VTR Date: October 2, 1996
Guest: Dickie, John
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THE OPEN MIND
Guest: John Dickie
Title: “Anything Goes”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And as some of you know, for my sins, I suppose, I also served for 20 years as chairman of our motion picture industry’s voluntary film classification and rating system. Indeed, it was in that benighted guise that I first met today’s Open Mind guest from Down Under, John Dickie, who in earlier years was mostly known as Australia’s Chief Censor. Now mostly as the head of its Office of Film and Literature Classification. Nor is that a difference in semantics. Because in what some deplore as an unseemly trendy American way, around the world, “Anything Goes” now seems more and more to be the slogan of our modern mass media. Anything goes, at least as long as it’s classified and rated. Even the British Board of Film Censors has now become known as the British Board of Film Classification. Not, of course, that censorship doesn’t survive, both near and far. But the permissive, non-censorious American way has largely prevailed. And unless incredibly provoked, no one any longer seems to dare “Just say no” to the more and more powerful mass media.
Classification seems very much to be in; censorship out. To some, of course, that means Jefferson has triumphed. Others who perhaps know better his many sides aren’t really all that certain.
Anyway, chief classifier or chief censor, the week before taping this program, my Australian friend, John Dickie, was in London speaking at the Fourth International Conference on Standards in Screen Entertainment where the focus was largely on violence in the media. Mr. Dickie also did me the honor while there of reading a paper I had prepared but couldn’t fly to London to deliver. So I depend upon my guest to report what the mood is among the world’s media classifiers and/or censors. John? What is that mood?
DICKIE: It was a change from last time, I think, Dick. The mood seems to be that, I think as you described it in the opening, the trend away from banning materials. In previous years many of the countries that were at that conference were in the active business of excluding material from showing either on film or on video. A lot of the countries are now taking the stance that we should classify, put them into the different categories related to age, to give as much information as possible, so that people can make up their own mind and aren’t taken by surprise. But generally the trend is away from banning films. And that’s right round the world. And that’s films of all kinds. The sexually explicit material and things like that. There are some differences because there are some religious differences across the spectrum of the countries. But the one, I suppose the thing that caused the most concern at the conference was violent films. And I suppose particularly films from Hollywood that were violent films. And I suppose with conferences like this there are never any easy answers to what to do with films like that. But the consensus seemed to be that we should be trying to educate our different communities for them to be making the informed choices rather than governments or even industry bodies doing it for them.
HEFFNER: Well, now, what was it, 14, 15 years ago, when I attended the First International Conference in London, I was the brash (not young, but brash) middle-aged American who was, not making fun of you censors, but essentially saying, “I’m a Jeffersonian. We the Jeffersonians, we believe in liberty and freedom, in voluntarism,” and the others were taking a very different position and were hostile to me because, what the hell, we Americans were pouring onto the market so much of the violent material in particular that the censors gathered there, the censors and classifiers gathered there had to deal with. Now, I’ve changed. As you know. You were kind enough to read that paper. Why have we passed like ships in the night? Why have they changed?
DICKIE: Well, I think you ought to qualify what you would say about you having changed. I mean, you haven’t come to the stage where you would say, “That film is too violent to be seen.” I mean, you would give it a right no matter what happened to it. In some of the countries, and in Australia, there could e occasions, and there are occasions, where we actually still refuse to classify a film. Now that’s mainly not mainstream cinema. A lot of the material that we get from Hong Kong is on the borderline for us because it combines what our community regarded as the most serious of the violent categories, and that’s either a mix of sex and violence, sexualized violence, or a film, you know, with just too much sexual violence in it. Now we may be passing, but I don’t think we’ve passed yet, because I think the American position is, and all of the academics that were there from the United States, when pushed about what they would do about violent films, whether or not they would cut them, they take the position that they shouldn’t be cut. Now …
HEFFNER: They take the position again that information about the films is sufficient?
