The BBFC is scarier than The Dark Knight

The killjoy, censorious politicians calling on the BBFC to give the scary new Batman film a 15 certificate should grow some cojones.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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Iain Duncan Smith, former leader of the UK Conservative Party, has recently endured a rather unpleasant cinema experience.

Having taken his seat alongside his 15-year-old daughter expecting to see a movie packed with ‘surreal and comical figures’, what he actually saw was the latest Batman film, The Dark Knight. ‘It was a relentlessly violent film, filled with dark themes’, he trembled (1).

Equally frightening for Smith was the fact that the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) had only given The Dark Knight a 12A certificate, meaning that a child younger than 12 can see the film providing they are accompanied by an adult. ‘[A]s I left I wondered what the board could possibly have been thinking’, Smith reports (2). He was one of the lucky ones. Although terrified by the Joker, at least his daughter was on hand to reassure him that ‘the nasty man with the knives and lint’ was made up.

Having recovered, Smith went public with his panic in a letter to The Times (London): ‘My concern is that the [BBFC] seem to have caved in to commercial pressures and forgotten that there is a protective purpose to the classification system.’ (3)

The self-styled ‘quiet man’ of British politics has not been a lone, barely audible voice, however. Keith Vaz, the Labour chairman of the home affairs committee, has also piped up about The Dark Knight’s 12A certificate: ‘There’s a line between good entertainment and something which influences young minds… We need to be very vigilant in terms of what we do about these issues.’ (4) And right on cue the Daily Mail has been outraged: ‘Any board which can deem this suitable viewing for children lacks the moral faculties to be any kind of judge at all.’ (5)

Yesterday, shadow culture minister Ed Vaizey joined the fray: ‘We should remember that BBFC classifications are only advisory and local authorities are ultimately responsible for classifications. It would be interesting to see if any local authorities wish to use their powers for this and future films.’ (6) In other words, if the BBFC won’t restrict access appropriately, then we’ll find a body that can.

Vaizey is sort of right: it does seem as if the BBFC has abdicated its historic role as national film censors. Indeed, when the cinema industry established the BBFC in 1912, effectively as a buttress against prospective state regulation, it was actually called the British Board of Film Censors. And censor they did, with many films banned on political grounds, including Eisenstein’s Strike (1924) and Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Pudovkin’s Mother (1926).

As late as the 1960s, the BBFC was complaining about overtly political messages in films. It described the The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, the film version of Alan Sillitoe’s short story about a petty thief in Borstal, as ‘blatant and very trying Communist propaganda’, full of ‘claptrap like “All Army officers and policemen are bad and all worker”’ (7).

While the grounds for censorship may have shifted over time, from the revolutionary menace during the interwar years to sexual content during the 1950s, the BBFC’s ability to decide what was fit for public consumption remained consistent.

Indeed, if anything, its powers have increased over time. The arrival of video technology during the 1970s, and the accompanying growth of an unregulated market in low-budget horror films, so-called ‘video nasties’, saw the BBFC finally granted a statutory role under the 1984 Video Recordings Act. Renamed the British Board of Film Classification, it meant that not only every cinema film, but every video release too, had to be vetted and given what is deemed an appropriate age-related certificate. Commercially distributing a film without a classification became a criminal offence.

Enthusiastically nurtured under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, the video nasty panic captured well the elitist fear of the mob. Unsupervised, the masses would inevitably be damaged, or worse, encouraged by exposure to such films. But if such a fear underpinned the expansion of the BBFC’s powers, it also justified their draconian application. To Vaizey or Smith such halcyon days of hard censorship seem a world away, no doubt.

The BBFC’s role now is softer, more of a guiding hand than an iron fist. As its ‘vision statement’ says: ‘We give the public information that empowers them to make appropriate viewing decisions for themselves and those in their care.’ (8) The source of the current furore – the 12A certificate received by The Dark Knight – is a case in point. Replacing the original 12 certificate in 2002, which simply stopped children under 12 from watching particular films, the 12A certificate, by allowing children access providing they are accompanied by an adult, restores some degree of parental responsibility.

