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New Labour versus Horny Catbabe


Commentary

New Labour versus Horny Catbabe

Julian petley

It is often forgotten that the first attempt to introduce video censorship in the UK was actually undertaken by a Labour backbencher. This was Gareth Wardell, the MP for Gower, who, in December 1982, introduced a ten-minute-rule bill ʻto prohibit the rental of video cassettes of adult category to children and young personsʼ. In the event, it failed to get government approval and was dropped. However, after the Toriesʼ election victory in June 1983, amidst an ever-swelling torrent of ʻvideo nastyʼ scare stories in the press, Wardell proposed a Commons motion to the effect that ʻThis House urges her Majestyʼs government to introduce forthwith legislation to control access by children to video nasties, thus honouring its election pledge.ʼ And when the Video Recordings Bill duly appeared the following month it was supported as eagerly by Labour as by the Tories, partly out of genuine conviction (greatly strengthened, of course, by woeful ignorance of the actual contents of any contemporary horror films) and partly out of determination not to be portrayed as ʻsoft on moralityʼ by the Tory press.

Labour managed to emerge with even less credit in April 1994, in the wake of the murder of James Bulger and the ludicrous attempts by the press to pin the blame on horror videos in general and Childʼs Play III in particular. Whilst Tory Home Secretary Michael Howard was actually trying to resist calls for parliament to impose stricter video censorship, large numbers of Labour MPs eagerly supported an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill by the Liberal Democrat David Alton that would have banned any video that ʻpresents an inappropriate model for childrenʼ or ʻis likely to cause psychological harm to a childʼ. Thus, ever eager to appease the vociferous Something Must Be Done lobby, as well as being transfixed by the prospect of humiliating Howard in the Commons (since there were over eighty Tories amongst the two hundred or so MPs supporting the amendment), Labour MPs pressed on towards trying to put on the statute book a measure which, if passed, would have effectively meant that no video unsuitable for children could be distributed in Britain, thus killing the video industry here stone dead, not to mention bringing down the well-deserved wrath of most of the electorate on Labourʼs head.

Had this opportunistic idiocy been allowed to play itself out to the end we would, of course, have witnessed a sharp and immensely sobering lesson in realpolitik as the British government quavered and crumbled before the immense might of Hollywood – something of which even the redoubtable Thatcher was known to be scared. But Howardʼs resolve finally crumbled in the face of a hysterical press campaign – to which Roy Hattersley and Gerald Kaufman ably contributed in those two well-known Labour papers, the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph respectively. Thus a face-saving formula for both Howard and Alton had to be found. And the person who played a key role here was none other than Tony Blair, then shadow Home Secretary, who helped to broker an amendment which, while being more workable than Altonʼs nonsense, still tightened video censorship even further by requiring the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), when considering classifying any video, to have ʻspecial regard … to any harm that may be caused to potential viewers or, through their behaviour, to society by the manner in which the work deals with – (a) criminal behaviour; (b) illegal drugs; (c) violent behaviour or incidents; (d) horrific behaviour or incidents; or (e) human sexual activityʼ. Altogether fittingly, Labour in power has come to grief over this amendment.

In June 1996, during the Toriesʼ latter days, the director of the BBFC, James Ferman, met with Tom Sackville, parliamentary under-secretary of state for the Home Office, who asked him if the BBFC could liberalize the guidelines of the R18 video category, which designates videos that may be sold only in licensed sex shops. The reason for this was that the Metropolitan Police were increasingly concerned at the growth of black-market sex shops which took full advantage of the fact that their legal counterparts could sell only relatively tame material. Ferman was happy to agree, and the guidelines were relaxed, albeit with a mind-boggling and obsessive attention to minutiae, which cries out for scrutiny from students of classification. One can only wonder what Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss would have made of this mania for order.

