Media classification is now a largely uncontroversial practice in everyday life, but the means by which we arrived at our current processes for classifying media content have not been simple or straightforward. The history of these developments provides considerable insight into relations between popular culture, citizenship norms, and mechanisms of governance. This thesis is focused on the Australian case, which provides insight into the processes of Australian nation-building, given its origins in the first decade of the twentieth century and thus immediately after Federation, and how the concepts of majority and minority are still factors in creating the modern nation state.
The contemporary Australian media classification system deals principally with film, television, videogames, and online media, offering audience guidelines as to suitable media content for different age groups. It additionally provides legal barriers restricting media content to specific age categories that signal ‘maturity’, such as at 15 and 18 years of age. These decisions are made by an independent statutory organisation that classifies media at a Commonwealth level, on behalf of State and Territory governments, using guidelines that are set by national legislation. Decision-making processes are indicative of technological shifts in media, changing social attitudes, and changes in the types of content available for consumption. In particular, the shift from primarily a system of censorship to one that foregrounds ‘classification’ has occurred as part of various forms of organisational adjustment as well as fluctuations of the classification categories themselves.
This thesis takes an historical approach to what media classification is and does, observing the social conditions that have catalysed change in the Australian case. It is centrally focused on film as the medium with the longest history of censorship and classification, although it touches on other media where necessary. Utilising archival research in censorship and/or classification files to ascertain how decisions were made and textual analysis of influential or exemplary film content, this thesis is also concerned with how these archives represent changing cultural norms and social standards. An ‘analytics of government’ illustrates the diverse range of entities involved in classification, deploying a Foucauldian framework to analyse the many aspects of governance invested in the management of children and adolescents, drawing out two key concepts that have shaped the Australian media classification system: ‘minority’ and ‘sexual violence’. Through their representation, negotiation, and restriction in the processes of classification, these concepts have helped determine modes of media distribution and, consequently, media literacy, media reception, and media cultures. The film classification processes examined in this thesis provide an excellent example of the governance of not only modern media cultures but also modern society through media representations.
Part of understanding how classification works has involved considering how and by whom classification decisions are made. As part of the current classification processes, bodies responsible for classification must take into account the standards of the community that classification serves. As part of this study I undertook interviews with the current classification authority, the Australian Classification Board (ACB) and their administrative arm the Classification Branch, to find out how board members made decisions on media content in late 2017 and early 2018. Current environmental changes as part of wider processes of media convergence mark an important time to observe classification procedures and methods, as accessibility and distribution rapidly diversify and bring forms and processes of regulation into question. Understanding Australia’s history of censorship and classification allows for a significant standpoint from which to consider the adaptation of processes in this period of regulatory flux and cultural change.
This PhD project is the Australian part of an international study into classification systems, initiated by Prof Catherine Driscoll and Dr Liam Grealy, undertaken with the help of multiple partners across seven different countries and funded by the Australian Research Council as a Discovery Project (DP150101226).