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Chief Censor: That "c" word

Posted on 31 May 2018 by Chief Censor David Shanks

I’ve been reflecting on the recent media coverage about the ‘menstruation issue’ of Critic student magazine. It was the liberal use of the “c” word (censorship) that caught my attention, as you might expect.

Censorship can be an ugly thing. But every country needs to find an approach that works to balance freedom of speech, and the harms that can ensue from abuse of that freedom.

I believe in New Zealand we have the fundamentals right. We are all lucky enough to live in a free country, with freedom of expression protected by our Bill of Rights. Whenever I am considering whether or not to exercise some of the powers I hold, I have to consider that freedom first. I need to be an advocate for that freedom, and only take action where necessary to provide the protection from harm our society expects.

I like it that way.

We have recognised systems in place to deal with situations like the Critic debacle. Critic is a member of the Media Council, and are subject to that body’s Code. This covers the subject of distressing or shocking images (‘shocking’ being considered in the context of a student magazine – which have always addressed issues relevant to their audience in a frank, even confrontational manner). Any member of the public has recourse to the Media Council if they think that Critic – or any other publication or digital news site – might be in breach of that code.

Beyond that, the Media Council can escalate to my Office if they think they are dealing with material presenting a true risk of harm to the public. While this can happen, it is exceedingly rare.

These issues are messy, and hard, and critically important for any society. If we don’t use the systems we have in this country, things break. Increasingly, I see decisions around access and freedom being made by foreign corporations, applying rules that no-one here would identify with. That’s how we can end up with large content platforms freely holding video of brutal, real world executions, while taking down images of breast feeding mothers. I don’t think that’s right.

The University of Otago has explained that the removal of the controversial issue of Critic was a staff member’s mistake, not censorship, and have since apologised to Critic staff.

Mistakes can happen. Obviously the key thing is to learn from them.

I have since invited both the University of Otago and the Editors at Critic to approach the Media Council or my Office at any time, now and in the future, to help with any issue of this kind. We don’t have all the answers, nobody does, but we do have robust systems in place in this country to deal with these issues.

We will always be looking to protect the fundamental freedoms we have in this country, and will only propose intervention when strictly necessary to address real harm.

In a free society, that’s how it’s got to be.

David Shanks is New Zealand's Chief Censor at the Office of Film and Literature Classification.

Cover of the menstruation issue of Critic Magazine

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