Given the fight we’re in, it’s important that we really understand what actually drives censorship.
On a recent episode of the Free Speech Union podcast, I got to talk with David Gregory, the co-owner of Severin Films, an L.A. based restoration and distribution company that rereleases classic horror, fantasy, and exploitation titles.
OK, full disclosure: I’m a massive horror fan and have been since I was a kid. So, on that level, it was a thrill to engage with a kindred spirit (another former horror kid). But be assured, I wasn’t abusing my office at the Free Speech Union. The topic we discussed was right in our wheelhouse. Censorship. Or, more specifically, British Film Censorship in the 1980’s.
But that was bloody decades ago, I bet you’re thinking. And in another country. We’ve got real free speech concerns now, right in front of us, like cancel culture in media, hate speech laws, and deplatforming at universities.
I admit, I wasn’t expecting much more than a fascinating history lesson on a topic that interests me. But David and my talk was seriously enlightening as to what type of people censors are, their modus operandi, and what, ultimately, they are trying to achieve.
Trust me. It’s a great episode, so I don’t want to give too much away, but in a nutshell the explosion of home video in the early 80’s led to a type of moral panic in the UK. The difference between this medium and those that came before was you could press pause on the dirty or violent bits, rewind, and watch them again. And again.
The Chief Censor at the time was a man named James Ferman. Ferman’s 24-year tenure extended through the birth of home video. The Video Recordings Act of 1984 was created to ensure commercial video recordings offered for sale or for hire within the UK carried a classification that has been agreed upon by an authority designated by the Home Office. This led to many outright bans, including of films that had previously been available (though not on the new medium of home video) such as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and the 1971 Dustin Hoffman film “Straw Dogs”.
Commenting on the “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” Ferman explicitly stated that he was specifically worried about the film’s affect on the “car worker from Birmingham” and would also speak of the danger of “people in their bedsits”, utilising their revolutionary new pause and rewind buttons, whipping themselves into a frenzy with a flood of uncensored exploitation films.
Ferman’s unashamed classism - that the uneducated and unskilled worker was more susceptible to influence from controversial material – was also confirmed in the fact that high brow artistic films were treated more leniently by his office. They were for the educated, of course! The wealth class are incorruptible!
There was no science to any of this. For example, Ferman had a thing for nunchucks and demanded cuts of a “Teenage Mutant Turtles” film accordingly. Blood on breasts was another big no-no, despite no study affirming that viewers became instantly inflamed by exposure to such imagery. Ferman, it seems, was totally going off vibes – as most censors do - and was potentially revealing his own idée fixe in the process.
So, how is this relevant to us?
Because these same haughty impulses are driving our own government’s current censorship push. The classist idea that the unwashed are more susceptible to misinformation is indistinguishable from Ferman’s pitifully low expectations of the British working class of the 80’s.
The UK retained a strong class system through the 70’s and 80’s which is why censorship there was so prevalent: It is a tool for denying the working class. New means of communication, from the translation of the Bible through to the printing press, and the internet, have always troubled society’s most powerful. We are living through such an age, where a power-class are once again fearful of unfettered speech and information threatening their position.
You will often hear our government speak of wanting societal cohesion when they try to justify their censorship agenda. But order would be a better word to use, and by order I mean the top remaining on top, and those on the bottom rung equally staying put. We may be looking at a restructuring of society through censorship to ensure adequate measures for suppression exist for when the real financial pain hits. Surely, it’s no coincidence that censorship has returned to the West at a moment when inequality is so pronounced.
Who would have thought it would be a Labour government that saw as a central project the firm establishment of a new caste system? But this is what censorship seeks to entrench. I don’t need to tell you that this is not the Kiwi way.