Leading Article: A video that goes too far

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The Independent Online
The director of the Board of British Film Classification, James Ferman, believes that he was right to grant a certificate to the now notorious Executions video, which is selling so well in the shops. His argument is that the 55-minute video (a compilation of pictures of real executions from around the world) is "within the range of discourse, polemical or otherwise, which adults in a free society should be entitled to view". Why? Because the clips of real deaths are situated in the context of a commentary which argues forcefully against capital punishment. The documentary style, he argues, is unlikely to hold the attention of children. Furthermore, much of the footage has already been seen on television. So that's all right, and Mr Ferman can get back to the serious business of cutting private parts out of feature films.

There is a great deal to be said for Mr Ferman's instincts in general. Allowing adults to decide things for themselves is a mark of a mature and free society. There is an ultra-libertarian case for saying that no censorship of any kind should exist, but Mr Ferman has powers, and uses them, to prevent some feature films being released as video, as well as drawing a line against violent films in which the participation of innocents is exploited.

In the real world children get hold of most of the videos that are available commercially. The most sensational are "lent" by older siblings, traded in playgrounds and watched when the parents are not around (or - in the worst cases - when they are). Nor is tedious contextualisation a deterrent - the fast-forward and slow-motion functions deal with those. So children will see it, repeat the most gory bits - and be disturbed by it.

It is also highly unlikely that the video (which ludicrously asserts on its cover that "only by witnessing these executions ... can you hope to decide for yourself whether execution is the punishment that fits the crime") owes its high sales to an upsurge of interest in the issue of capital punishment. It is selling because of the terrible fascination with the deaths of others that brings out the voyeur in most of us. How many copies would it have sold had the actual executions been left out?

Finally, it may be true, as Mr Ferman says, that many of these scenes have been shown on television. But he must be aware how disingenuous that argument is. Such footage could well have featured on an American tabloid channel, but you won't see it on the BBC. For some time British television has drawn the line at showing the moment of a real death, or close-ups of corpses on screen. It is felt that the horror of a moment or event can be perfectly well invoked without indulging the voyeur's need for explicit and sickening directness. And there is also a question about the posthumous dignity of the victim, destined to be killed over and over again for the entertainment (and profit) of others. Which is why Executions would not have been commissioned by, or shown on, British television. And why it should not be available for sale on the high street.