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History of censorship

The history of censorship in New Zealand is a busy and interesting one. It starts early in the 20th Century and involves several different government agencies and a wide array of different mediums.

For each item, we will be including references to the source of the information so you can read more about the topic if you want.

Where direct quotations are used (in the majority of instances to date) quotation marks have been used around the full text. Standard ellipsis (...) are used to indicate that words have been omitted. By contrast the following ellipsis (...) indicates that more than a sentence is omitted from the original text.

The first movie 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?: Censorhip in New Zealand
The Dunmore Press 1998
p. 28

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The Indecent Publications Act

"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
Department of Internal Affairs, 1989
pp.9

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The first New Zealand censor

The first person to be appointed censor in New Zealand was W. Jolliffe. He was appointed under the Cinematograph Film Censorship Act in 1916. Jolliffe died in office in 1927. He was replaced by his assistant, W.H. Tanner.

Paul Christoffel
Censored: A short history of censorship in New Zealand
Department of Internal Affairs, 1989
pp.14 - 16

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The banning of war films


"In March 1916 the Government introduced war regulations allowing it to ban films about the war in Europe. These were 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
Department of Internal Affairs, 1989
p. 12

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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
Department of Internal Affairs, 1989
p. 12

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A system of graded classifications is introduced in the 1920's


"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
Department of Internal Affairs, 1989
p. 12

"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)

Thus in 1920 a system of classification was introduced, although these served merely as recommendations and it was left to parents to police their children's choices. A 'U' (for 'universal') certificate indicated 'suitable for everyone', while 'A' indicated 'suitable for adults only'".

Chris Watson and Roy Shuker
In the Public Good?: Censorship in New Zealand
The Dunmore Press 1998
p. 32

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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
Department of Internal Affairs, 1989
p. 15

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The 1935 Committee of Inquiry


"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
p. 37

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Comic book trends in the 1930s


"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
Department of Internal Affairs, 1989
pp. 20 - 21

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The Second World War imposes 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
Department of Internal Affairs, 1989
p. 18

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Film Censorship in 1957


The new Film Censorship Regulations (PDF, v7.0, 18kb)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
Department of Internal Affairs
Reprinted from 'Education', Vol. 6, No. 1
February 1957

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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
p. 32

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The Indecent Publications Act 1963


"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
Department of Internal Affairs, 1989
p. 24

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The Cinematograph Films Act 1976


"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
Department of Internal Affairs, 1989
p. 33

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Ministerial Inquiry into Pornography


In late 1987 the Minister of Justice appointed a Committee of Inquiry into Pornography. The Committee was made up of three members. The Chairperson, Joanne Morris, was a law lecturer. The second committee member, Hilary Haines, came from the Mental Health Foundation, and the third, Jack Shallcrass, was an educationalist from Victoria University.

The Committee reported back in December 1988. The Report of the Ministerial Committee of Inquiry made 202 recommendations for change. Click here for a summary of the Committee's report (PDF v7.0, 101kb) published by the Department of Justice in 1989.

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