Confessions of the film censor

'In the case of one film, the question was whether the law governing cruelty to animals in the making of films applied to fish'
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It looks as if my period as president of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) will end in the summer with a bit of a bang. Not the sort of uproar I relish, by the way, but part of the job. For our decision to give the French film Baise-moi one cut and an 18 certificate has already led to criticism even though it doesn't open until May. The story concerns two young women, low-life characters, both of whom are brutally raped. One, in partnership with a third young woman, responds by murdering a series of men whom the pair have first seduced.

While the pro-censorship lobby would have wanted more extensive cuts, if not an outright ban, there is an equal and opposite argument. For our published guidelines state: "The BBFC respects the right of adults to choose their own entertainment, within the law. It will therefore expect to intervene only rarely in relation to 18-rated cinema films."

By the law we chiefly mean two Acts of Parliament; the Obscene Publications Act 1959 and the Protection of Children Act 1978. But given that there is no legal problem in this case, the question is – why did you intervene at all? Why shouldn't adults make up their own minds?

Here, as so often, one finds that two reasonable principles clash with each other. For we view our guidelines as representing a sort of pact with the public. People have a general idea of what to expect when they go to the cinema. Accepted norms for levels of violence, sexual explicitness, bad language and the like have been established. The BBFC can see where these boundaries are. We believed that one scene in Baise-moi, with its graphic presentation of violent, non-consensual sex, was on the wrong side of the line.

Indeed the notion that has echoed in my mind since assuming responsibility for the BBFC four and a half years ago is legitimacy. I don't think it is enough to rely on precedent or on certain pieces of legislation such as the Video Recordings Act or on the fact that cinemas are obliged to follow our classification system under the terms of their licences with local authorities. These are not sufficient warrant for the exercise of our power – which is not negligible. After all, we can prevent children and young people from going to films they might wish to see and, as Baise-moi shows, we can censor a work intended for adults.

The legitimacy I am concerned to achieve, imperfect as it is bound to be, comes from opening up as many direct channels of communication with the public as possible. We began the process by codifying the BBFC's practice. Then we staged a series of public meetings around the country to explain how we conducted classification. Some of the meetings were aggressive occasions – loudly pro-censorship in Belfast, for instance, and strongly libertarian in London. We revised the guidelines in line with what we had learnt and then engaged in an iterative process – exposing the new guidelines to further meetings, to focus-group examination and to public-opinion polling.

It is easy to criticise public meetings on the grounds that the audience is generally unrepresentative of the nation as a whole and that, even if a few hundred attend on each occasion, this represents a vanishingly small proportion of the total population. None the less, they are my favourite method of communication. The very act of inviting everybody and of giving anybody who cares to turn up the chance to question what you are doing is itself a statement of accountability.

An important consequence flows. The BBFC does not have, and in my opinion should not have, a moral position of its own. I don't think it should strike attitudes. Rather, it should seek to be useful; an example of this is the way in which it helps parents to regulate the viewing of their children. It should try to base its judgements on what it can learn about public opinion. And it must observe the wishes of the electorate as expressed through legislation.

That said, the issues that face the full-time examining staff, and ultimately the president and vice presidents, can be difficult to resolve. The single video that I have found most difficult to watch was a documentary on body-piercing. You see pieces of metal being inserted into or through body parts. I had to fight to keep my eyes on the screen. Yet the activity is legal and consensual, and shouldn't cause harm. Quite a number of people have had it done. It is a familiar sight.

The mainstream film I found most difficult to assess was Lolita, based on the famous Nabokov novel, with its open espousal of paedophilia. Unfortunately, the film's makers had raised Lolita's age from 12 in the novel to 14 rising 15. That changed the dynamics of the narrative. Lolita seemed less like a child and more like a precocious teenager. And as a result the character of Humbert, the gentleman seducer, was made more sympathetic.

One gradually gets of a sense of where problems will arise. Hollywood studios test the limits of violence and bad language. British-made films for the art house circuit focus on social deprivation and may contain problematic scenes of drug abuse. Continental film-makers are more likely to try to push the boundaries of sexual explicitness. Animal cruelty comes from east Asian countries. In the case of one film from South Korea, the question was whether the law governing cruelty to animals in the making of films applied to fish. We were advised that it did.

The video market, with its ability to serve small interest groups, can pose problems concerning unconventional sexual behaviour. Indeed, I think that my successor might have to confront the question to what extent the depiction of sado-masochism on screen can be passed.

I have rarely had to deal with this. As it happens, the guidelines for material confined to sale or hire only in licensed sex shops, the Restricted 18 category, provides some allowance for mild consensual activity involving the infliction of pain, for clearly consenting role-playing games and for non-harmful fetish material. I know, even this list makes the mind boggle, or at least it does mine, but, as I have learnt, that is life as it is lived.

Perhaps I rabbit on too much about legitimacy. Recently at a dinner for people concerned with regulation of content in broadcasting, film and video, we were each asked in turn what advice we would give to the new super-regulator, Ofcom, which the Government is creating to oversee all the broadcast media except the BBC. I naturally said that it should first seek to achieve the full legitimacy that comes not only from the Act of Parliament under which the new body is being set up, but also from direct contact with viewers and listeners. Legitimacy is what I have thought about most often as BBFC president. It allows you to take hard decisions.