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The arrival of videos in the UK, including 'video nasties', and the Video Recordings Act 1984.

The Video Recordings Act

Video recorders were first introduced in the UK in 1978. At the time there was no legislation governing what could be released on video or to whom video recordings could be supplied. Initially the major distributors were wary of releasing their films on video because they felt video tapes might have an adverse effect on cinema revenues. This left the market open for smaller distributors who, in most cases, could only afford to release low budget material, including horror and pornography. Because there was no legislation governing video recordings, these companies were therefore able to release films that had not been submitted to the BBFC for cinema release, uncut versions of films that had been cut by the BBFC and even films that had been refused a certificate altogether by the BBFC. Some of the films released contained scenes that would be in contravention of UK laws on animal cruelty and obscenity. Even more worrying was the fact that such films were available, in theory at least, to children of any age.

Obscene Publications Act

Public and political concern increased in 1982 with the release of films such as SS Experiment CampCannibal HolocaustSnuff and The Driller Killer. Quite apart from the content of the films, the advertising for them seemed calculated to cause offence and controversy. The BBFC responded by introducing a voluntary scheme for rating video recordings. Although the major companies - who were now beginning to release their films on video - were happy to submit titles for age ratings, the smaller companies were under no obligation to follow suit. Therefore the voluntary system was unable to remove what were seen as the worst examples from the shelves. The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) responded by issuing a list of videos that he believed may be in breach of the Obscene Publications Act (OPA). This came to be known as the 'video nasties' list. The difficulty with this approach, however, was that a work could only be prosecuted once it had been released, which meant that a large number of copies would already be in circulation and in people's homes.  Furthermore, even if a video was found to be obscene in one court, it was possible that it might not be found obscene in another. So a conviction against any particular title did not automatically stop it being sold everywhere.

‘Video nasties’

Given the problems with effective enforcement of the 'video nasties' list, and the reluctance of smaller companies to offer their titles for voluntary age rating, Parliament passed the Video Recordings Act in 1984. This Act required that all video works (including laserdiscs and, later, DVDs) must be rated - and, if necessary, cut or rejected - by an authority designated by the Home Secretary (it is now the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport who is in charge of the DCMS). Given the BBFC's experience of dealing with cinema films for over 70 years, it was the obvious choice. From 1985, all video works released in the UK would be submitted to the BBFC and be rated at an appropriate category (U, PG, 15, 18, R18 - the 12 category was only introduced in 1994 ). Supply of age-restricted videos to persons under the age stated on the certificate would become illegal and the supply of unrated videos would also become a criminal offence.  

In making decisions under the Act, the BBFC was required to consider 'whether or not video works are suitable for a classification certificate to be issued to them, having special regard to the likelihood of video works [...] being viewed in the home' and to consider whether a video was 'not suitable for viewing by persons who have not attained a particular age' or whether 'no video recording containing that work is to be supplied other than in a licensed sex shop'.

The Act also required that tapes, disc and packaging should be correctly labelled with the BBFC certificate and an explanation of that certificate (eg 'Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over. Not to be supplied to any person below that age').

Given the enormous number of video works already in circulation, those video works that had already been released were given a series of deadlines by which they must be rated or removed from the shelves. However, by 1st September 1988 all existing recordings needed to have been rated.

In January 2010, the Video Recordings Act 2010 (VRA 2010) came into force. This simultaneously repealed and immediately revived without amendment the Video Recordings Act 1984, in order to correct a procedural error made during the passage of the VRA 1984.

The Video Recordings Act did, however, state that certain types of video works do not require age rating by the BBFC. These are:

  • works which, taken as a whole, are designed to inform, educate or instruct;
  • works which, taken as a whole, are concerned with sport, religion or music;

On 4 August 2014, the VRA was amended to lower the threshold at which certain video content loses its exemption from classification. The amendment came into effect on 1 October 2014, so documentaries, sports and music video works that could claim exemption before 1 October now need to seek a BBFC classification if they contain material which could be potentially harmful or otherwise unsuitable for children. This means such works will lose their exemption and legally need to be classified if they contain material which would be rated at a 12 category and above.

Qualifying elements include issues such as the use of strong language, and the depiction or promotion of activities involving illegal drugs or the misuse of drugs. The complete list of elements that may require classification can be found here, but further examples include any work that:

  • depicts or promotes violence or threats of violence or the immediate aftermath of violence on human or animal characters;
  • depicts or promotes suicide or attempted suicide, or depicts the immediate aftermath of such an event;
  • depicts or promotes any act of scarification or mutilation of a person, or of self-harm, or depicts the immediate aftermath of such an act;
  • depicts techniques likely to be useful in the commission of offences or, through its depiction of criminal activity, promotes the commission of offences;
  • depicts or promotes acts of force or restraint associated with human sexual activity;
  • includes words or images that are intended or likely (to any extent) to cause offence, whether on the grounds of race, gender, disability, religion or belief or sexual orientation, or otherwise.

In response to increased public concerns about media violence (largely in connection with the murder of toddler Jamie Bulger in 1993), the Govenment made some changes to the tests laid out by the Video Recordings Act. Whereas previously the BBFC had been given broad discretion over what elements it should consider when making a decision on age ratings, the main elements of concern were now clearly spelled out. In fact the BBFC had already considered such elements when arriving at such decisions, but the new legislation provided useful clarification, including a specific test as to whether a work might cause 'harm'. The new tests required that the Board pays "special regard (among the other relevant factors) to any harm that may be caused to potential viewers or, through their behaviour, to society by the manner in which the work deals with -

  • criminal behaviour;
  • illegal drugs;
  • violent behaviour and incidents;
  • horrific behaviour or incidents; or
  • human sexual activity

The 1994 legislation was supplemented by the Video Recordings (Review of Determinations) Order 1995, which allowed the BBFC to revisit any of its existing decisions in the light of the new tests. So far the BBFC has not needed to use these extra powers.

The 1994 legislation also redefined the nature of a 'video work' so as to more clearly include video games. Although the majority of games remained exempt from being age rated, the BBFC would now consider those games that included, amongst other things, gross violence, sexual activity, nudity and criminal acts.

Video games have now been around for over twenty years. In the early days, the comparatively pitiful processing power available to programmers meant that games were simple and uncontentious affairs. Games like 3D Monster Maze on the ZX81 were blocky and jerky and would pose no issues were they to be rated now. However, two major changes have taken place since then that have led to the BBFC having a much more significant influence over the rating of games. First of all, processing power has increased almost exponentially, to the degree that games like Half Life II mimic real life in a way that was inconceivable back in the early days. Secondly, the gaming public has grown up with the medium; the average games-player is now in his or her late 20s and is demanding more adult content. Games like the GTA Series and Manhunt cater for this demand.

As of 30 July 2012, and with a few limited exceptions, the responsibility for rating video games has shifted to the Video Standards Council Ratings Board (VSC), applying the PEGI system. The BBFC continues to rate all games featuring strong pornographic (R18 level) content and ancillary games attached to a wider, primarily linear submission. The BBFC will also continue to rate all non-game linear content on a game disc, such as trailers and featurettes.