Thursday, 28 October 2010

The Case for Censorship

Recently I was interested to hear the views of Made In Dagenham producer, Stephen Woolley. Appearing on Radio 5 Live's Film Review show he argued passionately against the BBFC's decision to give his film a 15 certificate, saying that the bad language that is spread across the film is vernacular and used in pursuit of both dramatic and documentary authenticity.

If this situation had arisen a decade ago, I think many people would have been more sympathetic than was the case during and after the show. The fact is that there seems to be an increasingly outspoken impatience with coarse and disparaging behaviour in public life.

The media seems to be getting the brunt of the criticism. The high priest of affront and dismissiveness, Radio 1's Chris Moyles, is currently backed into a corner. Attacking his employers earlier in the month, presumably as he has no one left to denigrate or insult, there is talk that he will finally be ditched.

You can tell I am no fan of Moyles. However, this sort of post-cool-Britannia, urban offhandedness is a widespread, top-down, media class affectation. For example, for all that Ricky Gervais' The Office was the best TV of the past ten years, it also had a mean streak as its backbone, a trope of it creator. Gervais' most recent project (an offshoot of a radio show he was doing before The Office) involves putting a vaguely vulnerable colleague in an alien environment and then poking fun at his malapropisms and misfortune, a classic example of an inspiration well run dry to show its dregs. The half-life of Big Brother was an even speedier decline with the wonder of series one already become an exercise in feeding Christians to lions by the series two.

I'm no fan of the idea of restricting what people can say. The problem is that a media in thrall to the (commercially pregnant) talents of the likes of Moyles and Gervais ape their style without understanding or worrying how, removed from context or content, it might become damaging. In a social climate in which it's clear that personal responsibility means less than it did, it is a government's responsibility to step in.

Now, I'm no fan of the idea of state regulation of media. It's essentially censorship. But a government making its thoughts clear on publicly funded and accessible culture has three positive ramifications. Firstly, it should force those producing and broadcasting radio and television programmes to examine the purpose and worth of their output with greater scrutiny. Secondly, it demonstrates an undertaking of the democratic mandate to govern with responsibility and thus creates a culture in which the public might undertake to do the same in the relative microcosm of their own lives.

Third and finally, it demonstrates in oblique but nonetheless concrete terms an understanding that the current financial crisis was dues to a lack of regulation. This is a perilous point to make, as vigilance as to the behaviour of a bank is not the same as scrutinising the moral content of an art exhibition. Yet it's also clear that, for all that such institutions must have a free hand to operate, they also have knock-on effect right down to the foundation of British public life and as such must be subject to reasonable vigilance. It's an extraordinary irony that a big-state outfit such as the previous government failed in this specific duty of national care and that the current small-government coalition would be well advised to conspicuously undertake it.

UPDATE: The day I wrote this post, Stephen Woolley returned to Radio 5 to complain that another film released shortly after Made In Dagenham had received a lower certificate, ostensibly because there were quantatively fewer instances of swearing. Woolley's point is slightly different in its focus to mine, although I'd say two things. Firstly, he's clearly a filmmaker who believes in his product, its aesthetic and moral worth. He not only wants to defend it. He also wants the greatest return for his investment in the film, to which a lower certificate will contribute. This is a different proposition to the filmmaker who sees that instances of bad language, violence or sxual acts may be a good selling point in themselves, i.e. the content rather than the aesthetic. Those filmmakers may also see currency & worth in having their film as controversial as possible. Nonetheless, it's impossible to clearly separate the two on the basis of what is being seen on the screen.

It's a decision that should be taken in the first instance by the BBFC (who, hitherto, seem to have been the objective, deeply sensible outfit that the likes of Mark Kermode paints them to be) and secondly by the public who go to watch the films. Increased censorship is less about a body patronising the audience - rather it is a body taking the responsibility for drawing and maintaining moral parameters where the audience have failed to.

UPDATE: More Made In Dagenham misery - an R rating in the states.

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