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History of censorship in New Zealand

The history of censorship in New Zealand starts early in the 20th Century and involves several different government agencies and a variety of mediums.

On 1 October 2014, New Zealand's current censorship legislation, the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993, had been in force for 20 years. This Act is administerd by the Ministry of Justice.

Click on one of the following links to learn more about some milestones in New Zealand censorship history. For each item, we include references to the source of the information so that you can read more about the topic if you want to.

Spool of film

1892: The Offensive Publications Act 1892 was New Zealand's first censorship legislation

Customs was regulating the importation of indecent material into New Zealand as early as 1858, but the first censorship legislation was not enacted until 1892.

The Offensive Publications Act 1892 banned any picture or printed or written matter which was of an indecent, immoral, or obscene nature, which included advertisements relating to such matters as venereal disease. The Act laid down the criteria that magistrates should take into account when determining the indecency of material.

This Act was replaced by the Police Offences Act in 1908. After two years this system of censoring publications was again revised.

Paul Christoffel, Censored: a short history of censorship in New Zealand, Research Unit, Department of Internal Affairs 1989

1896: The first film exhibition in New Zealand

...the first movie screening was at the Auckland Opera House on 13 October 1896 when a short programme of 'moving pictures' was projected on an Edison Kinematograph imported from the United States.

Chris Watson and Roy Shuker, In the Public Good?: Censorship in New Zealand, The Dunmore Press 1998, p28

Old-fashioned film projector

1910: The Indecent Publications Act was passed

The Indecent Publications Act passed in 1910 was not amended until 1954. It incorporated provisions from previous acts, and strengthened the law allowing the searching of premises and the seizure of 'indecent' and 'obscene' material. All offences involving indecent material were made liable to summary conviction, eliminating the need for expensive jury trials.

The Act did not attempt to define 'indecent', but did lay down criteria which 'magistrates (sic) should take into account when determining the indecency of material.'

The traditional medical concerns remained prominent. The Act deemed indecent '...any document or matter which relates or refers ... to any disease affecting the generative organs of either sex, or to the complaint or infirmity arising from or relating to sexual intercourse, or to the prevention or removal of irregularities in menstruation, or to drugs, medicines or appliances, treatment, or methods for procuring abortion or miscarriage or preventing conception.

It was a defence, however, that the work was of 'literary, scientific, or artistic merit or importance', and that the act of the accused was not of 'an immoral or mischievous tendency'. The Act thus spelt out for the first time the distinction between work which was of 'literary, scientific, or artistic, merit' and that which was not. The purpose, according to the Attorney General, John Findlay, was to protect the 'liberty which improves and ennobles a nation' while removing the 'license which degrades.'

Paul Christoffel, Censored: a short history of censorship in New Zealand, Research Unit, Department of Internal Affairs 1989, p9

1916: From March 1916 the Government had the power to ban films about the war in Europe

Regulations were introduced during WWI, 'aimed at films which might discourage army recruitment by showing the conditions under which the war was being fought. The screening of such a film in Timaru, which included shots of the dead and wounded, appears to have provoked the move.'

Paul Christoffel, Censored: a short history of censorship in New Zealand, Research Unit, Department of Internal Affairs 1989, p12

Postcard from World War 1 that was passed by the NZ Censor

1916: The first Censor of Cinematograph Films was appointed under the Cinematograph Film Censorship Act 1916

The Cinematograph Film Censorship Act 1916, passed in August, made it illegal to show any film which had not first been approved by a government-appointed censor. Virtually the only directive given the censor was that no film should be approved 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 words 'in the opinion of the censor' imparted sweeping discretionary powers. Film distributors were, however, given the right to appeal the censor's decision to a three-person board appointed by the Minister of Internal Affairs. Until 1934, no one could appeal the censor's approval of a film, however.

The words 'undesirable in the public interest' were also rather sweeping, going beyond the concern with 'indecency' in the other censorship legislation. When questioned in the house about this clause, the Minister of Internal Affairs indicated it was specifically included so films could be censored for political reasons, in particular their effect on army recruitment.

The 1916 Act also made provision for films to be restricted to specified classes of persons. This provision was rarely used before the 1950's, when age restrictions, such as R16, became common.

Paul Christoffel, Censored: a short history of censorship in New Zealand, Research Unit, Department of Internal Affairs 1989, p12

1920s: A system of graded age recommendations was introduced

The 1916 Act also made provision for films to be restricted to specified classes of persons. This provision was rarely used before the 1950s, when age restrictions, such as R16, became common. In 1920 however, a system of recommendary classifications was introduced.

