Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Written Evidence

Submission from the British Board of Film Classification

  I have been asked to provide your Committee with a brief note about past instances where the BBFC has had cause to intervene with video works on the basis of potentially blasphemous content. I hope the following may be useful.

  The BBFC is the authority designated by Parliament under the Video Recordings Act 1984 to classify video works for distribution in the UK. In making a decision as to the suitability of a video work for classification the Board is required to consider, amongst other factors, whether or not the work in question is likely to be found illegal under UK law. Along with other relevant legislation (including the Obscene Publications Act, the Protection of Children Act, the Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act), blasphemy is one of the issues the Board assesses when making a classification decision. In fact since my arrival as Director of the board in January 1999 there have been no cases in which the Board has sought to intervene with a video work on these grounds. However, our records show that since the introduction of the Video Recordings Act in 1984, the Board has cut three works and rejected one on the grounds of potential blasphemy.

  Cuts were made in the following cases:

  1.  In 1987 a cartoon video (The Big Bang) was cut by 10 seconds to remove a sequence in which an animated version of God appeared to be having sex and then uttered an expletive.

  2.  In 1988 a low budget horror film (Catacombs) received 12 seconds of cuts to remove a sequence in which a priest is punished for his gluttony by Christ. In the sequence removed by the Board, a statue of Christ came alive and stabbed the priest to death with a nail he had pulled from his ankle.

  3.  In 1990 an underground movie by cult American film maker John Waters (Multiple Maniacs) was cut by 4 minutes 53 seconds to remove an entire sequence set in a church in which a male transvestite buggered himself with a rosary. The shots of the transvestite were intercut with footage of Christ moving through the Stations of the Cross.

  I enclose extracts from the relevant BBFC Annual Reports detailing these decisions.

  Additionally, the Board refused in 1989 a video classification altogether for a 19 minute short film entitled Visions of Ecstasy. In this film, which was described by its maker as a meditation on the visions of St Teresa of Avila, there was a lengthy sequence in which a woman dressed as a nun (representing St Teresa) straddled the figure of Christ on the Cross. The woman was shown kissing His wounds, lips, face and body, and moving in a manner which indicated sexual intercourse.

  In refusing the video a classification certificate, the BBFC's Director James Ferman commented to the distributor:

  "The video work submitted by you depicts the mingling of religious ecstasy and sexual passion, a matter which may be of legitimate concern to the artist. It becomes subject to the law of blasphemy, however, if the manner of its presentation is bound to give rise to outrage at the unacceptable treatment of a sacred subject. Because the wounded body of the crucified Christ is presented solely as the focus of, and at certain moments a participant in, the erotic desire of St Teresa, with no attempt to explore the meaning of the imagery beyond engaging the viewer in an erotic experience, it is the Board's view, and that of its legal advisers, that a reasonable jury properly directed would find that the work infringes the criminal law of blasphemy."

  At the time the BBFC sought an opinion from Richard Du Cann QC, who confirmed the Board's view that the work's treatment of its theme was "not suitable for classification on the grounds that it infringes the criminal law of blasphemy. The foundation for my view is that in my opinion a reasonable jury properly directed on the law would convict". The blasphemy law was understood by the BBFC at the time in the following terms, as expressed in the House of Lords decision in R v Lemon (1979):

  "Every publication is said to be blasphemous which contains any contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous matter relating to God, Jesus Christ, or the Bible, or the formularies of the Church of England as by law established. It is not blasphemous to speak or publish opinions hostile to the Christian religion, or to deny the existence of God, if the publication is couched in decent and temperate language. The test to be applied is as to the manner in which the doctrines are advocated and not to the substance of the doctrines themselves."

  The Board's decision was subsequently appealed against to the independent Video Appeals Committee. This Committee was constituted under Section 4(3) of the Video Recordings Act so that distributors could challenge what they regarded as unduly censorious decisions by the Board. In the case of Visions of Ecstasy, the Committee found in favour of the Board and the Appeal was therefore dismissed.

