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29 Feb 2008 : Column 1369

Mr. Whittingdale: The right hon. Gentleman is right; I accept that there is a distinction. I shall come on to video games, but I want to pursue the point I am making.

“Casino Royale” generated a lot of complaints to the BBFC from people who felt it had been far too lenient and the film should have been rated 15. Had that been the rating, my son for one would have been furious, as, I suspect, would most of Britain’s young teenage population. They were all desperate to see that film, and I do not believe that seeing it did them any harm. It has some fairly unpleasant scenes, but it is good that a child should be exposed to such scenes and learn to see them as fiction by the time they reach 12. I did not disagree with the BBFC’s decision on that occasion.

Mr. Don Foster: It is worth expanding on the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. Some people complain that the BBFC is too tender in its decision making. He has given a couple of examples, but does he agree that about 10 per cent. of all films that it classifies are given a higher rating than the company producing the film wanted?

Mr. Whittingdale: That is right. I shall give another example of where the BBFC had an argument with the film maker and where I believe it was correct. This goes back a little while, but I am referring to “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”. Those who have seen the film, probably in their youth, will know that there is a scene where the high priest tears the heart out of a sacrificial victim. The film maker, one Steven Spielberg, felt strongly that it should be included in the film and seen by a young audience. At the time, the BBFC took a different view, had a long argument with Spielberg and stood its ground, and the scene was not allowed to be shown. I was told—I think by James Firman, to whom I pay tribute for pioneering the work of the BBFC—that Spielberg said much later that on reflection the BBFC was right and the scene was a step too far.

Some BBFC decisions are courageous, and it is not always the liberal body about which my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury has concerns. My concern is not about “SS Experiment Camp”, because it is so bad that it will sell almost no copies. I fear that it has probably enjoyed a boom in sales since he put it on the front page of The Sunday Times, but I suspect that those who buy it will be deeply disappointed. What concerns me is the degree of violence that is selling huge numbers of tickets in Odeons up and down the land, although I do not necessarily agree with his prescription.

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has an almost embarrassingly encyclopaedic knowledge of schlock and other film categories, to which I cede him first place. He rightly talks about the appalling production standards, vile script and general tackiness of “SS Experiment Camp”, but is there not a danger of getting into a situation such as pertained to the Russ Meyer films in the 1960s? Those films were so appalling that huge numbers of people bought and watched them. The ante increased as more and more Russ Meyer films were made, particularly following “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” and “Supervixens”. Things got nastier and nastier, and increasingly sordid.

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Mr. Whittingdale: I can trade the hon. Gentleman Russ Meyer titles—“Faster, Pussycat...Kill! Kill!” is another example that would meet his criteria. The Russ Meyer films are not to my taste, but I do not have any great objection to them—they are comic strips really.

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury has to think carefully about a much more serious matter. I shall give two examples of the sort of films that cause me concern. The first is the “Saw” series—“Saw”, “Saw II” and “Saw III”. The other is the “Hostel” series—“Hostel” and “Hostel part 2”. They show scenes of graphic torture and are known as torture porn. They are highly unpleasant, and because they are quite big-budget films, they are highly realistic. They are not grainy B movies; these are mainstream, big-budget Hollywood movies that are selling tickets by the million. They are some of the most successful films in the past couple of years.

Those films should arguably have been cut more than they were, although I accept that a subjective judgment needed to be made about that. A more concerning point, to which I do not have an answer, is the fact that millions of our fellow citizens chose to go to watch them. My hon. Friend must accept that if his Bill were to pass, he would be addressing not the kind of films watched by a small number of rather strange people, but the kind of films watched by huge numbers of people who get enjoyment from them.

Mr. Brazier: This is exactly the point that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition addressed when he referred to very large proportions. Neither of the surveys done was terribly well conducted, but both involved quite large samples. One survey suggested a figure of as much as half and the other suggested that up to a third of young males now fall into the category we are discussing. This cycle must be addressed, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) will join me in supporting the Bill on Second Reading, even if he disagrees with some of my detailed mechanisms, in order to suggest that we should introduce greater accountability into the BBFC.

Mr. Whittingdale: Young males may be the category about which my hon. Friend is most concerned, but the appeal of these films goes way beyond just them.

Whether or not exposure to films or, to some extent, video games, can directly lead to violence is hugely unclear. My Select Committee took evidence last week from Professor Sonia Livingstone, who has done a great deal of work in this area. We are examining games in particular, and I want to say a few words about them. She said that the evidence is largely anecdotal and no clear peer-reviewed, accepted research can definitely show yet whether there is a link.

Mr. Bone: I am trying to follow my hon. Friend’s intellectual argument—it seems to be that because a large number of people watched a film, they should have been allowed to do so. Does that mean that if an actual rape was filmed and lots of people wanted to see it, that should be allowed?