A 'U' certificate denoted that a film was suitable for everyone, while an 'A' classification indicated that a film was considered by the censor to be suitable for adults only. It was left to parents to police the censor's recommendations.

Paul Christoffel, Censored: a short history of censorship in New Zealand, Research Unit, Department of Internal Affairs 1989, p12

In 1920 the Legislative Council, Parliament's upper house, debated the need to 'strengthen and make more drastic the censorship of cine-films ... with the object of eliminating the noxious elements which are tending to destroy the moral sense of so many young persons.'

The capture of the film market by Americans, observed the editor of the Manawatu Daily Times, meant that New Zealand youth were seeing life 'through the artificial, spurious and meretricious glare of Broadway, New York' (Editorial, 18 October 1920).

Chris Watson and Roy Shuker, In the Public Good?: Censorship in New Zealand, The Dunmore Press 1998, p32

1920s: The introduction of sound in movies

Films became more sophisticated with the arrival of sound, and were thus aimed at a more mature audience. In 1930, a record 102 films (3.9 percent of the 2,626 submitted) were banned, indicating that the censor was taking a cautious approach to the sound revolution. The introduction of the voluntary Hays Code in the American industry in 1932 seems to have made films from that country more acceptable to the censor, and bannings were rare by the end of the decade.

Paul Christoffel, Censored: a short history of censorship in New Zealand, Research Unit, Department of Internal Affairs 1989, p15

1935: Committee of Inquiry into the Motion Picture Industry

In New Zealand in 1935 a Committee of Inquiry into the Motion Picture Industry, after considering various submissions and evidence on 'the effect of films on juveniles', came down in favour of the status quo. Its report concluded that 'the censorship of films is at present carried out in a very satisfactory manner', and that it was up to 'parental control' to observe the certificates issued by the censor.

Chris Watson and Roy Shuker, In the Public Good?: Censorship in New Zealand, The Dunmore Press 1998, p37

1938: Comics banned under the new import licensing regulations

Comic books were initially reprints of newspaper comic strips. During the 1930s, these became orientated more towards action, violence, romance and adventure with the likes of Buck Rogers becoming popular. Action and violence became more predominant from 1937, when comic books started to feature original material, thus removing the restrictions imposed by the family orientation of most newspapers. Superheroes such as Batman and Superman appeared on the scene...

In 1938 a deputation met with the Ministers of Customs and Education to discuss their concern about comic books. Later that year several comics were banned under the new import licensing regulations, which restricted publications placing 'undue emphasis' on sex, obscenity, horror, crime and cruelty.

Paul Christoffel, Censored: a short history of censorship in New Zealand, Research Unit, Department of Internal Affairs 1989, pp20-21

Cover of the first edition of Action Comics featuring Superman, June 1938

1939: Advent of WWII leads to further censorship

In 1939, the Labour Government introduced stringent censorship of newspapers, the post, telegraph, radio, and books. The Director of Publicity, J.T. Paul, was placed in charge of press censorship. In April 1940 he announced that he would suppress all outgoing news 'likely to convey a prejudicial view to overseas countries concerning the National War effort in New Zealand.'

Newspapers were forbidden to publish stories on certain topics without his approval, and he could prosecute the publishers of any item he judged prejudicial to the public interest.

Internal mail was selectively censored, and there was blanket censorship of all other postal communications. Up to 250 staff were employed to censor letters, including 22 full-time and seven part-time translators. Radio scripts were previewed by the censor, but there was no need to censor radio news, which at the time consisted entirely of summarised newspaper stories. A special Customs Department committee was set up to examine books; it banned many political works.

Paul Christoffel, Censored: a short history of censorship in New Zealand, Research Unit, Department of Internal Affairs 1989, p18

Chief Censor's excision notice for Pathé News No. 93D, July 1940
Chief Censor's excision notice

23/7/40 - I hereby give you notice that dialogue is to be removed in the film Pathé News No. 93D

  • 'Thirty thousand British are left dead or captured by the Germans.'
  • also 'suffer a terrific setback, realising that they are underequipped on land & in the air.'

Please send second and subsequent copies, or notify in writing within ten days that no second copy will be imported.

1951: Censorship during the Waterfront Strike

The Waterfront Strike of 1951 saw some of the harshest censorship in New Zealand history. The National Government under Prime Minister Sidney Holland declared a state of emergency, and amendments to legislation made possession of 'seditious' literature (literature which criticised the government) an imprisonable offence. Union meetings were also banned and it was an offence to give aid (including food) to striking wharfies or their families.

