Complete control: New Zealand censorship, security, space, word, and image

For a while now I’ve been fascinated about the links between space, word, and image – starting with a talk I gave to the State Library of New South Wales about the comics medium last year.

Our recent panel on censorship at Auckland Libraries opened up some more explicit links between space and media – in the way New Zealand polices its physical borders and its cultural ones.

NZ Censorship Images
Did you know that New Zealand’s chief censor, Andrew Jack, comes from a background as a legal adviser to New Zealand police and customs?

That the man he replaced, Bill Hastings, left censorship to run the Immigration and Protection Tribunal, which decides on issues of residency, deportation, and refugees?

Or that New Zealand’s censorship began in the 1850s, more than thirty years before the first Offensive Publications legislation, when customs officers began to regulate importation of material they saw as indecent?

It’s as if the business of policing material and cultural boundaries were interchangeable in the eyes of the Kiwi state. Coming to New Zealand as a foreigner and a native of that other Island Nation, so implicated in NZ’s colonial and postcolonial history, it’s interesting to see the tensions between the country’s physical and cultural border controls, even when the tradition of censorship is relatively liberal.

NZ Censor's StampIn the interwar years of the 20th century, American comics and movies were the boogeyman feared by the New Zealand state. Comic imports were banned from 1938 under regulations which considered US comics to place an “undue emphasis” on “sex, obscenity, horror, crime, and cruelty”, while in the 1920s the Manawatu Daily Times had expressed concern that US films were showing Kiwi youth “life through the artificial, spurious, and meretricious glare of Broadway, New York.” But material which the state finds objectionable comes from within NZ’s borders, as well as without – from undesirable persons to controversial teen literature.

Our panel last week was part of a broader event which looked at the history of the sex industry in Auckland’s Karangahape Road, urban development in New Zealand’s largest city, and the ways in which women’s bodies are policed and controlled in Kiwi culture. It felt timely, as it seems the tensions around policing cultural and physical boundaries in New Zealand are rising once again.

The Kiwis might just have celebrated their first gay marriages, but at the same time women are being told that tampons are a luxury item – the female body as the object of state control.

New Zealand censored reportage from the First and Second World Wars in the interests of national morale. Now a government communications security bill and questions around reporting on the NZ SAS link restrictions on Kiwi media to the surveillance state.

Culturally, too, the issue of censorship is beginning to bubble over in this small Pacific nation. The winner of New Zealand’s most prestigious children’s book award has been submitted for age classification.There’s also a growing debate over the legal status of Alan Moore’s controversial but widely acclaimed comic Lost Girls.

As part of my legacy work at Auckland Libraries, I’ve set up a teen feminism working group in collaboration with Auckland University of Technology. This project, run by female librarians for teenage girls, will help to develop a media literacy curriculum with a focus on gender, sexuality, and their representation in the media: exploring everything from an infamous (and awesome) Bodyform advert to Adventure Time‘s gender-flipped episodes with Fionna and Cake, and beyond.

In doing so, it chimes with the best of the liberal tradition in the Kiwi state, recalling a 1989 ministerial inquiry which found: “A media-literate public, well-educated about human sexuality, sex stereotyping, the demeaning treatment of women and minorities, and the misuse of violence in entertainment is the best defence against the harmful effects of the media. This is especially important in the face of fast developing communications technologies.”

Public libraries, with their principle of free public access to all human knowledge and culture, have a key role to play in arming and empowering the public to make their own decisions about the material they read or watch. It will be interesting to see how the debate moves forward in 21st century New Zealand…

For more on the history of Kiwi censorship, visit A Brief History of Censorship in New Zealand.

See coverage of Auckland’s protest against the GCSB online.

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