It is important to realize, however, that the videos passed as a result of the new dispensation were still far less explicit than the conventional hardcore porn legally available almost everywhere else in Europe, as even a brief comparison of the old and new guidelines (not in the public domain, by the way) rapidly reveals. For example, under the original guidelines, images to be cut included ʻerect penis in close sexual contactʼ, ʻclear sight of oral–genital contactʼ and ʻejaculation, semen on mouth, face or sexual organsʼ. Bearing in mind that weʼre talking about plain and simple sex videos here, itʼs not difficult to see why the legal sex shops werenʼt selling any R18s, except perhaps to the terminally naive or undemanding. However, turning to the new guidelines, we find that images to be cut unless ʻde minimisʼ include ʻclose-up of ejaculationʼ, ʻsustained sight of semenʼ, ʻclose-ups of genitals during penetrationʼ and ʻclose-ups of genitals during oral sexʼ – in other words, the very staples of a cinematic genre that relies more than any other on intimate shots of human body parts. It is also interesting to note that prior to ʻliberalizationʼ only ʻpassing shots of anusʼ were acceptable, but under the new dispensation ʻlingering shotsʼ were OK. Inevitably, long, animated and occasionally even heated discussions ensued within the Board over what actually constituted closeups and sustained shots; all this over a few tacky, mildly erotic (at best) videos which wouldnʼt merit a momentʼs serious consideration anywhere else.

Backdoor straw

During the 1990s, Ferman had come to be regarded by papers like the Daily Mail as being far too liberal, and in particular had earned their undying enmity for passing Crash. This may help to explain why, when Labour came to power in 1997, and Jack Straw (already well known for his dislike of anything smacking of metropolitan trendiness) became Home Secretary, press stories strongly suggestive of hostile briefings, casting doubt on Fermanʼs future, began to appear. And when Straw discovered about the relaxation of the R18 guidelines he hit the roof, releasing to the press a letter criticizing Ferman ʻin the strongest possible termsʼ for his ʻunacceptable, unilateral decision to liberalize the lawʼ. He insisted that the BBFC reverse its ʻliberalizationʼ policy and also let it be known openly that he was reviewing Fermanʼs position. In December 1997, he vetoed the appointment of Lord Birkett, the BBFC vice-president and a supporter of the liberalization policy, as the Boardʼs new president, installing instead Andreas Whittam-Smith, who had founded the Independent but had no obvious credentials as a film and video censor. Having forcefully made his point however, Straw then stepped out of the limelight and left the BBFC to deal publicly with the conse-quences of his actions. His presence was distinctly felt behind the scenes, however, not least in the Orwellian-sounding Enforcement Sub-group, a secretive consultative body consisting of representatives from the Home Office, the BBFC, Customs, police, and the Crown Prosecution Service.

Strawʼs grounds for forcing the BBFC to reverse its policy on the R18 hinged on his insistence that material passed during the ʻliberalʼ period was of a strength similar to material seized as obscene by Customs or subject to forfeiture by a magistrate under Section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act (OPA). This conveniently ignored the fact that far stronger material has been regularly let off the hook by juries when defendants have elected to be tried by judge and jury under Section 2 of the OPA – a right, incidentally, which they will no longer enjoy if Strawʼs draconian plans to curb jury trials manage to become law. Faced with this awkward fact, the Home Office changed tack, arguing that the R18s passed by the Board in the ʻliberalʼ period would ʻharmʼ any children who might view them and would thus fall foul of the amendment which Labour had been so instrumental in introducing in 1994. The fact that this makes an utter nonsense of the whole principle of classification by age range on which the Video Recordings Act is founded was, of course, ignored. Meanwhile, distributors who had had relatively ʻstrongʼ material passed by the Board at R18 during the ʻliberalʼ period were now finding that, with the old guidelines reinstated, the Board was refusing to pass similar strength material. Arguing that the BBFC had been inconsistent in changing its guidelines, and that it should anyway have consulted them before doing so, the aggrieved distributors took a number of cases to the Video Appeals Committee (a statutory body established under the VRA). The appeal was heard in July 1999 – and the distributors won. (For the full story of the R18 saga, see Julian Petley, ʻThe Censor and the Stateʼ, Journal of Popular British Cinema, vol. 3, 2000, pp. 93–103.) The BBFC then applied for judicial review of the appeals procedure in April this year, but this was dismissed by Mr Justice Hooper on the grounds that the risk of these videos being viewed by and causing harm to young people was, on present evidence, insignificant.