Mr. Whittingdale: I would hope that not many people would want to see such a film, but the answer is that we must draw lines, as I said at the beginning. Of
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course some things are unacceptable, but we must also take account of the public taste. If a large number of people want to watch a film, even though I personally might find the film distasteful, I would be extremely reluctant to have it banned. I do not like banning things, particularly things that enjoy large popular support. I hope that a number of my hon. Friends share that stance.

The question of a linkage between watching films and committing violence is unproven, although I agree that more research needs to be done. There is an argument in favour of acting on the precautionary principle. We thus need to look seriously at the issue and, in particular, at the impact of electronic games, for precisely the reason expressed by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East. There is a difference between games and films. Games have a much greater degree of interactivity and are played over and over again—neither of those things applies necessarily to watching a film.

I have one or two practical concerns about what my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury proposes. First, he wants appointments to the BBFC to be subject to scrutiny by the Select Committee on Home Affairs. I do not want to get into a turf war with the right hon. Member for Leicester, East, but appointments to the BBFC are made by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, so it seems slightly curious that the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport would not scrutinise them to see whether we agreed with the decision. As the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said, there has been great discussion about the extent to which Select Committees should get involved in scrutinising public appointments. I am certainly in favour of their doing so and welcome the Prime Minister’s decision to allow that. It is the Prime Minister’s initiative, but despite the belief of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury that he enjoys his warm support for the Bill, the Prime Minister did not suggest the BBFC as a body whose appointments should be subject to public scrutiny.

Keith Vaz: I did not say that the Prime Minister gave warm support to the Bill. What I said was clear: that he believes that violence in video games is an important issue.

Mr. Whittingdale: No, it was my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury who hoped to pray in aid the support of the Prime Minister.

Mr. Brazier: I did not—I said that I was grateful that he would see us.

Mr. Whittingdale: Who knows what the Prime Minister’s view will be? It does not appear to be that the Select Committee should scrutinise appointments to the BBFC.

Another concern that I have is that my hon. Friend’s Bill mentions the appointment of the “principal officers” of the BBFC being subject to scrutiny. It is proposed that a public body’s appointments subject to examination by a Select Committee will be restricted to its chairman. I am not clear about who the principal officers are and how wide that description is. The BBFC has a number of senior staff, and it would be somewhat impractical for the appointment of more than the chairman to be subject to scrutiny by the Select Committee. Perhaps my hon. Friend can address that point.

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My next concern, which I referred to in an intervention on my hon. Friend, is about the nature of the appeals process. He set great store by the need for accountability to Parliament and the possibility of an appeal. Almost no regulator has an appeal process. If Ofcom or Ofgem reaches a decision, it remains its decision. The BBFC acts as a regulator, and I am not convinced that a general appeals process such as my hon. Friend describes is a good idea. It would also raise potential difficulties for the industry. I accept that we should not worry just about what the industry wants, but it is an important industry.

At present, a film maker or distributor has lengthy discussions with the BBFC about what it will and will not accept and what cuts might be needed to achieve a certain classification. As I have said, classifications matter greatly to a film’s potential revenue. It seems to be double jeopardy for that process to be undergone, an agreement reached and a film put on general release with the cuts that the BBFC has asked for, and then for the whole process to be overturned because 50 MPs sign an early-day motion saying that it should be.

There is an existing internal appeals body, the Video Appeals Committee, to which my hon. Friend referred, although it is the industry that can appeal to it. He suggested that it was somehow there to do the industry’s bidding—I think that he said it was quasi-independent. I would say only that its president is a former director of the Serious Fraud Office, and its membership includes people such as Biddy Baxter, whom I fondly remember as the producer of “Blue Peter”—my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) will remember her even better than I do—Claire Rayner, Fay Weldon, former head teachers and directors of social services and area child protection committees. It is not an industry-led body. I was pretty horrified when it overturned the BBFC decision on “Manhunt 2”, and I am pleased that its decision has been challenged, but I would not like it to be thought that the VAC is just a patsy for the industry, which will accept whatever argument is made to it.

Mr. Bone: If the VAC is doing such a good job, my hon. Friend does not have to worry about the safeguard of 50 Members signing a motion, because it would be used only in extraordinary cases. He has nothing to fear.

Mr. Whittingdale: I hope that my hon. Friend is right, but it would be a strange use of early-day motions. All of us sign a large number of them. [Hon. Members: “No, we do not.”] There are exceptions in the Chamber, but many Members sign them in large numbers, often at the request of their constituents. I know of Members who sign them because they are asked to, a bit like GPs saying that somebody should qualify for incapacity benefit.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): Graffiti.