  The film's maker and distributor then took the unusual step of appealing against the ban to the European Court of Human Rights. The court, however, decided that the reasons given for the ban by the Board and the Video Appeals Committee were relevant and sufficient and the decision was not "arbitrary or excessive". The Court noted in their judgement that:

  "Freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society. As paragraph 2 of Article 10 expressly recognises, however, the exercise of that freedom carries with it duties and responsibilities. Amongst them, in the context of religious beliefs, may legitimately be included a duty to avoid as far as possible an expression that is, in regard to objects of veneration, gratuitously offensive to others and profanatory".

  The court therefore recognised that the refusal to grant Visions of Ecstasy a certificate was intended to protect the rights of others in line with the duty in Article 10. In concluding in favour of the BBFC, the Court drew in particular upon the precedent established by the case of Otto-Preminger-Institut v Austria (1994) "where the Court had accepted that the respect for the religious feelings of believers can move a State legitimately to restrict the publication of provocative portrayals of objects of religious veneration". The Otto-Preminger case involved a private body which operated a cinema in Innsbruck which was open only to limited membership. It wanted to show the film Council in Heaven, restricting it to members only aged 17 upwards. Its advertisements for the film made the offensive religious content apparent. The European Court, however, found the showing to be a public offence which infringed the "rights of others" under Article 10—even though it was accepted that Christians would be unlikely to choose to see the film.

  As a result, Visions of Ecstasy remains banned from distribution in the UK on the grounds of blasphemy.

  I enclose the relevant pages relating to the Board's decision on Visions of Ecstasy from our 1989 Annual Report, together with the judgement of the Video Appeals Committee from the same year. I also enclose a summary of the findings of the European Court of Human Rights as detailed in the Board's 1995-96 Annual Report.

5 July 2002



  30.  Ten cuts were required in seven different videos during 1987 to remove 7½ minutes of material the Board considered unsuitable for viewing in the home. Among the reductions was the comic scene of cocaine-snorting in the video of CROCODILE DUNDEE, one of the most popular cinema films of 1986-87. Here small trims were required to remove not only the actual sight of sniffing, which on video now happens off-screen, but all dialogue reference to the nature of the substance by the sympathetic leading lady, who on film suggested an uncritical attitude towards the recreational use of cocaine. When the film was classified in early 1986, cocaine was not a major drug of abuse in Britain, and the scene was found acceptable because of its attractive comic tone. A year later, when the video was submitted, cocaine use had become a problem even for teenagers, and caution was called for in respect of a scene that might be viewed in the family setting for many years to come.


  31.  Britain is a country in which linguistic codes of behaviour are felt to be important by a great many people, and the increasing use of four-letter words in American films has endangered the acceptability of many otherwise unproblematic films or videos for the UK family audience. Virtually no films are made in America any more in which the language is unambiguously "U", and it is hard to recall any Hollywood "PGF" film of recent years that does not include at least a few lavatorial expletives. These the Board accepts in moderation at "PG", although it continues to hold a very firm line in not permitting any sexual expletives at all in films classified for pre-teenagers. Many distributors prefer to cut such language on film in order to admit the family audience, but video companies usually take the "15" uncut, which may reflect some cynicism about the extent to which parents ignore the categories in the home. If so, this is a worry, since many videos are classified "15" not on manners grounds but because of the disturbing nature of the contents. We would prefer to have the TV versions of such films with less offensive language than to be asked to impose cuts which might damage the scene in other ways. Still, in 1987, four video features were cut to remove instances of bad language so as to achieve a less restrictive category.


