What does banning the book “Into the River” tell us about tails wagging dogs?

There’s an old adage that any publicity is better than no publicity, and for Kiwi YA author Ted Dawe the media spotlight this last week has been significant.

Beach stones, Makara, New Zealand.
Beach stones, Makara, New Zealand.

His book Into The River – a winner in the 2013 New Zealand Post Childrens’ Book Awards – was banned after a fresh complaint from a lobby group calling itself ‘Family First’.

It’s apparently the first time that a book has been banned in New Zealand under current legislation, the ‘Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act 1993’. Anybody selling or exhibiting it can face stiff fines of up to $3000 per individual or $10,000 for a company. So the huge flood of media publicity has been no good at all for sales – nobody can buy the book in New Zealand.

Several versions of how all this happened have circulated on New Zealand media, but as far as I can tell, complaints from Family First resulted in the Internal Affairs Department submitting it to the Censors’ office in July 2013, when it was initially classified “M” (unrestricted), but then – after a review on the back of a Family First appeal – classified “R14″. Auckland Libraries asked the censor to review that rating in March this year, largely because this classification made it difficult for the target audience to actually read it, and on 14 August it was reclassified as unrestricted. Just four days later, Family First complained to the review board, and on 3 September the book was banned pending further review.

The whole of the objection, in terms of legal process, seems to have come from a single source. According to Wikipedia, ‘Family First’ was formed in 2006, and it’s described on that website as a ‘conservative Christian’ lobby group. Just to put some numbers on that term in New Zealand, according to the 2013 census around 78 percent of all New Zealanders stated they were not Christian in any sense, and for a significant proportion of the total population (on average, nearly half) that was because they were not religious at all. The fact also remains that the majority of the roughly 22 percent who did say they were Christian were also Catholic or Anglican (in that order) – neither of which denominations has formally objected to the book.

Based on these descriptions, as read through the media and the Statistics New Zealand site, I am left with the curious impression of the tail being enabled, through processes built into law, to wag the dog.

Where next for this book? The responsible authority is the censors’ office, and while they are required to listen to complaints from the public – which is reasonable and necessary – they are also required to make reasonable and balanced judgements. Also sensible. So we’ll see.

Meanwhile – any thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


28 thoughts on “What does banning the book “Into the River” tell us about tails wagging dogs?

  1. I thought it was only the US that was filled with inbred, superstitious morons who believe they have every right to try to force others to live by their own arbitrary rules. What worries me is that the law even made it through your political process and passes into law. Are the Kiwi simply not paying attention? Is there any hope that there will be enough of a backlash that the law can be overturned?

    1. I think the issue isn’t the law itself but the processes it enables by which a tiny lobby group can exert effects on grounds that wider society may not share. The ban is interim pending further review, so we’ll see.

  2. Just looking up the stats (and not the rest of the story), it looks like your stats are a bit off, and approximately 50% of New Zealanders claim a Christian identity, but it is correct that the largest denominations are Catholic and Anglican in that order.

    As for the book, never heard of it, nor of the organization, but it’s often the case that specific causes such as a book being advanced or opposed are done so on the basis of a group having a specific interest in it that doesn’t reflect a larger cross section of the population.

    The book seems to have obtained a countrywide “banned” status in 2013, and then there was some sort of appeal process, all of which is something which couldn’t quite happen here, as there’d be no national way to do it, so this must all occur by way of some national process? It’d more likely be a school board sort of thing here, so very local, and hence confusing to outside eyes.

    1. Actually you are in error. The 2013 census showed a decrease to 48.9 percent Christian in those who stated a religious affiliation of any kind. But 41.9 percent of the total population stated they had no religious affiliation at all. Thus the percentage of those who identify as Christian against the total population is much smaller, and on those numbers works out to 28.4 percent. The degree of religion vs non-religious drops again as a percentage if measured against the three major sociocultural groups.

      1. I see, I didn’t understand your citation to the statistics. I understood it the same way you cited it, but I wasn’t reading it the same way in your original entry.

        1. Actually, re reading it, I think I am understanding it differently, as at least the stats I read, according to New Zealand’s census site, states “In 2013, the number of people who affiliated with a Christian religion (including Māori Christian) decreased to 1,906,398 (48.9 percent of all people who stated their religious affiliation), down from 2,082,942 (55.6 percent) in 2006.” I guess that speaks for itself, whatever it means, but it seems to state that about 50% of New Zealanders self identify as some sort of Christian, according to the figures at http://www.stats.govt.nz/Census/2013-census/profile-and-summary-reports/quickstats-culture-identity/religion.aspx

          1. Wikipedia interprets it the same way. Not that Wikipedia is always correct by any means. Both sources seem to put the number of Kiwis with no religious affiliation at about 41%

            All of which probably has little to do with the book, given that it seems to have been originally banned (I guess?) in 2013 by some governmental entity (I guess?)

