There are reasons why politicians and art critics don’t mix particularly well. The Camerons of this world tend to take a hard-headed view of culture – how much it costs, its return on investment – while the Sewells focus on the joys it can offer. Often these two camps fall wildly out of sync, and such is the case with the Government’s announcement today – through Justice Secretary Chris Grayling - that prisoners will be banned from watching movies with an 18 certificate.
Here, the Government has made three grave mistakes. The first concerns the prisoners themselves. Preventing men and women who commit crimes from watching “adult” movies infantilises them in a fashion that works against any supposed process of rehabilitation. It implies their mental capacity is that of a juvenile, that whatever abuse they committed was somehow linked to a brain stuck in an adolescent stage of development, where erotic or violent impulses are harder to control. To patronise a grown adult in this way is not a good step towards helping them take responsibility.
Mistake two lies in the attitude towards film itself. It seems Grayling and co consider any movie with an 18 certificate to be a fellow of the tawdry and blood-soaked Saw series, or Hostel. This is patently absurd; but now as a result – from Belmarsh to Wormwood Scrubs – inmates will have to forego access to titles ranging from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to The Big Lebowski to Alien. We can assume these 18-rated masterpieces, inspirational in different ways, are either absent from the Grayling household or hidden behind boxsets of Friends and Pocahontas.
The third error is in linking movies that feature bad behaviour to bad behaviour itself. A ban infers that films with an 18 certificate are somehow morally damaging, or might lead to violent eruptions. This is a view shared by anxious conservatives around the world (commentators on America’s Fox News linked the Newtown massacre to violence on cinema screens), and one that, as yet, has no proof whatsoever to support it.
Few would disagree with the broad outline of Grayling’s prison reforms. A system where convicts can stay inside all day watching TV does nobody any favours. The changes proposed – whereby prisoners will have to work for their luxuries – may help those serving time to pass their sentence in a more productive fashion, perhaps even learn skills that will help them outside. But in the blanket ban on mature movies this Government, which has shredded arts funding, shows once more its galloping naivety to the value and purpose of art.