  32.  It is rare that the issue of blasphemy is raised in respect of films or videos, but in 1979, the House of Lords confirmed the common-law definition of blasphemy as "any contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous matter relating to God, Jesus Christ, the Bible, or the formularies of the Church of England . . .". The Lords also ruled in this connection that it was the act of publication in offensive terms rather than any intention to be blasphemous which was the deciding factor. Since the Board is enjoined by its Letter of Designation to "continue to seek to avoid classifying works which are obscene . . . or which infringe other provisions of the criminal law," this is a legal issue we must bear in mind, and in 1987, it was found to apply to one scene in a full-length adult cartoon in which scurrility was the essence of the comedy. A scene showing the drawn figure of God apparently copulating in the clouds was deleted both on film and on video, together with an obscene line of dialogue put in the mouth of the cartoon deity. The cut lasted approximately 10 seconds.



  26.  The question of blasphemy was raised in 1988 primarily in connection with the film THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (see Appendix II), where lawyers assured us the charge could not be substantiated. On video, on the other hand, there was one work which seemed to us to treat the figure of Christ on the cross with crudeness verging on contempt by enlisting the figure in the action of a horror movie. The scene was one in which an ineffectual chocolate-guzzling priest is punished for the sin of gluttony by the statue of Christ, who removes the nail from his own ankles to stab the priest to death. The shockingness of the treatment was cut by the Board with no perceptible damage to the film.


  27.  The final September deadline for backlog videos covered not just all English-language films from 1940 to 1970, but all works not primarily in English which remained unclassified. Many sex video distributors had availed themselves of the three-year period of grace by removing the English-language soundtrack and substituting music and sub-titles, with the result that many such tapes were not submitted until the last few months before the deadline. During 1988, 51 of these were classified "R18" for supply in licensed sex-shops only, thus removing them from the attention of customers who had no wish to encounter them. Cuts in this category are to remove material which in the Board's view is depraving and corrupting in the meaning of the Obscene Publications Act, in particular scenes of forcible or sadistic sex (cross-referenced under sexual violence). Other cuts in this category are to scenes in which the degree of visual explicitness is such that a significant number of courts would be likely to find the work obscene, as witnessed by the results of obscenity cases in England and Wales supplied to the Board by the Crown Prosecution Service. Standards in these matters vary in different parts of the country, although there is a tendency for juries to acquit in obscenity cases where the sex scenes are wholly consenting. The Board remains unconvinced that such erotic visuals are truly depraving and consulting, but it has always erred on the side of caution, and in 1988, it was the explicitness of sexual depictions in many of the tapes submitted just before the deadline which resulted in 20 of these "R18" videos requiring cuts, to a total of nearly 51 minutes in screen time.



  The best laid plans of public bodies are at the mercy of history and economic pressures. And so the deadline for classifying every video in the shops was succeeded not by a pause for retrenchment and reassessment, but by an urgent need to expand. This was the Board's task during most of 1989 in order to keep pace with the unprecedented demand. A thriving and now respectable video industry exceeded all forecasts with its brisk volume of submissions, while at the same time trading standards officers were starting to discipline the laggards and to demand a steady flow of expert evidence from the BBFC. That the Board was able to meet these demands out of its own resources is a matter of some pride.

  The distinction which the Board seeks to draw between manners and morals, offence and harm, is never straightforward. There is to some extent a moral issue which underlies manners, since the injuries which follow from breaches of civility may be deeply felt. A mannerly society is one that considers the feelings and susceptibilities of individuals, and consideration for others can be seen as a moral issue. Parental concern about bad language in videos viewed in the home is one such issue, for which stricter classification is a remedy, not a panacea.

