01/03/2013 10:51 GMT | Updated 30/04/2013 06:12 BST

Guidelines Not Guardians

Today the BBFC published an online survey as part of the Review of the Film Classification Guidelines. These are the published Guidelines we work to when classifying all films for cinema and DVD release in the UK. The Guidelines Review process was established in 1999, with the first published Guidelines in use by 2000. Film Critic Mark Kermode refers to the BBFC Classification Guidelines as the BBFC's contract with the public, and he's right.

People sometimes ask whether the BBFC try to lead public opinion, or to act as moral guardians. The Guideline Reviews provide the answers to those questions. Our aim is to keep in line with public opinion - in detail, and in a securely grounded way. Yes, we have expertise in film classification, but no, we do not set ourselves up as moral guardians. We aim to give the public, and especially parents, signposts and full, careful information on which to base informed viewing decisions.

We review the Classification Guidelines every four-five years and involve around 10,000 members of the public in the exercise. The Review involves both qualitative research with focus groups around the UK, as well as wider quantitative research carried out by telephone and via the online survey. All these exercises, to varying degrees of detail, ask the public to give their views on the age ratings of recent cinema and DVD releases. The Review also takes into account key issues the public repeatedly tell us are important to them, for example strong language, and threat, especially at the advisory categories of U, PG and 12A.

The Guidelines Review doesn't normally produce big changes from one review to the next, though if you extend the period to twenty or thirty years, shifts in public opinion become more apparent. They are not all one-way traffic. Over the last ten years, shifts include a greater emphasis on discrimination as a potentially category defining issue. TV series such as Love Thy Neighbour were more careless about race equality issues than is acceptable to broad public opinion today. Another shift is around attitudes to drugs, which (taking account of advances in drug misuse education) have moved away from concerns about instructional techniques to focus more on glamorisation of drug use. There has also been a shift towards a desire to give more weight to tone, particularly in borderline 12A/15 works.

If you fill out the online survey you'll see a number of films we're using to test how frequently the public agrees with BBFC age ratings. This phase of the Guidelines Review is designed to be short and snappy but to yield key information about how the accurate the public thinks age ratings are. So whatever your age, your interests, or your background, we want to hear from you.

What do I expect to come out of the Guidelines Review this time? The only reliable answer is that we will follow the evidence wherever it leads us. I certainly don't want to prejudge what we will find.

That said, I can hazard a few guesses, based mainly on feedback to us since the last Review. I don't see any signs of change in the view, taken consistently by two thirds of those consulted, that adults should be free to make their own viewing choices, provided the work isn't unlawful and doesn't pose a real harm risk. I am sure there will be detailed points about the handling of tone, threat and theme, particularly at the more junior categories, and bearing in mind the importance of key borderlines such as that between 12A and 15. There may, perhaps, be points about how we treat humour of a sort which some find hilarious and others crude. The borderline between 15 and 18 is an important one when it comes to sexual depictions, so that may attract attention. And, for language issues, there may be some focus on whether we are getting the right balance between contextual considerations, and those of frequency.

Such issues certainly don't exhaust the richness of what we find out from the Guidelines Review exercise. It really is the foundation of our classifications. So tell us what you think!

Take part in the survey