When Christopher Tookey suggested in the Daily Mail that the film "Crash" should be banned, he became a hate figure of the liberal establishmentby / February 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in February 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
One perk of being a freelance journalist who writes for the Daily Mail is that there is always the chance of becoming a leftwing hate figure. Last month, it happened to me. I was denounced in the Guardian, Observer and Time Out. Normally friendly fellow critics accused me of being “very, very, very, very bad” (Ann Billson, Sunday Telegraph) or setting myself up as “moral guardian to the nation” (Alan Frank, Daily Star).
I grew tired of repeating that I was not seeking to impose my moral or religious-or, in my case, irreligious-views on anyone. I see probably 100 films a year that I find offensive: I do not think they should be banned. But nothing I said made any difference. My media alter ego had been created, and he seemed to be a bastard child of Mary Whitehouse and Senator Joe McCarthy.
I became aware of my doppelg??nger when I opened the Guardian one morning and found somebody with my name caricatured as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, complete with hood and flaming torch, apparently about to set fire to a cinema.
Now, I am not Candide. I had known my review of Crash would create controversy-especially when I expressed my opinion that the film should not go on general release, even with an 18 certificate. I was surprised, however, to find that this was sufficient to brand me as a rightwing arsonist.
Francis Wheen’s article accompanying the cartoon accused me of arguing that if the public is allowed to see Crash “thousands of us will immediately yearn to have sex in a multiple pile-up on the M25.” In a similarly satirical vein, he suggested that I would be calling next for the banning of The Wizard of Oz.
I soon became accustomed to having my views quasi-humorously distorted and exaggerated, in such a way that anyone reading them would consider me a dangerous half-wit. As one of his predictions for the New Year, Time Out’s film editor, Geoff Andrew, claimed that in 1997 “Mail hack Christopher Tookey will continue to pursue his self-promoting opportunism by demanding that The Crucible and The Portrait of a Lady be banned.”
Perhaps the weirdest response was a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission by a media studies lecturer convinced that I was prejudiced against disabled people having sex. Actually, I used to be director of an ATV programme about disability called Link, and we covered the subject several times, usually in items presented by disabled people.
I duly reassured the commission that what I had found questionable in Crash was not disabled people having sex, nor able-bodied people being interested in having sex with the disabled, but the attempt by the filmmakers to eroticise mutilations and fetishise orthopaedic appliances.
More worrying was the fact that perfectly sensible people I met assumed that journalists such as Wheen and Andrew were correct in stating that I am in favour of “blanket censorship.” In fact I have often defended films such as Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and the Life of Brian, which struck me as victims of unjust censorship. But freedom of speech and artistic self-expression are not absolutes. Many liberals seem willing to support the Race Relations Act, which limits freedom of speech. Most of us across the spectrum would feel uneasy about allowing on general release, say, a non-judgmental film depicting the Wests’ sadistic sex murders in Gloucester.
I am sure that any opinion poll would reveal a consensus that morally and socially responsible limits to freedom of speech and artistic expression have to be drawn somewhere. Among the questions we should be discussing openly and honestly are: where, and by whom?
I know that my doubts about the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) are shared by many on the left and right. It seems crazy that such censorship as we have is carried out by people financed by the film companies, accountable to no one, and under no obligation to make their reasoning transparent.
Whatever course of action, or inaction, the BBFC takes about Crash, my belief remains that David Cronenberg’s film might well have a “copycat effect” on a few unstable individuals-particularly if it became available on video, where it could be studied obsessively.
The lethal weapons that Cronenberg fetishises are, after all, not guns, which are not readily available to the British public, but cars, which are. Joyriding, ram-raiding and reckless driving by youths are already social problems. Cronenberg’s reputation among the young as a cult, “shock horror” director might tempt many more to seek out his film than would normally watch a boring art-house film.
Crash could also have a far more insidious longterm effect by eroticising sado-masochism and orthopaedic fetishism for people previously unaware of being turned on by acts of mutilation. To allow Crash an 18 certificate would set a precedent for even more pernicious-and commercial-films in the future.
I accept that critics can and should expect criticism when they express controversial views. However, it is an illuminating experience to put forward opinions which would be approved by a majority of the British population, only to find them casually misrepresented, and oneself a target for character assassination.
The reason I describe my experience is not to seek sympathy. It is because I believe it casts a light on the real attitude that some people have towards freedom of speech-that it should be extended to absolutely everyone, except those who disagree with them.