Censors' rulings made by instinct

CENSORS who judge films, magazines and artwork have no written guidelines, but rely on their idea of 'community standards', legislators discovered yesterday.

Members of the Legislative Council's Bills Committee watched obscene movies and flicked through pornographic magazines during a familiarisation tour of the the Obscene Articles Tribunal offices.

Committee member Peggy Lam Pei Yu-dja said she felt the tribunal had judged too harshly in at least two cases, and questioned its 'conservative' attitude to Dame Elisabeth Frink's sculpture, New Man.

The life-size statue of a nude male on display in a Central office block was recently judged indecent by the tribunal, forcing the owners to cover the sculpture's distinguishing feature with a cardboard fig leaf.

'I don't agree with the judges,' Mrs Lam said. 'It's a piece of art. I don't understand why they are so conservative. If you went to Rome and applied the ruling, all the statues would have to be moved.

'We went to the office to view obscene tapes. We wanted to learn about borderline cases, what their guidelines were.

'Three of them, one judge and two laymen, decide which category a film should be. There are no real guidelines, it's flexible.

'They use today's community standards to classify those categories.

'I worry about whether there will be inconsistencies. They have over 80 adjudicators [available], and each team only has two adjudicators.' Most articles given an 'obscene' rating had been 'obviously obscene - with very explicit sexual action', Mrs Lam said.

But adjudicators had been overly harsh in giving an indecent rating to a comic book, she said.

'For teenagers, I thought it was all right . . . quite a number of other (Bills Committee) members agreed with me.

'It was a son taking a bath with his mother. The mother was wearing a bra and the son said he wanted to wear it too,' Mrs Lam said.

The Bills Committee is studying the Control of Obscene and Indecent Articles (Amendment) Bill 1995, which seeks to raise the maximum penalty for a first offence from $200,000 and 12 months jail to $400,000 and the same imprisonment. It would raise the penalty for a second offence to $800,000 and 12 months' jail.

'We are still studying the bill and have not yet come to a conclusion. This is why we wanted to have a look,' Mrs Lam said.

More than 80 per cent of material inspected by the tribunal is pornographic or violent, according to Mervyn Cheung Man-ping, a panel member.

In the past year, he has attended 12 sittings, for which he receives $400 each time.

In addition to addressing this situation, he believes an overhaul of the tribunal is well overdue. 'I think it's time for a review - put it to the public whether they think the tribunal's decisions represent the views of the public. The Government should carry out a survey on whether people think the panel's reactions are in line with the views of the general public,' he said.

A heavy workload could also be hampering the tribunal's work, he said.

'Since the tribunal was established in September 1987, up until the end of the next year, it handled 2,000 articles.

'But in 1994 the tribunal handled 12,000.

'And when it first started, there were about 60 adjudicators, now there are 80.

'In terms of resources, I think the Government has not put a high enough priority on the tribunal.' He thinks the tribunal has not kept up with changes in terms of the work that it has to do.