The chief censor hunts for the big five: Sex, horror, crime, cruelty and violence
Stuff co.nz 14 August 2016
Family First Comment: “Society is becoming more permissive, but parents are becoming more concerned, and rightly so.” – Family First
Chief Censor Andrew Jack says protecting freedom of expression is often the starting point for debates potentially affecting issues like these. When his office had its origins a century ago, the same year a law emerged to regulate the new-fangled “cinematograph”, more topics were contentious.
Today, fewer things are candidates for censorship, but a complex media landscape and interplay between lobby groups, prosecuting agencies, and Dr Jack’s independent agency keeps his office busy, sometimes making it the centre of controversy itself.
Jack’s Office of Film & Literature Classification has an obligation to protect the public good – the same term used in law a century ago. Irreconcilable arguments on what damages the public good, and on who should be allowed to view or read exploitative or sadistic content, fall on this office.
A century ago, with the new Cinematograph-film Censorship Act, officials grappled with the surging popularity of motion pictures, and the controversial storylines some presented. Among the first flicks deemed “objectionable” was 1921’s Certain Rich Man, dealing with drunkenness, young love and business ethics. Eternal Three, featuring an old doctor who took a trophy wife who herself then had an affair, also earned opprobrium in the censorship law’s first decade.
After tweaks to the law in recent decades, the independent Crown entity covers films, books and computer games. One thing hasn’t changed. Most people still agree definitions of the “public good” will always be subjective.
From his Wellington office, Jack says social attitudes to controversial issues have moved since he took over in March 2011, but the pace is slow.
What’s important is ensuring the censorship office keeps in touch with the community, maintains relevance, an ability to reflect social values, not impose them from above. Key to that is frequently escaping the “Wellington ivory tower” and ensuring staff have a life outside work, so Dr Jack says he spends much time talking to community groups.
The office’s workload gives you another indication why having a life outside work is encouraged.
Jack says “sex, horror, crime, cruelty and violence” are themes his team of around 25 must tussle with most often. And he reckons 40 per cent of his staff’s work relates to studying content police, customs or Internal Affairs supply during investigations or prosecutions. Of that, perhaps two-thirds is child abuse imagery, trafficked online.
It can be distressing, disturbing work, and having to review it is the worst part of the job. But one reward is knowing the office can help prosecute predators and traffickers of exploitative content.
And while some groups feel society is in a perpetual freefall of increasing permissiveness, Jack says Kiwis are less tolerant of some things than they were five years ago.
Surprisingly, he feels society is increasingly intolerant of offensive language. And teenagers are probably more conservative than might be imagined. Depictions of self-harm, sexual violence and animal cruelty are especially out of favour with teens right now, he says.
“Young people are often more discerning than they’re given credit for.”
The biggest recent controversy erupted when Into the River was slapped with an R-14 rating last September. Conservative lobby group Family First slugged it out with author Ted Dawe. Foreign media, even Hollywood, weighed in too.
President of the Film and Literature Board of Review Don Mathieson, QC, a conservative Christian, issued the interim order, overturning deputy chief censor Nic McCully’s decision to not restrict the book. The issue see-sawed until that R-14 restriction was lifted six weeks later. Mathieson stood down soon after.
Bob McCoskrie, Family First’s national director, defends the stance he took, and feels the media garbled the issue by presenting the R14 classification as a ban. “We felt that the book was inappropriate for young children the way it dealt with the sexual content and the language.
“You can’t be silent and just see things get worse..We’ll always put a line in the sand.”
He uses a story of families in the video store – a declining, dying business model – to provide an analogy around crumbling, decaying morals and the utility of age-based restrictions.
“If Little Johnny brings you an R18, we immediately say ‘That’s R18, we’re not even even going to read what that movie’s about’.”
He said the R14 rating for Into the River had a similar goal in mind.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to parental advice, but based on correct information.”
He’s sceptical of claims any publicity is good publicity, and thinks the Into the River decision flowed against a current of consciousness many parents share. “Society is becoming more permissive, but parents are becoming more concerned, and rightly so.”
He paints a vivid picture of parents in the living room always on edge, quick on the draw with the remote control, ready to mute or change channels when adult-themed ads or promos for salacious TV shows emerge during “family viewing time.”
READ MORE: http://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/books/82968384/the-chief-censor-hunts-for-the-big-five-sex-horror-crime-cruelty-and-violence