What's it like to ban a film? When I used to deal with asylum cases, the courts said we had to exercise "most anxious scrutiny." It's a bit like that, however inexact the parallel. Freedom of expression is a strong human right, and it always needs a powerful balancing case to justify cuts or bans. The main instrument we use these days is the age classification system rather than censorship. And we've repeatedly found at the BBFC that the public overwhelmingly believes that, at the adult level, people should be free to choose whether or not to see a film, with only limited exceptions.
At university, I remember a week spent studying JS Mill, and the Hart-Devlin debate. By some quirk of scheduling, history, law and philosophy students were all doing this at the same time. It gave us plenty to argue about. But I didn't imagine then that I would ever find myself clicking the Reject Button on a BBFC computer screen.
The case which recently highlighted this issue is that of The Human Centipede 2. Here's our press release explaining the decision.
The distributors have said they intend to appeal to the independent Video Appeals Committee. The surrounding discussion has tackled some profound issues of public policy.
It's quite true that some countries, such as the USA and Sweden, have no banning power. However, a rating such as the US NC17 can be very close to a ban, because its commercial effect is to limit distribution very severely. The BBFC must work with the remit it has, rather than with the remit some might think it ought to have. Our rejection power is used sparingly, in, typically, two or three cases a year.
Many argue that the internet makes rejection irrelevant, or even a sort of advertisement. I see the force of this, but don't agree. Few laws achieve 100% enforcement. That was certainly true of film classification long before the internet arrived. It makes a real practical difference if a film unsuitable for classification is not available through, say, cinemas and shops. The determined may seek to obtain it through the internet, running whatever risks may arise. But rejection still achieves a benefit worth having if the vulnerable, perhaps young children, are not liable to encounter it in DVD shops, supermarkets, and so on. And Parliament and the public both expect us to honour a wider duty going beyond the vulnerable, and indeed the understandable wishes of fans, involving formally reflecting, signalling and giving effect to protective standards for society as a whole. Some who think this sounds too censorious change their minds when they see the sort of material in question.
Then there is the argument that there's no research which proves that any film can cause harm. It's only a movie! Isn't it? In reality, the media effects research, though complex, doesn't provide a clean bill of health. Very broadly, it says that for some people in some sets of circumstances, some works may raise real harm concerns. But again, the issue is wider. UK law is clear that harm covers not just the issues which can be readily examined through social science, but also such things as degradation of empathy, a dehumanised view of others, the reinforcement of unhealthy fantasies, or erosion of a sense of moral responsibility.
OK, well how about simply giving HC2 an R18 certificate, thus confining its sale to licensed sex shops, rather than banning it? Again, the BBFC must work with the law as we find it. Parliament established the regime of licensed sex shops for films whose primary purpose is sexual arousal, not as a broader oubliette for very extreme films.
Finally, doesn't the law on obscenity need reforming anyway? Well, it's not the BBFC's role to take a position on that. Our leading cause for concern over a film such as HC2 is with the harm risks. But we are also under a duty not to give a certificate to films which may breach the criminal law, including through being obscene. Ultimately it would be for the courts to decide whether HC2 was obscene. But we believed there was sufficient uncertainty about the outcome at least for possible obscenity to be a relevant issue too.
So I never click the Rejection Button without "the most anxious scrutiny", and without involving the Board's President and two Vice Presidents. I'm acutely conscious, when doing so, that some will be upset, even outraged. And yet there are times, rare though they may be, when the complex balancing exercise which we have to undertake comes down in favour of rejection. And then we do it, explaining our reasoning as clearly and openly as we can.