Banned strike leaflet
Leaflet banned during the Strike

1957: New regulations create innovative new classification categories

The new film censorship regulations which were gazetted last June and which came fully into operation in December are of interest to the public generally, but they should be of very particular interest to teachers, parents, and all others who have any influence over film-going by children. Indeed, it is not too much to say that unless this interest is actively shown, New Zealand's present system of film censorship could conceivably collapse. For the basis of the system is that primary responsibility for deciding what films should be seen by children is assumed, not by the Government, but by parents and teachers.

Gordon Mirams, Chief Censor of Films, Department of Internal Affairs, Reprinted from Education, Vol. 6, No. 1 February 1957

1961: The new classification categories are included within the Cinematograph Films Act 1961

Probably the most important event in the field of cinematograph films administration was the enactment of the Cinematograph Films act 1961. This Act ... consolidated and amended the legislation relating to cinematograph films and brought into statute law important matters of principle formerly included in regulations. The latter relate mainly to film censorship, theatre licensing, film safety provisions, and the licensing of projectionists.

The Act liberalises very substantially the provisions of the law relating to the exhibition of films. Projection licences, previously required to be held by persons showing films, have been abolished and exhibitors' licences will in future be required only by commercial exhibitors...

The functions of the Licensing Authority have been extended. Among other things it is empowered to...conduct all necessary inquiries and investigations with respect to exhibitor's licences and permits and renters' licences...

One important consequence of the new Act is that as from 1 October 1964 the importation, manufacture, renting, transportation, and exhibition of highly inflammable film will be prohibited, thus eliminating the likelihood of film fires which, for so many years, has been the major hazard associated with the motion picture industry.

Department of Internal Affairs, Annual Report for the year ended 31st March 1962, p32

1963: The Indecent Publications Tribunal became the judge of indecency in books, magazines and sound recordings

Moves towards law reform had already begun in 1959, the Government realising something had to be done about a system which had become rather unwieldy. The Secretary for Justice called together representatives from the book trade (libraries, writers, publishers etc) to form a law review committee. The committee met four times, the last in April 1962. The result was a major reform to New Zealand censorship law, the Indecent Publications Act 1963.

It was originally intended that the law review committee would help draft amendments to existing legislation. Indeed, in 1961 the law was amended to allow the censoring of sound recordings. But eventually it was decided that a new Act was required.

The result was a highly innovative piece of legislation which made a dramatic break with the tradition of following overseas trends... The main innovation was the establishment of the Indecent Publications Tribunal. The tribunal became the arbiter of indecency in books, magazines and sound recordings.

Paul Christoffel, Censored: a short history of censorship in New Zealand, Research Unit, Department of Internal Affairs 1989, p24

Books, stacked

1976: The Cinematograph Films Act 1976 introduces the idea of 'injury to the public good'

When introducing the 1976 Bill to Parliament, Internal Affairs Minister Alan Highet made it clear that his intention was to liberalise film censorship. He hoped, he said, that New Zealand would 'move towards the maturity of attitude whereby the abolition of censorship for adults can eventually become a reality'.

The fundamentals of the Act as they relate to censorship still stand. Out went the references to 'public order and decency' dating from the 1916 Act. The censor was required to determine only whether a film 'is or is not likely to be injurious to the public good'. In determining injuriousness to the public good, the censor was required to take into account a number of specific criteria. These included:

  • the likely effect of the film on its audience;
  • its artistic or other merits;
  • the way in which the film depicts anti-social behaviour, cruelty, violence, crime, horror, sex etc;
  • the 'extent and degree to which the film denigrates any particular class of the general public by reference to the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins, the sex, or the religious beliefs of the members of that class';
  • other relevant circumstances, such as likely time and place of exhibition'.
Paul Christoffel, Censored: a short history of censorship in New Zealand, Research Unit, Department of Internal Affairs 1989, p33

1987: Video Recordings Act established the Video Recordings Authority (VRA)

The use of video recordings increased in the 1980s, and debate arose as to whether these should be subject to some form of classification.

In response to public concerns, the Video Recordings Act was passed in 1987. The Act established the Video Recordings Authority (VRA), the decision-making equivalent of the film censor, which it charged with classifying videos of a restricted nature. The Video Recordings Authority was administered by the Department of Internal Affairs.

The Act required all videos for sale or hire to carry rating or classification labels. Rating decisions, which were recommendations as to the likely suitable audience for the video, were made by a labelling body, on the basis of classifications by the New Zealand film censor, overseas film censors, or on occasions by viewing it themselves. Any video that was a candidate for restriction, cutting or being banned, was required to be referred to the VRA.

