Ramsey’s Rant: Censorship

By Ramsey Campbell

I admit it: I failed. In my latest novel, The One Safe Place, I tried to parody some of the excesses of censorship, but reality has outstripped what I wrote. James Cameron's True Lies, which was considered suitable for anyone over fifteen to watch in British cinemas, has now been cut for video because a scene is 'demeaning to women'.

Ironically, when I saw the film at the cinema with my wife and son, Jenny was the only one of us who really liked it, though she isn’t into being demeaned. But madness of a kind not seen here since the thirties, when films starring Karloff and Lugosi were solemnly compared by the Times to the spectacle of actual death in the Roman arena, is abroad – indeed, it’s on the statute book. How else to explain an incident last month at a film fair, where a stallholder stocking American copies of Godzilla movies was told by an officer from Trading Standards that he couldn’t sell them because the PG rating on them wasn’t British? Lord help us, I wrote almost exactly such a confrontation in my novel.

I submit two further documents in evidence of our present state. One is a pamphlet available in every video library, A Parent’s Guide to Video Classification. ‘Mum, can I watch a video?’ cries a cartoon of a boy, apparently unaware of the demeaningly sexist implications of his first word, as he waves his right hand about while employing his left for some vigorous but surreptitious purpose. At first the attitude espoused by the pamphlet seems entirely reasonable – parents are indeed the best people to choose what’s suitable for their children to watch, since they know them best – but that view is contradicted by the boast that Britain’s is ‘the most restricted video industry in the free world’, which the writer of the pamphlet identifies as a reason to be proud. For an opposing view – indeed, quite a few of them – let us turn to the first issue of an essential magazine, David McGillivray’s Scapegoat.

You may not have heard of it; you almost certainly haven’t seen it on sale. Apparently the shelves of the newsagents and magazine shops have no room for it, perhaps because they’re overloaded with the kind of ignorant journalism which turned the Child’s Play films into a virtually unassailable popular myth. Sadly, intelligent argument seldom sells as well as the fallacies it seeks to refute – compare the sales of von Daniken’s books with those of the books that debunk them – but I find it especially dismaying when the marketplace censors arguments against censorship.

So what will you be able to read if you buy a copy? An extremely detailed survey of censorship worldwide is central to this first issue, and in itself worth considerably more than the £2.50 cover price. Which novel was refused by W H Smith unless cuts were made? Which country banned a BBC sounds effects record? In which country was Natural Born Killers rated (rightly, in my view) suitable for fifteen year olds? Which country (recently held up to us by some British media as an admirable model) bans Cosmopolitan and cut The Piano? I could fill my whole column with such questions (all of them answered in Scapegoat) but you get the idea. One thing you won’t feel after reading the magazine is comfortable, especially about British censorship.

A magazine like this, or like Barry Hoffman’s Gauntlet, has to confront the paradox of freedom of expression, and McGillivray’s solution is the opposite of Hoffman’s: he won’t print arguments in favour of censorship. He’s right, I think; those arguments, though most of them hardly deserve to be described as such, get such an amount of space elsewhere that it isn’t up to him to make room for them – not when his magazine contains so much else. Some of it is wry fun: an account of the workings of the Broadcasting Standards Council and an interview with a spokeswoman for the Adult Channel (a channel apparently censured by the ITC for showing material ‘unfit for family audiences’). Some of the contents confirm one’s worst suspicions: an interview with David Irving, revisionist historian and would-be contributor to the Jewish Chronicle; an analysis of the career of Mary Whitehouse, which is all the more timely now that the National Virgins’ and Loonies’ Association no longer has her to draw attention to its methods (its new figurehead, a Miss Boggle, seems less keen on public appearances, though I was invited to confront her on Granada TV last year); a report on urban redevelopment as a form of censorship; a descriptive listing of films refused a British video certificate; Stefan Jaworzyn’s passionate defence of Samhain’s John Gullidge against a determined attempt by his local newspaper to lose him his job at a playgroup because he edits a magazine about horror. I’ve met John, and I would have let him look after my children any day.

Whoa! I’m in danger of losing my temper, and since this is the very last instalment of my column, alas – my creative energy is no longer what it was – let me restrain myself, perhaps with a look at Kim Newman’s essay in Scapegoat about sensitivity to language (even if he does confuse Bob Newhart with Stan Freberg). David Flint attempts to interview David Alton and finds him guarded, just like Mary Whitehouse in my experience, by people whose job it is to allow no disagreement to reach him. Julian Petley quotes at length some of the most tendentious recent journalism in support of greater censorship in Britain. (Not, of course, censorship of journalism or ‘news’, even if they make it up.) Here’s another Julian, Clary, scratching his head over a few simple questions and ending by betting that snuff movies exist, though he’s never seen one. My temper is beginning to fray again – but what the hell, overall David McGillivray is doing a fine job as editor.

He’ll continue to do so if we support him. Scapegoat is available for £2.50 from Stray Cat Publishing Ltd.

Please support it! Otherwise, who knows, more of the things we care about may soon fall victim to censorship. Nothing helps censorship more than ignorance.

This column was originally published in 1995, in the March/April issue of the BFS Newsletter (#19.2), under the title “Ramsey’s (Last) Rant”. Fear not: Ramsey did eventually resume his rants, and they currently (2009) appear in every issue of Prism!