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20 March 2018updated 29 Mar 2018 9:39am

In trying to “protect” young people from online porn, the UK film censor is doing the reverse

The British Board of Film Classification’s arbitrary cutting and rating of mainstream movies exposes its doomed attempt to regulate pornography.

By Scott Bates

“Rude gesture.”

If you’ve been to see Marvel’s latest blockbuster Black Panther at the cinema, or are going to see the sci-fi sequel Pacific Rim: Uprising when it opens next weekend, you’ll be met by a warning before the film, stating that it contains a “rude gesture”.

This almost always means that at some point during the film, a character will give the middle finger to another.

The warning is courtesy of the British Board of Film Classification, the BBFC, the people responsible for sitting in an office in Soho Square and watching and assigning age ratings – from U (“Universal”) to 18 – to every single film and DVD released in the UK. And now they’re about to start rating every single pornographic website on the internet. Apparently.

The BBFC were founded in 1912 as an independent body to classify – and often censor – films for UK exhibition, to make sure every film could be seen by its correct audience and in some instances, protect young viewers from material deemed “harmful”.

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Their original name was actually the British Board of Film Censors – they changed to “classification” in the mid-Eighties, which, ironically, was the height of their reign of censorship.

In 1975, a UK-based American TV and theatre director named James Ferman was appointed director of the BBFC. Ferman, who had served in the US Air Force, was particularly touchy towards violence, believing violent films to be dangerous to impressionable viewers, and took it upon himself to censor any shot or scene in a film he deemed potentially problematic.

His troubles really began in 1983, with the infamous “Video Nasties” furore, during which Parliament became aware of the distribution of low-budget, grossly violent – and unclassified – horror films on a new-fangled form of home entertainment called VHS.

In a campaign spearheaded by Mary Whitehouse, the national press called for the banning of these films, which included the likes of The Evil Dead, The Driller Killer, Axe and The Beast In Heat (yes, that really is about what you think it’s about), some of which had been released heavily cut in cinemas and some of which had been banned by Ferman and co.

But because the BBFC had no regulation of video releases, even the films banned for cinema were able to be released on VHS and supplied completely legally to anyone of any age who had £2 and a local video shop.

Soon, rental shops up and down the country were being raided, people were being taken to court and, eventually in 1985, the Video Recordings Act was introduced, meaning the BBFC were going to have to classify every single video release in the UK – starting with the “nasties”.

Some distributors whose films had been banned for cinema release didn’t bother sending the videos in for classification, opting to completely withdraw the tapes from circulation (legend has it that Ferman turned off Italian sleaze epic The New York Ripper when it came in for cinema release and demanded all prints be returned to the film’s original sales agent under armed guard).

The films that did go through the BBFC for video release though often ended up heavily cut – sometimes by several minutes – in order to make them “acceptable” for the British public.

It wasn’t just cheap horror films that faced Ferman’s wrath – the “macho heroics” of the likes of Steven Seagal, Jean Claude Van Damme and Arnie also got the chop, as did anything featuring the dreaded “chainsticks”.

If you submitted a Bruce Lee or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film to the BBFC in the early Nineties, you could all but guarantee it’d be cut – the first Ninja Turtles even had to remove a book being thrown at someone.

Any easily imitable martial arts techniques were removed: throat chops, double ear-claps, neck breaks, etc. Ferman cut virtually every major action film of the Eighties and Nineties with reckless abandon (Arnie’s Eraser had three and a half minutes missing from its original video release), all in the name of protecting the public.

Twenty five years later and Ferman’s long gone (he retired in 1999 and died in 2002) and the BBFC is now ruled by a man named David Austin, who was appointed in 2012.

Seagal is more concerned about buddying up with Vladimir Putin and releasing country music these days than breaking terrorists’ backs on screen, Zombie Creeping Flesh and Night Of The Bloody Apes are long forgotten and, most significantly, society is a completely different, much more relaxed place (well, in terms of what’s considered “harmful” to impressionable young minds).

So why has the BBFC cut Jennifer Lawrence’s new thriller Red Sparrow to achieve a 15 rating?

The statement on its website regarding Red Sparrow says:

“During post-production, the distributor sought and was given advice on how to secure the desired classification. Following this advice, certain changes were made prior to submission.”

This is followed by a description of what was cut and why (“strong sadistic violence” – a garrotting, to avoid an 18 rating).

It also provides “BBFC insight” – a few paragraphs describing the film’s content (although it doesn’t actually say why this content led to the film’s rating, but most of the time it’s obvious).

This includes describing “shootings, fistfights and knife fights with resulting bloody injury detail”, “during a scene of torture, a device for removing skin is used on a victim”, “instances of sexualised and natural nudity also occur, including brief genital nudity during sequences of violence”.

