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Censorship and the mother country: the UK's influence on censorship in early New Zealand

Posted on 14 April 2014 by Henry

In honour of the Royal Tour we think it's a good time to look at New Zealand's historical ties to the UK - on the topic of censorship of course.

Ye olde censorship

Along with their trunks and valises packed with their worldly goods, settlers to New Zealand also carried the rights, obligations, and precedents of English law. The common law system allowed a relatively open environment in terms of freedom of expression, even though these rights were not explicitly protected (unlike the Americans with their Bill of Rights). Of course, these rights were never absolute, and our new colony also inherited limitations to the freedom of expression.

You could trace New Zealand's current classification system back to 1727, when Edmund Curll was convicted for publishing Venus in the Cloister or The Nun in her Smock. Mr Curll was locked up for 'disturbing the King's peace', as there were no specific obscenity laws at the time, but the conviction set a precedent for dealing with similar cases. This was followed in 1787 with a Royal Proclamation for the Discouragement of Vice, aimed at "excessive drinking, blasphemy, profane swearing and cursing, lewdness, profanation of the Lord's Day, and other dissolute, immoral, or disorderly practices."

In addition to sanctioning men for "obscenely exposing his Person [in public]... with Intent to insult any Female," England's Vagrancy Act 1824 banned "every Person wilfully exposing to view, in any Street, Road, Highway, or public Place, any obscene Print, Picture, or other indecent Exhibition."

It was the Obscene Publications Act 1857 which made the sale of obscene material a statutory offence in the UK (the meaning of 'obscene' was not defined). The new law was "intended to apply exclusively to works written for the single purpose of corrupting the morals of youth and of a nature calculated to shock the common feelings of decency in any well-regulated mind."

In the 19th and early 20th century, censorship decisions in New Zealand were mostly dealt with by this tangled history of Imperial laws. It wasn't until 1892 that we passed a censorship law of our own, the Offensive Publications Act (although this was essentially an updated version of the UK's decades old Obscene Publications Act mentioned above).

The curious birth of film censorship in the UK

Film censorship in the UK was a bit of an accident - an unintended consequence of the Cinematograph Act 1909. I say unintended because the law was essentially about health and safety issues - rather than the content of films, people were understandably concerned about nitrate film's terrifying habit of bursting into flames. The new law set safety regulations and required that cinemas be inspected and licensed by local authorities.

A year later a court case established that local authorities, when issuing licenses, could make additional requirements which had nothing to do with combustible nitrate film. As a result of this case, councils across the UK suddenly began censoring films. But the idea of hundreds of would-be censors banning things all over the countryside was too much for the British film industry to take, so they got together and came up with a plan to deal with the chaos. So came the birth of the British Board of Film Censors in 1912 (still operating today as the British Board of Film Classification or BBFC). Thanks to the efforts of the film industry, the BBFC started examining films and saving local councils the trouble of censoring everything themselves. (Local authorities in the UK can still censor films within their jurisdiction, but this power is rarely used.)

Homegrown film censorship

The call for film censorship in New Zealand reached fever pitch at a conference in 1915 attended by 45 organisations. The conference found that "the class of moving pictures at present exhibited in New Zealand constitutes a grave danger to the moral health and social welfare of the community," and called for the introduction of a government-run film censorship system.

They got what they wanted, and the New Zealand Government abandoned the idea of creating an industry-led system like that in the UK. Our Cinematograph-film Censorship Act 1916 was markedly different from the law in the UK, in that it allowed a government-appointed film censor the power to refuse exhibition of any film which "in the opinion of the censor, depicts any matter that is against public order and decency, or the exhibition of which for any other reason is, in the opinion of the censor, undesirable in the public interest." The fundamental difference of an industry vs government-run film censorship system has remained ever since.

So did we really cut the apron strings with British censorship? Well, not quite. Regulations under New Zealand's current censorship law (the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993) state that a film which is classified U, PG or 12/12A in the UK doesn't need to be rated or classified in New Zealand, we can just adopt an equivalent rating to the UK classification. So while the influence might not be great, in some ways we're still following the UK's lead.

For further details, including a historical timeline, go to A brief history of censorship in New Zealand.

Henry works in the Information Unit at the NZ Office of Film and Literature Classification. His views do not represent those of the Chief Censor or of the Classification Office. The Information Unit provides information to other staff, to the public, and to industry members - they are not involved in assigning classifications. Keep up with our blog posts by following us on Facebook and Twitter.

Old postcard with censored stamp

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