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Britain to Toughen Movie Censorship, Citing a Link to Crime

Blair wants to help parents shield children from excessive violence and sex in films, videos, video games.

British film audiences will soon be watching movies that have been subject to much tougher curbs on depictions of violence and sex.

Claiming strong public backing, Prime Minister Tony Blair has authorized a tightening-up of censorship of cinema and video movies and computer games.

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He and Home Secretary Jack Straw say they are being guided by new government-sponsored research, soon to be published, indicating a link between on-screen violence and crime.

On Dec. 17, Mr. Straw seized the high ground in a government campaign to ensure that film audiences are not exposed to excessive depictions of sex and violence.

He named a new president of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), which views movies before they are classified for screening in cinemas or distributed as videos.

Within hours of accepting the job, Andreas Whittam Smith, founding editor of the Independent newspaper, ordered an immediate review of guidelines for judging the suitability of films.

"I want to inspire public confidence in the classification system," Mr. Whittam Smith says. "I particularly want to help parents regulate the viewing of their children."

Straw's anger with what he saw as lax controls on films depicting pornography and violence erupted in June, after the BBFC approved for public screening the movie "Crash," described by one critic as "beyond depravity."

Soon afterward, Straw discovered that James Ferman, long-serving director of the BBFC, had relaxed guidelines on the levels of sex and violence permitted on videos for home rental, without consulting the Home Office.

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Two videos Mr. Ferman allowed to be distributed were the US-made "Batbabe," reported to contain 30 minutes of sexual activity, and "Ladies Behaving Badly," a sexually explicit British production.

By clearing the films, Ferman made it impossible for them to be seized as obscene under a 1984 Act of Parliament.

Ferman's allegedly over-liberal approach to his task has attracted much criticism, but he has almost always defended his decisions.

After clearing the Steven Spielberg movie "The Lost World," for viewing by children, Ferman said, "If we photographed the faces of children in the middle of a roller coaster ride, no one would read the emotion as pleasure. But most children come off the ride wanting to do it again." "The Lost World" received a PG-13 rating in America.

For some years, there has been growing public concern that there is a link between on-screen violence and juvenile crime. Two children convicted of the 1993 kidnapping and murder of two-year-old James Bulger were found to have been influenced by a violent home video.

The murder attracted huge publicity and prompted the Home Office to ask the University of Manchester to conduct research on the effects of film and TV violence. The results of the research, which will be published in the next few weeks, prompted Straw to act.

The study is reported to demonstrate a link between people prone to violence and films involving violent characters. People of limited intellect and with disturbed backgrounds are especially vulnerable, the study says.

Ferman, an American who has directed the BBFC for more than 20 years, will retire soon.

Whittam Smith is expected to move quickly to appoint a successor.

The BBFC, which is funded by the British film industry, is nominally independent of the government but is expected to work closely with the Home Office.

Its censorship of home videos is supposed to go beyond offering advice. Since 1985, the board's classifications in this field have had the force of law.

In a recent statement, the Home Office criticized the BBFC as being "a law unto itself." In the case of the two offending videos, the Home Office said the board had "decided to move the goal posts, resulting in an absurd situation."

In September, in response to rising public concern that many children were able to view unsuitable videos and watch sex and violence on TV, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children issued a free booklet to British parents.

The pamphlet advises parents to monitor juvenile viewing closely and draws special attention to violence in news programs that, it says, many children find most upsetting.

The booklet also condemns excessive violence in video games.

It states: "You know your children better than anyone. It's your responsibility to protect them from images that may be harmful or disturbing."

Significantly, Whittam Smith says he will extend the BBFC's mandate to include closer monitoring of video games before they are put on the market.

It may take a while to get a stricter system running.

Whittam Smith is indicating that he will adopt a new approach to film censorship. "I think cinema films and home videos should be classified differently," he says.

Whittam Smith adds, "In the cinema there is a gatekeeper who can deny entry to young people. But with videos it is almost entirely up to parents."

It would seem that the curtain is about to fall on legally-circulating pornographic home videos in Britain.

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