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by Peter Clayworth

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.

Censorship in the 2010s

Censorship is the official suppression of communications for moral or political reasons.

Censorship of publications

In New Zealand the censorship of publications is carried out under the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993. Publications include:

  • films, video cassettes, DVDs, Blu-ray discs and computer games
  • computer files and other electronic data storage systems
  • books, newspapers, magazines and other print media
  • sound recordings
  • pictures, photos, symbols or words on billboards, artworks or clothing.

The act provides for a classification system that can restrict access to material considered potentially harmful. Films and restricted games must carry a classification label. Other publications do not require labels, but are classified if they are submitted directly to the Office of Film and Literature Classification.

Banned books

In November 2011 the Censorship Compliance Unit seized a copy of Bloody mama, a gangster novel by Robert Thom, from a Wellington bookshop. Bloody mama was banned as indecent in 1971, but the bookseller maintained it was very tame by 21st- century standards. In 2011 New Zealand had 1,319 banned books, the majority banned prior to the 1990s by the old Indecent Publications Tribunal. Banned books are usually only reassessed if a request is made to the Office of Film and Literature Classification, which replaced the tribunal in 1994.

Broadcasting, newspapers and advertising

Broadcasting on radio and television does not come under the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993, but is regulated by the Broadcasting Act 1989.

Broadcasters are responsible for the appropriate classification of programmes, which must carry classification symbols and, where necessary, warnings about content. The Broadcasting Standards Authority oversees the broadcasting standards regime.

Issues arising from material in newspapers and magazines published in New Zealand are generally dealt with by the New Zealand Press Council.

The Advertising Standards Authority deals with any complaints over the material in advertisements.

All three of these bodies act on public complaints about content, rather than classifying material before it is broadcast or published.

The Film and Video Labelling Body

When films, videos and games are received by a New Zealand distributor they are then sent to the Film and Video Labelling Body. This is made up of representatives from the film industry and the general community. If the film has not already been classified, the Labelling Body decides whether it should be restricted or not.

Unrestricted films can be viewed by anyone but are given one of the following ratings:

  • G – suitable for a general audience
  • PG – parental guidance recommended for younger viewers
  • M – suitable for a mature audience.

If the film has already been classified as unrestricted in Australia or the United Kingdom, the Labelling Body gives it the equivalent New Zealand rating. This is called cross-rating.

The Office of Film and Literature Classification

The Office of Film and Literature Classification (the Classification Office) is a Crown entity responsible for classifying restricted films and games. The Classification Office can also ban or cut objectionable material.

To decide whether material is objectionable, the office considers whether a publication ‘deals with matters such as sex, horror, crime, cruelty or violence in such a manner that the availability of the publication is likely to be injurious to the public good’ as set out in the Films, Videos, and Publications Act 1993. Considerations include looking at the extent, degree and manner in which a publication depicts:

  • torture, cruelty, sexual violence or degrading treatment
  • sexual conduct or nudity involving children or young people
  • the promotion of criminal acts or terrorism
  • the representation of any particular class of people as inherently inferior.

Restricted material can only legally be made available to people who are of or above the age decided by the office. Therefore a film or game labelled R18 can only legally be accessed by people who are at least 18 years old.

The Film and Literature Board of Review

If someone is dissatisfied with the classification given to a particular publication they can appeal to the Film and Literature Board of Review. The board has the power to re-examine and reclassify the publication.

Censorship enforcement

The New Zealand police have the power to enforce the Films, Videos and Publications Classifications Act 1993. All police have the official role of ‘inspectors of publications’. Publications include books, DVDs, posters, music recordings, photos, paintings, T-shirts and computer files.

The Censorship Compliance Unit of the Department of Internal Affairs investigates public complaints, monitors compliance with classification decisions and seizes potentially objectionable publications.

The New Zealand Customs Service aims to prevent objectionable publications being imported into New Zealand. Travellers or importers are required to declare any publications they are bringing into the country that may be considered objectionable.

History of censorship in New Zealand, 1850s to 1930s

Early censorship legislation

Colonial New Zealand did not have extensive censorship laws, although sections of the Customs Act 1858 banned the import of ‘indecent’ material. The Vagrants Act 1866 deemed anyone publicly displaying ‘obscene’ material to be ‘a rogue and a vagabond’. The definitions of ‘indecent’ and ‘obscene’ were left up to the discretion of customs officials, police or concerned members of the public.