So all that’s okay for 15-year-olds, but a garrotting isn’t? I’m the complete opposite of a prude (hell, one of my favourite films of the decade is Only God Forgives, rated 18 for “strong bloody violence”), it just strikes me as extremely counterproductive and quite pointless to pass all that uncut at 15 but make edits to a garrotting scene.

Clearly the BBFC is trying to be progressive – a few years ago, genital nudity during a fight scene would be instant 18 territory. But in such a violent film there’s really no point in making cuts to one scene. That’s hardly going to reduce the overall impact of the film.

The BBFC isn’t the one asking for the cuts though – that’s the distributor. This is becoming an increasingly frequent trend: distributors asking for cuts for a lower rating.

Twenty five years ago, films were being cut to protect the public from “harm”, now they’re being cut to protect children and teenagers – and so the distributor can make a few extra pennies while they’re at it.

John Cena’s animated talking bull comedy Ferdinand was cut in at least six places for a U-rating last year – it’d have been a PG uncut, which the distributor turned down, despite the phenomenal success of PG-rated family films such as Frozen, Moana and the Paddington series.

The latest Maze Runner film had reductions made to “moments of threat and horror” for a 12A, The Emoji Movie had “some mild bad language” removed for a U, and, most astoundingly, Eli Roth’s Death Wish remake was originally classified 18 uncut only to be withdrawn by the distributor and classified 15 with 14 seconds of cuts a few days later, to edit a scene of torture. Fourteen seconds. That’s apparently how long it takes for a 15-year-old to be mentally scarred. There’s a reason I said trying to be progressive.

Which brings us to the BBFC’s latest venture – regulation of online pornography. On its website, it announces:

“Under the Digital Economy Act, all online commercial pornography services accessible from the UK will be required to carry age-verification tools to prevent children from seeing content which isn’t appropriate for them.”

On 21 February, the BBFC was appointed as the regulator of online porn in the UK, meaning that it’s going to have to sit and trawl through every single adult website accessible in the UK and say whether or not it needs to be age restricted.

It doesn’t say how it expects to wade through the thousands upon thousands, making sure absolutely none slip through the cracks, just that:

“All online pornography accessed from the UK, even content hosted abroad, will be required to carry age-verification.”

This is a massive task.

It’s apparently going to be consulting the public on how to implement this. I attempted – several times – to contact the BBFC for this article, and received no response. It says that actual identification isn’t going to be necessary, just age verification.

So all you’re going to have to do is enter a date of birth and there you go, your porn star of choice doing your preferred, erm, performance.

If it’s going to be more complicated than that, surely no one will bother – most people watching online porn just want to get their rocks off instantly, not mess around entering personal details to prove they’re over 18.

The UK’s adult industry isn’t taking this news lightly. Many producers of adult content believe that it’ll seriously cut down their viewership/traffic – and no doubt it will. This scheme was supposed to come into force next month, however it’s been delayed until later in the year, probably to take the public’s opinions into account.

Nevertheless it’s a huge thing to attempt, and one that, like cutting a single scene of violence from an extremely violent film, is really completely pointless and counterproductive.

The BBFC claims, on its new role as judge, jury and executioner of online porn, that:

“As a society we put protections in place for our children until we judge they are old enough to understand and deal with the world on their own. In the offline world we wouldn’t let children have free and unsupervised access to pornography. Yet children today are increasingly living their lives online, and those same protections are not in place. Age-verification for online pornography is a logical next step to help make the internet a safer place for children.”

Here, it acknowledges that “children today are increasingly living their lives online”, so what’s the point in cutting films like Red Sparrow and Death Wish? Surely if today’s teens are so web-savvy, they’ll just get onto a dodgy illegal streaming site and watch the uncut versions?

At the end of the day, if today’s teens are living their lives online (which they certainly are), then cutting films and trying to block access to pornography are effectively a waste of time.

Terrorist execution videos, extreme gore and other genuinely horrific – and often real – material is still freely available at the click of a mouse or the tap of a phone screen.

Twitter is full of porn (and worse), yet that won’t fall under the BBFC’s regulation.

Pretty much every form of social media allows the upload of videos and livestreaming. In January 2017, the torture of a young disabled man in the US was streamed live on Facebook by his attackers.

Surely that kind of material is far more harmful to children and teenagers than simulated violence on a cinema screen, or an explicit XHamster clip on a phone?

We’re living in a constantly connected world, in which anyone can film and upload anything they want to the internet, which nobody can regulate, be it real violence, pirated films or, yep, even porn (as long as they find a website that’s not under the BBFC’s jurisdiction, of course).

Suddenly a “rude gesture” doesn’t seem so bad after all.