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section heading icon     censorship in New Zealand

This page offers a brief history of content regulation in New Zealand, supplementing the discussion in the broader Censorship guide.

It covers

section marker     themes

Like Australia (although without the complications associated with competing jurisdictions), New Zealand's content regulation regime prior to the 1990s was characterised by incremental development, a concentration on particular media that resulted in the growth of numerous agencies, and an emphasis on interdiction by customs/postal agencies that reflected the offshore origins of prohibited content.

Overall, the regulation of print content involved customs regulations from 1858, followed by the Offensive Publications Act 1892 and its successor the Indecent Publications Act 1910. An Indecent Publications Tribunal was established in 1963.

Formal film censorship began in 1916 with establishment of the office of the Chief Film Censor. Video recordings were dealt with by the Video Recordings Authority from 1987.

Radio and television censorship was dealt with under broadcasting legislation and has effectively been a question of self-censorship (particularly as for most of last century there was no commercial broadcasting).

section marker     print era

Colonial customs agents regulated the import of 'indecent' material from as early as 1858, with decisions being based on local whim and legislation that was in force in England. Appeals against seizure and destruction of allegedly improper publications involved challenging the Customs Department in court, action beyond the resources of most individuals.

The regime was underpinned by a range of 'public order' restrictions (for example prohibition on sale of indecent items) - often considered to commence with the 1849 New Munster Ordinance to Increase the Efficiency of the Constabulary Force - and complemented by legislation that authorised the NZ Post Office to intercept and destroy postal items of a "libellous, seditious, offensive or blasphemous nature". In 1890, for example, five Christchurch bookshops pleaded guilty to offering Zola novels for sale. The Printers & Newspapers Registration Act 1868 required the registration of all newspapers printing presses (along with the names of the owners and printers), with the printer's name and address featuring on printed publications. Registration remained in force until the Newspapers & Printers Act 1955.

The first Act specifically aimed at censorship in New Zealand was passed in 1892, with amendments in 1894, 1905 and 1906. The Offensive Publications Act 1892 banned "any picture or printed or written matter which is of an indecent, immoral, or obscene nature". The restrictions included advertisements with 'sexual' overtones, including images of camiknickers and of course birth control devices. Prior to the 1930s there was a prohibition on any publications "relating to any venereal disease."

The emphasis was on restricting imports of erotica from Europe - later on the restriction of imports of mass-market comics and glossy magazines from the US. The affluent (or merely enthusiastic) could import individual copies from overseas and hope to escape detection by Customs and the Post Office; access through New Zealand retailers was not possible.

In 1908 the Offensive Publications Acts and summary offences provisions were consolidated in the Police Offences Act. That legislation was superseded by the Indecent Publications Act 1910. The new Act introduced the principle that a publication could be judged as having "literary, scientific, or artistic merit".

Its application by government and interpretation by New Zealand's courts was uneven; New Zealand reflected overseas experience in restrictions on (and landmark trials about) the works of DH Lawrence, James Joyce, Marie Stopes and Vladimir Nabokov. In 1917 sale of de Maupassant's A Spa Love Affair was condemned with the warning that

if such books are sold indiscriminately and scattered broadcast ... literary hogs would be able to wallow knee-deep in sexual filth. This would tend to generate libidinous desires ... that broad highway that leads to the mental hospital, the gaol and the premature grave.

In 1926 The Butcher Shop by NZ author Jean Devanny (1894-1962) was published in London by mainstream publisher Duckworth but banned from import into New Zealand, ostensibly on the ground that "its frank portrayal of farm conditions was considered detrimental to the Dominion's immigration policy". The 1910 Act remained in force until 1963, with postal, newspaper and telecommunications censorship being tightened from 1914-20 under War Precautions legislation.

