The British Board of Film Classification is an interesting creation – a privately funded, not-for-profit, part-voluntary, part-statutory, regulatory body.
Its predecessor organisation was set up in 1912 following a number of cinema fires involving highly flammable cellulose nitrate cinema film. Local authorities were given the right to license cinemas so as to ensure the safety of audiences, but they started withholding licences from cinemas showing films of which they disapproved. The authorities became literally scissor happy, and they started making many inconsistent decisions, so the still young movie industry set up what is now the BBFC in the hope and expectation that the new body’s decisions would generally be accepted by local authorities – which they were. It now classifies around 1000 films and over 8000 DVDs each year.
The classification process is still voluntary, and the BBFC’s age certificates (12A, 18 etc.) have limited legal significance. Their power derives from the fact the cinema's licences generally requite them to restrict admission in line with the BBFC's classifications. So if they let a younger person in to watch an 18 rated film, for instance, they could lose their licence.
Th BBFC is subject to the Video Recordings Act 1994 which requires it to have ‘special regard … to any harm that may be caused to potential viewers or, through their behaviour, to society by the manner in which the work deals with: criminal behaviour; illegal drugs; violent behaviour or incidents; or human sexual activity ’. (Harm has been held, in the courts, to include moral harm and desensitisation.) But individual councils can nevertheless – and occasionally do – ignore the BBFC’s advice. If it is to be effective, therefore, the BBFC has to be trusted, and yet it is not subject to elective oversight.
The BBFC also has to recognise that, if it refuses a certificate, the film will anyway most likely become available on the internet. And it no longer classifies computer games. These are considered by a pan-European body. But Netflix has chosen to have its output classified by the BBFC, although it had no legal obligation to do so.
Another challenge, of course, is that the BBFC has to make some very tricky judgement calls. In assessing the likelihood of ‘harm’, how does unreal violence compare with real violence? And with pleasant/unpleasant sex? And with bad language, generally reflecting reality?
The BBFC’s answer to all these challenges has been to become more transparent and consultative, including consulting teenagers to whom (or to whose parents) its advice is being issued. It has also begun to issue more detailed guidelines for film makers. Its general stance is that it is neither dragging behind nor leading – but simply reflecting public opinion.
But is this what a regulator ought to do? Ought it not to have views of its own, having taken advice from experts such as those knowledgeable about child development? Is the BBFC’s stance not a surrender of leadership? What is the point of regulator if it merely flaps in the breeze of public opinion?
But if it were to take a strong leadership role, would it not appear patronising? Should it try to judge how much gore/sex/swearing an audience can take? Would such a consideration be nanny-ish or responsible? Can it really say, in effect, that ‘It is OK for us to watch this - but imagine the effect on others'?.