Christchurch police prosecuted five local booksellers in 1890. The booksellers were charged with selling novels by French writer Émile Zola to undercover policemen – even though one of these copies was entirely in French.

The first specific censorship legislation in New Zealand was the Offensive Publications Act 1892. That was followed by a series of censorship laws enacted in the 1890s and early 1900s, which set out definitions to help magistrates decide whether material was offensive.

Art or obscenity?

The issue of artistic merit versus obscenity was raised in 1906. Auckland picture dealers Lawrence and Chignall were taken to court over the sale of postcard reproductions of mythologically themed paintings ‘Psyche’s bath’ by Frederic Leighton and ‘Psyche at the mirror’ by Paul Thumann, both of which featured nudity. The defence argued that the postcards were ‘pure art’ and therefore not indecent, to which the magistrate agreed. Arguments surrounding artistic merit continued throughout the history of censorship in New Zealand.

Political censorship in war and peace

During the First World War the minister of defence was given the power to ban any publication considered damaging to the war effort. Banned publications included German-language newspapers, the International Socialist Review, Irish nationalist paper The Green Ray, the Croatian socialist paper Nova Svijet and all publications by the Industrial Workers of the World. The strongest opposition to political censorship came from the Protestant Political Association, after the Post Office, in 1917, stopped the distribution of the anti-Catholic pamphlet Rome’s hideous guilt.

The Labour government imposed even stricter censorship during the Second World War. Censorship of the press, mail and telegrams was reintroduced and a range of publications critical of the government were banned, including the left-wing literary journal Tomorrow. The printing presses of the Co-operative Press, which had printed pacifist leaflets, and of the communist newspaper People’s Voice were seized.

The National government also imposed strict censorship during the 1951 waterfront dispute. It was declared illegal to publish any article in support of the locked-out workers, and possession of ‘seditious’ literature could be punished by imprisonment.

‘Disgusting indecent communistic’

The prime minister’s secretary received the following telegram on 1 March 1926: ‘Instruct watch for new novel entitled ‘Butchers Shop’ by Jean Devanny Wellington lady Publishers Duckworth London, alleged depiction station life New Zealand disgusting indecent communistic.’1 The novel, by New Zealand-born writer and communist Jean Devanny, was banned. It has been suggested the banning was due to the book challenging women’s social role or that its frank descriptions of farming life would put people off migrating to New Zealand.

Film censorship in the silent era

Film was a popular entertainment in New Zealand from the early 1900s, but there was initially no system of film censorship. In March 1916, during the First World War, the government gave itself the power to ban films depicting realistic battle scenes, fearing that these might deter recruiting.

In 1915 and 1916 the New Zealand Catholic Federation headed a campaign that lobbied the government to introduce film censorship. This led to the appointment of the first film censor in 1916. The censor was given extensive powers but censorship decisions could be challenged before a Board of Appeal. Controversy began immediately. The decision to allow the screening of the D. W. Griffith film Intolerance was challenged by church groups objecting to Christ being depicted on screen.

A system of classification was introduced in 1920. ‘U’ indicated a film suitable for everyone, while ‘A’ indicated films suitable for adults only. The system was advisory only, as it was believed that parents should take responsibility for policing their children’s viewing.

The ‘talkies’ and censorship

New Zealand’s introduction of ‘talkies’, films with sound, in 1929 greatly increased the work of the censor. More films began to be aimed at an adult audience. In 1930 the censor banned 102 films out of the 2,626 films submitted. Hollywood film-makers introduced the strictly moralistic Hays Code for film content in 1932, after which there was a substantial reduction in the number of films banned in New Zealand.

The censor’s decisions were sometimes shaped by political considerations. The film All quiet on the Western Front was banned in 1930 on the grounds that it was anti-war propaganda. A group of members of Parliament lobbied to have the film shown and eventually the Board of Appeal approved it for viewing.


Censorship and a changing society, 1930s to 2010s

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.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Peter Clayworth, 'Censorship', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 September 2021)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 22 Oct 2014