New chief censor: the times they are a changing

Recently appointed chief censor David Shanks.
KEVIN STENT

Recently appointed chief censor David Shanks.

A century ago, the chief censor of New Zealand would roll out of bed, grab a pair of scissors and head down to the port as the ships came into mooring.

For off those ships came movies made on celluloid packed inside tins alongside physical magazines and books never viewed by the New Zealand public.

Back in his office, the censor would snip out what was considered naughty bits from the magazines. Other times, he would ban books entirely.

Books on misogyny at the censors office.
KEVIN STENT

Books on misogyny at the censors office.

Movie scenes thought be distasteful or offensive to the NZ public would be cut out and the movie reel stitched back together.

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Is censorship dead in the digital age?

It was an innocent time, back then.

Film clip showing two men fighting removed by the chief censor's office, 1956. Evening Post Collection, Alexander ...
MORRIE HILL

Film clip showing two men fighting removed by the chief censor's office, 1956. Evening Post Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library.

Fast forward 100 years and there's no port arrival to define the entrance of film and media onto NZ screens.

A revolving digital landscape has changed the way Kiwis viewed their entertainment, and it's also changed the way censorship defines itself.

New Zealanders are no longer stuck behind a curtain of naivety held up strictly by the chief censor. Instead Kiwis are bombarded by media from the world over, and the chief censor's role, today, is to monitor, research and guide.

Recently appointed chief censor David Shanks is defining the role of censorship in New Zealand.
KEVIN STENT/FAIRFAX

Recently appointed chief censor David Shanks is defining the role of censorship in New Zealand.

Well, that's how David Shanks sees his new role anyway.

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The former health, safety and security director for the Department of Education and deputy chief executive and chief legal advisor for the Ministry of Social Development took over as the chief censor at the Office of Film and Literature Classification just six weeks ago.

He's not fazed by the uncertain future ahead of him. "For me, what I plan to achieve is a re-establishment of the office and the role in a fit for purpose way in the new environment because clearly, as the research is showing us, we are in a different world and old models and attitudes aren't really fit for that world and we've got an opportunity to move things on," he says.

In their Wellington city office, Shanks' 15 censors, including his deputy, view all media coming into New Zealand that have a rating of M or higher in the Australian and British markets.(those with lower ratings get an automatic uncut release). 

To some, it would sound like a dream job, but there's a darker side.

Clips, film and photos found on laptops and cameras seized by the police, Department of Internal Affairs or customs are passed on to the censors office for classification. The censors are the only group that can classify a video.

They're on the look out for sex, horror, crime, cruelty and violence as well as provisions covering highly offensive language and self-harm.

Media that require an outright ban consist of: the sexual exploitation of children, sexual violence or coercion, torture or extreme violence, bestiality, sexual conduct involving the body of a dead person and the use of urine or excrement in association with degrading or sexual conduct.

Shanks says his staff have seen everything.

"It's just terrible. It's challenging - there's no doubt about it," he says.

"Coming into this office with a health and safety background, a key health and safety challenge for everybody working in this sort of environment is we are here to provide protection to society from this sort of material.

"That means we are in the firing line because we actually we have to view it."

Video games, a medium becoming the office's main focus, will be played by a gamer who then rates and classifies it.

It's the same process with pornography - the censor will watch porn in the office boardroom to assess whether it is safe enough for the New Zealand public to view.

Provisions are culturally sensitive, so what is classified in Australia can be completely different in New Zealand.

Shanks says Kiwis don't have a high tolerance for violence and sexual violence, unlike our Australian counterparts.

Yet we've got a higher threshold for obscene language, nudity and healthy portrayals of sexual relationships.

It's proved a bit tricky with movies rated M - meaning moderate content - or under that come in directly to the public because, as Shanks found out first hand, Australians are more lenient.

"What we are now finding is that movies that are rated M in Australia say, are coming here, opening and people are going along to it and going, 'eugh, that's not right' and raising complaints," he says.

"And we will review it and sometimes re-rate movies. 

"I took my (12-year-old) son to Suicide Squad which was released as an M and I watched it and went, 'oh that doesn't feel like an M to me', and then when I saw it at the DVD store it had been rated R13.

"It had come through on the kind of automatic rating process - there had been complaints about it and it had been re-rated to R13."

When it comes to the digital era, New Zealanders can't always be protected.

A report released recently by the censor's office, Young New Zealanders Viewing Sexual Violence, revealed young people were viewing a concerning amount of media depicting sexual violence through non-traditional platforms.

More concerning than that, they were forming their opinion based on those media.

Youtube, for instance, has about 300 hours of content put up every minute. "No classification office can keep abreast of that," Shanks says.

"That's part of the flip side of the internet. It's fantastic, it's immediate, it's incredibly informative and granular but through share volume you've got those sorts of risk.

"I think when you've got those sorts of issues the role of the office is in research and is in informing and educating and actually acting as the voice in the centre of all these issues going, 'hey this is what is going on, this is a problem and it's not something we can deal with through traditional regulation or oversight'.

"If we join up agencies, if we get educators in the mix, if we have agencies like Netsafe, the Broadcasting Standards Authority, who are going to be taking an increasing role with streaming providers, we have a chance of getting a bit of consistent approach and messaging  in ratings for people in this country that they can work with, that parents can work with and kids can be informed by as well."

When Netflix came to the country it wasn't clear whether streaming content was covered by the classification office or some other regulatory regime such as the BSA.

Netflix voluntarily put a large volume of its content through the classification office to be reviewed, rated and classified.

In response to the ambiguity, a digital convergence discussion paper was launched two years ago by the Government that led to an announcement that streaming services would fall under a self-regulatory broadcasting standards model. While that model is constructed, streaming content is unregulated.

"[That] meant for this office, the perspective of going 'how this can work to make sure people are protected and we've  got the right sorts of information and classifications for streaming services'."

Following the controversy around the teen-targetted show 13 Reasons Why, which depicted potentially dangerous themes  such as suicide, self-harm, drug use, bullying, drinking and rape, the chief censor now has cal-in powers. "I can essentially call in anything to classify it. I can call in a tee shirt. I can call in a book or magazine or a series."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 - Stuff

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