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Censorship: No! Labelling: Yes!

By Bob Ryan - posted Tuesday, 11 January 2011


After considering all aspects of arts-media censorship in Australia I cannot be other than opposed to it. Furthermore, censorship contravenes the fundamental principle of Mill’s great essay On Liberty, which is worth re-stating:

That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.


At the outset, it should be understood that the prosecution of criminal activity involving arts-media is not censorship, provided we are clear on what constitutes a crime. Thus, child abuse, euthanasia and terrorist material, although included in censorship law, are not considered here, but are the subjects of a separate opinion.

With regard to censorship, Mill’s principle should be the benchmark for determining how much (if any) interference with an individual’s choice of entertainment is warranted. Australia is a free and democratic nation based on, we are often reminded, the folklore principle of a fair go for all. This, more than anything else, means we accept the Millian principle as having been part of our culture since we hacked off the convict shackles.

On January 26 this year, we will celebrate the founding of English Australia for the 233rd time. That much of our history is known to most of us, but few are aware that censorship, which came out with the First Fleet, will also have its 233rd birthday. “I send this by a friend”, wrote a female convict in November 1788, “they read everything here”.

To begin, it must be fairly said that since the 1980s, what Bob Carr once called the “bad old days” of censorship have gone. Nevertheless, I believe it is now time “they” stopped “reading everything” and let Australians choose the arts-media entertainment they prefer. In fact, to paraphrase the National Classification Code (NCC), adults should be able to read, hear and see what they want provided minors are protected from material likely to harm or disturb them and everyone is protected from exposure to unsolicited material that they find offensive. Those provisions fall within the Millian concept, but censorship law doesn’t stop there.

Retain the ratings

Before proceeding to the more profound argument, which concerns the censors’ contentious decisions, I should state that I am not advocating abolition of the classifications (ratings), which are now well established as consumer advisories. The law includes guidelines as to how the Board should implement the NCC. These guidelines are available at no cost to all who want a copy. This means that, armed with their copies, those in the entertainment industry could, by following the guidelines, label their products as required by law just as easily as can the Board. Indeed, a current director Donald McDonald appears to agree that the bulk of his Board’s work is very much run-of-mill classifying. He said:

The very small number of decisions annually which attract controversy (comparative to the large number of decisions made by the Board) indicates that we may be getting the balance right between sense and censorbility.


I argue that industry, not the taxpayer, should do its own labelling work and further, the label (and/or advertisement where appropriate) should give a more detailed description of the product than is presently the case. At present the system fails the NCC’s offence and harm principles because the law requires the inclusion of only a minimal description of content such as “nudity”, “sex scenes”, “drugs” and so on. This does not necessarily satisfy the self-protection aim of protecting persons from material that may offend them, nor does it prevent minors from harm that the law perceives exists.

Some are shocked and offended when violence, sex scenes and the like are more graphic than they had been led to believe by the rating. While some “nudity” etc. might not be offensive to those of sensitive mind, other portrayals might be very offensive to them. A detailed description of contents in the labelling/advertising material would, therefore, be helpful. For example, suppose, instead of “sex scenes”, the description of a movie included something like this: “The (named) leading actors are portrayed naked, having passionate sexual intercourse in a variety of positions”. On reading that, the person who might have tolerated less explicit images but not those so graphic, would know to avoid the movie. There would then be no “unsolicited” exposure and that principle of the NCC would be satisfied.

The requirement that industry include descriptions of what a packaged item contains has been part of consumer law for a long time; what I am suggesting here is that arts-media be treated the same as any other consumable. There is also a financial reward for all here; industry would be spared the Board’s fee (around $750 or so per item) and the taxpayer would no longer have a Classification Board to support.

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About the Author

Bob Ryan is a PhD candidate at Macquarie University; his thesis is on Censorship.

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All articles by Bob Ryan

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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