State prohibition of the publication of political opinions has played a small but highly controversial role in Australia. In the first 15 years of British settlement, there was no free press to censor. When the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser appeared in 1803, it did not claim to be free or independent; rather, it was published ‘By Authority’, and government officials controlled its content. The issue of freedom of the press only emerged in the 1820s with the publication of privately owned, free and independent newspapers such as the Australian (1824–48), the Monitor (1826–28) and the Colonial Times and Tasmanian Advertiser (1825–27). In an attempt to restrain the publication of what he considered to be politically inflammatory, malicious and libellous articles, Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling proposed the licensing of newspapers (with the threat of cancelling licences) and the banishing of offending journalists. But the Supreme Court struck down these measures. The press remained free of political controls for the rest of the 19th century and beyond.
The Commonwealth government introduced political censorship during World War I to restrain the pro-German or pacifist propaganda the War Office found in such publications as the Socialist (1906–23) or the Woman Voter (1909–19). The censorship power lapsed at the end of the war but the government then extended the reach of the Customs Act 1901 (by the ‘Hughes Proclamation’ of 1921) in order to ban communist and Sinn Fein publications deemed seditious. By 1937, the Book Censorship Abolition League had persuaded the government to reverse or liberalise some of its prohibitions.
During World War II, the government again banned publications considered likely to undermine the war effort. In 1940, at the time of the Hitler–Stalin Non-Aggression Treaty, the Menzies Coalition government suppressed nine communist newspapers and in 1942 the Curtin government interned those responsible for the semi-fascist the Publicist (1936–42). Political censorship became a major public issue in 1944 when the Curtin Labor government censored, before publication, the articles of several Sydney newspapers. It had acted, it said, in defence of national security and public morale. But faced with a High Court challenge, it capitulated and withdrew its bans. Freedom of the press did not become an issue again until the new age of terrorism after 11 September 2001 and the Bali bombings of 2002. Although critics condemned the federal and state anti-terrorism legislation of 2004 and 2005 as ‘police-state’ restrictions on freedom of the press, its use has been limited to publications advocating terrorism. A 1995 amendment to the federal Racial Discrimination Act 1975 made it unlawful to offend anyone on the basis of that person’s race. In 2011, the Federal Court found the Melbourne Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt guilty under the revised Act and ordered the newspaper to publish a ‘corrective notice’. Following the revelations in 2011 that some London newspapers had hacked the voicemails of newsworthy individuals, the Commonwealth government appointed former federal judge Ray Finkelstein to inquire into the need to regulate the Australian media. He recommended a statutory News Media Council with the power to compel news media to publish corrections, apologies and retractions. However, no legislation to establish such a Council has been introduced so far.
For the first century after European settlement, government authorities entrusted the censorship of obscene libels or indecent publications to editors and readers rather than to officials or police. An exception occurred in 1843, when the publisher, editor and printer of the short-lived but scandal-mongering the Satirist and Sydney Spectator were imprisoned for obscene libel. This remained an isolated case until the 1880s, when the new realism of French novels (Alphonse Daudet’s Sapho, Guy de Maupassant’s A Woman’s Life) and the new propaganda for contraception or ‘birth control’ (by Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh) led colonial governments to reconsider their liberalism. Each Australian colony from Victoria in 1876 to Western Australia in 1902, and then the Commonwealth, passed legislation to contain or restrict obscene publications. Yet their early attempts to impose censorship remained half-hearted. In the first decades after Federation, the federal Customs Department banned only a handful of books, such as Honore de Balzac’s Droll Stories, along with a few lurid magazines. The poet Christopher Brennan, who advised the department, did not bother to read books referred to him before recommending that they be admitted to Australia. The state authorities were equally permissive or indifferent.
But the spirit of liberalism was greatly weakened during the Depression years, considered ‘the heroic age’ of moral censorship in Australia. The Customs Department applied ‘the householder test’ under which it would only admit into Australia such publications as the ordinary householder would allow his family to read. It prohibited the importing of thousands of publications, mostly ephemeral novels or lewd magazines, but also some works by major writers—for example, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Norman Lindsay’s Redheap. Following widespread complaints from writers, journalists, academics, booksellers and readers, the conservative Lyons government in 1933 moderated its ‘householder test’ by establishing an advisory committee (later board) of scholars who persuaded the government to release over a hundred books, such as Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. The Customs Department still banned such works as Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It was not until 1969 that the Gorton Coalition government and its Minister for Customs, Senator Don Chipp, began the abolition of literary censorship—a process completed in the early 1970s by the Whitlam Labor government.
