Censorship: our rights under attack

February 28, 1996

By Kath Gelber In 1984 Big Brother was watching. In 1996, Big Brother controls what we watch, read and hear. Censorship is a fact of life. It ranges from formal, legal limitations, restrictions and categorisations imposed on publications, films and computer games to the self-censorship practiced by radio stations when they bleep out expletives during live broadcasts. Censorship in Australia is covered by legislation, regulations and guidelines. The legislation, which has recently been revised, provides mechanisms for the control and regulation of what we see and read and penalties for providing restricted material to those not legally permitted to access it, such as children. The legislation is interpreted with reference to guidelines which have been constructed and revised over a number of years and implemented by the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC). The guidelines by which the office makes its decisions restrict elements including sexual explicitness, explicit language, drug taking and the depiction of suicide or incest. They contain a category called Refused Classification (RC) — the films, computer games or publications that the board considers are not suitable for viewing by the public. Over the last few years, changes have occurred to the classifications system which have been influenced by conservative forces. The euphemistically titled Senate Select Committee on Community Standards has led the charge. This is a self-selected committee, on which senators with an interest in the subject matter choose to serve. The committee's views are dominated by three senators: Margaret Reynolds (Qld), John Tierney (NSW) and Brian Harradine (Tas). All three are staunchly pro-censorship and strongly critical of the depiction of sexual or other explicit material. This committee has exerted considerable influence over developments in censorship laws in Australia. Initially constituted to investigate 0055 and 0051 telephone services, it has since expanded its terms of reference to almost anything relating to "community standards". In 1992, this committee was responsible for the introduction of a code of practice for telephone services which restricted material on easily accessible 0055 numbers to the equivalent of a G rating for film. 0051 numbers were further restricted, as callers had to register with a company to access the line and prove they were over 18 to be allocated a PIN number. The service was still restricted to the equivalent of an M film rating. Subsequently, most phone sex services have closed down, and the current explosion in international services for phone sex is entirely unregulated. The result of the committee's restrictions has been to open up new, more expensive, completely unrestricted, international equivalents. The committee did not stop there. In 1993 it jumped on the computer game bandwagon. Led by a media avalanche bemoaning the standards of computer games which were being imported, the committee's recommendation, subsequently implemented, was that computer games receive more restrictive categorisation than films. The justification for this was their interactive nature. Equivalent material on film and computer games is therefore differently classified. A film which receives an M rating could be classified MA as a computer game, and a film which receives an MA rating could be banned as a computer game. Computer games considered to warrant an R or X rating are totally banned. The Senate committee was directly responsible for organising conservative opposition to adult material on computer games, which resulted in the ban. The committee has also been attempting to tighten up the classification of films. This resulted from the now infamous Salo decision. Pasolini's film was first banned in Australia in 1976, although numerous attempts to overturn the decision followed. In 1992 the film was again submitted for classification and refused; however, on appeal the Film Review Board voted unanimously in January 1993 to permit the film to screen. A barrage of media outrage accompanied the decision. The Senate committee publicly questioned the decision and recommended that the guidelines for the R rating be revised. The introduction of new legislation in 1996 has provided the opportunity — but the review is not only of the R rating; all categories are to be reviewed. The former deputy chief censor, David Haines, has expressed concern at this review on a number of grounds. Firstly, the Office of Film and Literature Classification has spent the last four or five years and a substantial amount of money on a public awareness campaign to ensure the current guidelines are understood by the public. Secondly, there appears little reason to review the guidelines at the present time because complaints have dropped off significantly since 1991, as a result of this campaign (from 296 complaints in 1991-92 to 123 in 1994-95). Thirdly, although the new guidelines are currently only in draft stage, they represent a potentially much more subjective interpretation of film content. Current guidelines for film classification contain quite specific references within each category to the degree of explicit language or sexual activity permitted, backed up with concrete examples of decisions that have been made, to provide content and context to the guidelines and assist in the