Salient. Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 26, No. 6. Tuesday, June 4, 1963
Book Censorship In New Zealand . . . — Prof. Gordon Describes Present System
Book Censorship In New Zealand . . .
Prof. Gordon Describes Present System
Two Government departments are involved in the censorship of books in New Zealand. They are the Department of Justice, and the Department of Customs.
The Department of Justice is authorised to pronounce on the decency of a book under the Indecent Publications Act of 1910 and its subsequent amendments. A list, published as an appendix to the Customs Act gives among the lists of prohibited imports, the books deemed by the Department of Justice to be indecent under the Act. So, the duties of the two departments are complementary.
Indecent publications published within New Zealand come under the jurisdiction of the Justice Department; the Customs Department is not involved.
The Customs Department is authorised to refuse entry into the country any book it deems indecent. During the 1930s an advisory committee was set up to aid the department in making decisions on the merit of books. This committee fell into disuse and after the start of the war all decisions on the censorship of books entering New Zealand were made by the Customs Department alone.
In 1953 the present advisory committee was set up, its purpose being to advise the Minister of Customs on the merits of any book which the department considered to be of doubtful decency.
The members of this committee are Professor I. R. Gordon (chair-man), Miss Irene Wilson, and Mr. R. M. Burdon. This committee makes recommendations to the Minister of Customs, but it is not an authoritative body. It has no relationship to the Justice Department and thus cannot pronounce on indecent publications published on New Zealand.
Professor Gordon gave Salient this account of the activities of his committee.
"The definition of indecency under which our committee works is contained in the Indecent Publications Act 1910. We inherited a system by which certain books were made available to doctors, lawyers and other specialised persons. To this we added a means of making books, which some might consider indecent, available to the general public. We make these books obtainable on individual order, that is, they are freely available to anyone who wishes to obtain a copy provided he goes to the trouble of ordering it."
"The books are circulated among the members of the committee who each make out a report on them. A final judgment is made and a report submitted to the Minister of Customs. The committee is concerned only with books submitted to it by the Customs Department; the department need not forward books to the committee if it wishes not to."
"The real problem of censorship is that not all people agree," said Gordon. "The Customs Department is not particularly worried about the decency or otherwise of the books it imports. Most grouses come from the public. It is passages rather than books as a whole which offend readers. If a book is not indecent right through, we consider offending passages in their context and pass judgment on the book as a whole."
Asked why "Lady Chatterley's Lover" was banned in New Zealand while being available in England, Gordon said: "The book was banned in both countries until the recent change in legislation in England. This allowed witnesses to testify on the literary merits of a book. But the book was made freely available in England not because the legislation is any more enlightened than in New Zealand, but because, in the trial against 'Lady Chatterley,' the case was conducted by an inept prosecution before an unsympathetic jury."
He continued: "If the book were tried in New Zealand before a jury, as it was in England, the result might or might not be similar. As in the trial of 'Lady Chatterley' it would depend on the jury."
"Lolita," which the committee released in New Zealand as available on individual order, was later banned after an outcry against it. The Council for Civil Liberties imported a number of copies and after the books were seized, court action was initiated. Asked to comment on this, Gordon said:
"It is clear that taking this case through the courts imposed tighter censorship. This action also rendered the system of the advisory committee practically inoperable, since our recommendations on books as 'available on individual order' was declared outside the law."
The advisory committee had never been asked to give their opinion on a book on any ground other than that of indecency.—G.Q.