Criminal Technology

 BBFC Policy: Cuts to The Professionals

The Professionals DVD box setThe Professionals: A Hiding to Nothing

1998 release UK TV series by Gerry O'Hara (Contender)

Cut by 10s in 1998. The 2002 DVD re-release is also likely to be the same cut version. (I would hazard a guess that the Current BBFC would not insist upon cuts though if it were resubmitted. Lock manufacturers changed the design of locks years ago)

The offending scene depicted a character entering some premises by use of that good old 1970s TV cliche the credit card! The BBFC demanded that this should be cut as it depicted the use of what they termed "criminal technology".

Thanks to Dave Matthews (see New Avengers' and Professionals websites)

  First letter to BBFC: 8th November 1999

Letter writerRe: the depiction of “Crimimal Technology”

I am writing to express my concern and puzzlement over a cut that was demanded for a video release (submitted by Contender Group Ltd) of an episode from the 1970s television series The Professionals. The episode in question – “A Hiding to Nothing” – includes a scene depicting a character forcing entry to a property by use of a credit-card sized piece of plastic. My understanding is that the BBFC judged this scene as depicting the use of so-called “criminal technology” and thus demanded its removal. However I would have to question whether this really is the case – the “entry by credit card” routine was a staple of many TV shows of the era and is recognised as being a television myth. Indeed another episode (“When the Heat Cools Off”) of the same show included a very similar scene, yet was passed uncut for video release last year. Had the assailant used, for example, a pick-axe to gain entry, then I could certainly understand that being judged “criminal technology” as obviously such an implement could be used in real life. Yet I have witnessed video works where just such a technique is depicted yet such scenes remain intact.

To me, then, there seems to be an inconsistency, so I would very much appreciate an insight into the line of reasoning used for “A Hiding to Nothing”.

Yours faithfully,
David Matthews

  First response from BBFC: 14th December 1999

BBFC logoDear Mr Mathews (sic – look, they even cut bits out of people's names!!)

Query regarding definition of "Criminal Technology"

Thank you for your email of 8 November. As one of the examiners who helped to classify The Professionals - A Hiding to Nothing, I have been asked to respond to your email.

When we classify material, especially in the junior categories, we are particularly careful not to let it demonstrate any imitable criminal techniques. In the case of the video concerned, we are advised by the police that the technique displayed could unlock a door. That is the reason the cut was made. If, as you suggest, the character had used a common-or-garden pickaxe to break in, we would not have cut the scene. Unlike the lock-picking technique, using a pickaxe in that way (which incidentally would have attracted a great deal of attention to the would-be trespasser) is not specifically instructional.

You suggest that our decision to cut in that case is inconsistent with the decision not to cut a similar scene in The Professionals - When the Heat Cools Off. I did not examine this video but I have read the examiner's report on it and have also looked at the scene concerned. Advice from the police is that it would not be possible to unlock a door in this way.

A Hiding to Nothing was passed '12' because some of the violence scenes contained partial details and were personalised and impressionistically intense. I have looked at the violence scenes in When the Heat Cools Off. In contrast, these are brief and masked.

I hope that my explanation helps you to understand the rationale of the Board's decision even if you may not agree with it. With so many variables to consider before a classification decision is made, it is inevitable that many people will disagree with some of our decisions. The best we can do is to be constantly alert to public expectation and try and meet this as often as possible. The Board's new draft guidelines, which you are free to comment on, can be seen at our website. I hope they will give you more information on the various issues we have to consider in the classification process.

Yours sincerely
Wah-Yin Rixon (Mrs)

  Response to BBFC’s first letter: 14th December 1999

Letter writerDear Wah-Yin Rixon,

Thank you very much for your reply to my query over the "criminal technology" cuts to the video release of "The Professionals – A Hiding to Nothing" and for the time you put in to researching the issue.

I fully support the idea of a video ratings system and I do appreciate that there are circumstances where criminal acts depicted on-screen may encourage younger viewers to (attempt to) emulate them. On the surface, then, the removal of the "credit card" scene may seem quite understandable.

