Censorship in Australia

Essay, 2000

12 Pages, Grade: 63% (Credit)




A brief history of censorship in Australia

Internet censorship in Australia

Is censorship necessary?

Freedom of the press

Pornography, censorship and freedom of speech




The debate about censorship takes place on various levels. Internet kids curse against governments who try to restrict access to Internet sites. Radical feminists want to ban every form of pornography as they believe it degrades and dehumanizes women. Liberals on the other hand call for the abolition of censorship because it violates the human right of freedom of speech and expression. Newspaper journalists and editors fear retaliation through defamation trials and by the almighty proprietors of the media organizations they are working for if they do not report along the mainstream.

In this essay I will examine all these facets of the censorship debate. I will start with a history of censorship in Australia. Exemplary and due to restriction of space, I will focus merely on book censorship. Then will follow a discussion of two current issues in the debate: First, the argument surrounding the Australian government's attempt to restrict access to pornographic content in the internet by legislation. Second, the issue of pornography, censorship and freedom of speech. This will take place on a more general level and less related to current Australian problems.

A brief history of censorship in Australia

The right of freedom of speech is not codified in the Australian Constitution. However, it has been recognized by the judiciary through several rulings of the High Court, especially in recent time.[1] Since the time of European Settlement, print publications have been subject to censorship through customs and defamation laws. This chapter will give a brief overview of the changes and processes in the Australian censorship legislation.

Newspapers were among the first publications to be censored by the government. In the early years of settlement, the administration tried to ban everything that could insult the mother country England, the Queen and everything else that would in their perception disturb the social order or that was labeled 'obscene', 'indecent', or 'immoral'. The first Australian newspaper to be censored was the Satirist and Sporting Chronicle. In 1843, its publishers were charged with printing

'a supposed dialogue between a number of lewd women, of a most obscene and disgusting description. The offence was charged to be to the high displeasure of Almighty God; to the scandal and reproach of the Christian religion; in contempt of our Lady the Queen and her laws; and to the great offence of all Civil Governments; to the evil and pernicious example of all others; and against the peace of our said Lady the Queen, her crown and dignity.'

(Sydney Morning Herald, 19 April 1843)[2]

In 1875, Victorian magistrates were entitled to issue search warrants for police to seize obscene publications. In addition, they could order the destruction of such material.[3]

Books were also frequently censored. While mostly imported, the responsible control body was the Customs Department. Its officers would seize books that they found objectionable and the importer would be charged before a jury that ruled on the publication's confiscation due to indecency.

After federation, this practice was institutionalized in the Federal Customs Act of 1901. Some of the more controversial cases of censorship concerned books of non-English origin.[4] This was due to a general suspicion in Australian society towards cultures other than the English. Gott and Linden note that this suspicion prevailed until the 1960s.[5] After two years of rather arbitrary censorship, and widespread criticism from the press and the publishing industry, the customs department adopted a more liberal policy and withdrew almost completely from censoring books for a period of nearly thirty years. Coleman, explaining this policy, states that '...in England during most of that period there were no police prosecutions of serious novelists.'[6]

A change in the Customs Department's censorship policy occurred with the beginning of the economic crisis 1929. In a climate of increased uncertainty and fear of depression a need to protect the values and the lifestyle of Australian society from everything that might challenge or question them emerged. The ban of James Joyce's Ulysses in 1929 is seen as the starting point of this period of more rigid censorship.[7] Again, in response to that, public disagreement and criticism aroused, which forced the Customs Department to revise its approach to censorship once more. As early as in 1933 the Department had established the Book Censorship Advisory Council, a board that was created to give expert advice to the Minister, if he sought it, and in 1937 it was finally replaced by the Literature Censorship Board. The establishment of this body formalized the censoring process, however it still had only advisory status and the Minister of Customs was not obliged to seek this advice. Nevertheless, during this third period of censorship a number of formerly banned books, including Ulysses[8], were released. The system prevailed until after the Second World War.

In 1957 the then Minister for Customs, Senator Denham Hently, ordered that in the future, all books under consideration of a ban must be submitted to the Censorship Board. The Board was extended to four members, one a woman, and in 1960 an Appeal Board, consisting of three members, one of which was also a woman, was established. Furthermore, the Censorship Board was ordered to regularly review the list of banned books that led to the release of all 178 publications on that list. Last, all university libraries were allowed to import any books they wished, provided the restriction of censored issues.[9] This formalization was upheld during the 1960s.

Another major leap towards a further liberation was taken in 1971 by Don Chipp, then Minister for Customs. He brought forward a whole new approach towards the issue of censorship. In calling it 'evil' and stating that '[it] is to be condemned', he called for a reduction in government action and called upon the people to take censorship in their own hands:

'People should censor more and more. The individual, the bookseller, should have a responsibility, the television station, the radio station, the parent, the individual; Governments should censor less and less, move more and more out of the field and leave it to individual choice. I would have thought that is liberalism.'[10]

Chipp was convinced that one man/women, respectively one minister, could not decide what his/her fellow citizens should be allowed to read. This new way of thinking reflected in a sense the beginning transition in Australian politics away from the conservative 'White-Australia-policy' towards a concept of a multicultural and more liberal society.