Apart from an amendment in 1990, the Video Recordings Act 1987 and the Video Recordings Authority remained in force until the current Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 and the Office of Film and Literature Classification replaced them.

VHS videos

1989: The Report of the Ministerial Committee of Inquiry into Pornography is published

In late 1987 the Minister of Justice appointed a Committee of Inquiry into Pornography in response to public concern about the classification system. One of the concerns was that the split in jurisdiction between the film censor on the one hand (who continued to classify films intended for public exhibition), and the VRA on the other (which classified videos intended for private use) resulted in inconsistent decisions.

The Committee released its report, based on extensive consultation and investigation, in February 1989. Two of its central recommendations were for the censorship of films, videos, and publications to be dealt with by one comprehensive Act of Parliament and that decisions be made by one administering government department. The Report of the Ministerial Committee of Inquiry made 202 recommendations for change.

1993: Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) established under the new Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993

Based largely on the recommendations of the Ministerial Inquiry into Pornography, New Zealand's current censorship legislation (known as the Classification Act) was passed in 1993.

  • The Classification Act replaced the Films Act 1983, the Video Recordings Act 1989, and the Indecent Publications Act 1963.
  • The powers of the Chief Censor of Films' office, the Video Recordings Authority and the Indecent Publications Tribunal were given to the new Office of Film and Literature Classification headed by the Chief Censor of Film and Literature
  • Previous classification decisions of the old censorship bodies remained in force, however, the Classification Office has the power to reclassify older films, videos, and publications

The first Chief Censor of Film and Literature was Kathryn Paterson. The Deputy Chief Censor was Lois Hutchinson. Kathryn Paterson was from Australia and had worked at the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal, the Censorship Board and the Classification Office. When she was appointed Chief Censor, the opposition women's affairs spokesperson Elizabeth Tennet MP raised fears that Kathryn Paterson would import Australian 'macho cultural imperialism' into New Zealand. Lois Hutchinson had been head of the Video Recordings Authority.

In its initial years a number of pornographic films classified by previous agencies were resubmitted to the new Classification Office to be examined according to the criteria in the Classification Act. A number of these films were banned as a result.

The new office officially opened and began classifying publications in October 1994.

Kathryn Paterson and Lois Hutchinson were Chief Censor and Deputy Chief Censor until 1998.

1999: Bill Hastings became second Chief Censor of Film and Literature, replacing Kathryn Paterson

Bill Hastings was appointed Deputy Chief Censor in 1998 on the recommendation of the Jenny Shipley-led National coalition government.

He was appointed Chief Censor on the recommendation of the Helen Clark-led Labour coalition government. His initial three-year appointment was renewed in 2002, 2003 and 2006.

Former Chief Censor Bill Hastings
Bill Hastings

1999: A Court of Appeal ruling, Moonen v Film and Literature Board of Review, clarified the way in which the Classification Office must apply the Bill of Rights Act 1990 in classification decisions

As a result of the Moonen case, the Court of Appeal determined that the Classification Office must always fully consider the freedom of expression set out in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 whenever it restricts, cuts, or bans a publication.

The following is taken from the introduction to the Court of Appeal decision:

This appeal concerns the relationship between freedom of expression and censorship of objectionable publications. The appellant (Mr Moonen) appealed to the High Court from the decision of the Film and Literature Review Board ('the Board') determining that a book called The Seventh Acolyte Reader ('the Book') and various photographs were objectionable in terms of s3 of the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 ('the Act'). Appeals from the Board to the High Court (under s58) and from the High Court to this Court (under s70) are restricted to questions of law. Gendall J held that the Board had made no error of law in coming to its decision, and dismissed the appeal. Mr Moonen appeals to this Court contending that Gendall J's decision is erroneous in law.

The paragraphs below are taken from the consideration sheets used by classification officers when they apply the law to a publication they are classifying. They show the impact of the Court of Appeal decision on the day-to-day work of the Office:

In Moonen v Film and Literature Board of Review (Moonen I), the Court of Appeal stated that the words 'promotes or supports' must be given 'such available meaning as impinges as little as possible on the freedom of expression' in order to be consistent with the Bill of Rights. The Court then set out how a publication may come within a definition of 'promotes or supports' in s3(2) that impinges as little as possible on the freedom of expression:

Description and depiction... of a prohibited activity do not of themselves necessarily amount to promotion of or support for that activity. There must be something about the way the prohibited activity is described, depicted or otherwise dealt with, which can fairly be said to have the effect of promoting or supporting that activity.