classification process. This reflects some attempt to make the process more objective and understandable. The draft revised guidelines have abolished these specific references to earlier decisions and replaced them with a "glossary of terms" which can lend itself to a more subjective interpretation of legal requirements. The guidelines have been reviewed before. Formal guidelines were first developed in 1984 by relevant ministers and the chief censor. In 1988 they were revised to make them more easily understood, and in anticipation of the subsequent public awareness campaign. The current review is more overtly political. The Senate committee stated its wish to review the guidelines immediately after the Salo furore, and with the explicit intention of making the classifications more restrictive. In November 1995, the chief censor stated to the committee that, "under the new guidelines, Salo would be refused". He added, "Under the old guidelines, in my view, Salo should have been refused". Other developments also raise concern. In February 1995 a film planned to be screened in the Sydney Mardi Gras Film Festival was banned. The Spanish film, In a Glass Cage, told the story a fascist who had sexually abused boys in his past, and was now trapped in an iron lung after an accident. A survivor of his abuse comes to torment him. In refusing to permit screening of the film, even under rigorous film festival conditions, the censorship board called it a "child abuse" film. In defence of their right to screen it, festival organisers Queer Screen referred to its critical nature, its clear stand against violence and fascism and its deliberate exploration of the themes of power, violence and cycles of abuse. Despite an appeal to the board of review with the support of renowned film maker Pedro Almodovar and a catalogue of supporting letters from film festivals all over the world which had screened the film since it was made in 1986, and despite a legal challenge led by QC David Catterns, the ban remained in place. Again, in November 1995, the censorship board refused to classify a Jim Jarmusch film, Dead Man. The film has been seen all over the world, and the Australian ban — although it was subsequently overturned on appeal — raised the ire of many in the film industry. Margaret Pommeranz conducted an interview on SBS's The Movie Show with chief censor John Dickie about the ban in which Dickie justified the decision, saying the censorship board had reacted in accordance with "community attitudes". The film contains a four-second scene when a person glances down an alleyway. In the alleyway, they see a woman on her knees apparently performing fellatio on a man, standing, who is holding a hand gun which rests on his thigh. The board considered this scene was not justified by the narrative, but constituted an unnecessary and gratuitous link between sexual activity and violence. Again, the board referred to community attitudes to justify its decision. The overturning of the Dead Man ban on appeal was welcome, but overall, developments in censorship regulation over the last few years reflect a growing implementation of conservative policies: more control and regulation of what we see, read and hear. The constitution of the Senate committee is hardly democratic, yet it wields considerable influence. Harradine has said publicly he wants to ban all R rated material. Chief censor John Dickie told the committee, "The community has authorised us to become a bit tighter" in decision-making and that "the revised guidelines indicate that". On February 3 the OFLC advertised a seminar called "A New Era in Australian Film Regulation" to mark the introduction of the new legislation. However, the explanatory memorandum attached to the new legislation claims that its purpose is only "procedural". What, then, is this new era supposed to be? The Senate committee is attempting to define "community attitudes" and "community standards" in an undemocratic way. In part, this reflects the balance of forces within feminism during the last couple of decades. As the more radical activist movement has declined and a conservative wing of the movement has become stronger, pro-censorship forces within radical feminism have become more vocal and strident in their calls for restrictions. Willingly or not, this strand of the movement has formed an unholy alliance with conservatives with the same agenda — restricting public access to contentious material. While the motivations may originally have been different, the end product remains the same. It has often been argued that censorship laws have been used to silence those whose voices are least likely to be heard. That is why many in the women's movement and the gay and lesbian movements have campaigned strongly against it. Increased formal censorship leads to increased self-censorship. It stultifies the voice and creativity of artists, it forces conformity at the expense of open discussion and debate, and it harms those who can least afford to be silenced again. Stringent censorship laws will be used against the wrong targets — non-judgmental information on sexuality for young people, HIV/AIDS education programs, the voices of those who are struggling for a better world. They are a step backwards in the democratisation of society and the struggles of people who are least able to be heard.

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