Sensible ‘Tweak’ To Classification of Books Law

Media Release 30 November 2017
Family First NZ is welcoming the passing of the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification (Interim Restriction Order Classification) Amendment Bill, saying that it will fix an anomaly in the law which impacted on the debate around the controversial book Into the River. The good news is that it won’t do away with the appeals process completely as hoped for by those who are not concerned about offensive and inappropriate material being targeted at young people.

We agreed with the primary concern raised in this bill by the sponsor – “the president had only two options. He could either allow the decision of the censor—that Into the River should be unrestricted—to stand while the board made its decision on the appeal, or ban the book entirely until the board had made its decision. What was not available to him, under the existing law, was the power to reinstate either of the two original classifications—i.e., unrestricted M, or R14.”

We believe the appeal process for any governmental department or process is vital, and that there should be flexibility within the legal requirements to allow for a common-sense response to specific situations. This Bill adequately allows for that. Even the Bill sponsor Chris Bishop agreed with us that retaining the R14 restriction was appropriate, which the book rating was reviewed.

However, we rejected statements by Mr Bishop that Interim Restrictions “interfere unjustifiably with freedom of expression” and that “the board of review very rarely alters the classification office’s decisions in the first place, which makes you wonder why we need this power.” (Source – Hansard).

The Select Committee were correct to reject this.

Family First simply wanted the book restricted to an age-appropriate audience because of the material covered in the book, similar to the same restrictions placed on movies, video games, and even language in Parliament (referred to by Tracey Martin MP during the 1st Reading as “unparliamentary language”.)


1.1 The Office of Film and Literature Classification undermined their own decision regarding Into The River by Ted Dawe – a book laced with detailed descriptions of sex acts, coarse language and scenes of drug-taking. The book came to public attention after it took top prize in the 2013 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards. Award organisers hastily sent “explicit content” stickers to booksellers after the book’s win.

1.2 The Office of Film and Literature Classification originally reviewed the book (after an appeal from Family First NZ), and acknowledged that it was suitable for mature audiences 16 years of age and over, but they made no requirement to warn parents about the content. They said it was up to marketers and booksellers to take the responsibility of warning parents and caregivers – something the OFLC wouldn’t do.

1.3 After an appeal by Family First NZ, the Film and Literature Board of Review then classified the book as R14.

1.4 The Deputy Chief Censor then undermined their own original decision and made it available with no restrictions or warnings after pressure from those in the industry.

1.5 We believed this to be an abuse of the process and so we took the appropriate course of action to review both the decision and the process in reaching that decision by the higher authority.

1.6 The OFLC made no attempt to ask parents or youthworkers what their view of the book was, and based their judgment extensively on those with a vested interest in the book or its award – for example, the chief judge of the Awards, and those in the booksellers industry. Ironically, the NZ Association for the Teaching of English who they went to agreed with the R14 classification.

1.7 The Censor failed to mention the widespread condemnation by many in the media including the NZ Herald editorial, and they also failed to acknowledge the massive protest to NZ Post calling on them to withdraw the Award given to the book, and that some bookstores refused to sell the book.

1.8 Most significantly, they ignored the dissenting opinion of the Board President Dr Don Mathieson who agreed with Family First that the book should have an R18 rating and that the book, if not restricted, would ‘cause serious harm to at least some persons under the age of 18’, and that the book ‘describes physical conduct of a degrading or demeaning nature to such an extent or degree’ that it is likely to cause younger teenagers to be ‘greatly disturbed or shocked’.”

1.9 Dr Mathieson referred to the ‘heavy use of offensive words’ which he believes is included in part to increase the notoriety and sales of the book. The c-word is used a staggering total of nine times – in a book supposedly targeted at teens. ‘F**k’ is used 17 times, ‘sh*t’ 16 times, and ‘c*ck’ 10 times, amongst others.

1.10 Other concerns with the book, but ignored by the Censor, were the issues of having sex under the legal age, illegal drug use, child sex exploitation and the sexual relationship between the student and the teacher, and violent assault.

1.11 The Censor tried to argue that freedom of expression was not taken into consideration by the Board and that this freedom trumps the welfare and protection of young people. In our view, they completely failed to consider the content of this book and the young target audience who will be affected by this material.


1.12 As recently as 2014 a precedent was set by the Auckland City Libraries to have a book that was “widely acclaimed for its literary and artistic significance, and its call for the freedom of the sexual imagination”, submitted to the OFLC to have it classified age restricted

1.13 The book “Lost Girls” was consequently classified R18. The book had wide appeal for young adults seeking to learn about sexuality, and features as its three main characters, the young heroines of classic works of fiction: Alice, from Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland; Dorothy from The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz; and Wendy from Peter Pan. These beloved characters, truly adored by young adult readers 14 to 17 were presented as adults and like Ted Dawe’s “marvellous” and “challenging” novel, dealt with challenging “moral” issues such as sexual molestation and incest.

1.14 The book was considered to be “intended” for adults, and the OFLC imposed the R18 classification. It was convinced that its content was “objectionable” if read by persons under 18 years of age and if read by such persons was “likely to be injurious to the public good”.

1.15 We draw your attention to the reasoning for the book being rated R18:

“The book is clearly intended for adult readers. There is a consensus amongst the public of New Zealand that children and young people should not be exposed to explicit sexual material intended for adults until they reach a level of maturity and experience that would allow them to cope with such material. In particular, young readers should not be exposed to images and text that they would be likely to find extremely shocking and disturbing. The availability of Lost Girls is therefore restricted to adults. Given how explicitly sexual the book is, the classification does not greatly interfere with the right to freedom of expression set out in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. In light of the book’s intended adult readership, the decision is a reasonable and justified limitation on the freedom of expression.”

1.16 This is the exact argument of Family First and the many families and parents who have expressed concern about what their children may be exposed to, and the important role of censorship in New Zealand. There is a consensus amongst the public of New Zealand that children and young people should not be exposed to explicit sexual material intended for adults until they reach a level of maturity and experience that would allow them to cope with such material. This position of course runs contrary to most of the opposing submissions from groups with a vested interest in selling books or promoting the book industry.

1.17 Was the sponsor of this bill and supporters of removing this important appeal process arguing that books such as “Lost Girls” should be freely available? Are they arguing that the many books that have been banned for good reason should be freely available?

1.18 In summary, Family First SUPPORTED the intent of this Bill as it relates to the particular anomaly in the law, but OPPOSED any additional restrictions and/or removals of the appeal process.

Controversial children’s book Into The River’s racy content inspires law change
NZ Herald 30 November 2017
Parliament has changed the law to help avoid a repetition of the banning of award-winning children’s novel Into the River.

When an interim restriction order was issued against the in 2015 an anomaly in the law meant it could only be left age unrestricted or banned entirely until the board of review met.

The book, written by Ted Dawe, was banned for six weeks after concerns were raised about its depictions of underage sex. The restriction was lifted when the interim order was reviewed.

The bill passed yesterday lets the censor board issue interim orders based on age or specified classes of persons.National MP Chris Bishop drafted the bill and it passed its earlier stages before the election.

“In the case of Into the River, it would have meant the book could have reverted to its R14 status rather than banning it outright,” he said after his bill had been unanimously passed.

“It is clear that Into the River should not have been banned – this small but useful change will help ensure such a situation doesn’t happen again.”

Into the River is about a 14-year-old Maori boy’s life at a boarding school.

The Herald on Sunday reported about the controversial novel in 2013 after concerns the content laced with sex and drug use was seen as suitable for children with a reading age of 13 years. The book was banned until the censorship board reviewed it.


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