Why The BBFC May Not Be Perfect, But It's As Good As It Gets

The typically low-key British Board of Film Classification found itself in the headlines this week and, consequently, the thorny issue of censorship was the subject of debate in both the tabloid and broadsheet press at their own unique levels when The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) was denied certification. There was an unusually shrill response- not this time from the moral reactionaries of the Daily Mail and their like- but from the libertarian left, among whom there was a- perfectly serious- lamentation for the stifling of art. A description which Tom Six- the film€™s affronted director- may well subsequently come to regard as his very best review. Never the less, the hyper-sensitivity regarding censorship by the BBFC by artists and critics alike is fuelled by a history of newspaper led Moral Panics and religion based attacks on freedom of expression that had previously been pandered to by politicians seeking short-term boosts to their popularity, most notably under previous Conservative governments. The last time this occurred, of course, was in 1984 when the BBFC€™s classification system was introduced in order to address worries- or, occasionally, hysteria- which were the consequence of the release of films on VHS depicting sex and violence. This brought about the list of €œVideo Nasties,€ which made the supply of such supposedly depraved or corrupting materials a criminal offence. Since then, the BBFC has been subject to wholesale reform from within, and much of its attribution of certificates is based around slightly more nebulous concepts of potential audience outcomes, rather than blunt moralising and, ultimately, the number of films denied certification is very few. What the BBFC does, however, is depoliticise the nature of certification, as it has acted on behalf of the home office- ultimately responsible for ethical standards in media- without interference since 1984, meaning that it hasn€™t had to be responsive to whichever reactionary fad maybe peddled by the right-wing press at any particular time. There is, for example, a current populist movement being led by notorious Tory MP Nadine Dorries, who is enjoying the sort of religious crusade against the €œsexualisation of children€ in both parliament and the Daily Mail with which we typically associate our more primitively inclined Trans-Atlantic cousins. However, in practise, the BBFC€™s role in managing the particular knee-jerk irrationalism of special-interests is generally a positive one, in that artists are, broadly speaking, free to realise their vision to the extent where- aside from the pornographic glorification of sexual violence, or unsimulated acts of cruelty to children or animals- they are free from the interference of moralising politicians. This, even in the 21st century, is not an unremarkable achievement. The BBFC€™s task is often a thankless one for, whatever decision reached; there will be a narrow or specious sensibility it has the capacity to offend. Each year the BBFC produces a report detailing, among other things, ongoing issues and discussions in the process of certification for theatre and home viewing. In this report, is summarises the sort of concerns that individual members of the public- or lobbying bodies- direct to it. Some are predictable, often they advance a censorial or moralistic agenda and- equally frequently- they are either comical or nothing to do with the BBFC whatsoever. Among the complaints received by the organisation in 2010 included the awarding of the 12A certificate to Christina Aguilera €œvehicle€ Burlesque, as X factor viewers €œappalled€ by the singers performance on the show, believed it would encourage 12 year olds to become strippers- none had, in fact, seen the film. Slightly more peculiar concerns were voiced by one viewer of the film Scouting For Boys in which several children chase sheep; said person considered that this would encourage teenagers to visit his farm from towns with the express purpose of worrying his animals. This charmingly naïve anxiety about the habits of modern British adolescents was dismissed as €œwe (the BBFC) did not think imitation was a serious risk in this case.€ Somewhat less amusing, though no less bizarre, complaints were made about the depictions of magic in children€™s- or, indeed, teenager€™s- films including the likes of Disney€™s The Princess and the Frog and the St Trinian€™s sequel, in which a comedy €œdemonic possession€ angered one viewer sufficiently that she demanded that all such acts be reserved for films with an 18 certificate. Regressive attitudes to sexuality were well represented among the list of complaints, with two 15 certificate film€™s in particular drawing the homophobic ire of a small section of the public, namely The Kid€™s are Alright and Jim Carey€™s I Love You Philip Morris. All complaints of this nature are uniformly rejected by the BBFC on the grounds that it does not discriminate on the basis of sexuality, therefore the explicitness of a particular scene, and its context, will determine its certification, rather than audience prejudices. In all, this evidence serves to illustrate the difficulty of the BBFC€™s position in determining whether or not a film is fit for sale or viewing in licensed theatres. And while, ultimately, censorship can always lay itself open to charges of limiting freedom of expression, recent history has shown the BBFC to be an ostensibly impartial, sober and progressive organisation. The number of film€™s it rejects are ultimately very few, and always accompanied by lengthy, detailed and reasonable analysis- of which the Human Centipede sequel is a case in point. More importantly, its guidelines serve to allow artists as much leeway as possible whilst still keeping more reactionary political forces at arm€™s length, so that moral crusaders like Nadine Dorries or, previously, Mary Whitehouse, may stifle expression to suit their reactionary agenda. The BBFC may not be perfect, but it€™s about as good as it gets.
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