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The c-word: censoring the media? <br />Whatever your spec, debates about regulation will be part of it, Tim Hodson offers ...
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  1. 1. The c-word: censoring the media? <br />Whatever your spec, debates about regulation will be part of it, Tim Hodson offers an overview of the different strategies employed by media regulators of film, games, TV, the Web and music, and explores their ethics and effectiveness.<br />Censorship comes in many different forms and in all forms of media. Films, music, TV, magazines, games, DVDs and even books are all regulated in some way, shape or form. This could be something simple like blanking swear words, as is found in magazines where asterisks replace most of the letters in the word ‘f***’, whereas TV will just insert a high pitched ‘beep’ over the word(s) they do not wish to be broadcast.<br />The video game debate<br />Most forms of media, from video games to DVDs, both rated by the British Board of Film Classification, give a specific age rating if their content is deemed unsuitable for everyone. There is particular controversy about certain video games. The popular Grand Theft Auto series is frequently linked to violent behaviour in teenagers as they try and repeat things they do in the game. The game creators get away with labelling the game with an 18+ rating: they assume only people who are over 18 will play and are smart enough to realise the difference between games and life. But is this really good enough? It is still very easy to get hold of the game if you are under 18, whether you get an older parent or friend to buy it for you, or even just walk in and buy it, as very few shops bother to ask for ID providing you look like you could possibly be 18. Many people use the games as a way to tune out of the real world and if they want to steal a car, they steal a car in-game instead of in the real world. In could be argued, therefore, that the game stops people breaking the law, although ironically many adults believe that such games encourage kids to steal cars and argue that the games should be banned. The amazingly realistic graphics that some of the newer games have seem to fuel such worries about their impact on young people.<br />Refusal of certificate<br />Some games are even refused certificates. One such is Manhunt II, which was scheduled to be released on the Wii and PS2; but when the BBFC played through the game, using cheats and level skips to get through it as quickly as possible (they only spend about five hours on each game before discussing it between them), they decided it was unsuitable for public sale. When this happens, the game designers are generally asked to remove some parts of the game or alter them slightly to make it more appropriate; but in the case of Manhunt II this was not possible, so it was refused an age certificate and therefore banned from sale in the UK. The BBFC wanted to prevent children or impressionable teenagers from accessing Manhunt II – mainly on the grounds that you were practically forced to stalk and brutally murder people, unlike other games such as Grand Theft Auto, where killing people is possible but is not always necessary.<br />Age-related film classification<br />Films are also given age ratings by the BBFC who basically say what films are suitable for what age ranges from Uc to 18. The films are classified by theme, language, nudity, sex, violence, imitable techniques, horror and drugs. For example, Eagle Eye is a 12A film, and is full of guns, explosions, killings and car chases. I would assume that it is a 12A due to the rather action-based nature of the film. Ghost Town, on the other hand, has absolutely no violence in it and yet is still rated a 12A. I think this might be because at one point, near the end of the film one of the characters says ‘F***ing’. I imagine this film would have been a PG had the word not been used, but parents may not want their children to be exposed to that kind of language at such an early age, hence the higher rating. Similarly, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is a 15, presumably because there is a bit of ‘bad language’, a small amount of nudity, and the idea of doing drugs is hinted at part-way through. Many parents worry about their kids seeing people in films doing drugs, so that would bump the rating up. Death Race is another 15; in this case, it is clear why. This film appears to be almost two hours of needless violence. From start to finish, the film is about people making vehicles to kill as many as possible, as quickly as possible; however, there is little, if any, bad language and no nudity or drugs, so it is a 15 instead of an 18.<br />The 12A problem<br />Most multiplex cinemas ask for ID when selling tickets for 18 films, but once you are past the box office, you are pretty much free to go and see whatever you want and nobody pays much attention. What is the point of age ratings if 10-year-olds can buy a ticket to The Incredibles, and wander in to watch Saw? 12A was created so under-12s could go and watch 12-rated films in the company of an adult. There is very little you can do to check a child’s age, so for all the good it does, 12A might as well be abolished, leaving a jump from PG to 15. Parents choose what they let their children go and see, so by that reasoning, shouldn’t 15A and 18A be a requirement in cinemas? Once again, if your parents allow you to watch the film, what is the need for rating it? In any case you can simply get your parents to buy you a ticket and nobody is any wiser; so the system would appear to be flawed. Many films have had sequences edited out in order to be shown to a cinema audience. This may just be cutting a bit of swearing, or toning down the gore levels; this is most common in horror films, and they are generally released shortly after the original DVD in an ‘uncut’ version to sell to those who want to see the film in its original form.<br />Getting around online rules<br />Censorship is frequently seen as a way of protecting children from unsuitable or disturbing material. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your viewpoint) it is relatively easy to get around censorship rules. For example, the internet: one quick search on Google can bring up millions of ‘adult’ web-pages, no matter what age you are, so unless you constantly monitor your kids or have a very strong parental control program, it is very hard to keep them away from damaging material. Most kids nowadays know how to use the internet and can quickly access the game, movie or TV show in question. Many websites do ask for proof that you are old enough to play the games, watch the videos, and listen to the music, although much of the time they just have a ‘yes or no’ button to press, or ask for your date of birth, which can easily be made up.<br />Editing live recordings<br />Live concerts, especially stand-up comedy, have also been seen as a bad influence on people as there is in theory no limit to what a performer says to the audience. A ‘live’ show that has been recorded and is being shown on TV is different, because unsuitable parts can be edited out, but if you are actually there the performer can say or do whatever they want and with no consequences – at least until someone important hears about it and decides to do something.I recently found out how to become an audience member at the recording of BBC shows such as Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Mock the Week. Sadly, because the BBC is anxious to avoid airing potentially offensive material (in itself very difficult since virtually anything can be deemed racist or unacceptable) much of the funniest stuff in the recording is edited out and so only seen by the studio audience. Some bits never get aired, but do get released on DVD, for example Mock the Week’s Too Hot for TV, which is rated 18 as it was deemed inappropriate for TV where younger viewers could watch it.<br />Where I stand<br />I’m not entirely sure where I stand on this argument. I can see that regulating games and TV is important or children will all grow up to think that killing people is fine and cars are just there for the taking. I can also see that films need to be rated by age to at least attempt to stop children seeing risky material until they are deemed old enough by society to do so. However, I also think that the issue is taken far too seriously. This is well illustrated in the episode of Family Guy titled ‘PTV’. Some people from the TV censorship office come over and use the delightful phrase: His chin looks like balls. You want me to cover those, too? I think that phrase reflects my opinion of censorship rules very nicely: people should lighten up a bit and not be so easily offended. <br />However, no matter what I think, it is ultimately up to the parents what they decide to let their children do, play or watch. No matter how hard they try, there is very little that parents can do to limit their children’s exposure to unsuitable material. They can ban certain age-related games or movies from the house, thus stopping the child accessing unsuitable material in their presence; but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to watch them at someone else’s house, sneak into the cinema, or download the films they aren’t allowed to watch.<br />Tim Hodson is studying the new Creative and Media Diploma at Long Road Sixth Form, Cambridge.<br />This article first appeared in MediaMagazine 28, April 2009.<br />top<br />

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