The BBFC’s Lust For Power Has No Limits

The latest self-serving study by the BBFC is another exercise in manipulation and nudge-policy towards having everything we see under their control.

The British Board of Film Classification would love nothing more than to have absolute control over everything that you are allowed to see. It’s not just about the money, though of course the money helps keep them in their very expensive Soho Square offices and ensures that while officially a non-profit organisation, everyone involved does very well out of it. It’s more about the power – the belief (and I think that they genuinely do believe it) that they know better than everyone else, including other global censorship boards, what is suitable for viewing, and by whom.

Unfortunately for the BBFC, streaming services, television broadcasters and other online video outlets have not all chosen to use the BBFC to vet their content. Some apply their own versions of the BBFC ratings (declaring films to be suitable only for over 12s, over 15s or over 18s), some just issue generic content warnings and some do nothing at all. The very worst offenders actually use the rating systems of other countries, applying the standards of Johnny Foreigner to good old Blighty.

To counter this, the BBFC have engaged in a fairly relentless war to win over public opinion and, more importantly, pressure the assorted miscreant platforms into compliance or, better yet, the government into making BBFC ratings obligatory. This week, the latest salvo in this war came as the BBFC announced the predictable results of a new bit of research in which concerned parents agree wholly with everything the BBFC say.

Blue Valentine

Some 4102 adults – of which 875 were parents – were shown a series of film clips and asked which of two ratings they agreed with. Although they were not told which rating was which, the choice was between a BBFC rating and a Dutch rating from the national NICAM regulator. The viewers then had to choose which rating they agreed with, and for what reason. All sounds reasonable. The films, should you care to ponder the results, were Blue Valentine, Reinventing Marvin, To The Bone, T2 Trainspotting and O.J. Made in America.

But there’s a problem with showing clips out of context, that the BBFC will acknowledge under different circumstances. A minute or two of a film, shorn of context, might seem a lot more shocking than it would within the movie as a whole – we have no idea what the clip means, how it represents a story, what the message might be. It’s a meaningless exercise. Survey participants were also warned that the clips “contain depictions of sex, sexual violence, eating disorders and drug misuse, as well as graphic bloody images of murder victims which some people may find disturbing’, which seems less a trigger warning and more a way of alerting viewers to the content that they are supposed to find problematic. Of course, if the clips are foreshadowed as being upsetting – with participants asked if they are happy to continue or wish to drop out – then it is likely that they will go for a higher age rating when given the choice. That’s just human nature. Had there been no warning (and the fact that it was a study from the BBFC surely should’ve been warning enough), things may have been different. This is ‘nudge’ policy at its most insidious – setting people up to give you the answers that you want. Between 74% and 94% of participants not only agreed with the BBFC rating (always, you might care to note, the higher rating), they also correctly identified why – from a list of issues such as sex, sexual violence, drug abuse etc – those ratings were given. Well, fancy that.

In a series of not at all leading questions following the clip viewing, people were asked if they trusted the BBFC ratings over some foreign system from countries with ‘different sensibilities’ – well, you can imagine the response there. Similarly, the BBFC ratings of U, PG, 12, 15 and 18 were much preferred to the Dutch ratings of All, 6, 9, 12, 14, 16 and 18 – though surely if parents want absolute guidance about age suitability, the Dutch ratings are actually much more thorough. Some 54% felt concerned about these feckless foreign standards being applied to Britain, while others felt angry (21%), nervous (16%) and confused (15%). What percentage of Britons feel angry, nervous or confused about anything a bit foreign is open to debate of course, but I suspect it’s not that much different. In any case, asking people to choose between good old British censorship and some unknown and morally bankrupt European version that they know nothing about is always going to be a foregone conclusion.

People in Britain are certainly familiar with BBFC ratings. But they changed them all in the early 1980s, when the old A, AA and X were replaced, and they’ve tinkered with them ever since – the addition of the 12, the reworking of that into the 12A and such. People can probably cope with different systems, just as they seem to with video game ratings. What’s more, the ratings of individual films have been changed – up or down the age rating – so often by the BBFC that the idea of consistency is a bit of a joke anyway.

Finally – no one in this survey seems to have been asked if they thought films should be cut or banned from viewing, even for adults – but make no mistake, that’s what will happen if the BBFC gets its grubby little paws on everything from Netflix to iPlayer to Talking Pictures TV.

