British Censor Board Using Bad Research to Inflict Greater Restrictions on Movies

By  · Published on December 12th, 2012

In a country of 62 million, 35 people are about to alter the way the public sees movies. Not even 35 people either ‐ more like interpretations of their open-ended responses to a faulty screening process disguised as research.

You see, earlier in the year, the British Board of Film Classification commissioned a study on sexual and sadistic violence in films [PDF], but instead of consulting experts or surveying thousands of people to get a meaningful understanding of what the public is thinking, they asked 35 people leading questions to decide that everyone’s against what the censor board wants them to be against.

It wouldn’t be such a big deal, but now the BBFC has announced they’ll be reviewing their attitudes regarding films with sexual and sadistic violence based on this bogus study. Talk about a self-fulfilling policy.

A stellar run-down of the ridiculousness can be found over at Strange Things Are Happening, but the general complain is that the “research” is:

The methodology doesn’t come close to passing the smell test, but you should really go read the Strange Things Are Happening piece for some choice quotations and conclusions.

The key here seems to be that the BBFC has gotten exactly what it paid for ‐ proof enough for it to clamp down on the kinds of movies shown in the study (Wolf_Creek, Martyrs, Antichrist and more) or to justify banning certain movies. They’ve invented a public concern for the public to be concerned about.

However, Catherine Anderson, a spokesperson for the BBFC defended the study and the group’s response, sending me this statement:

“We are satisfied that the research methodology was very robust. This was qualitative rather than quantitative research. The research looked in depth at the issues raised by depictions of sexual and sadistic violence in films and videos. One on one interviews and focus groups lasting three hours in length are more appropriate for exploring the issues around sexual and sadistic violence rather than a more superficial piece of quantitative research.

The research does not purport to demonstrate that certain depictions of sadistic and sexual violence definitively cause harm. Proving harm from media effects research is always contested. There are difficulties in translating laboratory results to real life. But the public’s perceptions of possible harm are important. This is not only because they may have real life experience of harm but also because classification decisions need to be in line with public expectations for regulation to enjoy public confidence and therefore be effective.” (My emphasis)

Did you catch that? Apparently a cross-sectional study of thousands of people would be “superficial” while asking 3 dozen people if they thought The Bunny Game glamorized sexual violence is “robust,” and that the real question isn’t whether these movies are harmful but if a small amount of random citizens thinks that they might be dangerous. In other words, if your neighbor who never watches horror films believes that watching scenes from Hostel will set “a weirdo” off, the BBFC wants to weigh that opinion considerably indeed.

Now, I have no doubt that there are many who would be turned off or concerned about these movies (or about other people’s business in general), but finding 35 of them (or downplaying the mixed results) is not the same as proving that there’s a larger public concern at work here.

Oddly enough, their “robust” research hasn’t led to anything concrete that they can pinpoint. Director of the BBFC David Cooke noted in the press release about their policy thinking that “there is no ‘one size fits all’ rule for any theme under the BBFC classification guidelines, as long as what is depicted is within the law and does not pose a harm risk. Once again the public have told us that context, tone and impact, and a work’s overall message, can aggravate a theme, or make it acceptable, even in cases of sexual and sadistic violence. The decision as to whether and how to intervene in scenes of sexual and sadistic violence is complex, but drawing out and applying these aggravating and mitigating factors is helpful in arriving at a decision which balances freedom of expression against public protection.”

So after all this, the BBFC has secured its position that it knows best how to navigate that complexity. Only now they’re backed up by “the public.” They’ve trumpeted a change of thinking, they just won’t say what that change is exactly.

To all filmmakers dealing with severe subject matter trying to get a release in the UK, good luck. To all movie lovers liking in the UK, continue enjoying import DVDs.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.