Censorship is a tricky subject and governments hardly ever get it right.
The current legislation says that material should be "objectionable" before censorship is applied. It then goes on to give examples of "objectionable", many of which seem to be reasonable, but the recent banning of the band Odd Future seemed to push the parameters. This music group caused a stir and though politicians may say that it was decision of "an official" they are ultimately responsible for what is censored as they make the policy. The band was banned as it might incite violence and not banned for their "lyrics," though "lyrics" is probably too fine a word.
New Zealand has a long history of censorship which is summarised in A Short History of Censorship in New Zealand by the Department of Internal Affairs. It shows that censorship grew from the colonial society and was strengthened as the state extended greater control over New Zealand society. Truth is the first casualty of war and censorship was common during and after World War I because of the "red threat".
Censorship, as this short history shows, has taken a scattergun approach. A lot of rubbish has been censored and after a bit of a splutter has disappeared never to be seen again. In fact, censorship has probably given oxygen to a weak flame.
Classical art, books and films have all have been subject to censorship at some time. Examples in literature are Lolita and Lady Chatterly's Lover and in film, All Quiet on the Western Front (anti-war propaganda), and Ulysses by Irish writer James Joyce and probably the greatest piece of fiction ever written.
Ulysses is an interesting case. Copies were seized by customs when it was shipped to the United States, but a judge later ruled that it was not pornographic and therefore could not be obscene. Technically it was not banned in Ireland as it was never imported and offered for sale.
There is no doubt that it would have been banned given the Catholic Church's hold over Irish politicians who in any case did not think well of Joyce after he described Ireland as a "sow that eats its own farrow".
The New Zealand Collector of Customs in 1950 wrote to his superior to tell him "that six copies of the novel had been imported into Napier, and five had been sold before the Examining Officer saw the relative invoices.
He said the book "seems to be one of the dirtiest I have seen, written by a mental defective".
Joyce's sister Margaret whom he called "Poppy" was a Sister of Mercy nun in Christchurch. She exercised her own form of censorship by ensuring Joyce's many letters to her were destroyed.
Ulysses the film was subject to an unusual form of censorship. It contained the "eff" word and the Chief Film Censor screened it to two test audiences, one made up of church representatives (all men) and the other made up of married couples.
While the first group recommended an R18 or restricted to Film Societies' classification, the second felt it could only be shown to segregated (split) audiences aged 18 years and over.
One wit said that it was "one night for Jameses and another night for Joyces". In smaller theatres it meant that a rope down the middle divided the sexes.
Censorship is heavily affected by the morals and mores of the time and it is with disbelief when we see some works like Ulysses that have been banned.
The recent banning of the band was unfortunate as it had no artistic merit and will soon be consigned to the cultural rubbish bin. The banning had two consequences; first, it gave the group unwarranted publicity and, secondly, it showed that there is still a tension between our freedoms and the government making choices for us.
- The Timaru Herald