However I have to point out that since early 1997, The Professionals series has enjoyed regular re-runs by the British satellite broadcaster Granada Sky Broadcasting – usually in afternoon or early evening timeslots, when juveniles in particular will be watching. Given that the Granada transmissions regularly achieve 100,000 viewers – far, far in excess of any video sales – one should surely expect the Police to order Granada to make the same cut from their broadcasts. Yet no order has been made and GSB's screenings of this episode always retain this "problematic" scene intact. And, as far as I'm aware, we have not witnessed a huge increase in the number of "entry-by-credit-card" burglaries since 1997. Is it your perception that criminals don't watch television transmissions but turn to videos for tuition?

You say that decisions regarding the removal of material are mindful of public expectation, yet in this case it is clear that neither GSB or the ITC have received complaints about the inclusion of this particular scene in the transmissions. Had they done so, it would have been removed.

I appreciate that the BBFC has no jurisdiction over television transmissions but clearly there is something deeply inconsistent in the way censorship is being applied in this case. Why should the video market be more bound to censorship than the far more "accessible" medium of public broadcasting?

I would also point out that the original UK issue of the episode on video in 1993 (by the Sound Image Group's "Video Gems" label – catalogue number VG5406) was uncut. Clearly the BBFC's guidelines on "criminal technology" must have changed since then, thus Contender Video's requirement to resubmit this episode for approval last year.

Whatever – it appears to me that on this occasion the BBFC knee-jerked at the Police's "advice" and made no attempt to consider its "real-world" validity. For sure it's possible to use certain methods to gain illegal access to properties but, as the regular television transmissions have shown, use of a small piece of plastic is not considered to be a commonly-used one!

Your comments on my line of reasoning would be much appreciated!

Yours faithfully
David Matthews 

  Response from BBFC: 29th January 2000

BBFC logoDear Mr Matthews

"The Professionals" and the definition of "criminal technology".

Thank you for your email of 13 December. I am sorry for the late response and will not begin to give reasons as they will only seem trite. But my apology is genuine.

I fully appreciate your point about "The Professionals" being regularly broadcast on satellite without the police apparently ordering cuts to demonstration of criminal technology in the series and apparently without a huge surge in burglaries employing techniques seen in the series. I agree that there is an inconsistency in the application of censorship as between videos and say, satellite broadcasts. But as you know, the BBFC has a legal obligation to classify videos under the Video Recordings Act 1984. Television / cable / satellite companies, on the other hand, are regulated differently and are not obliged to broadcast only classified material and they often don't. If the police's attention has been drawn to the portrayal of imitative criminal technique in the series broadcast by the satellite companies and if they apparently choose to do nothing about it, that must be a matter for the police. Just because complaints have not been received by ITC or the TV companies - and do we know this as fact?- it does not follow that people are unconcerned about these and other issues. If an individual is concerned about an issue but for whatever reason does not raise the matter with the authorities, that is clearly their decision and the authorities will have no knowledge of their concerns. As the classifying authority, however, the Board is unable to indulge in that luxury of being unconcerned, however misplaced at times, or of doing nothing once a concern has been identified. In this example, a concern was raised so we took advice from an appropriate source, the police. They did not tell us to cut the scene. We chose to do it after having taken expert advice and considering a range of factors, including public expectation.

You and many members of the public may not agree with the Board's decision to cut but you should appreciate that we make the decision on behalf of many other members of public, who may agree with our decision. As to the surge or not of burglaries using techniques learnt on the series, we have no knowledge of either so any statement about either position is only assertion and does not advance the debate. Perhaps it may be a source of (a little) comfort to you to know that no decision to cut is ever taken lightly.

I hope that my response answers your queries even though you may not agree with them.