  Another area in which consideration for others is paramount is blasphemy. Rumours on that score proved unreliable when focused in 1988 on the film THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. This turned out to be a reinterpretation of Christ's life and passion rather than a scurrilous attack. By the time the video version was released in 1989, the storm had passed, but in the autumn, the issue surfaced again with a short video about the supposed sexual fantasies of St Teresa. In British law, blasphemy is distinct from heresy, having nothing to do with questions of doctrine or dissent. Issues of conscience may be fully debated in Britain, but a degree of civility is enjoined on those who attack the deepest religious feelings of believing Christians. The Video Appeals Committee confirmed the Board's legal advice that the video under review was blasphemous in tone and treatment and that the Board had no choice but to refuse it a certificate. During the hearing and afterwards, the Board reaffirmed its view that it was invidious in a modern pluralist society that the law should single out only one religion for protection, echoing Lord Scarman's judgment in the House of Lords (1979) that "in modern Britain it is necessary not only to respect the differing religious beliefs, feelings, and practices of all, but also to protect them from scurrility, vilification, ridicule, and contempt." The line between fair comment and gratuitous insult is never clear, but it is a line the Board attempts to draw with the greatest care.

  Video violence was less of a problem in 1989, since fewer extreme examples seem to have been imported by British distributors, most of whom are by now familiar with BBFC policy on the need to limit both the quantity and intensity of violence which films and videos regularly deliver to children, teenagers and young adults. The Broadcasting Standards Council in its 1989 Code of Practice cited public concern that regular exposure to violence may desensitise an audience, adding that "a society which delights in or encourages cruelty or brutality for its own sake is an ugly society, set on a path of self-destruction." This is a line the BBFC has pursued for many years, and it welcomes signs that such principles will inform the transmission standards of all the multifarious satellite and cable services which will soon compete with broadcast TV and video for the supply of home entertainment in Britain. In 1989, the Board began to apply such principles to the classification of films for satellite television.


  37.  Only one video was refused a certificate in 1989, having been found blasphemous in the legal sense, the first time in the Board's history that a film or video has ever been rejected on those grounds. Cuts for blasphemy had been required in two videos in previous years, but in 1989 an 18-minute erotic video raised problems of a different sort. Unlike THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, the treatment of the crucifixion here was informed not by its meaning as an act of redemption or martyrdom, but by its erotic power in the visualised fantasies of a nun. For much of its length, it focused on the body and blood of the crucified Christ in a context of imagery the Board has come to associate with soft pornography.

  38.  BBFC misgivings were confirmed by leading Counsel, who advised that blasphemy is committed when the tone, style and spirit in which God, Jesus Christ or the Bible is treated is so contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous as to outrage and insult the feelings of believing Christians. In its letter of rejection, the Board explained that the problem was related not to the work's sexual imagery, which remained within the limits of the "18", but to the fact that for a major proportion of the work's duration, these sexual images were focused on the human figure of the crucified Christ. If the male figure were not Christ, the letter stated, or if the overt expressions of sexuality between the nun and the Christ figure were removed, the problem would not arise. Since the BBFC must avoid classifying works which infringe the criminal law, the producer's reluctance to cut left it no choice but to refuse a certificate. This was appealed, and the written decision of the Video Appeals Committee is summarised on pages 17 to 20.


  48.  Under Section 4(3) of the Video Recordings Act, the Video Appeals Committee hears appeals against BBFC decisions more restrictive than the distributor thinks appropriate. Only one appeal was heard during 1989, the sixth since the Act came into force. For the first time, it was an appeal against the Board's refusal to grant a classification certificate to a video work, in this case the work entitled VISIONS OF ECSTASY. The grounds for the refusal were equally unprecedented: blasphemy, a common-law test that had fallen into disuse until 1979, when it was validated by the House of Lords in a landmark judgment.

  49.  In the Home Secretary's Letter of Designation, the Board is enjoined to "avoid classifying works which are obscene in the meaning of Obscene Publications Acts or which infringe other provisions of the criminal law." Strong advice, but as the Board's Counsel pointed out in the hearing, it is given force by the Court of Appeal's ruling in 1976 that "no licensing authority may give its consent to that which is unlawful" [R v Greater London Council ex parte Blackburn].

  50.  The written decision of the Video Appeals Committee, signed by its President, Peter Barnes CB, gives a full account of the issues:

    ". . . the Board based its refusal solely upon the ground that the work was blasphemous according to the Criminal Law and made it clear that it would have granted an `18' category Certificate if the male figure had been anyone other than Christ."