At this point, in a move that must have seemed quite inexplicable to those who had thought this was a private dispute involving only the BBFC, the Video Appeals Committee and a couple of video distributors, a furious Straw suddenly took centre stage. Labour worthies Lord Bassam and Robin Corbett were wheeled out to condemn the decision on television and the Home Office issued a statement to the effect that ʻthe Home Secretary believes that the situation is unsatisfactory and will be considering carefully whether there are any additional steps that can be taken to protect children from exposure to this sexually explicit material. Any such changes may require legislation.ʼ

The climate of constraint

The R18 saga raises a number of important issues around the relationship between the Home Office and the BBFC, and more generally about the Boardʼs political function. In effect, the Board has been forced to act as Strawʼs patsy throughout this case, since the full extent of Home Office involvement has remained largely hidden (greatly helped, of course, by a supine, and in some cases complicit, media), presumably in an attempt to preserve the fiction of the ʻarmʼs lengthʼ relationship which is supposed to exist between the Board and the Home Office. However, it is important to realize here that the BBFC president has always had to be approved by the Home Secretary of the day, and up until the Second World War was a deeply political appointment, including men who had formerly been, for example, Chief Secretary for Ireland, Permanent Head of the Foreign Office, and indeed Home Secretary – in other words, as Nicholas Pronay puts it in Propaganda, Politics and Film, the president had always been a man ʻwhose experience and background ensured that he could be relied upon to know what was needed, who was fully “in the picture”ʼ.

In those days the Board was concerned with explicitly political censorship – hence the infamous remark in 1937 by BBFC president Lord Tyrrell that ʻwe may take pride in observing that there is not a single film showing in London today which deals with any of the burning questions of the dayʼ. Today, of course, the ʻburning questionsʼ are no longer ʻrelations between capital and labourʼ, ʻbolshevist propagandaʼ and ʻlampoons of the institutions of the monarchyʼ, to quote from the BBFCʼs compendium of prewar prohibitions, but this certainly does not mean that they are not concerned with political issues in a broader, more contemporary sense of the term – one which takes account of the extent to which the personal has become political, and vice versa.

This politicization of the personal is well illustrated by the Labour governmentʼs evident attachment not simply to the ideology of communitarianism but, rather, to a socially authoritarian version of it which does not shrink from proposing measures notable for their intrusiveness into spheres usually marked out as private by liberal politics. As Stephen Driver and Luke Martell argue in New Labour: Politics after Thatcherism: ʻin a way no longer thought possible for the economy, New Labour in government looks set to be interventionist in social matters. The “strong community” looks dirigiste. There is a reliance on legislative solutions to what are presented as ethical problems. Whatever the problem – bad behaviour in schools, noisy neighbours, children on the streets in the late evening – New Labour seems poised to reach for the legal pen.ʼ From this perspective, the furore over the R18 is part of a meaningful pattern compounded equally of bossiness and moralism, and highly reminiscent of the worst excesses of the Thatcher regime. Taken in conjunction with restrictions on forms of expression considerably more important than, say, Horny Catbabe – namely, the use of the discredited Official Secrets Act against Tony Geraghty, Richard Tomlinson,

David Shayler, Nigel Wylde, the Guardian, Observer, Sunday Times and Mail on Sunday; the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill, which will give the police, MI5 and Customs significant new powers to intercept communications; the flagrant betrayal of the promise to introduce a thoroughgoing Freedom of Information Act (use of which would soon have flushed out Strawʼs involvement in the R18 affair); and the Terrorism Bill which threatens to criminalize vast swathes of political activism – the picture begins to look distinctly disturbing.

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