Editorial: A show about teenage suicide must go to the censor before screening
No liberal can be comfortable with censorship. The New Zealand censor, however, and the law which guides him, is sensible and censors only the most extreme works. A fundamentalist censor who tried to ban the teenage novel Into the River last year was quickly overturned and then later left the post.
Liberals will be particularly careful about censorship concerning teenage suicide. Here, the evidence suggests that news reports and art works which glamorise suicide can literally cost the lives of vulnerable adolescents.
That does not mean that suicide is a forbidden subject or that suicide cannot be discussed.
It does mean, however, that certain prohibitions, such as the ban on news reporting of the method used in any suicide, are defensible.
That is why the public should be worried about the fact that the controversial show 13 Reasons Why, about the suicide of a teenage girl, has been screening in New Zealand without first being seen by the censor.
This show has caused great controversy in the United States, and similar arguments have broken out here. On the one hand are those who think that, despite its makers' professed intentions (writer Nick Sheff is a former crystal-meth user who attempted suicide), the series does glamorise suicide and is therefore harmful. On the other are those who think that its treatment of the suicide, and the rape that contributed to it, are honest and helpful.
It is astonishing that a controversial show about such a delicate subject could be screened before the censor has even considered it.
Deputy Chief Censor Jared Mullen says Netflix had in August stopped submitting material to the censor's office before releasing it in New Zealand. This decision, Mullen said, was apparently on government advice.
The censor's office is now in the impossible position that it is still considering the series and won't issue its classification til next week, nearly a month after the show was released.
The office wants a law change so that this kind of delay won't happen again. And here Mullen is surely right.
As he says, the classification is not just about restricting what people can see. It is also about providing information to parents and young people about what to watch. Netflix had labelled the show "adult", but this was misleading because the show "speaks very powerfully" to teenagers. It wasn't intended to appeal to adults.
Everybody knows that New Zealand has a very high suicide rate, and arguably has a problem that the foreign company Netflix will not necessarily understand.
Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson says the programme sensationalises and glamorises suicide and should never have been released. But one senior Auckland teacher, Paul Stevens, praises the series and says parents should watch it with their children.
The fact that there are such wildly opposed views provides is another reason why the censor should have seen it first.