  The Panel says it is in no doubt that, under its designation,

    "the Board should refuse a Certificate if it decides that in all probability publication could constitute a criminal offence and that . . . a reasonable and properly directed jury would convict."

    "Indeed, where it is sufficiently plain that publication could be an offence, the Board might itself be at risk of being charged with aiding and abetting were it to grant a Certificate."

    "We consider that on appeal from a decision of the Board, the Panel of the Video Appeals Committee should adopt the same criteria but, in reaching its decision, must take into account any new factors which may have arisen since the Board considered the case [evidence from witnesses, arguments by Counsel for the parties, affidavits etc]."

    "We did not however find it at all easy to ascertain and apply what we take to be the present law of blasphemy."

  Reference is then made to the "Gay News" case and to the judgment of the House of Lords:

    ". . . Lord Scarman said that it was unnecessary to speculate whether an outraged Christian would feel provoked . . . to commit a breach of the peace, the true test being whether the words are calculated to outrage and insult the Christian's religious feelings, the material in question being contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous matter relating to God, Jesus Christ, or the Bible or the formularies of the Church of England . . .."

    ". . . Lord Diplock said the material must be `likely to arouse a sense of outrage among those who believe in or respect the Christian faith'."

    "In the present case the Board's Director, Mr James Ferman, said in evidence that the Board's view was that the video was `contemptuous of the divinity of Christ'. He added that although the Board's decision was based upon its view that the video is blasphemous (Blasphemy being an offence which relates only to the Christian religion), it would take just the same stance if it were asked to grant a Certificate to a video which, for instance, was contemptuous of Mohammed or Buddha."

  There follows a lengthy description of the 18 minute work, which is:

    "shot throughout in semi-darkness to a background of sombre music and [in the] complete absence of any dialogue. At the beginning one sees a young nun in a black habit piercing the palm of one hand deeply with a large masonry nail until the blood begins to flow. She writhes in pain and spreads the blood over her naked breasts and clothing…. . . she knocks over a silver chalice and proceeds to lick the wine from the floor. After further writhings she faints or loses consciousness. The remainder of the work is clearly intended to portray her `visions of ecstasy' whilst in this state.

    "In this second part we see the nun, now dressed in a white habit, standing with her arms held aloft above her head by a cord of white muslin suspended from above and tied round her wrists. A second, near naked, female form slowly crawls towards her. Upon reaching her, she begins to caress the nun's feet and legs, then her midriff and naked breasts, and finally to engage in passionate kisses with her. Throughout this sequence the nun appears to be writhing in exquisite erotic sensation.

    "This sequence is intercut . . . with [one] which shows the nun with the body of Christ just after the Crucifixion when the cross has been lowered to the ground with Christ still upon it. It becomes clear that at this stage He is still just alive. The nun first kisses the stigmata of his feet before moving up his body and kissing or licking the gaping wound on his right side. Then she sits astride him, seemingly naked under her habit, moving in a motion which viewers may take to be one reflecting intense erotic arousal (reinforced by the intercut shots of her reaction to the attentions of the female figure) and proceeds to kiss Him upon the lips. There follows a close-up shot lasting some three or four seconds in which, by the movement of his lips, Christ appears to respond to her kisses. Finally the nun entwines her fingers with those of Christ and, as she does so, the fingers of Christ are seen to curl upwards in response. This close-up shot also lasts some three of four seconds and brings the video to an end.

    "Although throughout this description we have referred to the central character just as `the' nun, we accept without reservation that the figure [the film-maker] had in mind was St Teresa of Avila, a sixteenth century Carmelite nun who is known to have had ecstatic visions of Christ although, incidentally, these did not start until she was 39 years of age—in marked contrast to the obvious youthfulness of the actress who plays the part.

