On censorship – bring back Worth!

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One downside of Richard Worth’s exit from his ministerial post at Internal Affairs will be to further postpone any fix of the blatant contradictions in the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993. The case for change in this legislation has been eloquently made by Andrew Armitage, in this essay on the excellent Lumiere Reader website.

Armitage runs the Aro St Video Store in Wellington, and has been campaigning on these points for some time. Frankly, if you had to single out one area where bureaucracy has developed its own momentum regardless of its internal inconsistencies and apparent lack of social purpose, the censorship regime would be in contention for the top slot.

It is not as if some material should not be restricted. That’s a given. It is more that the instruments currently in place are so blunt and outdated that they do more harm than good – and, unfortunately, the task of re-calibrating them is seen to be so politically fraught that the system prefers to perpetuate the idiocies of the status quo, as if they are now part of the cultural landscape that we all just have to grin and bear.

To take the obvious example : the rules for controversial content are less rigorous for broadcasts to all and sundry than they are for people who choose to rent the same material to watch at home. The latter must be pre-classified and pre-labelled, often at major expense to the importer or retail outlet. The going rate is $1,100 plus GST per DVD disc. That’s not such a big problem when some blockbuster like Twilight or Saw V is involved, where the fee can be recouped over thousands of rentals.

Obviously though, those fees are punishing to the point of being completely unaffordable if it is a Jean Luc-Godard film, or a classic film noir in black and white. They even rule out the release of a critically celebrated television series such as Freaks and Geeks which has multiple discs and 27 commentary tracks. Or, in the example that Armitage gives, seasons 2-5 of The L Word, a set that comprises 16 discs. Since that fee is levied per disc, that adds up to about $17,600 plus GST for something with a limited potential audience.

Thus the system works in favour of the mainstream schlock – and against the public’s ability to rent the films and/or television series they may prefer. As Armitage says, it is a form of economic censorship. It hits and hardest those DVD rental outlets like his own – or Alice in Christchurch – which are trying to cater to artistic and cultural diversity.

That much is pretty familiar. It is also fairly well known that – at the same time – broadcasters can beam out to any unwary viewer the same images or worse, at no equivalent cost, and with little or no labeling constraints. Broadcasters are subject only to a complaints system that kicks in not beforehand – as with the DVD rental store – but only after the broadcast has occurred. As the Broadcasting Standards Authority annual reports consistently reveal, such complaints about feature film broadcasts are minimal to non-existent, year by year.

So far, so idiotic. What is less well known – and Armitage’s essay usefully points this out – is that in cases where economic censorship forces people to take matters into their own hands and import that Godard film, two related idiocies then kick into play. One, it is illegal for a local store to import and sell a non-labelled and non-classified film to an ordinary member of the public. In effect, this has to be done via say, Amazon or some other offshore entity that is beyond the reach of the local censorship bureaucracy.

Secondly, it is illegal for that citizen subsequently, to try and sell that DVD on Trade Me. Or even to lend it to a friend. Armitage again:

If you buy a film from overseas and it is not classified and labelled with the NZ classification, it is not legal to sell, trade or lend that item within our national borders, either by TradeMe, or any other means, unless it carries an NZ classification label.

Individuals can apply for a label from the Film & Video Labelling Body (FVLB), but there are no guarantees that a label will be issued, and an administration fee (approx. $27) would be payable in any case. Hence, we regard obtaining such labels as impractical and cost prohibitive for private applicants. The same situation applies for video and music retailers, who can’t order imported items on your behalf because of compliance requirements.

In the face of such a system, the only sane response is to break the law. As people do, some of them unwittingly, all the time. As mentioned, this issue is one being handled by Internal Affairs and Worth’s workload has for now, passed to interim Minister Maurice Williamson. Nothing will happen until a permanent appointment is made. The unfortunate thing is that while Arts Minister and Attorney-General Chris Finlayson is conversant with the anomalies, the matters involved lie outside his portfolio area of responsibility. Scoop enquiries indicated that there is no work being done on these matters at present.

This is a shame for a government that is keenly looking for ways to cut back on unnecessary bureaucracy, and on compliance costs for small business. DVD rental stores, in this age of downloading, have enough trouble on their plate without having to pay fees to bureaucrats for reasons that have more to do with perpetuating a bureaucratic empire than with any useful social purpose.

Does for instance, a country of four million people really need two organizations doing variants of the same thing, with all the administrative costs involved? One, the Office of Film and Literature Classification gets to issue legally binding restrictions about the content of the film, while another – the Film and Video Labelling Body gets to offer (for a mandatory fee) a recommendation about viewer suitability. Surely, one office could be capable of doing both? Quick, someone tell Rodney Hide.

A final anomaly is that while film festivals can and do get waivers of up to 75% from the Film Censor when they want to screen art and minority films at a film festival, those video outlets who want to rent the same films to the public do not. They get charged the full whack. Extending such waivers to art DVDs or to art movie rental outlets on a case by case basis would help, but would itself be administratively cumbersome. Another help would be to expand the categories that do not require special local rating and classification. In which case, New Zealand would simply import the M and 15+ rating categories from Australia or the UK, as we do already with G and other more family friendly fare.

While welcome, these would be just stop gap measures. The real targets for change should be the double standards embedded in the current legislation. Under Richard Worth though, the only direction that seemed likely was that the fees being levied by the Office of Film and Literature Classification would increase, not decrease. As always, bureaucratic creep goes on, regardless.


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