But to help the parent when deciding whether a film is suitable, the BBFC also issues a Consumer Advice (CA) panel with such invitations to self-abuse as ‘contains partial nudity’. Or, as in The Dark Knight’s case, the promise that it ‘contains moderate violence and sustained threat’. It seems that the less openly censorious the BBFC becomes, the more interpretation it offers. The shift from censors to classifiers has meant the BBFC has become an even more busybody institution.

The problem is that any information an external body seeks to give as explanation for a classification can’t help but contain a moral judgement – that is, a view that some material is corrupting. Whether it’s ‘scenes of a violent nature’ or, as in The Dark Knight, the cryptic ‘sustained threat’, the presumption is made that certain content is potentially damaging. The onus is then on the parent or adult not just to make a decision, but to make the correct decision.

Despite the rhetoric of empowering parents with information, the nature of the BBFC’s ‘advice’ is such that to ignore it amounts to an abrogation of parental responsibility. In other words, ‘on your head, be it’.

Moreover, in order to issue morally loaded snippets of information, the BBFC assumes, at some level, that it knows best. It is their right to intrude upon the integrity of the film, recommending a cut there, placing a warning here. While it may seem a less censorious organisation to some, the elitism underpinning its existence persists. A rag-tag mob of the unelected, consisting in the main of teachers, doctors and lawyers, the BBFC assumes that it is possessed of a greater understanding than the rest of us. While it warns of the damaging effects of depictions of intravenous drug use, its own members are forever immune to such imagery. No matter how much garrotting or anal pounding they witness, they remain congenitally unaffected. For it is not ‘us’ that are the problem, but ‘them’, the mass of multiplex-going plebs.

That only mass-media art is subject to systematic regulation betrays the elitism at the BBFC’s heart. Anyone of any age could buy the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 days of Sodom, or JG Ballard’s Crash; for films such access would seem an anathema. But it’s precisely because it’s assumed that not just anyone will seek out these books that censorship is not deemed necessary; after all, only the well educated and responsible would pop into Borders and purchase something by de Sade. But every variety of Tom, Dick and Harry – the untrustworthy masses – might pop into see The Dark Knight. The BBFC, acting as an elite and aloof in loco parentis, assumes that certain sections of society are incapable of looking after themselves.

The problem for Smith, Vaisey and Vaz is that so entrenched has film classification become that they expect such mollycoddling as a matter of course. The BBFC is nothing less than institutionalised elitism, its existence a testament to the belief that there are some who need more protection than others. Never mind calling on it to stick tougher certificates on scary films – perhaps we should issue our own ‘sustained threat’ against the BBFC, and call for its abolition?

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked

Previously on spiked

Tim Black reviewed The Dark Knight. Julian Petley attacked Labour’s censorious approach to pornography. Brendan O’Neill asked why some porn material gets chopped while others pass as art amongst the cultural elite and the censors. Barbara Hewson believed images are being fetishised. Neil Davenport argued that the more obsession with sex and sexuality becomes public, the more privacy becomes viewed as the place for perverts. Or read more at spiked issue Liberties.

(1) Dark Knight: MPs criticise 12A certificate, Guardian, 5 August 2008

(2) Dark Knight: MPs criticise 12A certificate, Guardian, 5 August 2008

(3) Batman film rating is not right for children, The Times, 5 August 2008

(4) Dark Knight: MPs criticise 12A certificate, Guardian, 5 August 2008

(5) Holy cretins, Batman, this is no family film, Daily Mail, 30 July 2008

(6) Councils should consider making Dark Knight a 15, say Tories, Guardian, 6 August 2008

(7) British Cinema and the Cold War, Tony Shaw IB Tauris, 2006 p.167

(8) See the BBFC website here

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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