Story: Censorship

In 1967 New Zealand made international news when the chief censor decided that men and women had to sit in separate sections in cinemas to watch the film Ulysses. Censorship has evolved as public attitudes have changed, but the government still has a role in restricting material that is objectionable or harmful to the public good.

Story by Peter Clayworth
Main image: A scene removed by the film censor, 1956

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Censorship in the 2010s

Censorship occurs when the government bans or restricts publications and other media for moral or political reasons.

In New Zealand the Film and Video Labelling Body gives classifications to films, videos and games. Publications such as books, films and games can be referred to the Office of Film and Literature Classification. If the office decides a publication is objectionable, it can be cut, restricted or banned.

Material that has been classified as objectionable can be seized by the police, the Department of Internal Affairs and New Zealand Customs.

Agencies that deal with complaints about publications and communications include:

  • the Broadcasting Standards Authority, which deals with television and radio programmes
  • the New Zealand Press Council, for newspapers and magazines
  • the Advertising Standards Authority, for advertising.

History of censorship in New Zealand

The first specific censorship laws were made in the 1890s, and set out definitions to guide judges when deciding if material was offensive.

During the First World War the government banned anything that was thought to be damaging to the war effort, including some newspapers. During the Second World War censorship was even stricter and printing presses of some pacifist and communist organisations were seized. During both wars the letters that soldiers wrote were censored.

The first film censor was appointed in 1916. A classification system was introduced in 1920. As films became more popular and sophisticated, especially after the arrival of films with sound in 1929, there was a lot of work for the censor. Films were most often banned for moral reasons. Some were banned for political reasons, such as being anti-war.

In the 1950s an age-restriction classification system was introduced.

From the 1960s mainstream films depicted more sex and violence. Some were banned, while others were restricted to older ages.

Some thought that comics encouraged anti-social behaviour, especially in teens, and hundreds were banned in the 1950s.

Since 1968 television programmes have not been controlled by the censor, but by the Broadcasting Authority and then, since 1989, by the Broadcasting Standards Authority. Until the 1980s sexual content was strictly controlled, but as public attitudes changed it became more acceptable.

New technology, such as DVDs and the internet, has made it harder to censor objectionable material.

How to cite this page:

Peter Clayworth, 'Censorship', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/censorship (accessed 20 June 2018)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 22 Oct 2014