DICKIE: Yes, I think so. I mean, on the information side, there is a growing consensus. In Australia, for the last eight or nine years, we’ve had consumer advice on every film and video that we classify. And the idea for that was that people should not be taken by surprise. We say once you get to 18, adulthood, you can really make up your own mind; the state doesn’t owe you terribly much. What we try to do is to give people an idea of whether it’s a violent film, whether it’s got drugs, whether it’s got high levels of coarse language, whether it’s got sex scenes, and allow them to make up their minds as adults to see what they do. Underwriting it’s a slightly different matter from our point of view because we consider our task as assisting parents in making informed choices for their families. And I think we do have some sort of role for people under the age of 18, in a guidance role, so that if we have a film that comes in and it has scenes in it which, in our view, are sufficiently strong that we think somebody under the age of 18 would not be able to cope adequately with it, we’ll give it an R rating and consequently all the way down. An M rating, which is roughly equivalent to your R rating here …
HEFFNER: Yeah, but your R rating is equivalent to the old X or the present NC-17.
DICKIE: NC-17. That’s right, yes. Yes.
HEFFNER: What … you talk about the responsibility you have to children, to people under 18.
HEFFNER: Whence comes that responsibility, that parents aren’t exercising their own responsibility? That you, as a government agency, know better than the parents? Where?
DICKIE: Well, I don’t think we’d ever presume to know better than the parents. Our authority comes from legislation. It’s as simple as that. We administer legislation. And when I say “we,” there is a board of 11 people which is selected from the community. We advertise nationally. And the idea is that people from the community come in and serve for a term of three years, or perhaps a second term of three years, and apply guidelines that have been approved by the federal and state ministers in the Australian case, and try to bring to those guidelines current community standards, because that’s our test. Now I don’t think that a board of 11 people on particular films can outguess parents. But what we say to parents is, “If you don’t like films with sex scenes in it, we’ll tell you that it’s got sex scenes in it. We’ll give you some idea of whether it’s low level or high level, and you make the choice. Because if you’ve got kids who are age 12 or 14 or 15, you know better than we do what age levels are better equipped to look at those films;” And we see our role – and hence the change from censorship to classification – we see our role more as classifiers now than censors. In the old days it was quite common for the board to actually cut films that would come in 8,000 feet and, you know, disappear 7,223 or something like that, courtesy of the censorship board. But that doesn’t happen anymore. Films come in to us, we give them a classification, the distributor may like the rating that they’ve got, they may not, they might talk to us to find out the bits which got them the particular rating, and they take the film away, sometimes they send it back here to the United States for reconstruction, sometimes they might edit it in Australia, and then resubmit it to us. So, I mean, to some extent we try and help them if they’re after a particular rating. But they don’t say to us when it comes in, “We want a PG rating or an M.” They submit the film, and we give it a rating.
HEFFNER: John, let me ask this: Contrasting what you used to do with what you do now, what was the basis upon which you prohibited certain things from being available to children? Was it that at that time there was the feeling that the state board did no better than parents?
DICKIE: Oh, I think so, yeah, yeah, yeah.
HEFFNER: All right. Now, what has changed?
DICKIE: Well, I think that as a community we’ve become a bit more enlightened. There was a great deal of dissatisfaction with the old scheme. I mean, and I’m talking about in the ’60’s and early ’70’s. The early ’70’s was when it changed. When ministers for customs would have arbitrary power to disallow a film coming into the country or saying, “We’re going to cut this much out of it” and so forth, without any real community input at all. I mean, the censorship board was comprised of people from the civil service, and they just arbitrarily went about their task. And the community, I think, grew up a bit, then said, “We really don’t want government agencies telling us what we can watch and what we can’t watch.”
HEFFNER: But the response to that, I gather, was that the community … You’re talking about parents now?
DICKIE: I’m talking about the general community.
HEFFNER: All right. But then let me separate out the parents of the children who the previous boards were seeking to protect. Is there an assumption now that parents are more concerned, have more time at the end of the 20th Century than they did earlier on to select the things that their children will see or will not see? Will they be better parents to that extent?
