CHAPTER TWO – The British Board of Film Classification
chapter will be looking at the BBFC to show the dilemmas they have with
setting effective guidelines. The Government has their policies and laws, but there are
vague definitions on areas of sex and pornography, so the BBFC must
proceed and draw up guidelines they deem as acceptable.
Of course not every individual agrees with these judgements, but
someone has to lay down a set of guidelines, so they can be followed.
Problems that crop up in this topic, is how far and how much a
censor can let sexual images be displayed on screen.
Also controversy is caused over whether sex is deviant or a natural
activity, and is it likely to deprave or corrupt consumers?
These questions are difficult to measure, so the BBFC lists what is
and what is not acceptable, according to theme content and age category,
which appears on each classification they make.
The basis of their list is debatable and controversial.
BBFC, ‘is an independent, non-governmental body, which has exercised
responsibilities over cinema since 1913 and over video since 1985.’
(BBFC: 25 August 2001 -- see references).
They became established because local authorities were imposing
their own restrictions, so censorship guidelines were varying immensely. The
board was bringing back an order of ‘uniformity’ (25 August 2001) and even though local authorities still had
the final say, by the 1920s it became practice for local authorities to
allow the board to take responsibility.
The BBFC set up their own guidelines for classifications stating
they reflect public opinion and running inline within the law.
These include the O.PA, V.R.A and the Children Protection Act.
This is good, but it is not mentioned how the BBFC established
public opinion prior to their national survey.
Assumptions may have been made of what the board thought the public
1951 the category ’X’ was introduced, excluding children under
sixteen. This category
involved adult entertainment, but still the BBFC felt ‘moral standards
of the public needed to be protected especially with nudity and sexual
displays.’ (BBFC: 25 August
2001). However by the 1920s
public opinion had changed; public tolerance had increased with more
acceptance towards portrayals of sex.
The BBFC revised their guidelines according to this shift of
opinion. This is one of the
many changes the BBFC has made into adapting and improving guidelines and
classifications, to move with societal trends and opinion.
The BBFC now has a completely revised ratings system, consisting of
seven classifications, from ‘universal’ which is advisory only, up to
‘Restricted 18’ that is licensed only for adults.
the BBFC classify films they take into consideration, expectations of the
public, intentions of the filmmaker, and the context of the film.
(BBFC: 25 August 2001). These
are examples of when some works that lie between two categories.
Classifications are sometimes stricter on video, as there is a
possibility of under-age viewing, which was recognised by the V.R.A.
Despite all this, the BBFC still suffer criticism from the media
and the general public, as it would be difficult to account for
everybody’s opinion. The
BBFC strive to combat this problem by giving people the opportunities to
voice their opinions, for example when they hold their national surveys.
critics’ felt the BBFC’s censorship guidelines had, ‘adopted a more
tolerant approach to classification,’
(Conrich 1998) especially with sex scenes.
Yet it was not until 1982, when the new ‘R18’ category was
implemented that the board, ‘allowed more realistic images of…sex to
reach screens.’ (Conrich
1998). The president of the
BBFC in the press conference in 2000, for the revised guidelines also
defends the point of guidelines becoming more relaxed.
‘We have the toughest guidelines in the world,’ (Smith 2000)
within the film industry. Smith
refers to the Board regulating up until eighteen and the requiring of cuts
to films that contribute to these tough guidelines.
It has also been suggested the BBFC, unlike most countries withhold
important information on films. One
critic states it is, ‘almost impossible to find out what has been
censored from films.’ (Matthews 1995). That
is until the annual report is published.
But as mentioned earlier England is one of the few countries to
have the authority to cut and censor films, so most other countries do not
even have this information to broadcast.
At the present day the BBFC have their own website dedicated to the
responsibilities and cuts made by the board.
See figure 1 below, accessed from the BBFC web site.
This table displays there is a minimal number of cuts made by the
board compared to the total number of films classified.
2000 the board undertook the, ‘most comprehensive public research and
consultation exercise that any regulator had engaged in.’
(Duval 2000). This consisted of a national survey, including 3000 people
from all-demographic groups, citizen juries and public presentations, held
in February and March 2000. The
public was asked to study the old guidelines, then was asked to voice
their opinions; on whether they agreed with these guidelines or it they
wanted more or less censorship. The feedback produced the revised
guidelines for the BBFC 2000. The
Board understands there is always going to be a shift of opinions, so the
board will continue to work to these changes.
most significant finding recorded was, ‘unless material is illegal or
harmful, adults should be able to make their own viewing choices.’
(BBFC 2000). 46% of
the national sample agreed with this latter statement.
Sex had the highest proportion in judging that the guidelines for
the portrayal of sex to be too strict, with 12% votes.
The other categories included violence, drug abuse and bad
language. ‘Public opinion
have the decisive say,’ (BBFC
2000) so the board revised the guidelines within this area.
