Censorship in New Zealand

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.

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.

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".

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.

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'.

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.

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.

Moves towards law reform had already begun in 1959, the Government realising something had to be done about the system. The Secretary for Justice called together representatives in April 1962. The result was a major reform to New Zealand censorship law, the Indecent Publications Act 1963.

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 with the removal of 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"

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

The Committee reported back in December 1988. Their report made 202 recommendations for change.