March 03, 2008

Film Classification

Over at the cornerstone blog, Julian Brazier, the Conservative MP, has called for a tightening of the law on Video Nasties. He describes his bill in this passage

My bill aims to make the British Board of Film Classification accountable to Parliament. It would give a Parliamentary committee the power to review and veto key appointments and the guidelines the BBFC works to. It would also introduce a new Parliamentary appeal against videos - at the moment the only appeals allowed are by the industry in favour of them. In Australia anyone can appeal.
I can see what he wants to do and appreciate why. Films have an effect on their audience- and if they didn't, they wouldn't be made. I have said before that I think we worry far too much about sex and too little about violence in the cinema- but also Mr Brazier needs to worry about context. I've said before that in some films violence is clearly indefensible but in some films, it is neccessary to make a point or to illustrate something that I need to see. For instance, the film Downfall is so powerful because it shows the violence produced as a result of Hitler's unreal refusal to surrender, Saving Private Ryan's realism illuminates the horrors of even a virtuous war, Goodfellas demonstrates the poverty of life as a mafiosi through the use of violence: other films use graphic sexual content to make points- I've just seen the Bertolucci film- the Conformist- where the sexual relations between a man and his wife and mistress illustrate the fundemental realities of Fascism. Context is all important in deciding what kind of violence or sexual image is being used and whether it should be banned.

But is Parliament the right place to handle this kind of issue. Mr Brazier forgets, what Conservatives in the past would never have forgot, that Parliament has defects as well as perfections. MPs often react on the basis of an emotive tabloid headline and not from a reasoned appreciation of the issues. Furthermore Parliament is overloaded with business at the moment- it often spends far too little time on major issues- and probably wouldn't have the time to really consider this kind of thing adequately. Parliamentary oversight, if it meant anything, could easily lead to a more puritanical restatement of what we already have- which is not the direction I think we need to go in. I think we need to adjust the balance between violence and sex and also need to adjust the balance against purposeless nudity or violence on screen- Parliament is more likely to keep the balances the same in all instance and tighten up. And furthermore it is likely to do that on an adhoc basis- paying attention only when the media pays attention. There is a whole argument about standards of censorship- but I'm not sure that Parliament is the appropriate place to make decisions about the minutiae or hear appeals.

Furthermore in setting guidelines, I think its right to err on the side of liberty. The problem is that MPs are more likely to err on the side of caution and make the guidelines stricter than they need be. I wonder whether the natural authoritarianism of politicians and the press might create a real problem here of censorship- it would be a real loss if for instance Casino or Goodfellas were not allowed to be shown in the UK because of the decision of various members of Parliament. Of course this is an argument against all regulation- and it doesn't work all the time- but speech is a central and important freedom, without which democracy becomes difficult to secure. It isn't easy to censor speech- that's why personally I prefer a voluntary code that says more about who can watch a film (depending on age) than on what everyone should watch. This is not an easy issue- but I'd prefer that we have to endure a couple Hills have Eyes Two, if the choice is between that and Parliamentary regulation of what can be said on film, lets err on the side of free speech.