    "From the writings of St Teresa herself, and . . . of others, there seems no reason to doubt that some of her visions were of seeing the glorified body of Christ and being shown his wounds but . . . apart from the age discrepancy—a comparatively minor matter—we were made aware of nothing which would suggest that Teresa ever did anything to injure her hand or that any element of lesbianism ever entered into her visions. More importantly, there seems nothing to suggest that Teresa, in her visions, ever saw herself as being in any bodily contact with the glorified Christ. As one author, Mr Stephen Clissold, puts it: `Teresa experienced ecstasy as a form of prayer in which she herself played almost no part'. So, in view of the extent of the artistic licence, we think it would be reasonable to look upon the video as centering upon any nun of any century who, like many others down the ages, had ecstatic visions.

    "There is also another reason for taking this stance: unless the viewer happens to read the cast list which appears on the screen for a few seconds, he or she has no means of knowing that the nun is supposed to be St Teresa, nor that the figure of the second woman is supposed to be her Psyche. And he or she in any event may well be unaware that Teresa was a real-life nun who had ecstatic visions.

    . . . although we have thought it proper to dwell at some length with the `St Teresa' aspect, we are of the opinion that in practice, when considering whether or not the video is blasphemous, it makes little or no difference whether one looks upon the central character as being St Teresa or any other nun.

    The appellant, in his written statement, lays stress upon the undoubted fact that the whole of the second half consists of Teresa's vision or dream. Hence, he says, the video says nothing about Christ, his figure being used only as a projection of St Teresa's mind, nor was it his intention to make that figure an active participant in any overt sexual act. Although we quite appreciate the logic of this point of view, we have reservations about the extent to which a vision or dream sequence can affect the question of whether what is pictured or said is blasphemous. It would, for instance, be possible to produce a film or video which was most extremely contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous in relation to Christ, all dressed up in the context of someone's imaginings. In such circumstances we find it hard to envisage that, by such a simple device, it could reasonably be said that no offence had been committed. If in our opinion the viewer, after making proper allowance for the scene being in the form of a dream, nevertheless reasonably feels that it would cause a sense of outrage and insult to a Christian's feelings, the offence would be established.

    In the opinion of a majority of the Panel the video did not, as the appellant claims, explore St Teresa's struggles against her visions but exploited a devotion to Christ in purely carnal terms. Furthermore they considered that it lacked the seriousness and depth of `The Last Temptation of Christ' with which Counsel for the appellant sought to compare it. Indeed the majority took the view that the video's message was that the nun was moved not by religious ecstasy but rather by sexual ecstasy, this ecstasy being of a perverse kind—full of images of blood, sado-masochism, lesbianism (or perhaps auto-erotism) and bondage. Although there was evidence of some element of repressed sexuality in St Teresa's devotion to Christ, they did not consider that this gave any ground for portraying her as taking the initiative in indulged sexuality.

    They considered the over-all tone and sprit of the video to be indecent and had little doubt that all the above factors, coupled with the motions of the nun whilst astride the body of Christ and the response to her kisses and the interwining of the fingers would outrage the feelings of Christians, who would reasonably look upon it as being contemptuous of the divinity of Christ.

    In these circumstance the majority were satisfied that the video is blasphemous, that a reasonable and properly directed jury would be likely to convict and therefore that the Board was right to refuse to grant a Certificate. Hence this appeal is accordingly dismissed."

  51.  There is a sting in the tail, however, since the decision was not unanimous. A sceptical minority, "whilst being in no doubt that many people would find the video to be extremely distasteful," apparently took the view that in the present climate on a blasphemy charge, "it is unlikely that a reasonable and properly directed jury would convict."

  52.  The implications for future policy are twofold:

    (1)  If the Board is convinced that the publication of a particular video work could constitute a criminal offence and that a reasonable and properly directed jury would convict, it has no choice but to refuse a certificate; but

    (2)  There can never be certainty where a jury is concerned, and the Board's judgment must rest on a balance of probability.