DICKIE: No, no, I don’t know about better parents. But I mean, I think there’s a conception around now that parents are faced with greater tasks than they ever were then. I mean, cinema films were just practically the only thing they had to deal with. I mean, television had come in, but to some extent that wasn’t a colossal problem at that stage. But, I mean, you’ve now got videos in the home, which adds a new dimension to a whole lot of things because, I mean, as you were saying in your paper, the old days of film censorship were designed for a suburban theater, not the massive complexes you have now, but the suburban theater where a lot of the people in the box office actually knew the kids who were coming in, and if kids were trying to sneak in, I mean, which has been something that kids have done for time immemorial …
HEFFNER: Right. Right.
DICKIE: And, I mean, they’d give them a boot in the backside and send them home if they were coming into something that they shouldn’t. But it’s more difficult now. I mean, you’ve got kids buying tickets at the admission center and there’s six or seven films to choose from. And, now, apart from the films, there’s the video games, there’s computer games, there is the Internet, which is really only in its infancy in terms of people using it. I mean, there’s a lot of people using it, but in terms of percentage of the population it’s quite minor at this stage. So that there is a lot of pressure on parents. And I think whole governments are reacting a little bit to that to try to, I suppose, ease the burden, if it’s possible.
HEFFNER: But, John, I would think that “easing the burden” would mean becoming, in a sense, if you’ll forgive me, more rather than less censorious. There are so many more things that parents have to be wary about that to provide them with information and to say, “Well, now we’re helping you; we’re not going to put a barrier between your children and this material or, and there’ll e a lesser and lesser barrier, and we’re providing you with this information.” The question that arises in my mind is: Aren’t you saying it to parents who don’t have the time to make that information a basis for their choice? Or are we talking about two communities, the Australian and the American, that are so different that parents in Australia by and large still exercise those prerogatives of parenthood that we certainly used to in this country but seemingly don’t any longer?
DICKIE: I think there wouldn’t be much significance, Dick. I think that parents these days … I mean, family life has changed in many parts of the world, Australia, the United States, and parents are confronting children who are far more media literate, who find different ways of getting around things. I mean, parents might put their foot down and say, “You can’t watch that,” and they’ll be met with saying, “All the kids at school are doing it. Maryann’s having a sleepover party and inviting the kids.” Well, I mean, I can’t ever remember sleepover parties. Certainly in those days, you know, sort of an early teenage. But, I mean, that’s sort of an accepted part of the school pattern these days.
And I suppose the other thing too is that coping with kids who are media literate and pretty self-assertive is a bit of a task for parents. But at my organization, at the OFLC, we have community groups in after we’ve made a classification to see – not all the time, but about eight to 10 times a year – we have groups that come in. And in one of these groups of about 30 we had kids aged 15 to 17, and they watched Cliffhanger, and we got a view from them about Cliffhanger, and they all thought it was deep and meaningful and a terrific film and that the violence wasn’t any problem, and …
HEFFNER: What’s the matter with those kids? (Laughter)
DICKIE: Well they said, one of my board was asking them about violence in videos and sex scenes, and said to them, “How do you handle sex scenes with videos at home?” And it was interesting, the reaction, because they said, “Look, it’s just not where’s the candle. You’d be home on a Sunday night and a video will come on and you’ll see a sex scene coming up and the old man will be sitting there and you can see him getting uncomfortable and putting his finger around his collar and looking over at Mom and she’d be looking up at the ceiling and she’d get up and say, ‘Look, I want to go to the loo, or make a cup of tea’ or something like that.” And they said, “We look back at the old man and he doesn’t know whether to say, ‘Turn it off.’” And then they said, almost in unison, they said, “Look really it’s just not worth the effort. The olds can’t handle it.” You see? So, I mean, parents have got to put up with a …
HEFFNER: Well, you see, if you say, “The olds can’t handle it …”
DICKIE: They say, “The olds can’t handle it.” I’m one of the olds, you see.
