8 Sep 2015

Book ban could set 'incredibly unhelpful' precedent

7:31 pm on 8 September 2015

The temporary ban placed on a young adults' book may be a signal that censorship laws needed changing, Attorney-General Chris Finlayson says.

Into the River book cover

Photo: Ted Dawe/Penguin Random House

The Film and Literature board of review has placed a temporary ban on Into The River, by Auckland author Ted Dawe, after a complaint by the Christian group Family First. The board's interim restriction order means it cannot be sold, lent or displayed by anyone, and the board will decide whether to restrict the book permanently next month.

Mr Finlayson said in principle, even an interim ban should be treated with extreme caution.

"If that's the case, maybe it is time we looked at the legislation because that does seem a rather extreme step," he said.

"I don't know a thing about the book but interim banning raises some pretty interesting questions about freedom of speech and freedom of expression."

Mr Finlayson said banning books was not the type of thing New Zealand did.

Family First national director Bob McCoskrie said the group was originally satisfied when the book was given an R14 restriction but the Censor's office stepped in and removed the rating altogether.

"It has sexually explicit material and it's a book that's got the c-word nine times, the f-word 17 times and s-h-i-t 16 times."

McCoskrie said he would be happier if the book was made R18.

But Bernard Beckett, chief judge of the 2013 Book Awards which crowned Into the River as the Book of the Year, hit back at Family First today, saying they were seeking to establish an "incredibly unhelpful precedent".

Mr Beckett told Nine To Noon that his main objection to any kind of rating system on young adult novels was that restrictions would come from a privileged value system which did not reflect the target audience.

"Something we're trying to do is increase literacy, especially amongst young males from educational deprived backgrounds, and we're looking for material to engage with them. As soon as you put R14 on it, you have to ask who are the people who have heft in society to go through the process and get their value system imposed."

He added that without a global system of classifications and a huge number of books being released every year, a rating system would be a "logistical nightmare".

He said complaints that the novel glorified or normalised causal teenage sex were "gobsmacking" and a "bizarre misreading of the novel".

"It's two lost souls seeking each other out and finding out just how soulless that sort of relationship is. It's like saying [you] can't have a car crash because it would encourage people to go out and get into a car crash.

Mr Beckett said the dispute between the censor's office and Film and Literature board of review did have some positive aspects, as the issues did need to be thrashed out and a new standard set.

"How else do you come up with a shared sense of what's okay?"

He said the book was likely to become available again after next month's review, and a short-term ban would help raise the books' profile.

"Here's a book that three years later is still in the headlines, if you're the author, you couldn't plan a better publicity programme."

Earlier today, School Library Association president Miriam Tuohy told Morning Report it would accept an R rating for the book .

She said that, like many people, she was surprised and outraged by the ban, but she said when it was earlier given an R14, libraries generally accepted the decision, in light of the content.

Mr Dawe said yesterday he was bitter about the latest turn of events.

"The idea that some Christian group can bring about the banning of a book seems to me a hideously unfair situation and something of a miscarriage of justice."

The book was trying to reach out to teenagers and young people who would not normally read, he said.

"Boys particularly - boys who maybe fall through the cracks in the education system - and it's a tough ask to get to those kids, they're not easy to connect with."