            1. It’s detailed in my post. The NZ census data can be sliced and diced a number of ways with percentage figures around a range, but what is more crucial is a trend obvious in the non-immigrant population since 2001. I might post on this, basing it on the actual returns data from Statistics New Zealand rather than derived numbers. I can also, if necessary, talk directly to some of the analysts who did the work for that department.

              1. I don’t think that’s necessary, I think the basic data comes through and the context of your post is clear. The question here is what influence this particular group has in regards to this particular book.

                Noting your answer below that this is authorized by statute, it appears to be fairly rare (“banning”) a book. I don’t expect you to provide a legal analysis of that, but there must be some criteria for doing it and I’d be curious what it is. I’d also be curious if there’s otherwise a provision of NZ’s law regarding freedom of expression in print, which I suppose that there must be.

              2. I actually know people who’ve worked in Stats NZ – it’s easy enough for me to check their figures. They have enough data, not published, to produce quite fine-grained analysis including the degree of religious belief by individual suburbs. Some of it was assembled into a feature article a while back which made it pretty clear there is a distinction between native-born New Zealanders (who aren’t very religious) and migrants (who usually are). Apropos the law – yes, the Act provides due criteria, which I don’t have to hand right now – but the Censor’s office is required to take fair account of them, and I believe they’re reasonable.

  3. I don’t know what this book is about as until now, I haven’t heard of it, but the entire issue of banned books I don’t understand; what ever happened to freedom of choice? When I read the words ‘Family First’ I couldn’t help but worry, as they are a small political group here in Australia (and the less said about the current state of Australian politics, the better).

      1. I don’t quite grasp how a central authority can ban a book, or restrict a book, for the entire nation. Perhaps I’m not reading that correctly either, however. But that seems to be what’s indicated.

        I’ve rather obviously never heard of the book (and won’t be bothering to read it), but it’s interesting that there’s a central authority that can categorize a book, if that’s correct.

  4. I hear spokespeople from Family First quite a lot. The reason? I watch Fox News. (I won’t bore you with the reasons why, but it’s not because I agree with their viewpoint – I’m a liberal atheist secular humanist.) They’re invited to comment quite frequently.

    They are dreadful people. I consider them a hate group. In the US, their main focus at the moment is opposing same-sex marriage. Their US leader, Tony Perkins, was there with Kim Davis as she was released from the Kentucky jail. (Kim Davis in the clerk who was refusing to issue marriage licences under “God’s authority.”) They consider being gay a choice, that atheists are evil because they reject God, they’re anti-abortion in any circumstances whatsoever, and their attitude to trans people is about as revolting as it gets. If you want to see some of the vile things Perkins spews, look him up on the Right Wing Watch website – your blood will be boiling in seconds. They’re basically one step up from the Westboro Baptist Church.

  5. It’s interesting that a law could be written so that a relatively small, or in this case, minuscule, portion of a population gets to decide what the remainder — the overwhelming majority — gets to read.There seems to be a little too much of it going around. I don’t like it.

    1. It’s a function of the way government works here – and in a way it’s important that this can happen: New Zealand is a democracy (we were MADE that way – the Constitution Act 1852, specifically) and the censor’s office is required to listen to genuine concerns of the people. On the other hand, that system – as seems to have happened here – also means that a specific lobby group can exert undue influence. Plus side is that the banning is an interim judgement pending further review, so we’ll see where it goes. The public scream – which has included extensive media coverage in local papers, commentaries and a general backlash – will probably have to form part of the consideration.

  6. Thanks for the post. Whenever “banned” and “books” are paired in the same sentence I become agitated. It’s disheartening to discover these book burners exist within other borders and that they, too, are hiding behind “family values” to further their personal prejudices and impose their religious beliefs on others. This makes me 451 shades of annoyed.

    1. The US doesn’t have a monopoly on such things! 🙂 However, the profile of such groups here in New Zealand isn’t high, except when they pop up on issues such as this book.

      1. Great, burst my bubble! lol I knew Australia had issues, but I liked to think New Zealand was immune. There goes that illusion. Hopefully it wasn’t another one of our cultural exports.

    1. It’s certainly been good publicity for the book! I agree. If something’s offensive, don’t buy it. Personally I wouldn’t buy this book (even if it were available) because it’s not the sort of thing I would read.

  7. The US may not have a monopoly on the “family values” proponents but it is disheartening to see these groups invading elsewhere. Like many of your readers, I believe that other democracies have more sense. In the US, we are trying to find ways to talk with one another, but it is difficult to have a conversation with people who do not believe in science, have no sense of history, and are wrapped in fear. Fear is what bans books and stifles thought, as we know. For me, the idea of banning books, even one, is never acceptable. Wonderful post, Matthew. Please keep us informed.

    1. I’ll keep you posted. As far as I can tell the problem is just one guy who counted up the number of ‘rude words’ and took objection to some of thevscenes in what I understand to be essentially an anti-bullying story. I am sure the target audience know and use the words anyway. You’re right – it’s fear that drives this. And why should one individual’s personal issues dictate the reading choices of society? Or the behaviours of intelligent and reasonable people in general?

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