Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Trouble With RC

There is something slightly pythonesque about Australia's National Classification Code. In addition to the classifications that classify content, there is a classification, paradoxically named "Refused Classification" for classifying content that is otherwise refused classification.

"Wait a minute, didn't you say these things were not to be classified? How come you just classified them? Bertand, I think we may need your help here."

It is interesting to reflect on how other countries address the paradox of the classifying the unclassifiable with an oxymoronic classification.

Like us, France rates content such as film with a scheme that roughly correlates with age of people for whom the content is suitable. There is a category suitable for everyone (like our G), a category for under 10's, under 12's, under 16's and under 18's. And then there is everything else. Perhaps they name this category, perhaps they don't. Unlike Australia, they don't attempt to classify material suitable for adults any further. They may ban it, they just don't attempt to apply the weight of their film and literature classification bureaucracy to the task of classifying it. Or should that be the task of refusing to classify it. Anyway, they don't spend too much time thinking about. If a film is just wrong, they just ban it. They are French. They have no need to think further about such vulgarities!

The US is similar. The industry rates films, the market decides. America being the somewhat puritanical market that it is, will typically not buy anything rated NC-17 so the industry tries very hard not classify things that way. The idea that there could be something more perverse than NC-17 is a foreign, dare I say French, concept to the average American consumer. Of course, there is something more perverse than NC-17. That's labelled obscene. If your film is labelled obscene, and the court agrees, you will go to jail.

Australia loves its classification without a name (or rather, its classification without a sensible name). More particularly, Australian politicians love it. For them, the Refused Classification non-classification is a secular equivalent of Cardinal Pell. Instead of calling on the Lord to get them out of a fix, Australian politicians call on the great Too Hard Basket in the sky - the "Refused Classification" classification (or is it a non-classification, I keep forgetting).

Politicians can use RC to hide all sorts of trouble. Child porn, slap an RC-rating on it. Adult-oriented games, slap an RC-rating on it. Margaret Pomeranz's taste in American social commentaries - slap an RC-rating on it. They love the fact that innocuous things like adult-oriented games and vile things like child porn have the same label. It makes it so much easier for them to label their opponents as purveyors of filth.

The best thing about RC is that its all so much easier than making things actually illegal. If you start making things actually illegal, the people are going to get ticked off. Sure, you have made it slightly harder for people to get the material that is classified that way, but the people will still get it. That's not the point. By brandishing your moralistic credentials in front of the public at large you can claim whatever votes you believe that's worth and get back to whatever it is that politicians do on those long, cold nights in Canberra.

So if you wonder why Australia is planning to line its film and literature classifiers up along side the police forces of the world in the fight against child sexual abuse, wonder no longer. The RC has got Australian politicians out of a fix before and, as long as we let them, it will get them out of a fix again.

Update: In another conversation it has been pointed out to me that in order to protect the integrity of the ACMA complaints system, ACMA may refuse to accept a public complaint. Now, whether this is best characterised as refusal to classify or refusal to refuse to classify, I am not sure. However, it does seem like this is the only actual way a content item can actually be refused classification by the system. I think you will agree, this is really quite remarkable.


Dan Buzzard said...

Something I find interesting is the idea of "Offensive" Content. I have never ever found anything offensive. To me Offensive Content is 100% non-existent.

Secondly Refused Classification is just that, content that hasn't been classified. In other words ALL the content that has not passed through the governments classification system.

Will the Government give this comment a classification? If not then it has been refused classification.


Ms Naughty said...

Both the US and France have constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech. We can't even get a bill of rights on its feet.

To clarify: the US MPAA rating system is completely voluntary and market forces have helped to make it somewhat conservative with regards to the dreaded NC17 rating. But US films don't have to have a rating at all. Every adult film in the US is released without censorship or indeed, without having to pay "classification" fees to a govt body for the right to sell it (as happens here). The film is simply "unrated". It's up to the individual to decide whether they want to watch it.

"Obscenity" is not the next logical step from NC17. In order for something to be declared obscene, you need to take it to court and see if it fails the notorious "Miller Test" of community standards and artistic value. As oppposed to here where where a very small group of unelected officials are able to make judgement calls on what's "obscene" (spanking, BDSM, female ejaculation) and what's not.

In France, classification is compulsory, but only if you want to screen a film theatrically.