In 1935 a bookseller was convicted under the 1910 Act for displaying Balzac's Droll Stories, with the magistrate claiming that the work was indecent because "the tendency of the tales told is to glorify immorality and licentiousness and to hold purity and virtue up to ridicule". As noted earlier in this profile the left wing Maoriland Worker newspaper had been more successful in its 1922 defence of publishing after Labour newspaper The Maoriland Worker published Siegfried Sassoon's 'blasphemous poem' Stand-To: Good Friday Morning about the joys of service in the War To End All Wars.

Boccaccio's Decameron was found to be decent in 1939 after an expensive legal appeal on behalf of retailer the London Book Club. As in Australia there was no reprieve for Kathleen Winsor's soapy Forever Amber, banned in 1946. Updating of the Customs Act in 1938 featured a requirement that importers of publications must not bring into NZ "subversive publications or publications which give prominence to sex, obscenity, horror, terror, cruelty or crime". Readers could, of course, resort to local scandal sheets such as Truth (which like its Australian namesake was "built up almost entirely on the magistrate's court garbage").

section marker     film

As in the US and UK, film was seen as both more powerful (a single viewing was likely to deprave and to irreparably weaken the nation's would "moral fibre") and easier to control, since authorities could interdict imports and control public exhibitions. Regulation was assisted by the small size of the local market: most commercial films were imports and much content thus arrived 'pre-censored' in line with the UK and US markets.

The Cinematograph-film Censorship Act 1916 followed agitation about purity and discipline - a traditional moral panic - during the first years of the 1914-18 War and reflected changes in the UK. It established the office of the Censor of Film. Regulations under the Defence Act allowed the government to ban films about the war in Europe that might discourage.

The Cinematograph-film Censorship Act made it illegal to exhibit any film that had not been previously approved by the censor, with approval being refused to any film that

in the opinion of the censor, depicts any matter that is against public order and decency, or the exhibition of which for any other reason is, in the opinion of the censor, undesirable in the public interest.

The Minister of Internal Affairs indicated that the broad discretionary power was intended to allow censorship of films on political grounds, eg in relation to military recruiting.

In 1920, the Department of Internal Affairs assumed responsibility for the film censorship system. It retained this responsibility until 1994, in contrast to print censorship where some responsibilities moved to an appointed community body in the 1960's.

The Act provided for a classification scheme for those films permitted for exhibition. A system of voluntary classification was introduced in 1920 to assist parents in identifying whether a particular film was suitable for children: an "A" classification indicated an 'adults only' film, with a 'U' for a universal audience. Age restrictions were often not used until the late 1940s. The Department of Internal Affairs notes that during the 1930s the Chief Film Censor William Tanner argued censorship was "up to parents and should be left as such", since adult content was not understood or of interest to children and the problem therefore did not exist.

In practice the regime was less benign, with restrictions on 'adult themes' such as suicide, drug use, race relations, communism and homosexuality. Some comics were banned - for example - for placing "undue emphasis" on crime, cruelty, sex, obscenity and horror.

As in Australia, the outbreak of war in 1939 saw postal, newspaper and telecommunications censorship. JT Paul as government Director of Publicity (the equivalent of the position briefly held by Lord Reith in the UK and Keith Murdoch in Australia) assumed responsibility for press censorship. Paul announced in 1940 - well prior to the panic inspired by Japan's coup at Pearl Harbour and the loss of Singapore - that he would suppress all outgoing news

likely to convey a prejudicial view to overseas countries concerning the National War effort in New Zealand.

His approval was required for publication in New Zealand newspapers and magazines of items on particular topics; the Director was empowered with wide discretionary authority to prosecute the publisher of any item considered "prejudicial to the public interest".

Christoffel's 1989 Censored notes that domestic mail was selectively censored, with comprehensive censorship by up to 250 staff of mail coming into/leaving New Zealand. A Customs Department committee examined books, banning some political works in addition to the traditional interdiction of smut. Radio scripts were previewed by government representatives.

section marker     height of the regime?

The regime reached its peak with distribution to every household of a copy of the Mazengarb Report on Moral Delinquency in Children and Adolescents, produced by a government inquiry in 1954 and concerned with a supposed wave of "shocking immorality".

