ELSPA vs BBFC

The daggers are out in a very public spat between the organisation that lobbies on behalf of the UK

The post-Byron review games industry is getting itself very worked up about regulatory frameworks.

Having commissioned the ‘Children and new technology’ review with the hope that it might provide some critical mandate for greater control of bad-technology - the surprise in government was matched only by its disappointment when Dr Tanya Byron turned in her findings.

Balanced, measured and refreshingly free from hysteria - Byron’s report affirmed many of the positive outcomes of playing videogames and singularly failed to provide the anti-games lobby with any serious ammunition. It’s strange then, that the industry has failed to seize on it as anything other than an opportunity to fight the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). Whilst Dr Byron considered many of the potential risks to children and presented a number of measures to increase protection, in the thorny issue of regulation her findings were unfortunately less conclusive.

To recap, then: BBFC, media ratings body funded by submission fees with statutory powers - PEGI, the pan-European body established and funded by the Games industry in order to regulate itself. One can probably already sense where the tensions are going to arise.

Byron called for a collaborative approach between the BBFC and PEGI combined with a period of public consultation. To move beyond the confused system we are currently working with she recommended that the organisations work closely together to devise the best system for moving forward with.

When she made these recommendations her assumption was probably that these two bodies would be able to work together, however on the evidence of recent exchanges it seems she would have had more luck organising a McCartney-Mills reconciliation.

At a recent Westminster Media Forum examining the computer games industry, regulatory framework issues was always going to be high on the agenda, although no-one expected it to feature in the keynote quite as explicitly as it did.

Having limited time available, Entertainment & Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA) director Paul Jackson used his opening keynote to make the case for PEGI and formally trash the BBFC in surprisingly emotive and unequivocal language. Jackson characterised this moment as, ‘the most biggest legislative challenge ever faced by the industry’ - that PEGI was the ‘gold standard’ and the ‘solution for today, and the solution for tomorrow’. Perhaps most explicitly, he directly accused the BBFC of simply not having the expertise to classify games. Such provocative fighting talk so early in the proceedings was a little unexpected, so it was disappointing that having drawn a circle in the dirt Jackson then had to put his shirt back on and leave for other business. The BBFC representatives sat on the back row, shaking their heads at this extraordinary attack. For ELSPA certainly, that is already not about how to best collaborate - but about aggressive lobbying to select PEGI as the existing system of choice.

In the following panel discussion, Paul Johnson, head of policy for the BBFC was afforded the right to reply - which he took with enthusiasm and delivered a robust defense. He addressed the reasons why the industry favored PEGI, ‘Industries do tend to like regulatory systems that they own and control’, before going to on vehemently reject ELSPA’s criticisms.

This continued for some time, with Times Journalist / ELSPA PR advisor Tim Wapshott describing the notion of the BBFC not ‘crying wolf’ by sometimes rating games lower than they are in Europe as ‘absurd’. Wapshott explained that this might mean an adult might be playing an adult game online with a child, clearly at situation which would be unacceptable and a wholly reasonable point. To emphasise his point, he later went on to claim that,”..at any one time there are fifty-thousand paedophiles on the internet..” Whilst not venturing to suggest how this number was obtained, everyone agreed that it was a jolly dramatic moment.

The key points were neatly rounded up by industry elder-statesman Chris Deering. In a presentation which was somehow both soulfully optimistic and apocalyptically jaded, he celebrated the artistic achievement of the industry whilst drawing everyones attention to the fact that the biggest challenge here is in the online space. If regulating the availability of static disc-based media is a huge challenge, how can either organisation possibly hope to control networked gameplay? It is of course, the same problem facing the entire online entertainment space. The problem of classification is but the beginning, the real challenge is how to practically restrict access.

Or perhaps not… On this showing the real challenge is apparently even getting the stakeholders in the regulatory discussion to talk to each other. Johnson announced that the BBFC have been trying to participate in a dialogue but that unfortunately, “ELSPA have instructed their members not to talk to us about Byron at all.”

Witnessing this extraordinary exchange, one couldn’t help but sense that we’re missing something here. Surely there must be a business development agenda here that’s being left unspoken? There must be some behind the scenes conflict that is precipitating this public showdown? Either way, this kind of display is hugely unhelpful for the industry moving forwards. The sorry affair put me in the disorientating position of finding myself agreeing with Margaret Hodge MP, who in her statement following the spat called on both parties to act in a ‘grown-up way’ in sorting this out.

Byron Review: Full Text
Byron Review: Executive Summary
BBFC
PEGI

Iain Simons writes, talks and tweets about videogames and technology. His new book, Play Britannia, is to be published in 2009. He is the director of the GameCity festival at Nottingham Trent University.
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.