censorship in New Zealand
This page offers a brief history of content regulation
in New Zealand, supplementing the discussion in the broader
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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").
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
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.
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
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
to convey a prejudicial view to overseas countries concerning
the National War effort in New Zealand.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
The Committee's report resulted in the Films, Videos
& Publications Classification Act 1993 (here).
The legislation established the Office of Film & Literature
on 1 October 1994, replacing the Chief Censor of Films,
the Indecent Publications Tribunal and the Video Recordings
The report was also reflected in the Broadcasting
Act 1989 which established the Broadcasting Standards
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
the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom
to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions
of any kind in any form.
Bill is not part of New Zealand's constitution (and therefore
is less powerful than its Canadian counterpart).
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
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
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
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.
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.
page (sources & studies)