Mere depiction or description of any of the s3(2) matters will generally not be enough to deem a publication to be objectionable under s3(2). When used in conjunction with an activity, the Classification Office defines 'promote' to mean the advancement or encouragement of that activity. The Classification Office interprets the word 'support' to mean the upholding and strengthening of something so that it is more likely to endure. A publication must therefore advance, encourage, uphold or strengthen, rather than merely depict, describe or deal with, one of the matters listed in s3(2) for it to be deemed to be objectionable under that provision.

The full decision of the Court of Appeal can be accessed on the Court of Appeal website.

Useful links

2000: A Court of Appeal ruling, Living Word Distributors v Human Rights Action Group, led to the Classification Act being amended

The case involved two videos imported from the United States by Living Word Distributors Limited. The videos were titled Gay Rights / Special Rights: Inside the Homosexual Agenda and AIDS: What You Haven't Been Told. The videos opposed awarding equal rights to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered individuals, and blamed homosexuality for the spread of HIV and AIDS.

The Office of Film and Literature Classification classified the videos as R18. That classification was challenged by the Wellington-based Human Rights Action Group, which wanted the videos banned.

The Film and Literature Board of Review classified the videos as objectionable, reasoning that they dealt with 'matters such as sex' (in the form of sexual orientation and sexual behaviour) and represented particular classes of persons as inferior to others by reason of a prohibited ground for discrimination.

Living Word Distributors Limited appealed to the High Court, which upheld the legal process followed by the Board. The distributor then appealed the High Court decision to the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal determined that the Classification Office only has jurisdiction over publications that fit through one of the five subject matter gateways of sex, horror, crime, cruelty, and violence, which were defined as activities rather than mere expressions of opinion or attitude. For example, matters such as sex have to show sexual activity rather than just a sexualised pose.

The Classification Office cannot use any of the criteria listed in section 3(3) of the Act to expand the scope of the gateways.

The Court of Appeal considered that the subject matter provision was intended to limit the reach of censorship laws to activities involving sex, horror, crime, cruelty or violence. It called this the 'subject matter gateway'. The decision threw doubt on the ability of censorship authorities to classify some types of material that did not depict activity but were likely to be injurious to the public good. Examples included:

  • Sexualised images of naked children where no sexual activity was depicted
  • Covert pictures of naked adults
  • Material that represents a particular class of persons as inferior to others by reason of a prohibited ground for discrimination but did not depict activities involving sex, horror, crime, cruelty or violence (so-called 'hate speech')
  • Offensive language
  • Dangerous imitable conduct
  • Self-harming behaviour

As a result of this decision, in 2005 Parliament amended the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act to permit the Classification Office to restrict some publications which do not fit into the gateway defined by the Court of Appeal. It also redefined matters of sex in section 3(1) to include visual images of children and young persons who were fully or partially nude. Other implications of the decision were changes to the Crimes Act to cover secret filming of people (e.g. in swimming pool changing rooms).

The full decision of the Court of Appeal can be accessed on the Court of Appeal website.

2003: Manhunt was the first video game banned in New Zealand

In its summary of reasons for the decision, the Classification Office concluded that:

Learning how to acquiesce in, tolerate, or take enjoyment from inflicting violence, cruelty and suffering over the length of time it takes to play this game requires an antisocial attitudinal shift, (and reinforces such attitudes amongst those who already have them) that is likely to be injurious to the public good. Another likelihood of injury to the public good lies in the game's potential to adversely affect young people and adults alike, who may find the constant focus on inflicting injury or death in a brutal and callous manner disturbing and distressing. The third likelihood of injury arises from the fact that the game immerses the player in violent gameplay intended to be a source of excitement and pleasure. To a greater or lesser degree, this has the potential to inure players to brutal violence generally.

2004: The Classification Office held public consultations in Aramoana before classifying the film Out of the Blue

Out of the Blue, directed by Robert Sarkies, is a film about the massacre of 13 people by gun collector David Gray, in the small Otago township of Aramoana in 1990. Before the film's release in New Zealand, members of the Aramoana community contacted the Office of Film and Literature Classification and expressed their reservations about the film.

After the film had been submitted to the Office, the director of the film, Robert Sarkies, said that he was worried that his film would be given a higher censor's rating because it was a New Zealand movie.

The Classification Office held two consultations on Out Of The Blue with people involved in the tragedy at Aramoana. Nine people, either related to the victims or who had themselves been injured, attended the first meeting. The second consultation was attended by twenty-one members of the Aramoana community. Participants said that they appreciated the opportunity to express their opinions and responses to the film. The results of the consultation were presented in a report.

