The classification system introduced by Donald Chipp in 1971 facilitated a more liberal approach to media censorship and regulation. The development of VHS video in the late 1970s necessitated further changes to this system as this medium offered an easy and cheap way to make, copy and distribute hard-core sexually explicit material, sexploitation and other content the Film Censorship Board had previously censored. A new category was required to regulate the emerging bootleg VHS industry, whilst keeping out more problematic content (Stockbridge, 1996, p128). The X18+ category was introduced for this purpose by federal Attorney-General Gareth Evans from the Australian Labor Party under the Classification of Publications Ordinance, legislation introduced in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) (hereafter referred to as the Ordinance). This category moved the regulation of sexually explicit materials from Customs law to the point of sale, where such materials would only to be available in authorised areas of video shops to adults over eighteen (JSCVM Vol. 1, 1988, p73). The category placed restrictions on “child porn, bestiality, detailed and gratuitous depictions of acts of considerable violence or cruelty” (Stockbridge, 1996, p128).
The Ordinance was first intended as a model for legislation in other Australian states, however, soon after its introduction this legislation proved highly controversial and received several amendments in Parliament while under consideration (Stockbridge, 1997, p130). Although technically such acts were already refused registration, a new category was brought into the debate and it was believed the ER (Extra Restricted) category was necessary to exclude “sexual violence”. Eventually, the X18+ category was updated in terminology to reflect the terms of ER, restricting acts deemed violent, coercive or non-consensual. It was also changed from a voluntary to compulsory category (JSCVM Vol. 1, 1988, pp.75-77). Despite initial agreement by all jurisdictions to enforce a category for sexually explicit video material, the states of Queensland and Tasmania did not partake in discussions regarding the X18+ category, and by the end of 1984 all other states had dropped out of the scheme, leaving only the ACT in accordance, and later the Northern Territory (Stockbridge, 1996, p130). At the same time, a Joint Select Committee was established to investigate use of the X18+ category to regulate VHS videos. The Committee lasted five years but bore mixed and sometimes contradictory results; one of their recommendations was the use of another category instead of X18+ to exclude violence, although the X18+ category already did just that (JSCVM Vol. 1, 1988, pp.295-296). Submissions received by the Committee demonstrated a wide variety of views on what was acceptable viewing for adults, many submissions endorsed a ban on all “pornography” to preserve “community values” (JSCVM Vol. 1, 1988, pp49-50). However, the Committee also found “widespread misconceptions” about the X18+ category, with many believing video material involving child pornography and other types of violence were circulating within Australia under this classification (JSCVM Vol. 2, 1988, p365). Adequate pressure had been put on state governments to ban the category in all states, however Sally Stockbridge (1996, p130) also attributes the non-uniform implementation of X18+ to an Australian tour by Mary Whitehouse in 1984. As a vocal member of the moral majority with political links to the British Home Office, Whitehouse had successfully campaigned for the Video Recordings Act off the back of a moral panic regarding “video nasties” (Petley, 2011). Like the Australian X18+ category, the British Act brought VHS video under the remit of the British Board of Film Censors in the U.K. and stipulated no video material could circulate without classification.
Other legislative changes in the 1980s replaced the NRC category (Not Recommended for Children under 12) with PG (Parental Guidance for those under 15) which was deemed easier for parents to understand (Wright, 1987, p4). The guidelines were also tightened regarding violence at the level of M and R18+. In 1988, the federal classification authority became the Office of Literature & Film Classification, a government department from which Film Censorship Board functioned for the next seven years. – Rachel Cole
Australian Government Report. “Report of the Joint Select Committee into Video Material” (1988) Vol. I & II, Australian Government Printers: Canberra.
Book. Petley, J. (2011) Film and Video Censorship in Modern Britain, Edinburgh University Press.
Journal article. Stockbridge, S. (1996) “Cultural policy regulation, technology and discourse: regulatory agendas and research paradigms. -Film regulation from the 1970s to the 1990s-“. Culture and Policy, Vol. 7, No. 2, pp. 123-140.
Journal article. Wright, A. (1987) “R Wars”, Filmviews, Vol. 32, pp. 2-7.