John Beyer responds to Robbie Los’s review of suburban pornography

PORNOGRAPHERS and their agents often claim that Britain has the strictest censorship laws in Europe. This is a lie. Following a High Court judgement in May the British Board of Film Classification now has no grounds to refuse certification of “hard core” videos depicting real, rather than simulated, sexual activity. Last year the Video Appeals Committee overturned the Board’s rejection of seven video titles and a Judicial Review concluded that on “present evidence” the risk of harming children was “insignificant”.

These “R18” videos may be legally sold only in “licensed sex shops” where access is ‘restricted’ to adults over the age of 18. Such a constraint is advocated as being sufficient to prevent children from viewing such unhealthy and morally corrupting material. Curiously, little mention is ever made of the fact that once bought, the videos are taken away from these premises and then circulate in the community.

Following the High Court Judgement the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, Robin Corbett MP, when interviewed in BBC2’s Newsnight, gave real grounds for hope. He asserted that the Government “will not walk away from the problem” and that “Parliament will not abandon control”.

How disappointing it was to hear from him after the programme that there was “no immediate prospect of time being found” to overhaul the Obscene Publications Act and that his committee “has no plans to visit this area, certainly not in this session…”

There are said to be 92 licensed sex shops in the United Kingdom – one for every 600,000 people – and international pornographers have advanced plans to open glitzy sex supermarkets in high streets across the country. There are numerous unlicensed establishments that operate in areas where local authorities have not adopted the licensing scheme and there are also flourishing mail order businesses that market such material behind the scenes.

The High Court judgement may seem remote and insignificant to many people who do their best to avoid pornography but we should be in no doubt that the repercussions will be far reaching. The BBFC’s own Counsel, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, warned in July last year that “many thousands of hard core pornographic videos would go into circulation”. He warned that there is “a real risk of harm to children because video use has become so widespread in this country and because they are designed to be watched in the home”. It is not without significance that the powerful homosexual lobby has demanded the abolition of restrictions on sexually explicit videos.

According to Nina Bawden, a member of the Video Appeals Committee, the videos that were before the court “are cheap imports from America … consisting of seemingly endless sequences of explicit, energetic and joyless sex: vaginal, oral, lesbian and hetero. None has the slightest artistic merit, only a minimal narrative and little dialogue – except for the occasional feral grunt. The general effect is dehumanising and mechanistic”.

At the beginning of August it was reported that a further nine hard core titles were released uncut and granted “R18” certificates. Later in the month a further 23 titles were classified. This followed the publication in July of the BBFC’s new guidelines which was amended at the last minute to take account of the High Court judgement. Other film categories are bound to be affected adversely so that what was regarded as R18 material will in future be classified as 18. What was classified as 18 will be classified as 15, and so on.

This will inevitably affect standards on television too because films form a substantial part of television programming. Last year more than 3000 films were shown on the five terrestrial channels alone.

In recent years there has been a general drift towards sexually explicitness in film, video and on most notably on television. The Independent Television Commission has been responsible for granting licences to a number of satellite and cable channels whose main programming is “soft” pornography which portrays only “consensual sex”. The Broadcasting Act 1990 gave the ITC no discretion to refuse licences provided the companies observe the Programme Code.

On Sex and Nudity the Code presently states that “the portrayal of sexual behaviour, and of nudity, needs to be defensible in context and presented with tact and discretion”. It is noteworthy that the ITC has recently embarked on a public consultation (closing date 18/9/2000) of the Programme Code and is proposing to remove this clause and permit sexual intimacy to be shown before 9.00pm provided there is some educational purpose.

Such a crucial amendment is clearly aimed at bringing the Code into line with programmes that include nudity and sexual activity that is plainly not in context or tactful or discrete and is presented for its own sake to attract voyeuristic viewers. We echo the sentiment expressed recently by a national daily newspaper that the ITC should hang its collective head in shame. As a regulator established by Parliament to act in the public interest, the ITC could certainly be said to have done very little to resist the incremental slide in standards.

The process has been accelerated by Channel 5 TV which has transmitted imagery which even the Commission has stated “is unacceptable at any time”. Although the ITC has issued warnings and fined a number of TV companies the ultimate sanction of withdrawing a licence has yet to be exercised for breaches of good taste and decency despite the pornographic content thought fit for transmission by some TV executives.

There are some grounds for hope, however.

The Culture Secretary, The Rt Hon Chris Smith MP, said in Parliament in June that he had

“noted in recent days very considerable concern about some of the content on television, particularly in relation to Channel 5 … I believe that the broadcasters have a commercial and moral duty to take good account of the views of the public and I urge them to do so”.

The Government is preparing to publish a White Paper that will make proposals on how broadcasting will be regulated in the future. The regulation of programme content is part of the review and Mr Smith has given a clear signal that the views of the public do count.

The implications of the Human Rights Act, which becomes part of British law in October, are also being considered. This Act will guarantee the right to freedom of expression but advocates never quote the “conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law” that will pertain, notably for “the protection of health or morals …”. Having regard to the matter under consideration here the Government need have no qualms about taking effective action in the public interest.

The Home Secretary, The Rt Hon Jack Straw MP, was reported to be “very disappointed” by the High Court ruling on the hard core videos and intends to take action. He is threatening to reconstitute the Video Appeals Committee and, apparently, thinks that the introduction of a new offence of showing pornographic videos to children will solve the problem. The Home Office has issued a public consultation paper before it makes decisions on this matter.

Like all subsidiary measures introduced by Parliament to deal with the excesses of the pornographers they leave intact the 1959 Obscene Publications Act. Only a radical rethink of this largely unworkable and outdated law will suffice so that prosecution and conviction is made far easier. The production and distribution of pornography must become a high risk business with severe financial and other penalties. If the Government has serious intent to rid our society of the harmful corrupting influence of pornography convincing political action must be undertaken.

As another General Election approaches we must tell our political leaders that we expect Manifesto commitments and we must tell our constituency candidates that our vote for them depends on their promise to clean up this green and pleasant land and restore respect for human dignity in the media.

John Beyer is Chairman of the National Viewers and Listeners Association