Out of the Blue: Report on Consultations with Families of Victims & Members of the Aramoana Community (PDF, 630KB)

There were several media articles published about the Classification Office's consultations with the Aramoana community:

The families of the victims obviously are part of the public of New Zealand. But equally we have to balance that against the right of the film-maker to make the film... and the fact that other people want to see something about what was a public event.

Bill Hastings, former Chief Censor, New Zealand Herald 23/9/2006

The Chief Censor's decision to consult locals on the classification of Out of the Blue is PC gone mad. I think it's ridiculous to canvass them about the film, simply because they have already seen it.

Robert Sarkies, Director of Out Of The Blue, New Zealand Herald 23/9/2006

Out Of The Blue was classified as restricted to persons aged 15 years and over with the descriptive note 'contains violence and content that may disturb'.

The depiction of real life events in the film required special consideration by the Classification Office. In the classification decision it noted that:

Many adult New Zealanders are likely to remember the actual event, which is likely to affect the impact the film has on them. Those who were closely involved in the tragedy at Aramoana are likely to find the film upsetting and potentially traumatic.

The film's director Robert Sarkies agreed with the R15 classification. He said that 'an R15 restriction allows the film in the future to be seen in senior high school classes. Fifteen year olds are old enough to comprehend the film'. The classification decision noted that:

The film is likely to present violence to teenagers in a new light. Rather than the sanitised and glorified violence often depicted in popular mainstream productions, Out Of The Blue presents violence in a realistic manner. The random, unspectacular nature of violence is captured, as are the devastating repercussions it has for good, honest, real people.

2004: The Classification Office reconsidered the classification of the film Irreversible, and its new classification was confirmed by the Film and Literature Board of Review

The film Irreversible was controversial due to its depiction of extreme violence and sexual violence, including an extended rape scene. Irreversible was originally classified in 2003 as:

Objectionable except if the availability of the publication is restricted for the purpose of study in a tertiary institution, or for the purpose of exhibition as part of the 2003 Beck's Incredible Film Festival or a film festival organised by an incorporated film society, and in all cases to persons who have attained the age of 18 years.

In 2004 the distributor applied to have the decision reconsidered by the Classification Office. The distributor was seeking a lighter classification that would allow for a general release of the film in cinemas, asking that New Zealanders be 'given a chance to see an acknowledged cinematic masterpiece'. The reconsideration was granted, and the films classification was amended to allow for theatrical screenings. The descriptive note remained unchanged: 'Brutal sexual violence, graphic violence and sex scenes'.

In the summary of reasons for the classification decision, it was stated that:

The Classification Office is mindful of the need to preserve the widest possible availability of the film. The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 requires that the classification of a publication should represent the minimum interference with the freedom of expression consistent with preventing likely injury to the public good. Taking the above factors into account, the Office has agreed to the further step of allowing Irreversible to be released for theatrical screening.

The widening of Irreversible's availability does not, however, apply to DVD and video versions of the film offered for supply to the public. Restriction to theatres where access is controlled prevents the possibility inherent in video and DVD formats of access by persons under the age of 18 years and of inadvertent exposure to the material in the private viewing situation. Restricting the exhibition of the film to public forums also prevents editing and reproduction.

Some organisations believed the new classification was too liberal - and both Viewers for Television Excellence (Vote) and The Society for the Promotion of Community Standards (SPCS) applied to the Film and Literature Board of Review to have the film's classification changed. Among other concerns about the new classification of the film, the SPCS submitted that the Classification Office was 'passing the buck' with regard to enforcement of the classification, and stated that:

This restriction is totally inadequate. The issue remains. Is there any tendency whatsoever to promote or support sexual violence etc (see s3(2) of the [Classification] Act). We believe there is and the defence strategy of offering 'differing interpretations' is wrong in law.

The submission from VOTE stated that the Board's decision will have 'implications regarding its potential television release which evokes concern' and that Irreversible should be classified as objectionable (banned) so that it cannot be shown on television. (While broadcasts are not classified, it is illegal to screen a film which has been classified as objectionable, or objectionable unless specific 'cuts' are made).

The Board of Review assigned the same classification to the film, but added these words to the descriptive note: 'Strobe lighting and sound effects may affect some people'. The Board stated that any cuts made to the film would 'destroy the high impact' of significant scenes in the film, and that an age restriction of 18 years was 'justified due to society's wish to protect children and young persons from likely injury', while still 'providing the minimum interference with the rights under the Bill of Rights Act'.

