Unsuitable for childish eyes?: By legislation or stealth, we are heading for video censorship, argues Tom Dewe Mathews

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The Independent Online
NEXT year the world will celebrate the centenary of the moving image. In Britain, however, the party could become a wake. For today MPs will decide whether to adopt a censorship law that would halve the number of films available for home video viewing.

With the support of 200 MPs from all parties, the Liberal Democrat David Alton is seeking to create an 'Unsuitable for Home Consumption' category, which would ban any videos falling within the definition. On first sight this amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill seems a laudable attempt to shield children from images they cannot comprehend, let alone reject. But the effect would be to inflict wholesale censorship on film-goers.

Various video titles have already been banned under the Unsuitable for the Home clause of the Video Recordings Act 1984. But the Alton amendment introduces two new tests for the censors: first, no film would be allowed to contain 'degrading or gratuitously violent scenes liable to cause psychological damage to a child'; and, second, no film would be permitted 'to present a child with an inappropriate role model'.

In strict technical terms, the effect of the first test would be to shift films from the purview of the Obscene Publications Act, in which the context of the movie's offending material is taken into consideration, to the common law offence of indecency, in which a single image can be prosecuted for being 'likely to cause harm'. A question on which social scientists have yet to agree a satisfactory answer would thus be decided by jury in a court of law.

But Mr Alton does not believe the courts should be the last resort. 'Once the principle (of damage) has been accepted by Parliament,' he told the magazine Sight and Sound, 'it will be up to the British Board of Film Classification to develop a code of practice to implement the principle.' In other words, the BBFC would pre-empt the need for possibly offensive videos to be prosecuted.

Before Mr Alton shunts this ethical conundrum on to the shoulders of the censors, he might care to note this: James Ferman, director of the BBFC, is the person most responsible for the legal change that removed films from a law of indecency - where they were repeatedly convicted during the early Seventies - to the Obscene Publications Act, where no BBFC-certificated film has ever been successfully prosecuted. Thus the man who in 1975 repudiated the principle that separated single images from their film context would henceforth be responsible for applying exactly that principle.

Leaving to one side what can or cannot cause harm, it is true that Mr Alton's secondary suggestion, shielding children from unsuitable role models, could be enforced by the film censors. But it would produce some outlandish results. For instance, children's adventure stories such as Aladdin and The Jungle Book seize the popular imagination not only by the derring-do of their heroes but also because of the manipulative charm of their villains. Might we perhaps see a reinstatement of the BBFC's decision in 1938 to raise the 'U' certificate of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to an 'A' ('15' in today's classification) because of the evil spirits in the film's 'scary forest'?

Supposing this amendment were to be passed, how would the British film industry react? Apart from lost sales due to the withdrawal of upcoming video titles, approximately 12,000 video tapes would have to be resubmitted to the BBFC. After the Video Recordings Act 1984, it took the BBFC two and a half years to certificate 6,000 titles; on that basis the British video industry would have to sit on its hands for the next five years.

A slimline industry might survive, but the same cannot necessarily be said for the BBFC. At the end of last year Mr Ferman gave all his examiners notice in the hope of tightening up the BBFC's stance on sex and violence. None of the new examiners due to start at the beginning of next year has been recruited, yet alone trained. How would the new censors handle a five- fold increase of their workload? 'They wouldn't,' a current examiner commented. 'They'd go under.'

Even if, as is likely, David Alton's amendment fails today, that does not mean his censorship campaign will also have failed. The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, has promised to 'take a tougher line' on so-called 'video nasties'. The video industry has already informally indicated that to avoid further legislation, it would, if necessary withdraw, all horror titles from the video stores.

In recent weeks representatives from the Home Office have been spotted at the BBFC's offices in Soho Square, and this downward political pressure has in turn affected the decisions of the board's examiners. Under a new, unacknowledged policy, known within the BBFC as 'top drawer' censorship, various films that have been passed for video by the censors assigned to examine them have not been issued with certificates; instead, they have ended up in a cubbyhole in Mr Ferman's office.

To appreciate how Mr Ferman's 'top drawer' stratagem opens and shuts on particular films, take the James Bulger case. Last spring four violent films were poised for release. More by luck than judgement, the British distributors of two of them - the Belgian black comedy Man Bites Dog and the thriller Romper Stomper - submitted applications for video certification soon after their film ones, and thereby narrowly missed the moral panic that was gathering momentum over Child's Play 3.

But this was not the case with the two others. Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant and Quentin Tarrantino's Reservoir Dogs both gained uncut film certificates (as well as praise from the head censor). Both were also passed uncut on video, but before they could be released the public furore erupted over the Bulger killing. In such a climate the BBFC could not be seen to be putting any more 'violence into the nation's living-rooms'. Those two films, which, in the words of Mr Ferman, 'simply happened to be around', were consigned to the top drawer.

They have recently been joined by Mikey, in which an adopted child kills off his newfound family; The Good Son, in which an evil teenager involves a second child in an attempted murder; Strapped and Menace II Society - both of which are set in black American ghettos. Thus the censor's net widens.

Ironically, the surest and quickest way to put a stop to this burgeoning unaccountable censorship would be to vote for David Alton's unworkable and therefore self-destructive amendment. But that, unfortunately for supporters of freedom of expression, is something the Government realises all too well.

Tom Dewe Mathews's 'Censored: The Story of Film Censors in Britain' is published by Chatto & Windus on 11 July at pounds 14.99.

(Photograph omitted)