  53.  During 1989, the full membership of the Video Appeals Committee was as follows:—


  Peter Barnes CB, former Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions


  Nina Bawden FRSL JP, novelist, President, Society of Women Writers and Journalists

  Richard Hoggart FRSL, former Professor of English and Warden of Goldsmiths College, University of London

  Dr Neville March Hunnings, lawyer and author, editor Common Market Law Reports

  The Hon Mrs Sara Morrison, member of the Annan Committee, and former director, Channel Four Television Company Ltd

  Dr Faith Spicer OBE JP, psychotherapist and founder Director, London Youth Advisory Centre

  Laurie Taylor, Professor of Sociology, York University

  T J Taylor, Assistant Director, Department of the DPP

  Fay Weldon, novelist and playwright

  Sir Brian Young, former Director-General, Independent Broadcasting Authority



  The Video Appeals Committee is independent of the Board and was constituted under section 4(3) of the Video Recordings Act to hear appeals from submitting companies against any decision of the Board which they consider stricter than warranted by the work itself.

  Over the 12 years from 1985 to 1997, 11 appeals have been lodged, one of which will be heard in January 1998. Of the other 10, five appeals were dismissed and five granted, the most recent having been heard just before this report went to press. Six appeals were against the awarding of a "R18" sex shop category to videos designed primarily as sex entertainment. Three of these appeals were granted and three refused. Since the appropriate borderline between "18" and "R18" has always been a matter for debate, it is a pity that so few appeals have been heard on this issue. A significant body of case law would have been useful.

  Of the other four appeals, one was against the Board's rejection of a Pakistani video calling for the assassination of Salmon Rushdie, which, in the view of the Board's legal advisers, constituted a clear case of criminal libel. The appeal was upheld when a letter was received from the novelist to say that he would not press a libel charge, since that would be contrary to the "freedom of expression" guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights. Despite the issuing of an "18" certificate, the video was never released in Britain.

  Two decisions of the Appeals Committee to endorse the Board's refusal of a certificate were referred to higher courts in 1996, the first time this had occurred in the Board's entire 84-year history. In both cases, Board judgment was vindicated.

  One case turned on the criminal offence of blasphemy, with the Board taking the view that it had no choice but to reject the video Visions of Ecstasy as blasphemous, since it was bound by its terms of reference to avoid classifying works which infringe any provisions of the criminal law. The Appeals Committee agreed, and the appellant took his case to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming a violation of his right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention. The case was heard in March 1996, and the judgment was delivered in November. In its written judgment, the Court had to determine whether the Board's decision to refuse a certificate was justified under Article 10 as a restriction "prescribed by law" which "pursued a legitimate aim" that "was necessary in a democratic society". To all these questions the Court answered yes, ruling, inter alia, that:—

    (1)  "the Board had acted within its powers".

    (2)  "the appellant could, with appropriate advice, reasonably have foreseen that certain scenes in the film could fall within the scope of the offence of blasphemy".

    (3)  The Boards decision "had been intended to protect against seriously offensive attacks on matters regarded as sacred by Christians".

    (4)  "Blasphemy law did not prohibit the expression of views hostile to the Christian religion or of any opinion offensive to Christians. What the law sought to control was the manner in which such views were advocated. The extent of insult to religious feelings had to be significant."

    (5)  "Visions of Ecstasy portrayed the crucified Christ in an act of an overtly sexual nature. The national authorities had considered that the manner in which such imagery had been treated placed the focus less on the erotic feelings of the character than on those of the audience (which was the primary purpose of pornography). They had further held that no attempt had been made to explore the meaning of this imagery beyond engaging the viewer in a `voyeuristic erotic experience'. The public distribution of this video could therefore outrage and insult the feeling of believing Christians and constitute the offence of blasphemy."

    (6)  The reasons given to justify the decisions of the BBFC and the Video Appeals Committee "could be considered both relevant and sufficient and the interference could not be said to be arbitrary or excessive."

