Classification in the UK is based on statute and is relatively complex and extensive, similar to the current Australian scheme.
Films and DVDs must be classified by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) before public release. The BBFC is an independent, non-government body established by the film industry to classify films. Though the BBFC’s classification decisions may be overridden by local council authorities, this is a rare occurrence. Films may be classified U, PG, 12/12A, 15, 18, and R18. Films that receive U, PG, or 12 classifications are unrestricted; however, anyone under 12 years of age must be accompanied by an adult in order to view a 12A film. No one under 15 may see or purchase a film classified ‘15’, and one must be at least 18 to view or purchase a film rated ‘18’.
The BBFC also has, and exercises, the authority to refuse a classification to films or other media deemed ‘obscene’, defined as material whose ‘effect is, if taken as a whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.’ Rejected films may not be legally sold anywhere in the UK.
Until recently, most computer games were exempt from classification unless they contained content such as sexual activity, gross violence or other matters of concern. Games in this category were classified by the BBFC before they could be distributed. All other computer games were classified on a voluntary basis by the Video Standards Council (VSC) using the PEGI classification system which is used throughout Europe.
In 2009, the UK announced that all computer games sold in the UK would receive classifications from PEGI, which has a nine-member advisory board comprised of parents, consumers associations, child psychology experts, academics, media experts and the interactive software industry. Under the new system, games are classified and labelled under the PEGI classifications of 3, 7, 12, 16, or 18, which also include descriptors that depict the reasons why a game received a particular classification. The classifications, which correspond to the age requirement for purchasing the game, are legally enforceable. The VSC retains the power to ban games it deems inappropriate for release in the UK even if they have received a PEGI classification.
Television is regulated under the Ofcom Broadcasting Code (Broadcasting Code) administered by the Office of Communications (‘Ofcom’), the government regulator for the communications industry. Since the adoption of the Audiovisual Media Service Directive in 2009, IPTV is also subject to certain baseline content regulations for both television broadcasting and on-demand services. Though the Broadcasting Code does not mandate a classification system for television content, some television stations have voluntarily implemented their own classification system. The Broadcasting Code provides that content inappropriate for children should not be aired between the hours of 5.30 am and 9 pm. Premium film services may air content equivalent to BBFC-rated 15 any time of day so long as a pin-protected system is in place to restrict access to those authorised to view. There is a further requirement that ‘those security systems which are in place to protect children must be clearly explained to all subscribers.’
Internet content in the UK is largely unregulated. On a voluntary basis, most ISPs block URLs on the Internet Watch Foundation’s worldwide list of child sexual abuse content, as well as criminally obscene adult content including non-photographic child sexual abuse images hosted in the UK. In October 2011, four of the largest ISPs in the UK committed to a government-backed Code of Practice on Parental Controls that includes updating their policy in order to give new customers an ‘active choice’ whether to activate a filter to screen sexually explicit content on computers connected to their account.
The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 c 4 (UK) made possession of material deemed ‘extreme pornography’ a criminal offence. Extreme pornography is defined as an image for sexual arousal that ‘is grossly offensive, disgusting or otherwise of an obscene character,’ which depicts bestiality, necrophilia, or an act which is likely to result in serious injury or death. Pornographic material not deemed extreme is legal but may only be sold to adults age 18 or older. Neither internet pornography nor pornographic publications are required to be classified, and the latter can be found in shops that sell newspapers and magazines. Classification of all videos, including pornographic films is mandated. Films classified R18 must only be screened to adults in specially licensed cinemas while DVDs assigned an R18 classification may only be sold in licensed sex shops which are prohibited from displaying their wares in shop windows. Film classification requirements do not apply to material on the internet, and the BBFC has noted that ‘material cut as a condition of classification can also be posted on a website … the viewer then simply has to visit the website to see the material that was cut under the [Video Recordings Act 1984]’.
The possession, production, or distribution of child pornography is illegal, with an offence punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment.