Unsuitable for Childish Eyes?: By Legislation or Stealth, We Are Heading for Video Censorship, Argues Tom Dewe Mathews

Article excerpt

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. …