Censorship, Obscenity and the Williams Committee Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Censorship, Obscenity and the Williams Committee

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The story of a committee of thirteen people who scrutinised UK censorship law, and the nothing that was done as a result.

Some government committees are set up in response to some individual scandal or cause célèbre, an outburst of popular or political feeling, or to investigate some urgent and pressing social problem. No single incident provoked the appointment of the Williams Committee. Instead it was set up as part of the general process, always continuing and one fears never completed, of tidying up and rationalising the law (principally the criminal law). But the context in which the government's decision was taken was one in which there existed considerable dissatisfaction with the existing state of control and regulation of pornography. Some critics were primarily concerned with the law, and objected to the form it took and the apparently arbitrary way in which it was enforced. Others were more concerned to criticise what might be called the end product - a society in which real or supposed pornography was too readily, or not sufficiently readily available. Virtually nobody seemed to be pleased with the way things were... The general background to this dissatisfaction was no doubt the profound changes in public taste and acceptability (or some would say profound corruption of public morals and standards of public decency) associated with the rise of the permissive society in the 1960s and 1970s, and the sharp clash of attitudes between generations which this phenomenon produced.
- AWB Simpson, Pornography & Politics: The Williams Committee In Retrospect. 1983, Waterlow Publishers Ltd.; ISBN 0 08-039156 7.

Censorship in the Britain of 1977 was in a state of profound confusion1. Although there was a raft of statutes and common law offences to help keep citizens in thrall to their better natures, the selection was a source of administrative confusion as well as ideological dispute. Cinemas had been kept under some sort of control, thanks originally to the Cinematograph Act of 1909; it was introduced in order to prevent fire hazards in cinemas but actually gave local authorities the power to add whatever conditions they pleased to cinema licenses, and could therefore be adapted into a makeshift tool for censorship. Unified, nationwide pronouncements on what films people could see without being corrupted were subsequently needed, since it looked just too ridiculous when adjacent local authorities came to different conclusions about obscenity, and a film that was banned as a source of vice and corruption in one area was legal a mere bus ride away. Consequently the British Board of Film Censors (now the British Board of Film Classification) had achieved a sort of quasi-official status in the 1920s. Meanwhile, the censorship laws were falling into general disrepute; the Lady Chatterley's Lover trial in 1960 was an object of ridicule, and when the publisher of Inside Linda Lovelace was acquitted in 1976 the judge commented that if that book was not legally obscene, 'it might well be difficult to imagine anything that would fall within that category'.

In that time of darkness, the government turned to thirteen men and women — some wise, some learned, some Home Office-approved Ordinary People — and placed the fate of British media morals into their hands. Or at any rate that was roughly the idea at the time.

The Committee On Obscenity and Film Censorship

The Committee (widely known as the Williams Committee after its chairman, the distinguished moral philosopher Bernard Williams) was a Home Office committee that met thirty-five times from September 1977 to October 1979, heard from numerous people and interest groups and performed extensive research, with the task of examining 'obscene' and 'indecent' material2 (excluding broadcast material, because another committee was looking at that), what people thought of it and how the law dealt with it; and of proposing changes to the law. It had the following members3; Simpson notes that 'though it was predominantly male it had three women!'

  • Professor Bernard Williams, moral philosopher

  • Ben Hooberman, solicitor

  • His Honour Judge John Leonard QC, from the Old Bailey

  • Richard Matthews, formerly Chief Constable of Warwickshire

  • David Robinson, film critic for The Times

  • Sheila Rothwell, from the Equal Opportunities Committee

  • Professor AWB Simpson, Professor of Law

  • Dr Anthony Storr, consultant psychotherapist

  • MJ (Jessie) Taylor, headmistress

  • The Right Reverend John Tinsley, Bishop of Bristol

  • Polly Toynbee, journalist

  • Professor JG Weightman, Professor of French

  • Vivian A White, Secretary of the United Caribbean Association; also a youth and community worker