Mr. Whittingdale: It is a way of keeping people quiet and happy, in the knowledge, as my hon. Friend rightly says, that early-day motions are graffiti and have no effect. The Bill would mean a new departure in their use. I do not single anyone out, but Members have often condemned films, perhaps even “SS Experiment
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Camp”, without having seen them. I suspect that there would be a danger that people would read the Daily Mail’s account of what a film contained, which might not be wholly accurate, and then sign an early-day motion about it, thinking that they would be pleasing the Daily Mail and their constituents. That might be a more frequent occurrence than my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) suggests.

Mr. Don Foster: The hon. Gentleman raises the question whether Members of Parliament sign early-day motions. Does he not find it slightly surprising that the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), who is championing the Bill and who raised the issue of “SS Experiment Camp” with the Prime Minister only a few days ago, has still not signed early-day motion 849, tabled by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz)?

Mr. Whittingdale: I shall leave my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury to address that point.

Mr. Gale: At the risk of infuriating you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we have to nail this point about early-day motions. A huge number of Members regard them as parliamentary graffiti, never sign them and recognise that they are a fee improver for lazy public relations companies trying to prove that they are doing something on behalf of their clients and for Back Benchers who want a couple of column inches in the local paper.

Mr. Whittingdale: I am sure that there are no hon. Members present who would view them in that light, but I accept my hon. Friend’s point that some do.

I have some concerns about the Bill, first because, in the main, the BBFC does a reasonably good job. I do not always agree with its decisions, but I do not think that it repeatedly gets things wrong. Secondly, there are practical difficulties to the Bill’s proposals, and thirdly, they could do damage to the film industry.

The right hon. Member for Leicester, East focused on the serious concerns about the unregulated environment, and my Select Committee is currently addressing those. We have controls over films and video games, but more and more material is being made available online. It started with music, but now films can be downloaded with ease, often from websites based way outside the jurisdiction of any responsible authority. Very soon, video games will also be distributed online. There is a concern that young, vulnerable people will be able to access and will be exposed to harmful content, which we all agree that they should not see and which is therefore banned—or they are at least protected from it—in this country. The global distribution offered by the internet means that those protections can be circumvented. That is why I welcomed the setting up of Dr. Tanya Byron’s inquiry and why my Select Committee is examining the issue. There is a serious concern about how we protect our young people and ensure that they are not exposed to harmful material. The biggest danger lies in the internet, not in the cinemas in our high streets.

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11.10 am

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), who speaks with extraordinary erudition, which probably shows that many a night has been spent studying the subject.

It is a great honour to be associated with the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). I pay tribute to him for his courage in promoting the Bill and his recognition of the widespread public concern. It is also a great honour to be in the Chamber with my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who has done more than many a Back Bencher to bring the issue forward. He should be given credit for that.

Let me respond briefly to the points made by the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford. In this country, there is a profound sense of disquiet and a feeling that societal norms—what is normal for the majority of people—are not reflected in the British Board of Film Classification. That is my concern. I understand that we are prisoners of history in many ways. We can think back to Mrs. Bowdler trying to expurgate Shakespeare in the 1870s, or the late James Michael Curley, a much-lamented former democrat mayor of Boston who banned virtually everything and gave the phrase “banned in Boston” to the world. We can think of many examples, but the reality of the situation is that the constituents of the hon. Member for Canterbury, my constituents and—dare I say it—the constituents of most right hon. and hon. Members are profoundly concerned. The problem that they see is that not only the people who access, watch and see the material are denigrated but those who participate in it are denigrated, too. It sets a standard, so that beyond that cinema or wherever people go to watch those foul DVDs—outside that community—such things might be seen as normal.

The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford talked about “Straw Dogs”. I am a great admirer of Susan George and of the director of that film, but the film contained a particularly graphic scene of anal rape. Many police officers said at the time and afterwards that there were copycat examples of that scene and the foul desecration of that woman. Should we ban it? Should we pretend that such things do not exist? No. We have to accept that there are certain standards, certain information and certain publicity that simply cannot be allowed to flow freely.

The debate comes back to two things. First, does the community have confidence in the present system of classification? Secondly, can we discuss censorship on the Floor of the House without being accused of trying to turn the clock back and wanting to live in a sanitised, homogenised world where nothing nasty ever happens, where we have nothing but endless Disney films and where we are denied Russ Meyer, let alone Sam Peckinpah?

The hon. Member for Canterbury is trying to achieve a balance. Inter alia, he has finally given the House a reason for early-day motions. I tabled an early-day motion six years ago that said that they were a confounded nuisance, that they were a great problem for staff and that they took up far too much parliamentary time. It urged all right hon. and hon. Members never, ever again to sign early-day motions. A large number of my colleagues signed it.

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