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Interview with Chief Censor Bill Hastings

Published: 2:17PM Sunday July 04, 2010 Source: Q + A

  •  (Source: ONE News)
    Source: ONE News
  • Bill Hastings (Source: Q+A)
    Bill Hastings - Source: Q+A


PAUL  Now for something entirely different.  Bill Hastings has been New Zealand's Chief Censor, head of the Office of Film and Literature classification to put it formally, since 1999.  He's been condemned by those who thought him too liberal, and by those who think the sheer notion that somebody should decide what we're allowed to see or hear is outdated.  The former Deputy Leader of Victoria University's Law School is leaving to become a District Court Judge in charge of the new Immigration Tribunal, deciding immigration, deportation, refugee and protection appeals, replacing the four existing appeal bodies.  Well Chief Censor, soon not to be, Bill Hastings is with us, good morning.

BILL HASTINGS - Chief Censor Good morning Paul, how are you?

PAUL  Very good thank you, now what is the worst?  Give us an idea of what you've had to do over the years.  What is the worst stuff you've ever had to see?

BILL    The worst stuff we've ever had to see actually comes from the courts, and from the Police.  About 25 to 30% of our business is court work, and basically its images of child abuse, which I will never be able to get out of my mind.  But that's the worst, I don't really want to describe it any more than that.

PAUL  I mean this is real child abuse that you're seeing on video, on DVD.

BILL    A record of a crime yeah.

PAUL  A record of a crime?

BILL    Yeah.

PAUL  You mean this has been done for entertainment or somebody's done a crime and thought they'll keep a record?

BILL    Oh well either way.  They're mostly sourced from the internet, they're mostly picked up from people's computers who are being investigated for other crimes.

PAUL  Right, but do some people do that as entertainment to sell?

BILL    I'm sure they do, I'm sure they do.

PAUL  When you are  presented with this stuff do you watch bits of it or do you watch the whole lot, or do you just go little snaps?

BILL    We watch the whole lot.  The law requires us to watch the whole lot, so we do.

PAUL  Is it really disturbing?

BILL    You never ever ever get used to it, it is really disturbing, and it's the worst part of the job.

PAUL  For example have you had ever to leave the office to get some fresh air?

BILL    Ohh!  Many times, many times I've left the office to walk around the harbour.  We have psychologists on call, and we're expected to see them up to six times a year, and no questions asked.

PAUL  Do you become desensitised?  Are you able to watch it without being moved or depressed, or appalled?

BILL    It kinda works at two levels Paul.  You do have to toughen up I think to be able to do the job, you know if you were reduced to a quivering bowl of jelly every time something disturbing came across your desk, you wouldn't be able to do the job.  So you do have to toughen up at one level, it's like ambulance drivers, or Police Officers maybe.  But at another level I think you become super sensitised in the sense that you can kinda see trouble coming even before it arrives.

PAUL  On the DVD or the video?

BILL    That's right, that's right.

PAUL  What is it will get an automatic ban from you, or a restriction, but no let's talk about bans.

BILL    Bans for us.  The law's really clear about that.  Anything that promotes or supports or even tends to promote or support things like the exploitation of children for sexual purposes, extreme violence, extreme torture, cruelty, that sort of thing will get banned.  Not mere depictions, it has to go beyond mere depiction into actual promotion.

PAUL  The abuse of children particularly, on DVD, video, for entertainment, for record of a crime, for whatever, where does that stuff come from?

BILL    That's a good question.  People are getting quite crafty about hiding evidence about where it comes from, They used to be able to tell from say plugs in the walls, that sort of thing, you know what country.  Now who knows, I mean it comes from all over the place.

PAUL  Is it on the increase internationally?

BILL    That's really hard to say, certainly we get quite a l to of it at the office, it forms I dunno - most of our bans actually are images of child abuse, and we ban roughly between eight and 14% of everything that comes into the office.

PAUL  Let's talk about how you do the job.  You've said somewhere along the line, offensiveness, ugliness, or shock value, has little to do with how you do the job.  What do you mean by that, offensiveness, ugliness and shock value?

BILL    The legal test is whether the availability of the thing is likely to be injurious to the public good.  So it has to go beyond the fence, it's got to go into likelihood of injury territory.

PAUL  Alright so that what's offensive or shocking or ugly to you doesn't necessarily stop us seeing it?

BILL    No, not at all, and particularly in New Zealand we have the Bill of Rights, we have the freedom of expression.  You know the freedom of expression exists not to protect our ability to say good morning how are you, I mean it protects our ability to say something offensive.

PAUL  I think about three years ago you were interviewed and you were talking about one particular problem you'd had with that famous edition of Pavement Magazine, and this was in a cover, do you remember the cover of Pavement Magazine, where there was a young girl with her skirts pulled up, she was by a bed in a seedy room, the bed is soiled the wall is soiled and so forth, and  you worried about this and you went along to see a friend of yours who is an art historian at Victoria University, and you said well what do you make of this, is this art, you know is this on, and the person said to you, the very concept of artistic merit is a nonsense and opposed to modern world, which is a very nice expression and you said it wasn't particularly helpful.  But your friend was true wasn't he or she?  There are no rules any more and that's the problem.