Yours sincerely
Wah-Yin Rixon (Mrs)

  Reply to BBFC: 29th January 2000

Letter writerDear Mrs Rixon,

Thank you very much for your reply. I must confess I was under the impression that the decision to cut the episode was as a *direct* result of the advice from the police. As you say, this was merely one of the factors involved. I take it, then, the ultimate decision to demand the cut was solely that of the BBFC. Unfortunately, from my point of view, this only serves to make the cut seem even more bizarre: as I mentioned in my previous e-mail, this particular episode had been widely available in the UK (with a "12" rating) on video UNCUT between 1993 and 1996 (issued by the now-defunct Sound Image Group).

The upshot is that the scene in question was deemed unsuitable in 1998 against the fact that it had been approved by yourselves in 1993 and had not, by your own admission, been proved to have caused a surge in house break-ins. As far as I can see, then, the scene was cut for no valid reason! Or do the BBFC have documented evidence that 1998's criminal fraternity are far more likely to be influenced by what they see on video than they were in 1993.... or that public fear of break-ins increased substantially over that five-year period and it was, therefore, the public who expressed a wish that such scenes should be cut?

You rightly say that we have no evidence that the satellite broadcasters have received no complaints about the scene in question. Yet I am sure that had they done so and felt that the complaints were justified, then they would indeed have excised the scene. This would certainly have happened if the ITC had received complaints and upheld them. I think, then, we can safely assume that no such complaints have been received and supported. After all "The Professionals" was far more noted (indeed controversial!) for its portayal of violence than anything else: *this* element could indeed attract complaints and, aware of this, Granada Sky Broadcasting trimmed certain violent scenes in most episodes from the outset.

You say decisions to cut are based on "public expectation". Does this mean that after the initial concern was raised over the scene, you surveyed several members of the public to assess their views and found that the majority of them agreed it should be removed? I suspect not! You say that:

"We make the decision on behalf of many other members of public, who may agree with our decision."

"Who MAY agree"?! This seems to imply that if they don't agree, you demand the cut anyway! That's hardly what I'd called representing "public expectations" (more on this later). I've spoken to about 25 members of the public concerning the break-in scene and not one of them supported the idea of it being cut. Admittedly most of those I spoke to were fans of "The Professionals" so they were naturally a tad biased! But these people are a cross-section of the vast majority of those who would actually buy this video! And that's really another point the BBFC should consider - instead of just taking the "easy option" of applying a "generic" cut, why not consider the video's target audience - in this case most purchasers will be aged between 30 and 50 - irrespective of the "12" rating.

On a more general note, having recently followed various debates on the Internet with regard to BBFC censorship, the overriding public impression is that rather than fulfilling "public expectation", the organisation displays a "nanny knows best" attitude which ultimately overrules the wishes of the public. I think you have demonstrated this with your own comments. This problem is compounded by your own admission that UK censorship is being applied inconsistently - and, therefore, unfairly.

This is a shame as I feel that the classification of films and videos is highly desirable and so the BBFC fulfills a worthy role in this respect. In terms of censorship, I can appreciate concerns over the violent nature of material depicted in some film and video works and the requirement to tailor this for younger audiences. I still maintain, however, that it in some cases, the BBFC displays no "real world" sensibility and would sooner listen to the "advice" of a few Mary Whitehouse types, despite a complete lack of actual evidence of the alleged harmful effects caused by viewing acts depicted in some works. The uncut 1993 issue of "The Professionals - A Hiding to Nothing" essentially proves that no harmful effects arose from the inclusion of the scene under discussion.

To sum up, then: the BBFC claims to make decisions based on "public expectation" yet when consulting members of the public, MAY OR MAY NOT listen to those views! With specific regard to "The Professionals - A Hiding to Nothing", the BBFC decided to demand a cut version in 1998, despite previously approving an uncut version and having no evidence to support a requirement for a subsequent cut. Furthermore decisions to cut are also based purely on the rating of the work, rather than any consideration for its target audience.

You are quite right that there are always going to be instances where one sector of the public disagrees with a decision to cut - this is unavoidable. However the crux of the problem in this case is not the decision itself but the methods employed by the BBFC to reach that decision, particularly given the factors I have outlined. Unfortunately I'm afraid your kind reply has raised more questions than answers, so I would appreciate some clarification.