  The Court's official Summary of the Judgment is given in full in Appendix ?

  Last year's Annual Report included a very full account of the Video Appeals Committee's decision in June 1995 to dismiss the Appeal against the Board's refusal of a certificate to a Brazilian women's prison film called Bare Behind Bars. In 1996 that decision too was challenged before the courts. The Appeals panel had accepted the Board's description of the work as "not a prison drama, but a sex film of a familiar exploitative kind, in which the predatory governor and prison officers are engaged for the most part in the sexual abuse of prisoners. The prisoners are indistinguishable, herded together naked and exposed, being treated like animals and behaving as such. Since they have no option but to submit to the sexual attention of their gaolers, virtually all the sex is coercive by dint of setting. So, indeed, is the nudity. It is the coercive, degrading and sadistic aspects of the video which led to its being refused classification."

  The Committee's unanimous judgment concluded as follows:

    "Considering this video as a whole, we were of the opinion that the hour-long prison scenes were almost entirely devoted to the degradation of young women, that the minor humorous incidents were quite sufficient to offset this, and that the video was wholly lacking in any other dramatic or artistic redeeming feature. We are therefore … of the opinion that the Board was justified in its refusal to grant a Certificate."

  In late 1995, the Court granted leave to refer the decisions of the Board and the Committee to Judicial Review. The hearing was set for November 1996, Counsel were engaged and affidavits prepared. Then, with less than 10 days to go, the application for Judicial Review was withdrawn without explanation, and the Appellant's lawyers agreed to meet all the Board's reasonable costs. Not a penny has been forthcoming.

  In the summer of 1997, an appeal was lodged against the Board's refusal of a certificate to the video game Carmageddon, a car racing game and demolition derby in which the player is encouraged and rewarded for the killing of innocent pedestrians. This was the first game ever submitted in which points were given for the deliberate killing of docile, non-combatant figures.

  In the Board's view this scenario was morally reprehensible and likely to encourage callousness towards the sufferings of others. (See Board's Reply to the Appeal, Appendix VI). The hearing took place on 31 October, and the result was a split decision, three to two in favour of the appellant, as a result of which an "18" certificate was issued. The written decision sets out the arguments of both sides of the panel. It will be reported on in full in next year's Annual Report.

  At the beginning of 1996, the President of the Video Appeals Committee, Peter Barnes CB, died after a short illness. He was succeeded by John Wood CB, another former Deputy DPP. Three other long serving members of the Committee, Richard Hoggart, Dr Faith Spicer, and Sir Brian Young, retired in 1996, and there were four new appointments to the Committee. Biddy Baxter, Dr Philip Graham, Clive Hollins and Claire Rayner, all of whose backgrounds are given below. A fifth nominee, Mary Tuck, criminologist and former Head of the Home Office Research Unit, was to take up her appointment in the autumn of 1996, but died quite suddenly. She will be much missed by all who knew and worked with her.

  In 1996-97, the full membership of the Video Appeals Committee was as follows:


  John Wood CB, former Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions; former Director, Serious Fraud Office; former Director of Public Prosecutions, Hong Kong


  Nina Bawden FRSL JP, novelist, President, Society of Women Writers and Journalists

  Biddy Baxter, former producer of Children's Programmes, BBC Television; Editor of Blue Peter for 26 years; Consultant to the Director General of the BBC since 1988.

  Dr Philip Graham, Chair, National Children's Bureau; former Professor of Child Psychiatry, Institute of Child Health, former Consultant Psychiatrist, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children

  Clive Hollins, forensic psychologist; lecturer in psychology, University of Leicester

  Dr Neville March Hunnings, lawyer, author, editor Common Market Law Reports

  Claire Rayner, author, journalist and broadcaster

  The Hon Mrs Sara Morrison, Annan Committee and former director, Channel Four Television Co Ltd

  Laurie Taylor, broadcaster and Professor of Sociology, York University

  Fay Weldon, novelist and playwright.

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