HEFFNER: Well think of me, then. The old olds. But if the olds can’t handle it, how can the former censors, the present classifiers of the world go about saying, “We’re responding to contemporary, to the pressures of the contemporary world. We’re making it easier.” When indeed it seems to me you’re making it all that much harder. The olds can’t do it, and you’re feeding them the information which seems to be based on the notion that they’re going to make some use of this. Instead they get uncomfortable. As you say, they go to the loo or make a pot of tea.
DICKIE: Yeah. Well, I think they try. I think they try. And, you know, and I’m classifying myself as one of the olds. And they’re confronted by a technology that they’re really not familiar with. A survey that we did in Australia showed that, one of the surveys that was carried out showed that 10 percent of people over the age of 40 were able to preset a VCR; but 10 percent of the kids under 14 couldn’t. So that they are not aware of the technology. I mean, your point about the V-chip. They’re not really aware about the technology. But we try to give them whatever piece that they can grasp hold of in an effort to try and regulate what their kids are watching.
HEFFNER: Well, let’s talk for a minute about the V-chip.
HEFFNER: Is Australia as much involved in this idea, this what I consider sort of cockamamie technological-fix notion of the V-chip and a rating system for all the media will solve our problems?
DICKIE: Yeah, I don’t quite know whether the Australian government would necessarily go along with that description. But …
HEFFNER: Neither would Bill Clinton or Al Gore.
DICKIE: Well, this is true. This is true. And who am I to disagree with them? But I think, I think why they’ve embraced it is that it may help. I mean, it may do something positive. It might not do all of the things that it was set up for, but it may help. And I think governments are really grasping at whatever they can to give parents whatever assistance it’s possible to give. Now, the V-chip may not be the answer. On the Internet, where there is a similar problem, there is a scramble now to try and provide some kind of blocking systems which will allow the great benefits of the stuff that’s on the ’Net but yet exclude from the younger children some of the more offensive stuff that’s there. And they are being developed and they’re becoming more and more sophisticated. There are different kinds of writing systems, they’re a bit elementary at the moment, but sooner or later there will be some kind of writing system that the parents will be able to use to put on the ’Net to exclude some of the worst stuff. Now, parents know far better than the regulators at what stage and at what setting they should put these. I mean, it’s a pretty daunting task these days of having intellectual discussion about what they can see and what they can’t see with 14-year-olds, because their view is that, you know, there’s really nothing more than is out there to be seen. And I mean, you know, kids have been saying this to parents for centuries. But really I think whatever assistance we can give, and whatever information we can give to parents, I think we ought to do. Now, on the ’Net, in Australia anyway, there is some stuff which the government says, even so, ought to be excluded from the community. That’ll be very difficult because you can only really regulate it from your own country.
HEFFNER: John, do you think that that means (and this question came to my mind four or five years ago in London at the Third Conference) that the game is over? That classifiers can do their work, but the censors really have to fold their tents like the Arabs and silently or noisily sneak away? Because there’s no way of keeping this stuff out of the home into which it comes?
DICKIE: Well, there may be some degrees of effectiveness. I mean, there may be diminished degrees of effectiveness. But I mean, in my country there are a lot of people who want the government to come in and be more active than it is. And, I mean, that’s a constant battle. Now, I suspect that there are a lot of people in the United States who have, great sections of the community that want government to move in and regulate content on television, on the ’Net, on whatever else. Now, you’ve got the First Amendment; we haven’t. And I would be surprised, I would be surprised if communities throughout the world or segments within the community acquiesced and said, “Well, you know, we’ll just have to throw up our hands and give it away.”
HEFFNER: John, that’s probably a good point at which to say I’ve gotten the signal. Not going to throw it away or give it up, but thank you very much for joining me today on The Open Mind.
DICKIE: It’s been a great pleasure, Dick.
And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like to a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”