BILL    Well you know there are rules.  There are rules and they're found in the legislation, and one part of the legislation does talk about whether something has artistic merit.  And this was raised with respect to Pavement Magazine, you know is this picture in fact art?  I mean I don't have any art history degree, I don't know, which is why we consulted the expert, and you know the expert said this post modern thing, didn't really help me that much, but you know it is part of the law so we do have to consider it.

PAUL  But are some things have you found, I mean are some things for want of a better word actually evil?

BILL    Oh you know yes.  I would have to say yes, and before I got into this job I would have had doubt, but you know because I've been doing it so long, just when you think you've seen the worst thing you could ever think of, along comes the next worst thing.  If I'd lived to be 180 years old I could never have conceived to it.  So those sorts of things, yeah I can't think of putting it any other way than evil.

PAUL  You've driven a very difficult line of course, back in 07 you said censors must be aware of broad but often quietly spoken public opinion and resist capture by narrow but loud lobbies.  How did you manage that, because you've certainly been there?

BILL    That was with respect a computer game actually called Bully, which had a great big media circus built up about how it's encouraging bullying and we must ban it.  In fact when we actually examined the game, if you did bully, if your character bullied in the game you got punished.  So it was in fact an anti bullying game which they changed the name up to some Latin thing Canis Canem, that is dog eat dog.  So that's what I meant by that you know, you can't listen necessarily to the media build-up, you actually have to examine the publication when it comes before you.

PAUL  The other thing of course we like to discuss is your role.  What is the point these days of a censor's office, because the internet's run right round the back of you.  I mean you can find anything you want now in the privacy of your home on the internet, anything.  And as you're saying a lot of the stuff that's really appalled and disgusted you and you decided it was evil, came off the internet. 

BILL    Yeah no that's absolutely right and the internet, beyond doubt has thrown up challenges for us.  We don't do enforcement at the office, nor do we do investigations, we sit in the middle as a sort of quasi judicial body, that determines these classifications, so when things come to us we'll classify them.

PAUL  No but people no longer really have the protection that in the old days a censor's office would have provided them, if we decide certain stuff is injurious to the public.

BILL    That's true, and that's partly why we sort of beefed up, or we have beefed up our education and information function at the office, so that people are able to understand when they do see this stuff off the internet, how it harms them and why it harms them, why it's not a good idea.  So we're trying to arm people and inform people to become their own classification office.

PAUL  Right, to become an educator?

BILL    That's right, that's exactly right.

PAUL  Back in 02, let's talk about movies.  You said movies are becoming more casually violent, just more and more violent.  Are they still?

BILL    You know the technology is developed so that while the violence might be the same, the graphicness of it is developing, and certainly this is the case with computer games.  So I dunno if things are more violent, I mean there's always somebody waiting to kill somebody, but the explicitness of it I think is developing, yeah.

PAUL  I wonder where it will end, because I wonder if we'll get to a point where snuff movies become the norm, or might we swing back to the romance of Casablanca?  That's probably something you need to ask your art historian.

BILL    Quite possibly.  I mean the thing with film though is it's two dimensional, you never know what's real.  You know I mean Arnold Schwarzenegger, his mega bazooka has killed umpteen number of people on film, but I can guarantee that none of them have been killed.  So you don't actually know what you're seeing, you have to take four square walls and the film itself as your classifier.

PAUL But you know with a Hollywood blockbuster you're watching nobody getting killed I spose that is one true thing about a Hollywood blockbuster.

BILL    That's true.

PAUL  How much more difficult now for parents, computers, computers, computer games, how much more difficult has it become do you think for parents controlling what their children see with the internet, with computer games and so forth.  I mean you can't rush into the bedroom every time a kid puts a computer game on.

BILL    No you can't and it's a bit of a theme I think this morning about parental responsibility Paul.  You know when we make a computer game R18, we've made that computer game R18 for the exact same reason we've made a DVD R18.  So you know to parents if  you wouldn't let your kid watch and R18 DVD, you shouldn't let your kids watch or play an R18 video game, because we've made them R18 because of the violence or whatever's in them, and also it's illegal, it's illegal.

PAUL  And you've said last year I think you'd like to see parents who let their kids watch video games that are R18 prosecuted>

BILL    One prosecution would certainly set an example.

PAUL  So we could go to jail because you've put a number on something?

BILL    That's right.  Well you can anyway, I mean you know cinemas if they let an under 18 person into see an R18 film, they can be prosecuted and fined.  Stores if they sell an R18 game to someone under 18 they can be prosecuted.
PAUL  You will be looking forward to your new job?

BILL    I am looking forward to my new job, it's going to be a nice new challenge.

PAUL  Chief Censor, Bill Hastings, thank you very much for joining us on Q+A.

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