Andreas Whittam Smith: I often wonder why swearing on TV should bother us

The British attitude to censorship is an example of our exceptionalism

The publication of updated guidelines by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) has coincided with the release of a new box set of Friends. The result is that the DVDs of the American TV series have now been given a slightly more restrictive rating, 12 instead of PG (Parental Guidance).

This minor change points to an important new development in film classification, that discriminatory language or behaviour has become an issue alongside traditional preoccupations with drugs, sex and violence. What caught the examiner's eye – or ear – was the moment when the character Rachel refers to herself as a "laundry spaz" to explain her clumsy efforts to load a washing machine. "Spaz" is a shortened form of "spastic".

The elevation of discrimination into a major concern is the biggest change in BBFC practice since I stepped down as President in 2002 after a four-year term. The new guidelines state that "potentially offensive content, relating to such matters as race, gender, religion, disability or sexuality, may arise in a wide range of works, and the classification decision will take account of the strength or impact of its inclusion". I hasten to add, however, that the BBFC does not promulgate its rules according to the beliefs or prejudices or whims of its president, its vice-presidents, its director and its staff.

Rather, changes in the criteria it uses are based on an extensive consultation with the public. This time 3,000 adults were asked whether they agreed or not with the classifications of some newly released films or DVDs. A further 4,500 members of the public completed a questionnaire. Focus groups involving 1,100 people were also used. The result is that while some people believe that film and DVD censorship is either too strict or too lax, or that there should be no restrictions at all, the system is what the British public wants.

Very well, you may say, but that suggests the British public takes a more puritan attitude to these matters than any other Western nation. Which is largely true, particularly in relation to bad language. At U, or Universal, only infrequent use of very mild bad language is allowed. At PG, that becomes "mild bad language only". At 12 the criteria state that the use of strong language (for example "fuck") must be infrequent. At 15, while there may be frequent use of strong language, aggressive or repeated use of the very strongest stuff is unacceptable. I have often wondered why swearing on screen should particularly bother us (even the BBC just announced that it is moving the watershed up to 10pm). After all, there is plenty of it about. My own household has never been an expletive-free zone. It cannot be put down to our Protestant inheritance for Scandinavians are more relaxed than we are. On the other hand, compared to us, Americans are less concerned with depictions of violence but fussier about sex. The French seem to be generally relaxed. All one can say is that the British attitude to censorship is an example of British exceptionalism.

Or British pragmatism, because the bottom line is that parents like to be able to use a reliable method of supervising what their children see in cinemas and watch on the family DVD player. However, given that, a further question arises. Why does the Board occasionally make cuts in or even reject films and DVDs rated at 18, which in effect means "adults only"?

I found this a difficult question when I had the responsibility. I was fully signed up to the libertarian credo, so in its first published guidelines the Board stated that it respected the right of adults "to choose their own entertainment within the law". Yes, but when an 18-rated film in the cinema becomes a DVD which teenagers may be able to watch, what then? Intervention is likely to be more frequent.

My guidelines, if I may call so them, stated that the Board might cut of reject "any detailed portrayal of violent or dangerous acts which is likely to promote the activity". It would also cut or reject "the more explicit images of sexual activity unless they can be exceptionally justified by context". The new guidelines published this month build on this position, but they spell out more carefully what is questionable – for example, portrayals of sexual or sexualised violence that might "eroticise or endorse sexual assault".

In practice, when I was asked to watch a film seeking an 18 rating that the examiners thought might require intervention, I asked myself a simple question: would this sort of thing cause people to walk out of the cinema when they saw it? And sometimes, in my judgment, the answer was yes. In such cases, there would have to be cuts or the work would be rejected.