Every BBFC study reaches the exact conclusions that the BBFC wants it to and this is no different. But it’s meaningless propaganda, aimed at manipulating people into believing that only the film censors stand between us and total anarchy. The increase in platforms should be signalling the end of the line for the Board, not allowing them to consolidate their power even further.

Feel free to look at the survey results here.

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  1. Remember when the government wanted the BBFC to police online porn and whether people were of a suitable age to watch it?

    That went well didn’t it?

  2. There is a certain irony that the streaming services have basically undermined the primary argument for the Video Recordings Act and the BBFC’s cut happy censorship. I Spit on Your Grave (both ’78 and remake), Emanuelle in America, Bare Behind Bars, and others have all made their way to online services in their unmolested form and the horrors of social decay have not yet happened.

    One might argue that not drawing attention to them with some silly list of ‘nasties’ or moral panic campaigns from dust-covered religious types has meant that their existence on the platform has gone unnoticed… just as most of those banned movies would have if Mary W and the National Busybodies Association kept their silly mouths shut in the first place.

    Of course, the fact that the BBFC’s position is being so thoroughly undermined by the world of on-demand cannot go unanswered by our Soho-based thought police. With the VRA looking increasingly redundant as physical media sales plummet in favour of the convenience factor, it’s not surprising that they’re resorting to type and trying to drum up yet another moral panic to extend their remit into the 21st Century.

    Alas, I sadly fear they’ll be successful. Ofcom’s hands-off approach works for those of us who believe that even the most questionable ‘art’ should be free from the overbearing influence of the Nanny State, but too many are still too reactionary to carefully curated ‘research’ papers and terrifying statistics warning of generations of doomed children.

    In an ideal world, parents would have the resources made available to them to properly vet material and decide for themselves based on their own children’s maturity whether certain content is acceptable for them. Those of us who have reached that arbitrarily magical number of 18 would not be required to care any more for what the BBFC or some reactionary self-appointed Morality Officer thinks. Streaming services would be required to provide appropriate labelling based on an easily understood set of guidelines regarding nudity, violence, language, and other common areas of potential distress or offence. The sum total of which would be simple individual responsibility.

    The BBFC targets the loud minority of people who want to outsource personal responsibility to others. The type of person who doesn’t want to own their errors of judgement, and who thinks the world should be specifically tailored to their moral views, their sensibilities, their hang-ups, and their individual squeamishness. That special type of person who thinks the world is to blame for their mistakes, and that only their narrow-minded moral righteousness could possibly be appropriate.

    I dare say that inserting a faux-nationalist supremacy into their appeals for validation and relevance is perhaps the most cynical tactic they’ve chosen to use over the last few years. To weaponise such is a telling statement about their own moral failings, but then, it is to be expected. Behind the amiable facade of concern lies nothing more than the beating heart of an authoritarian desperate to assert whatever power it can grasp with its grubby mits.

  3. Showing clips out of context is a deliberate piece of hypocrisy, no doubt designed to get the reaction they want. I’ve got 18 rated DVD’s, where the film is only rated 15 but the DVD get’s the higher rating justified by the BBFC on the basis the trailer shows drug taking out of context, i.e. does not show the ‘negative consequences’ they claim will prevent people between the ages of 15 and 18 from taking drugs.

    Personally I find the 12/12A rating a joke, the pencil in the eye scene from The Dark Knight is far more disturbing than the eye scene from Zombie Flesh Eaters, despite the latter being far more graphic in its depiction. I think partly because the former is the action of a human, albeit a psychopathic one, whereas the latter is effectively an unreal force of nature. But largely because, if your concern is understanding consequences, then the former totally fails to show that, simply showing a man lying on the table, whereas the latter makes it very clear it’s a painful death.

    As for what guidance is given, it’s nigh on impossible to judge what it actually means, I’ve had films labelled with nudity that turns out to be women in underwear, films not labelled with nudity that have full nudity. Violence can mean anything from a single fight to full on gore. That’s when they don’t use the default ‘suitable for people x age and over’. How many people actually bother to look at the BBFC website to check full details, assuming it does contain the relevant spoiler filled details, which can be hit and miss.

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