I would like to think that partly in the light of my comments (after all, I'm a member of the public expressing my expectations!), should the episode ever be resubmitted, the BBFC would at least reconsider its decision.

Yours  sincerely,
Dave Matthews

  Response from BBFC: 23rd April 2000

BBFC logoDear Mr Matthews

The Professionals: A Hiding to Nothing and the definition of "criminal technology"

Many thanks for your email of 29 January. I apologise for this late response. Apart from the usual but valid reasons of work backlog, I was delayed by indecision: whether to launch into a debate with you or to respond briefly, given that you had raised further interesting points about censorship while extrapolating impossible-to-verify conclusions from some of my statements of 28 January. Time, meanwhile, has passed.

One reason for the apparent inconsistency of the decisions is probably that the edition you refer to and according to you - passed '12' uncut, widely available between 1993 and 1996 and issued by the now defunct Sound Image Group - is not one that we are aware of. I have made inquiries and our records show that a different company failed to pay the fee for the title's submission in 1992 and again in 1994. The conclusion is that this particular title was never classified by the BBFC until it was submitted by a completely different company in 1998 and subsequently classified '12' with one cut to the lock-picking. This suggests that the edition you mention may have been illegally issued, a not uncommon practice and one which continues.

Although we both agree that there is inconsistency in the way classification / censorship is applied by various authorities including the BBFC - whether because of legislation or the different practices of private and public organisations - we have to accept (for the purpose of practical application anyway) that it is the current position. It is a deeply unsatisfying and confusing situation but one on which I have nothing useful to say with reference to the particular title without repeating myself. We work constantly and swiftly, whenever possible, to evolve good classification practice which takes into consideration all factors. Currently, the Board's research programme includes Citizens' Juries (probing public attitude to the guidelines), BBFC Roadshow questionnaire feedback, a broader public survey based on the same questionnaire and a survey of child psychologists / psychiatrists and social workers. Last year, we were also involved in the British Attitudes Survey and The Depiction of Illegal Drugs in Broadcasting, Film and Video.

I appreciate your frustration and perhaps fury with any Board decision that seems perverse. I hope however that you understand that we try to do our best in sometimes difficult situations and we always hope that our decisions are more acceptable than not to the public.

Yours sincerely
Wah-Yin Rixon (Mrs)

  Response to BBFC: 23rd April 2000

DLetter writerear Mrs Rixon,

Once again thank you very much for your response. The issue of the "illegal" Sound Image Group tape is very interesting indeed! I must admit I couldn't see it in your on-line database but I assumed this was some kind of omission as a lot of other SIG releases are missing from the list, too! I stated that episode was passed by the BBFC as a "12" in 1992 simply because the video's cover carries the appropriate BBFC logo that was in use at the time. Therefore I had no reason to suspect this was anything but a legitimate release.

When you say a "different company failed to pay the fee" I would guess this is Video Gems (or "TV Gems" as they later became) - although I had thought this was merely a "label" used by SIG rather than a subsidiary company in its own right.

hether the SIG/Video Gems release was illegally issued or not, however, it's mass availability for several years still strengthens the case that the inclusion of the lock-picking scene in a commercially-available video did not prove to cause any "harm". As you have hinted, the BBFC sometimes seems to play by a perverse set of rules when it comes to censorship - instead of "innocent until proven guilty" it's more like simple "assumed guilt without a trial". Well the lock-picking scene certainly had been "on trial" during the three years that the SIG tape was available (irrespective of the fact that the BBFC were apparently unaware of it!) and, I say again, there is no evidence that its inclusion has led to any "harm". I appreciate this is rather an over-simplification but I believe the essential principle remains upheld, particularly when also considering the other factors I have outlined in previous correspondence.

The episode will likely be issued on DVD sometime in the next year or so. I wonder if this might be an opportunity for the BBFC to reconsider its decision - even if that meant having to demand a higher classification (eg "15")?

Yours sincerely,
Dave Matthews


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