It’s time for Ireland to stop compulsory film classification

Hugh Linehan: Why should we classify DVDs and cinema releases but not Netflix?

The last Irish film censor, John Kelleher, who was instrumental in seeing through legislative reform in 2008. Photograph: Eric Luke

The last Irish film censor, John Kelleher, who was instrumental in seeing through legislative reform in 2008. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

The news from Italy this week was unequivocal. “Film censorship has been abolished,” the country’s culture minister Dario Franceschini declared in a statement issued on Monday evening. “The system of controls and interventions that still allow the state to intervene in the freedom of artists has been definitively ended.”

In fact, the Italian censorship regime had largely fallen into disuse, and the dramatic announcement merely made that reality official. Film distributors will now self-classify their own titles based on existing age brackets similar to those in Ireland, such as “over 18” or “under 12 if accompanied by an adult”. In time, a commission of film industry figures and education experts will be set up as a review mechanism for those classification decisions.

Censorship ain’t what it used to be, including in Ireland. Here, as elsewhere, it’s been replaced by a different C-word. The last Irish film censor, John Kelleher, was instrumental in seeing through legislative reform which in 2008 renamed and redefined his office: he was now a Classifier of films. As a result, the curtain was finally lowered on a long, shameful history of repression, philistinism and bowdlerisation that dated back to the very beginnings of the independent Irish state.

Paradoxically, during the same period the size and scope of the office was growing as it took on the task of classifying large numbers of home video releases. These changes represented a largely successful attempt by the State to come to grips with technological change while simultaneously reflecting the liberalisation of Irish society in the 1990s and 2000s.

It seems an increasing absurdity to devote so much energy and time to a format that is clearly on its last legs and is rarely if ever seen by the young people who are supposedly the priority of the system

And there matters have remained for well over a decade. The Irish Film Classification Office (IFCO) views and classifies theatrical releases and videos/DVDs (remember them?). It does not, however, classify the vast majority of the film releases which have been reviewed in The Irish Times over the last few months.

Those films never made it to cinemas due to Covid-19 and you’d have to go out of your way to track them down on DVD. They were released by streaming companies such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, or were made available to buy or rent on platforms like Google and Apple, where IFCO’s writ does not apply.

Should it? IFCO’s mission statement says it “examines and certifies all cinema films and videos/DVDs distributed in Ireland” with the aim of providing “the public and parents in particular with a modern and dependable system of classification that protects children and young persons, has regard for freedom of expression and has respect for the values of Irish society”.

That service may  retain some residual value for consumers, particularly families seeking age-appropriate viewing. However, pretty much everyone these days, from traditional broadcasters to on-demand streamers, offers similar classifications. And parents can choose to set filters on everything from internet browsers to TV set-top boxes if they want to block unwelcome content.

The world has changed and the time has come to ask whether we need IFCO anymore. The office itself currently consists of the Director of Film Classification, five part-time assistant classifiers (including media professionals and academics) and six civil servants from the Department of Justice. In 2019 it classified just over 500 theatrical releases and just under 2,000 video releases (the latter representing a precipitous 50 per cent decline in volume over just three years). It also took in just over a million euro in fees from distribution companies.

It seems an increasing absurdity to devote so much energy and time to DVD, a format that is clearly on its last legs and is rarely if ever seen by the young people who are supposedly the priority of the system. And it’s highly unlikely that this or any future government will seek to impose a specifically Irish classification requirement on Netflix or Amazon, much less YouTube or TikTok.

(None of this, by the way, should be confused with existing laws on obscenity, defamation or hate speech, which continue to apply to all modes of communication, including film.)

So the inexorable logic of what has been happening over the last few years is that, sooner rather than later, the Irish classification system will return to its roots, being applied again solely to cinema releases, while ignoring the much larger, more popular and more profitable channels through which most people get their films and TV.

This seems a deeply unfair burden to place on cinemas, which have not exactly been thriving in recent years but which, unlike Netflix, actually employ Irish people and also remain a vitally important - some would argue essential - part of the full experience of the art form.

The centenary of the Irish Film Censor’s office falls in 2023. What better way to recognise that doleful landmark than by finally getting the State out of the projection booth?

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