But the call for moral censorship emerged again with the advent of the internet in the 1990s. All governments have explored means of blocking internet websites that celebrate child sexual abuse, bestiality, or dangerous drugs. The Australian Communications and Media Authority may regulate Australian websites, but it has no power over foreign sites. Governments have proposed mandatory filtering, although critics claim that any system of filtering would easily be circumvented and, if successful, would establish a structure for wider controls, including political censorship. The criteria proposed are civilisation, decency or family values—a version of the ‘householder test’. No filtering legislation has yet been passed.
Laws restricting blasphemous publications have played a small role in Australian censorship. In 1871, a Parramatta jury found an anti-Christian ‘soapbox orator’, William Orlando Jones, guilty of blasphemy. He was sentenced to two years’ gaol, but the public outcry led to his release after four weeks. From 1884 to 1904, Joseph Symes of Melbourne published a provocatively blasphemous threepenny weekly, the Liberator. In 1885, he was charged before the Supreme Court with failure to lodge recognisances as required by the Printers and Newspapers Act 1864. Found guilty, he refused to pay the recognisances but no further court action was taken against him. The Victorian Post Office refused to handle the Liberator, although the Victorian Railways continued to distribute it. After this legal and administrative muddle, the blasphemy laws remained dormant until 1919 when R.S. Ross, publisher of Ross’s Monthly of Protest, Personality and Progress (1916–23), was committed for trial in the Supreme Court in Victoria for attempting to bring ‘the Holy scriptures and the Christian Religion into contempt among the people’. But before the case came to trial, he was charged in a magistrate’s court with breaching the blasphemy provisions of the Commonwealth Post and Telegraph Act 1901. Although sentenced to six months’ imprisonment, a higher court reduced the penalty to a fine of £50. The Crown then dropped its action in the Supreme Court.
This was the last case in which a publisher or writer was charged with blaspheming the Christian religion, although it may be an element in charges of offensive behaviour. But blaspheming Islam remains a contentious issue under statutes penalising religious vilification. In 2004, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal found two Protestant pastors guilty of vilifying the Koran under the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001. An appeal court overturned the conviction in 2005. These statutes, which mandate tolerance and civility, also proscribe the vilification of ethnic and other minorities.
In 2007, the NSW Administrative Decisions Tribunal found that two Sydney broadcasters, John Laws and Steve Price, had vilified homosexuals on air in 2005, but the issue was dropped when the broadcasters apologised. In 2009, the tribunal found that another broadcaster, Alan Jones, had vilified Lebanese Muslims active in the ‘Cronulla riots’ of 2005. Jones unsuccessfully appealed the decision.
Cartoons have been among the first and last battlegrounds of government censorship. The first action against a cartoonist in Australia was in 1803 over ‘seditious drawings’ circulated as ‘pipes’, which an indignant Governor Philip Gidley King referred to a General Court-Martial. The case fizzled out in technicalities. Over the ensuing 200 years, cartoonists have been sued for libel but almost none has been subjected to official action. An important exception was the case of the artist Martin Sharp, who in 1964 published a cartoon in OZ magazine satirising the coarse habits of an ocker surfie. Amagistrate sentenced Sharp to four months’ imprisonment for indecency. An appeal court overturned this verdict. In 2005, a Danish newspaper published 12 cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed, but Australian newspapers, acting in the name of tolerance and civility, refused to republish them. Self-censorship of this kind by editors and journalists is a return to 19th-century practice before the introduction of restrictive legislation.
In the never-ending contest between censors and writers, the former stand, variously, for law and order, national security, morality, civilisation or even truth, while the latter stand for freedom of the press, freedom of speech, the rights of citizens and the birthright of Australians. Dr Samuel Johnson summed up this continuing debate in his Life of Milton (1779) more than two centuries ago: ‘The danger of unbounded liberty, and the danger of bounding it, have produced a problem in the science of government which human understanding seems hitherto unable to solve.’
REFs: P. Coleman, Obscenity Blasphemy Sedition (2000); P.H. Johnson, On Iniquity (1967); F. Moorhouse, Days of Wine and Rage (1980); N. Moore, The Censor’s Library (2012).