Mazengarb proposed that all literature that unduly emphasised "sex, horror, crime, cruelty or violence" was to be considered indecent. All publishers and distributors of literature would be registered, with particular scrutiny of publications aimed the young or otherwise impressionable.

Philip Larkin dated the invention of sex - or merely a more liberal regime - to the 1960s. The Indecent Publications Act 1963 created the Indecent Publications Tribunal (IPT), ostensibly to transfer classification standards from the public service to a body that was more representative of community values. The IPT's five members were appointed for a limited term. They were empowered to examine and classify books, magazines, and sound recordings. In practice the transfer had little effect: Penthouse, for example, was banned until 1991.

The Cinematograph Films Act 1976, promoted by the government as a "move towards the maturity of attitude whereby the abolition of censorship for adults can eventually become a reality", updated the language of film censorship - dispensing with references to "public order and decency" in favour of those regarding injury to "the public good".

The censor was required to determine whether a film "is or is not likely to be injurious to the public good", based on criteria that included the film's likely impact on the audience, artistic or other merit, depiction of "anti-social behaviour, cruelty, violence, crime, horror and sex" and the

extent and degree to which the film denigrates any particular class of the general public by reference to the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins, the sex, or the religious beliefs of the members of that class.

section marker     1980s ambivalence

The 1980s were characterised by ambivalence, with weakening of traditional restrictions on print (courts, police and customs taking a more relaxed attitude) and a moral panic about videos.

New Zealand's film censorship legislation was aimed at the public exhibition of films, ie cinemas rather than VCRs and DVDs. Agitation about home viewing of recordings, in particular erotica and 'slasher movies' (alleged to have induced murder and other mayhem on the North and South Islands) was reflected in the Video Recordings Act 1987.

That Act established the short-lived Video Recordings Authority, an additional censorship agency responsible for examining and classifying video recordings of a 'restricted nature' (mainly sexually explicit content) supplied for private viewing.

In 1989 a Ministerial Committee of Inquiry into Pornography recommended the establishment of a single government agency to provide a comprehensive classification system in New Zealand. The Committee also recommended that the new agency's powers would extend beyond traditional print and film classification.

The Committee's report resulted in the Films, Videos & Publications Classification Act 1993 (here). The legislation established the Office of Film & Literature Classification (OFLC) on 1 October 1994, replacing the Chief Censor of Films, the Indecent Publications Tribunal and the Video Recordings Authority.

The report was also reflected in the Broadcasting Act 1989 which established the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) as an independent statutory body to determine and maintain acceptable standards of broadcasting on all New Zealand radio and television.

The 1993 Act followed the Bill of Rights Act 1990, which states that everyone

has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.

The Bill is not part of New Zealand's constitution (and therefore is less powerful than its Canadian counterpart).

section marker     and beyond

New Zealand policymakers and courts, as in Australia, have grappled with questions about jurisdiction and the shape of online offences.

In 2005 for example the Auckland District Court

reinforced the Department of Internal Affairs view that there is no such thing as 'cyberspace' and Internet offending is committed by real people in real places

when it rejected a defence by Auckland webmaster Philip Batty over online prohibited content. Batty unsuccessfully claimed that New Zealand courts had no jurisdiction over a website administered from Auckland but hosted in the US. Judge Everitt tartly commented that

this Court does have jurisdiction. It is contrary to common sense and the intention of Parliament that a person such as Mr Batty can escape the Court's jurisdiction merely by using a server in an overseas country.

The Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Amendment Act 2005 introduced significant changes to the enforcement provisions of the 1993 Act regarding objectionable content. A person who knowingly trades, distributes or makes objectionable materials faces a maximum term of imprisonment of 10 years (previously imprisonment not exceeding one year).

Penalties for knowingly being in possession of objectionable materials increased to either a term of imprisonment not exceeding five years or a fine of up to NZ$50,000. Search and seizure powers under the Act were also increased, with Inspectors of Publications now empowered to obtain search warrants where they have evidence that a suspect is knowingly in possession of objectionable material.

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version of September 2005
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