Guidelines were drawn up for what was to be permitted at each age
category. The major
differences were at the ‘15’ and above categories.
The public felt that at the ‘15’ category, guidelines could
become more relaxed. The
board acknowledged this and suggested, as long as the context of the sex
scenes is in, ‘a loving and developing relationship,’ it would be
suitable for this category. (BBFC
2000). This still is very moralistic in defining the context of the
differences between ’18,’ (formally known as the ‘X’ category),
and ‘R18’ categories, is sex scenes ‘which do not feature explicit
images of real sex are generally passed eighteen.’
(BBFC 2000). So ‘18’s contain ‘simulated’ sex mostly.
This is a very debatable category here.
Real sex means actual sexual intercourse, but what is masturbation
categorised as? ‘R18’
videos ‘may be supplied only in licensed sex shops,’
(BBFC 2000) which in the UK total to ninety shops.
In this category sex scenes are usually more graphic, but this
category must only portray consenting sex between adults, like the
‘18’ category. The board
also will not accept, ‘activities which is degrading or dehumanising,
…the infliction of pain…[and] material that is likely to encourage an
interest in abusive sexual activity’. (BBFC 2000). The
problematic issues within these is measuring to what extent is degrading,
and determining when material reaches a point of causing unsociable
attitudes on consumers. This
latter statement is very difficult to address especially because people
will react differently when consuming this material and people’s
behaviors cannot be compared, as they are so diverse.
The BBFC have to draw this line, and keep material within this
boundary, yet even their guidelines do not distinguish what is and what is
public was still concerned with the portrayal of violence and harm, but
the BBFC have strict policies on rape and sexual violence.
‘Where the portrayal eroticises or endorses sexual assault the
Board is likely to require cuts at any classification level.’
(BBFC 2000). Another
main concern was if this material would have potential harm towards
children. Little evidence was found, but it was believed still to be
harmful. This is another
reason why guidelines may be stricter on video than film.
Again there is no real evidence, yet the board have still decided
the press conference held for the revised guidelines in 2000, an issue was
broached, that has caused dispute and received a lot of media attention in
the past. The argument that
was covered was that the liberalising of the guidelines for sex could be
contributing to the high rates of teenage pregnancies in the U.K.
In liberalising sex at lower classifications it is argued that this
material will influence consumers. The
BBFC stated, ‘we have the strictest censorship, by far – possibly in
the world…and we have the highest level of teenage pregnancies in the
U.K. I think we have to be very careful before we assume a
relationship between the two.’ (Smith
2000). However, maybe by
being over cautious and strict, this could be contributing to a sense of
shame, and therefore a silence on the topic, as it is being suggested it
is a sensitive issue. This
could contribute to the effects of pregnancy rates in the U.K.
Regulating portrayals of sex here has proven it effects outside
issues, and not just age classifications within the film and video
studying the findings from the national sample they could in fact be
biased. The results from the
BBFC annual report, displays a distinctive large proportion of the
respondents were male. The
males responded mostly by the Internet with 89%, and by postal votes with
60%. This leaves a small
percentage for females. Also
a large proportion apparent in the report were young people under
thirty-five years. These statistics displayed 73% replied via the
Internet, and 38% by post. Therefore,
females and older people may be under-represented and this could affect
the data. Where females did comment they, ‘were consistently more
likely than men to condemn guidelines as not strict enough.’ (BBFC 2000). Though
their reasons were not highlighted. When
the BBFC claim the nation want, ‘to be more flexible and open at 18
level,’ (Duval 2000) this
may not be representing the females views as an example. In Chapter Four,
an analysis is made on the primary research to attain male and female
attitudes on similar topics to those made by the BBFC in this national
is difficult to determine whether females feel this strongly on the
guidelines about sex, when there is not a representative sample of
opinions for them. It could
be argued the rules are being liberalised because young people made the
majority of the votes, so this is only what they want.
Younger people today are being made more exposed to these areas,
because of the media as one example, so they may find portrayals of sex
more acceptable or more pleasurable, or interesting.
They are not so worried about the social effects.
This age group took up the majority of the Internet sample, mainly
because they have more access and are familiar with this new technology.
However the traditional postal survey was also used, which favored
the younger generation less. All these results were merged together in the findings.
There are going to be flaws in conducting all surveys, and some have been acknowledged here. The BBFC are obviously trying to respond to any changes in attitudes, but they are facing difficulties, since these might be frequent. The BBFC rely on the public's honest opinions and will be continuing to strive to work in line with these views, but they also have legal obligations and cannot just do what the public want immediately. The public cannot be relied upon to have an accurate view of long-term effects or wider social implications. This industry is innovative, and as a result the BBFC are always going to look as if they are out of touch and behind the times.