Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Let’s ban the banner

Freedom of expression isn’t absolute—we all know that. But any government seeking to restrict freedom of expression ought to have a damn good reason. New Zealand just temporarily banned a book, and there was no good reason to do so.

The book in question is a New Zealand young adult novel, Into the River by Ted Dawe, an award-winning novel that has had a fraught relationship with government censors. It’s a twisted tale, but before I talk about its journey from award to banishment, a little about New Zealand’s censorship system.

New Zealand has two entities involved in censorship. The first is the Office of Film and Literature Classification, which is an independent agency that, for the most part, gives ratings to books, movies, video games, and recorded music, so that children can’t access “inappropriate” material. Most of the arguments over ratings are about what is appropriate for children and at what age, with fundamentalist Christians arguing for the greatest possible restrictions in nearly every case, sometimes arguing that materials should be banned altogether.

However, very little apart from pornographic material is ever banned altogether, and all the wowsers on the religious far right do is waste taxpayer money as government bodies are forced to deal with the radical right’s frequent pearl-clutching over something they don’t approve of and think should be withheld from everyone because of their disapproval.

When someone—usually, but not always, for fundamentalist religious reasons—doesn’t like a rating something’s been given, they can lodge an appeal with the Film and Literature Board of Review, which is under the Department of Internal Affairs, the government department charged with enforcing censorship. They have the power to review and change ratings made by the official censors, the Office of Film and Literature Classification.

There are two people who play prominent roles in this saga: Bob McCroskrie, head of the fundamentalist “Christian” pressure group, “Family” First. Bob and I have verbally tussled many times, many documented on this blog. There are very few things (any?) that we agree on, but we’ve kept our interactions pretty civil despite all that.

The other player is Don Mathieson, a Queen's Counsel, who is president of the Board of Review. He is a conservative Christian and edited a book called Faith at Work, and he also contributed an essay to it. The book is promoted with the statement, "Faith goes beyond church on Sunday. It must impact on every area of life." He also wrote a criticism of the Anglican Church in NZ’s proposal to develop a liturgy for blessing same-gender couples (whether or not the church agreed to perform marriage ceremonies for same-gender couples). He was adamantly opposed on conservative doctrinal and theological grounds, and much of his rhetoric struck me as displaying clear anti-gay animus.

So, the system and actors explained, here now is the chain of events. Although shortened, you may want to pour yourself a cuppa before going on:

In July 2013, the month after the book won Book of the Year at the NZ Post Children's Book Awards, the Department of Internal Affairs referred it to the Office of Film and Literature Classification after receiving complaints about it (organised by Bob, I imagine). The Censor rated the book M (unrestricted), but with a note about the content) in September. Labels indicating the rating were not ordered, since it wasn't age-restricted.

"Family" First then appealed that rating to the Film and Literature Board of Review. In December of that year, the Board mainly upheld Bob's complaint, but imposed an R14 rating, meaning it was restricted to people aged 14 or older. That rating had never been used under the Classification Act before then. The Board also did not order stickers be placed on the books, which was also unusual for an age-restricted item.

Bob, however, wanted it rated R18, which would kind of defeat the purpose of the book, of course, which was intended for older teen boys. Don Mathieson, the board president, wrote a dissent—which is apparently a very rare thing to do—saying the book should have been rated R18. Like Bob, he objected to the supposedly foul language and the sex scenes in particular.

In March of this year, Auckland Libraries asked the Censor to review the rating. They pointed out that since libraries and book shops don't have an R14 Section (and most don't have an R18 section, either), there was no practical way to have the book freely available to people 14 and over. This clearly placed a burden on libraries and bookshops as well as restricting freedom of expression for people legally allowed access to the book. Whether that's permissible under the Bill of Rights Act for THIS book is a main point of contention.

Last month, the Censor removed the restriction. Normally, a rating is reviewed after three years, so the Right is claiming the Censor’s removal of the restriction was "illegal". It was unusual, but that doesn't necessarily make it illegal.

Four days after the restriction was removed, Bob again complained (of course), and that's when Don banned the book altogether. It is legal to possess a copy, but it cannot be shown, lent, or given to anyone else (even a spouse, for example), and it must not be displayed. Individuals can be fined $3,000 and organisations $10,000.

The ban is temporary, until the Board of Review reviews the restriction. No one—including “Family” First—is seeking a permanent ban, they just want to prevent kids from having access to it, and Bob wants label stickers on the book.