Another step in that direction was made when the Labor Party under Prime Minister Gough Whitlam came to power in 1972. The responsibility for customs censorship shifted to the Attorney General and the party policy read:

'...adults [should] be entitled to read, hear or view what they wish in private and public and (...) persons (and those in their care) [should] not [be] exposed to unsolicited material offensive to them.'[11]

However, the development of censorship laws and the censoring practice in Australia should not be understood as a continuing process towards liberalization. On the contrary, it must be seen as a wavy movement with 1972 as a concluding point. Since then, many other issues apart from mere book censorship have arisen. The problems of violence on television and its influence on minors caused fierce discussions, as well as the issue of pornography and the suppression of women. The most recent debate arouse after the enactment of a bill concerning Internet censorship. This issue will be addressed in the following.

Internet censorship in Australia

On 1 January 2000 the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Bill 1999 became law. At the time of its introduction in parliament the bill created a heated debate within the internet community about the needs and the possibilities of censoring content of internet web sites. In a broader context, the controversy touches the question of the right of freedom of speech and the extent to which the government is entitled to determine what its citizens are allowed to see and read.

Basically, the act does three things: firstly, it holds the Internet Content Host (ICH) responsible for the content of the web sites it is managing. The ABA is entitled to issue 'take down notices' to the ICH if prohibited material[12] is found on a web site hosted by that ICH that require the objected content to be removed under the threat of a $27,500 fine per day. Secondly, the act requires Internet Service Provider (ISP) to restrict access to any content subject to a complaint and an ABA investigation. Third, the act orders for an industry standard for Internet content binding all ICH and ISP to be established and entitles the ABA to set up such a standard itself if the Internet industry fails to do so.[13]

The act drew widespread criticism. Some believed that the ICHs and ISPs were the wrong bodies to be held accountable for what is posted on web sites. Comparisons were made between the ICH/ISPs and the Post Office. Making the former liable for Internet content would be the same as holding the Post Office responsible for everything that is mailed in Australia. Connected with that there is the argument that a general misunderstanding underlies the act. The Internet was seen by the government as a broadcast medium like a TV or radio station, with the source of information easily identifiable and controllable. The Internet, on the other hand, was a network that functioned different than a broadcaster, as the source of information is not always obvious and therefore much harder to control. Furthermore, the sheer number of web sites made it impossible for the ABA to monitor only a fraction of their content.[14]

The critics also presented an alternative to the government's initiative. Instead of trying to censor or block content from 'outside' of the Internet community, in their view, an effective control of content can only be achieved within the community. This could be achieved by a special protocol, called PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selection). This protocol would, before loading any web site on the user's computer, access special PICS label servers that store ratings of the site. If those ratings fall into the settings configured by the user, the site would be loaded. The idea is that every Internet user can rate any site s/he wants via the PICS label server and that this information is sufficient enough to allow a reasonable assessment of a site. The Internet would control itself.


[1] J. Schultz: Reviving the fourth estate: democracy, accountability and the media, Melbourne: University of Cambridge Press, 1998, p. 79.

[2] Cited in: R. Gott and R. Linden: Cut it out: censorship in Australia, Carlton (Vic.): CIS, 1994, p. 4.

[3] Ibid., p. 4.

[4] See P. Coleman: Obscenity, blasphemy & sedition: 100 years of Australian censorship, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1974, pp. 6-7 for the exemplary 'Balzac' and 'de Kock' cases.

[5] Op. cit., pp. 2-3.

[6] Coleman, op. cit., p. 9.

[7] Ibid., p. 13.

[8] The book was banned again in 1941, an event that showed the limitations of the Board (ibid, p. 18-20).

[9] For the whole paragraph, see ibid., p. 21.

[10] Cited in: ibid., p. 24.

[11] Cited in: Gott/Linden, op. cit., p. 6.

[12] 'Prohibited material' is defined as '...internet content which is rated X (explicit sexuality) or RC (refused classification) under the classification scheme when hosted outside Australia and, when hosted inside Australia, also includes R rated material (nudity) which is not subject to a restricted access system.' (B. Scott: An essential guide to internet censorship in Australia, 1999, on: www.gtlaw.com.au/pubs/essentialguidecensorship.html, accessed on: 06/09/00, p. 3).

[13] For the whole paragraph, see ibid., pp. 1-5.

[14] For the whole paragraph and an in-depth discussion of the act, see ibid. and R. Whittle: Executive summary of the internet content regulation debate, a comparison table between broadcasting and internet communications, and a critique of Peter Webb's speech, 1996, on: www.ozemail.com.au/~firstpr/contreg/bigpic.html, accessed on 06/09/00, pp. 25-27.

Excerpt out of 12 pages


Censorship in Australia
Monash University Melbourne  (School for Social and Political Inquiry)
Politics and the media in Australia
63% (Credit)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
409 KB
Australien, Zensur, sensorship, australia
Quote paper
Magister Artium Steffen Blatt (Author), 2000, Censorship in Australia, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/10041


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