The Board also reaffirmed that the classification prohibited the release of the film, regardless of format, for domestic retail or rental. With regards to VOTE's concerns about the film being broadcast on television, the Board noted that 'television programmes are dealt with under the Broadcasting Act 1989' and were therefore beyond their jurisdiction.

Irreversible poster

Useful links

2004: The Court of Appeal rules on the classification of the film Baise-Moi

The decision by the Classification Office limited the availability of the French film Baise-Moi:

for the purpose of study in a tertiary media or film studies course or as part of a film festival organised by an incorporated film society, and in both cases to persons who have attained the age of 18 years

The film carried the descriptive note 'sexual violence, graphic violence and explicit sex scenes'. Below is an excerpt from the Classification Office's decision:

The Classification Office consulted widely over the classification of this film, including a consultation with members of the public. Submissions were received by various interested parties, and the classification of this publication in other jurisdictions has been considered. In classifying this publication, the option of excising part or parts of it were considered but found to be impractical. A restriction to adults only is not sufficient to minimise the likely injury that has been identified therefore the publication is also restricted to either a specified purpose or to a class of person.

This decision was appealed to the Film and Literature Board of Review by the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards, which submitted that the film should be banned outright. The Board classified the film as R18 with the descriptive note 'contains frequent disturbing depictions of violence and repeated explicit sexual content'. Below is an excerpt from the Board's decision:

In respect of s3(4) of the Act, the dominant effect is that just desserts are meted out in the end to the two main characters. The Board acknowledges a degree of merit in Baise-Moi as a post-modern movie with some value from a feminist perspective. Baise-Moi is a provocative film on the human condition and it is noted that it is listed in the top ten films for the year 2000 in Time Magazine.

The Society for the Promotion of Community Standards appealed the Board of Review's decision to the High Court on a point of law. This appeal was upheld and Baise-Moi was sent back to the Board for a new classification. Justice Hammond's decision stated that:

...The Board did err in law in this instance in failing to have regard to the impact of the various mediums of formats in which this film might be presented... to my mind, the broader view taken by the OFLC is correct in law.

In the Board's new decision, the theatrical film version of Baise Moi was again classified as R18, while the DVD/video version of the film was:

objectionable unless restricted to theatrical exhibition or are exhibited as part of a tertiary media or film studies course, and in all cases to persons who have attained the age of 18 years.

The Board also assigned a new descriptive note: 'contains frequent disturbing depictions of violence and repeated explicit sexual content and sexual violence'.

The Society for the Promotion of Community Standards appealed this new classification decision to the High Court, and this time the appeal was dismissed. The Society then took the case to the Court of Appeal, which 'allowed the appeal in part', as it found that the Board:

...wrongly purported to make separate classifications for the publication in film form and the publication in video/DVD form, the Board could have achieved the same practical result lawfully. It could have made one classification for the film, imposing restrictions that meant that it could not be viewed in any medium except by persons over the age of 18 years, and could be viewed only through theatrical exhibition or as part of a tertiary media studies or film studies course. In those circumstances, we consider that the appropriate course for us to take is to quash the Board's decision and substitute a new decision having the same practical effect, but which complies with the requirements of the Act.

The Court then issued the following classification in place of the Board's most recent decision:

The film Baise-Moi is objectionable except if:

  1. the availability of the film is restricted to persons who have attained the age of 18 years; and
  2. the film is used for the purpose of:
    1. theatrical exhibition; or
    2. exhibition to participants in a tertiary media studies course or a tertiary film studies course.
Baise-Moi poster

Useful links

2005: The Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Amendment Act 2005 was passed

Amendments to the Classification Act focus on the criteria used to classify publications. The amendments:

  • Expanded the definition of 'objectionable' to ensure nude pictures of children and young persons are included
  • Allowed a publication to be age-restricted for highly offensive language and dangerous imitable conduct;
  • Increased penalties for possession and distribution of objectionable publications.

Many of these amendments resulted from the Living Word case in 2000.

2006: Changes to the Crimes Act made it an offence to film someone without their knowledge

This amendment is a result of the Living Word decision in 2000.

2007: Hostel 2 was refused classification for cinema release after the director refused to cut a scene

The decision was upheld by the Film and Literature Board of review, and the film was later released on DVD with the scene cut from it.

2010: Chief Censor Bill Hastings resigned his position to become a District Court Judge and head of the new Immigration and Protection Tribunal

Bill Hastings was Chief Censor for 12 years and replaced Kathryn Paterson.

