Story: Censorship

Page 3. Censorship and a changing society, 1930s to 2010s

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The comics scare

In the 1930s concerns were raised over the influx of comics from America. In 1938 import laws were used to ban some comics. The issue resurfaced in the early 1950s, with comics regarded as encouraging violence and anti-social behaviour. Following the 1954 Mazengarb report on juvenile delinquency, hundreds of comics were banned from being imported into the country.

Film buffs

The Wellington Film Society (WFS), formed in 1933, came under suspicion for showing films from the communist Soviet Union. In July 1933 the WFS screened the 1931 film The road to life, by Soviet director Nicolai Ekk. The police charged the WFS with showing an uncensored film and the society was successfully prosecuted by the Department of Internal Affairs. From this point on the WFS had such difficulty obtaining films that it had folded by 1936, although it was revived in 1945.

Sex and violence at the movies

The censor began to regularly use the age-restriction system in the 1950s, making it illegal for those under the designated age to see the restricted film. At this time most of the cuts the censor made were of violent scenes. Films of teenage rebellion were particularly suspect. The motorcycle gang movie The wild one was initially banned in New Zealand. Rebel without a cause was only passed on appeal in 1955 as R16. By the 1960s most cuts were made for sex scenes. Mainstream films became increasingly explicit in their depictions of sex and violence, but the censor continued to take a cautious approach. The decision to restrict the 1967 film Ulysses to segregated male and female audiences made international news. Last tango in Paris, made in 1972, was banned in New Zealand until 1977, when it was granted an R20 certificate.

Radio and television

New Zealand radio had some difficulty dealing with the emergence of rock ’n’ roll music in the 1950s. Little Richard’s 1955 version of ‘Tutti frutti’ was banned as too suggestive, whereas a tamer Pat Boone version was allowed. The New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation’s Standards Records Purchasing Committee literally scratched out any material they thought offensive on a record, making it unplayable.

Television was introduced in 1960. Until 1968 imported television programmes were examined by the film censor, but after that television content was controlled by the Broadcasting Authority. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s there were complaints about the amount of violence on television. Sexual content tended to be very strictly controlled until the 1980s. Public attitudes were changing, as illustrated by the public protests over the removal of sex scenes from an episode of British serial Brideshead revisited in 1982. Since 1989 radio and television content has been regulated by the Broadcasting Standards Authority.

The backlash against liberal censorship

As the film and literature censors became more tolerant in the 1970s, some sections of the community believed the system was becoming too liberal. In 1970 a petition signed by 49,000 people calling for stricter censorship was presented to Parliament. Patricia Bartlett, of the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards, lobbied vigorously for stronger controls on ‘obscene’ material. The feminist group Women Against Pornography, founded in 1983, argued that pornography exploited and degraded women and was in fact a form of violence.

Video nasties

Videos and video cassette recorders (VCRs) became widely available throughout New Zealand in the 1980s. There were fears of a flood of ‘video nasties’ – cheap pornographic and violent videos – into the country. Initially videos were dealt with by either the Customs Department or the film censor. Under the Video Recordings Act 1987 all videos for sale or hire were required to carry a rating or classification. The act established a labelling body to recommend video ratings, and the Video Recordings Authority, which had the power to restrict, cut or ban videos.

The Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act 1993

In 1987 the Committee of Inquiry into Pornography was set up, chaired by lawyer Joanne Morris. The committee’s report recommended that all censorship of films, videos and publications should be administered by one body. The Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act 1993 followed this recommendation, setting up the Film and Video Labelling Body and the Office of Film and Literature Classification (the Classification Office) to deal with films, videos and literature. The Classification Office brought together three previously separate censorship bodies, the Indecent Publications Tribunal (established in 1963), the Chief Censor of Films (established 1983) and the Video Recordings Authority (established 1987).

The challenges of new technology

The censorship system was subject to major challenges in the early 2000s due to rapid advances in new technology. These included:

  • widespread use of DVDs
  • public access to high-speed internet
  • the development of social networking sites
  • mobile phone innovations
  • more sophisticated computer games.

These developments made it easy to distribute material widely without passing it through a classification process. Games were already covered by the 1993 act, but an amendment in 2005 confirmed that the Classification Office could treat computer files as publications. Law enforcement agencies and the courts could submit computer files to the Classification Office. If the material submitted was banned by the office then people who downloaded that material could be prosecuted. The Department of Internal Affairs and the Customs Service employed specialist investigators to find and prosecute people making illegal downloads.

How to cite this page:

Peter Clayworth, 'Censorship - Censorship and a changing society, 1930s to 2010s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 May 2022)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 22 Oct 2014