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Censorship and Regulation

How film and video content is regulated in the UK

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It is perhaps a tribute (though a backhanded one) to the power of the moving image that it should be subject to far greater censorship than any other artistic medium. Current technology makes it effectively impossible to censor the written word, theatre censorship was abolished in 1968, and there has never been any systematic regulation of other art forms - anyone seeking to clamp down on such events must mount a private prosecution, a lengthy and expensive process.

However, film and video releases in Britain are amongst the most tightly-regulated in the Western world. With only a few exceptions, every commercially-released film both in cinemas and on video will have been vetted by the British Board of Film Classification (originally founded in 1912 as the British Board of Film Censors), which applies age-restrictive classifications and, in some cases, recommends cutting or otherwise altering the film in order to conform to their guidelines.

These guidelines are based on two main factors: legal requirements (for instance, unsimulated animal cruelty, indecent images of children) and the BBFC's own policies. The latter have changed enormously over the last century, ranging from rigidly applied lists of forbidden topics to the current context-based system where artistic merit is a key factor in assessing individual films.

Though this approach has undoubtedly led to a number of important films being passed either uncut or with a milder age restriction than one would expect, it is also controversial, due to the inevitable inconsistency. Some films are treated much more leniently than others with very similar content, as a result of largely subjective judgements by a handful of people.

Contrary to popular belief, the BBFC is not a government organisation. In fact, central government has no direct involvement in film censorship beyond passing legislation affecting the BBFC's activities. Local authorities have considerably more power, including the final say in whether or not certain films can be shown, though in the vast majority of cases they are happy to accept the BBFC's verdict. Indeed, this is why the BBFC was created by the film industry in the first place.

The history of British film censorship is as much social as cultural: the reasons films were banned in the 1920s (revolutionary politics) and 1950s (nudity) say as much about the society of the time as anything in the films. It is also revealing that in an era of far greater equality the BBFC is noticeably tougher on sexual violence today than it was thirty years ago, though correspondingly much more relaxed about most other issues.

As technology develops, the BBFC's role may well become less and less significant. A side-effect of its stated commitment to greater openness is that it is now easy to find out if films have been cut in their British versions and current technology makes it equally simple to order uncut and unclassified videos and DVDs from elsewhere (such material cannot be legally sold within the UK, but there are no barriers to importation). If this practice becomes widespread enough to affect the British film industry economically, it is likely that pressure will be applied on the BBFC to reflect this.

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