The Committee's Report

The Report of the Committee On Obscenity and Film Censorship runs to 269 pages, with a dark blue cover; according to Professor Simpson the colour was chosen to please the Conservative government, since the Committee had been set up under a Labour government and Bernard Williams was associated with that party. As a Home Office report the document has the royal arms at the top, with the interesting result that the first words to appear on it are Honi soit qui mal y pense4. 'Part 1 - Background' provides an overview of the Committee's methods, and the state of censorship and censorship law at the time. 'Part 2 - Principles' begins with the report's most theoretical and philosophical section, including a rather half-hearted critique of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, before considering whether claims that obscene material leads to harms were borne out by available evidence, then moving on to the themes of offensiveness and art. The rest of the Report (apart from the appendices) consists of 'Part 3 - Proposals'.

In accordance with the natural order of things, the Report was partly leaked, provoked a variety of press reactions (Simpson commenting that several Committee members 'were undoubtedly irritated by the low intellectual quality of some of the attacks'), and was kicked into the proverbial long grass and largely forgotten about; it was debated by the Lords but not in the Commons. Simpson quite openly accuses the government of the day of deliberately killing the Report, largely to spare the Home Secretary embarrassment.

The Report, as it turned out, was not quite the 'pornographers' charter' Mary Whitehouse had feared, although its recommendation that there should be no censorship of literature whatsoever raised some eyebrows, and the recommendation in the same document that films should be subject to a more effective system of pre-censorship raised more. The Committee's justification was that it was 'totally unprepared for the sadistic material that some film makers are prepared to produce', and that film 'is a uniquely powerful instrument: the close-up, fast cutting, the sophistication of modern makeup and special effects techniques, the heightening effect of sound effects and music, all combine on this large screen to produce an impact which no other medium can create'.

The Report does give the impression that British society in 1979 was more homogeneous than now, or had a more unified self-image; the Committee apparently saw no serious difficulty in recommending the restriction of material 'offensive to reasonable people', and was ready to criticise the 'total emptiness' of most pornography with no apparent sense that someone might consider total emptiness a valid aesthetic.

The Committee recommended that the legal terms 'obscene' and 'indecent' should be retired. Material should be restricted as a public nuisance if offensive to reasonable people, but to be banned altogether material should be actually liable to cause harm, or its production should be harmful. There was to be no 'public good defence'. As for what was harmful, basically material to be banned was either paedophilic or involving the infliction of 'actual physical harm'. Bestiality was fine if you happened to be into it, whereas sadomasochistic films were apparently very sick and dangerous.

Such were the conclusions of the Williams Committee — rendered partially out of date only a few years later by the 'video nasties' scare, followed by the rise of the Internet. And what happened to those thirteen people who risked their souls for our moral wellbeing? Professor Simpson assures us that they survived unharmed:

Only on the assumption that Home Office committees of thirteen are somehow specially protected by providence, an improbable hypothesis, could our viewing sessions encourage the belief that the principal effect of exposure to pornography was corruption and depravity. And experience confirmed this — no member of the committee then or since, so far as I am aware, took to committing sexual offences, or eating guardsmen's socks, or dressing up in gasmasks. One felt quite safe, even in the Home Office.
1Nothing in this Guide Entry should be taken as an assurance that censorship in Britain is now in a state of logical coherence.2It's difficult to express succinctly quite what the Committee was being asked to deal with when one of the problems it sought to resolve was that the law had developed so that 'obscene' meant one thing on its own and something else in the combination 'indecent or obscene'.3A recollection by Polly Toynbee quoted by Simpson seems to state that there was 'a bus driver' on the committee, but Simpson's own comments make no mention of any of the Committee's members driving buses. Then again, he never mentions his own job, so perhaps the sordid truth is that Professor Simpson had fallen on hard times and was driving buses in order to earn extra money. But probably not.4The motto of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, meaning, roughly, 'Shame be to him who thinks evil of it'. The (probably fictional) story goes that this was uttered by Edward III at a ball in Calais: the Countess of Salisbury accidentally dropped her garter, and the King, seeing her embarrassment, put it on his own leg and rebuked onlookers, suggesting that the fault lay with their reaction rather than with the Countess.

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