Chief Censor Talks About the Evolution of Censorship in New Zealand

From the initially successful and then rescinded ban of the award-winning coming of age novel Into the River in 2015, an 18+ rating on Alan Moore’s Lost Girls in 2014, or the seizure of the classic 1970s book Bloody Mama in 2011, New Zealand’s Office of Film & Literature Classification has come under global scrutiny in recent years for its censorship practices. In response to the rise in criticism, Chief Censor Andrew Jack spoke with Stuff on the evolution of the government agency and the challenges of keeping up with an increasingly fast-paced media industry.

When the Office of Film & Literature Classification was established in 1916, the goal of the newly formed government entity was to “protect the public good” specifically as it related to the influx of new entertainment sources coming into the country. Through a careful review of movies, books, and later television and video games, the office was ordered with the task of evaluating “sex, horror, crime, cruelty and violence” in entertainment and censor those works accordingly.

The earliest cases in which movies were deemed “objectionable” were the 1920s films Certain Rich Man and Eternal Three, both of which featured young love and drunkenness and affairs. As was typical of the time—the United States also experienced a similar censorship crusade in our own budding film industry—New Zealand’s Cinematograph-film Censorship Act was established so legal action could be taken against those sharing such morally disruptive content.

As times changed and people’s sensibilities evolved based on new social climates, though, much like the evolution of the infamous Comics Code that regulated the American comic book industry from 1954 to 2011, Jack notes that the New Zealand censorship office has also been forced to reevaluate the laws established 100 years prior. By visiting community groups and enacting surveys to evaluate the current social climate and identify values that communities view as relevant, Jack notes that it is a top priority to escape the “Wellington ivory tower” and relate with the New Zealand community on a personal level. According to Jack, by being a part of the community he has been able to shape the current censorship laws to adequately reflect what people expect in terms of protection. “I’m actually confident with the decisions,” Jack says with regard to the recent decision to classify Ted Dawe’s award-winning novel Into the River as R-14. “The system does work.”

Martin Cocker points out about the Office of Film & Literature Classification, “Are they constantly challenged by the reality of the Internet? Absolutely.” Cocker, who helps run Netsafe, an independent non-profit organization that offers education and advice to New Zealanders on online security, adds, “100 years ago, they had a different setting. And now they’ve reset their expectations on what is reasonable for society. I don’t hear a lot of people saying the censor’s banning things that shouldn’t be banned.”

This said, there is still a significant group of people, both domestic and abroad, who see the recent enforcement of the law as a violation of peoples’ rights to free speech and are concerned that this issue isn’t as clear cut as abiding by what some might perceive as inappropriate based on surveys and community discussions. According to Into the River author Ted Dawes, the decision made by the office to initially ban but then simply reclassify his book demonstrated a legal tug-of-war that had significantly adverse effects not only on his book, but on how people would approach any kind of material with a particular rating. “It was really aggravating,” he says, adding:

I felt I was being cut off my reading public. They investigated and re-litigated it. [The R-14 restriction] became a sort of ersatz censorship because libraries couldn’t display the book. What an extraordinary thing banning a book is these days.

Moreover, Dawes points out that though censors like Jack might think that they are doing what’s right for New Zealand, in reality, the restrictions being imposed on media are outdated and not in line with the rest of the world. Citing Harry Potter and the impact that it had on the UK’s reading habits as an example, Dawes posed the argument, “what’s more injurious to the public good — young people reading, confronting novels, tackling these issues, or mindlessly walking around playing Candy Crush on smartphones?”

Despite attempts by the office to keep in line with today’s trends and expectations, the topic of censorship continues to be a hotly debated topic, with parties on both side having strong feelings one way or another about how children’s entertainment consumption habits should be regulated. At the end of the day, though, a vast majority believe that it shouldn’t be the role of the government to do that regulating. It is the responsibility of the parents to be aware of what their children are bringing home and, as Dawes points out, discussing those challenging topics with them.

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!