy was a finding against the UK over the shooting of the IRA activists in Gibraltar by the SAS.

Mr Stephens says the Visions decision has re-established the 13th-century law of blasphemy which was last publicly prosecuted in 1922.

Says Mr Stephens, a practising Christian: "The law of blasphemy reinforces religious intolerance and religious apartheid because it discriminates in favour of the Church of England against all other religions."

He says that as part of his role as legal adviser he had to sit through the film 20 times and not once did he find it blasphemous. "St Teresa was a Carmelite nun who was beatified for having stigmata and experiencing psychic sexual visions of Christ. The film reflects this and not even the Church is calling for a prosecution under the blasphemy law."

In Mr Stephens' view there is no doubt we are going through a period of increased screen censorship. "I am getting more and more censorship type cases. In fact in the last 18 months there has been a veritable flood."

Both lawyers would like to see the board adopt a more independent stance. After all, says Mr Stephens, it was set up as a self-regulating regime for the film industry.

Mr Panford advocates wide-scale reform. He says because the board does not publish reasons for its decisions it's impossible to determine how consistent they are. He also believes the criteria the board uses to decide classifications should be published. "You can't challenge decisions if you don't know the criteria. When asked they tend to say things like `we looked at everything in the round'. It's just a nonsensical forelock-touching mentality."

Mr Ferman denies the board's decisions are veiled in secrecy. "Anyone can ring us up at any time and ask us for our reasons. We haven't refused anyone that"n

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