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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.