Bill Hastings' time as Chief Censor saw some key decisions and reforms to censorship law. The 2005 amendments to the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 were influenced by the 1999 Court of Appeal Moonen decision and the 2000 Court of Appeal decision on the Living Word videos. In 2003 the Classification Office banned its first video game, Manhunt, and in 2004 classified the controversial film Passion of the Christ as R16. (Passion of the Christ was subsequently classified as R15 by the Film and Literature Board of Review.)

During the period Bill Hastings was Chief Censor, there was an emphasis on public information and transparency in decision making processes. Examples of this are the research projects undertaken by the Office and consultation with members of the public on films like Out of the Blue, and The Passion of the Christ. Bill Hastings called in a number of unrestricted films for classification after parents had expressed concern about their ratings, for example Scooby-Doo, Happy Feet, and Land of the Lost. He also undertook a large number of public speaking and education commitments, including extensive touring of the Censor for a Day Programme for senior secondary school students.

Bill Hastings' personal life was criticised by some conservative lobby groups who felt that as an openly gay man he would be too permissive in his role as Chief Censor. Of the classification decisions changed by the Board between 2000 and 2010, however, only one, Me, Myself and Irene, had its restriction raised. All other decisions were upheld, and in a few cases the restriction was lowered by the Board.

On 21 June 2010, it was announced that Bill Hastings was to be appointed a District Court Judge and Chair of the Immigration and Protection Tribunal. His Honour Judge Hastings was sworn in at Wellington on the 9th of July 2010.

2011: Dr Andrew Jack became Chief Censor of Film and Literature on 7 March 2011

Dr Jack's previous job was as the Group Manager, Legal and Advisory Services at the New Zealand Customs Service. He also worked for the New Zealand Police as Chief Legal Advisor.

Former Chief Censor Addrew Jack

2014: The Warehouse stops stocking publications with an R18 classification

After concerns around the content within Grand Theft Auto V, the Warehouse Group pull all stock with an R18 classification from their shelves.

Grand Theft Auto 5

2015: Law change means higher penalties for offences relating to objectionable publications

Amendments to the Classification Act create stricter penalties for offending relating to child sexual abuse material. This includes higher maximum penalties for possessing, making, distributing, importing or exporting this material. There is now a presumption of imprisonment for repeat offenders.

2015: Into The River classified unrestricted, decision upheld on review

Upon reconsideration, the Classification Office decided that restricting Into The River was not justified and would remove a quality resource from young people that allowed them to explore issues such as racism, peer pressure and bullying. The Classification Office found that the R14 age restriction had led to many cases of access and exposure to the book being restricted from people of all ages, including the target audience of teenage boys and young men. The Classification Office stated that any potential harm that could arise from the unrestricted availability of Into the River could be mitigated by librarians, parents and teachers.

The Board of Review accepted an application by Family First to review the classification of Into the River following the decision by the Classification Office to remove the R14 restriction from the book. The Board of Review examined the book again using the classification criteria in the Classification Act. This time the majority decision was to classify the book as Unrestricted. This means that the book can now be supplied to anyone of any age (once the decision was registered the Interim Restriction Order was no longer in force).

The Board considers the book is likely to educate and inform young adults about the potentially negative consequences that can follow from involvement in casual sex, underage drinking, drug taking, crime, violence and bullying. The Board considers that the book serves a useful social purpose in raising these issues for thought and debate and creating a context which may help young adults think more deeply about the immediate and long term consequences of choices they may be called upon to make.

Cover of _Into The River_

2017: David Shanks became Chief Censor of Film and Literature on 8 May 2017

David is a senior public servant who has held roles as chief legal officer and a number of acting deputy chief executive positions. Most recently, David was Director - Health and Safety and Security at the NZ Ministry of Education.

Current Chief Censor David Shanks
Chief Censor David Shanks

List of Chief Censors since 1916

NameAppointedTerm endedYears in role
William Jolliffe 1916 1927 11
Walter Alfred Tanner 1927 1937 10
William Arthur Von Keisenberg 1938 1949 11
Gordon Holden Mirams 1949 1959 10
Douglas Charles McIntosh 1960 1976 16
Bernard Tunnicliffe 1977 1982 5
Arthur Everard 1983 1990 7
Jane Wrightson 1990 1994 4
Kathryn Paterson 1994 1998 4
William K Hastings 1998 2010 12
Dr Andrew Jack 2011 2017 6
David Shanks 2017  -  -
 List of Chief Censors

Chief Censors William Jolliffe, William Von Keisenberg, Gordon Mirams, Douglas McIntosh, Bernard Tunnicliffe, Arthur Everard, Jane Wrightson, Kathryn Paterson, Bill Hastings, Dr Andrew Jack, David Shanks.