Classifier or Censor? The BBFC at Work
The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is a rather strange animal: a classifier which is also a censor, a private organisation which also, in the case of films on DVD, has statutory powers, and an independent body which is nonetheless answerable to a government department, namely the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. How these arrangements developed, and how they affect the day-to-day operations of the Board, will be one of the subjects of this presentation.
However, in order to understand how film and DVD classification/censorship operates in the UK, it is necessary to know not simply how the BBFC works but also to understand the various factors which it has to take into account when classifying and censoring. Foremost amongst these are the powers of local councils to censor films shown in the cinemas within their jurisdiction; indeed, it was their very frequent use of these powers in the early days of cinema which caused the industry to create the BBFC in the first place, in order to try to persuade the councils that the industry itself would not allow the distribution of films which they might find unacceptable. As councils still retain their censorship powers, the BBFC must ensure that it exercises its judgement in a way that will retain their trust and confidence and will not encourage them to act as censors themselves.
Second, the BBFC must take care that the films which it passes to do not infringe laws such as the Obscene Publications Act or the Protection of Children Act and, in the case of DVDs, the Video Recordings Act. Third, the BBFC has to take into account public opinion, as well as a press which is all too prone to speak as if on behalf of public opinion. The British press, as recent events have demonstrated, jealously guards its own freedom but, unfortunately, has all too often used this freedom to argue for the censorship of other media, and of film and video in particular.