As it happens, the ban was one of only two options that Don had under the law: The other was to allow the book to be sold without restriction. The Board has no power to put the reclassification on hold while it considered Bob's complaint, so Don banned it rather than allow it to be sold or lent unrestricted. This was to be expected when he clearly thinks the book should be available to adults only, but it was nevertheless an unprecedented action—no book has been banned since the current censorship law was enacted.

Interestingly, anyone who's affected by the ban can file a request that the ban be lifted. This could include someone who wants to buy or borrow the book, a librarian or bookseller who cannot supply the book to meet demand, etc. I believe, but am not certain, that Don can do as likes about the objections to his ban, including reject them out of hand.

So: The problem with the old rating was that it actually made the book very difficult to obtain, because it was largely impossible to put it on shelves where it would be accessible to those 14 and older because there was no practical way of preventing anyone younger than 14 from being able to access it.

If the book's R14 rating is restored, it won't be available in the open stacks of pubic or school libraries (people would have to ask for it), and bookstores without an adult section would likely not carry it at all rather than keep it in back, available only to customers who ask for it. So, this is effectively banning the book without an actual ban.

However, if Bob and Don get what they really want, the book could be available only in the few libraries and bookshops that maintain an R18 section, in porn shops, or from overseas sellers. And it would be illegal to supply the book to its intended audience.

That’s where we stand at the moment. The Attorney General, Chris Finlayson, has said that we need to review the law: "Banning books is not really the sort of thing we do in New Zealand is it? I would think if that's the case maybe it's time we looked at the legislation ... Interim banning raises some pretty interesting questions about freedom of speech and freedom of expression."

Indeed. The book had been on sale for two years, but suddenly it’s illegal. That’s just insane. Mathieson’s order makes all kinds of logical leaps and jumps, without actually connecting to reality. He argued, for example, that if the book was on sale during the time the Board of Review considers it, that would—somehow—make it harder for them to decide the appropriate rating, even though it remained available during all its previous rating battles. There is simply NO WAY that this book remaining on sale during this time would have done anything to hurt New Zealand, it’s kids, or the axial tilt of the planet. If that last one sounds silly, perhaps it’s no more so than Mathieson’s excuses for banning the book.

But the issue here isn’t really this one book, it’s that self-centred “morals” crusaders can use the system to achieve theocratic and ideological aims they’d never be able to do in any other way, goals like restricting the freedom of expression of people who don’t believe as they do, suppressing ideas they don’t like, and, basically, forcing their religious views onto everyone else. That situation cannot continue.

This is JUST the beginning: Bob himself said, "Hopefully we have set a precedent and people start bringing other books to the fore that they are concerned about." This means he’s planning on launching even more anti-freedom crusades, safe in the knowledge he has a strong ally on the Board of Review.

Chris Finlayson is dead right: There MUST be a review of the law. The bar for banning a book—even temporarily—must be extraordinarily high, even insurmountable under normal circumstances (like, requiring a unanimous vote by the Board of Review, followed by a mandatory High Court review). But one small and easy thing they could do would be to give the Board of Review the power to delay re-classification pending review by the Board. I don’t know whether Mathieson would have used that option if it had been available, but I hope he would have instead of the dumb thing he did do.

Whether the law is changed or not, I think two things will happen. First, the Board of Review is most likely to reinstate the R14 rating and lift the ban. The second thing will be that sales will skyrocket, due to the Streisand Effect. I’m sure that most New Zealanders had never heard of the book before this, but plenty of people are anxious to read it to find out what all the “controversy” was, why the radical right “Christian” lobby hated it so much, and why the book was banned.

Fortunately, New Zealand government mostly has grown-ups in charge, and the delicate flowers of the radical right are often rejected—usually, but not always, and this time they won big. I hope this serves as a warning to mainstream New Zealanders about how a determined bunch of fringe religious radicals can use the system to undermine or even take away the freedoms we take for granted.

I also hope this finally brings some much-needed change to what is an archaic and fraught system.

Update – October 2015: Bob and Don lost, and the book is now again freely available. Common sense won.


rogerogreen said...

agreed (damn it's hot in the house - above 90F, 32C today...)

Arthur Schenck (AmeriNZ) said...

Har-dee-har-har. Our house is a constant 19-20 degrees (66.2 - 68 in US degrees) year round. On the other hand, as I write this, it's a very chilly 12 in Auckland (53.6F). And raining, of course.

And, when you're soon in the icy grip of old man winter, we'll be basking in warmth…