Film censorship in Britain

The censors and the law

The primary agents of film censorship in Britain are the local authorities, whose licensing regulations control the ouput of public cinemas. In practice, they generally follow the decisions of the British Board of Film Classification (formerly the British Board of Film Censors), which classifies films according to their content. Occasionally, however, individual local authorities take a different view to the BBFC by approving films for public screening that were refused a BBFC certificate or vice versa. The BBFC applies as its principal test in classifying films the likely “harm to potential viewers or, through their behaviour, to society”.

Film classifications

The current categories of film classification adopted by the BBFC are as follows:

U  Universal, suitable for all

Uc  Universal, particularly suitable for young children

PG  Parental guidance. General viewing but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children

12, 15, 18  Suitable only for persons of 12, 15 or 18 years and over respectively

R18  A special category for videos, which are to be supplied only in licensed sex shops (of which there are about 60 in Britain) to persons not less than 18 years old

The previous categories of H, introduced in the 1930s to cover the new genre of Hollywood horror films, and X, which superceded it in 1951 and became associated with sexually-oriented material, are now defunct, as are the old A and AA categories.

The Video Recordings Act 1984 also gives the BBFC responsibility for classifying, cutting and sometimes banning videos. The censorship of films on video tends to be more rigorous than in the cinema. This is because it is less easy to control which age groups watch a video than a cinema film, and also because particular clips within a video can be viewed repeatedly and in isolation from the overall context of a film.

In broadcasting, overall standards are governed by the Broadcasting Act 1996, which set up the Broadcasting Standards Commission to replace the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. Among its responsibilities is to monitor, research and report on the portrayal of violence, sexual conduct and matters of taste and decency (including bad language). The Council has no power of pre-censorship (although the Home Secretary can ban any programme), but it determines the standards within which broadcasters must operate. Its code of guidance on standards, an updated version of that of the former Broadcasting Standards Council, provides the framework within which the whole of British television and radio, both the BBC and commercial, is required to work.

Ensuring the detailed implementation of this code is the responsibility, respectively, of the BBC Board of Governors and, in commercial television, the Independent Television Commission. The ITC is required by law “to do all it can to secure that every licensed service includes nothing in its programmes which offends against good taste or decency or is likely to encourage or incite to crime or lead to disorder or be offensive to public feeling”. In this context, it supplies very detailed guidance to TV companies, including on the screening of films. It has the power to require any company in breach of its guidelines to broadcast an apology or correction, impose a fine, shorten the term of a licence or, in extreme cases, withdraw it altogether.

ITC code of guidance on feature films screened on television

The following basic rules apply:

1. No “12”-rated version should normally start before 8pm on any service.
2. No “15”-rated version should normally start before 9pm (or 8pm on premium rate subscription services, content permitting).

3. No “18”-rated version should start before 10pm on any service. (This rule may only be relaxed in the case of films classified 15 or more years ago and which are clearly suitable for earlier transmission.)

4. No “R18”-rated version should be transmitted at any time.

5. No version which has been refused a BBFC certification should be transmitted at any time.

The ITC says that in applying these rules, the BBFC video classification should always be preferred, where available, to the cinema classification. These are also regarded as minimum requirements. In particular, the ITC says that “many ‘15’-rated films will not be suitable as early as 8pm even on a subscription channel if, for example, they contain graphic scenes of drug taking or sexual intercourse or a greater than usual level of violence”. Where no BBFC certification exists, the ITC says special concern should be given to the interests of younger viewers.

In addition to the legislative and regulatory framework affecting particular sectors of the film industry, since 1977 all films, whether shown on television, video or in the cinema, have been covered by the Obscene Publications Act. This sets, as the primary test for obscenity, whether a publication might be “such as to deprave and corrupt persons likely to read it”, that judgement being made afresh by the 12 jurors determining each case that comes to court. Although this means that film-makers have to make difficult assessments of what may or may not be judged to be obscene as public attitudes change, it also allows the artistic merit or overall context of a film to be taken into account in determining whether or not any particular sequence is obscene.

The incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law in the forthcoming Human Rights Act will have as yet uncertain consequences for the censorship of films and videos. This guarantees freedom of expression and will almost certainly result in legal test cases that will have the effect of liberalising some controls in Britain. Article 10 guarantees the right to freedom of expression. But it also specifies that: “The exercise of these freedoms . . . may be subject to such restrictions . . . as are necessary for . . . [among other things] . . . the prevention of disorder or crime [or] the protection of health or morals.”


Censorship milestones

The censors and the law

What gets censored

What gets censored: the BBFC guidelines