Canada Censorship News

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Sunday, July 6, 2014

Censorship During World Wars I and II

Film censorship is a provincial matter in Canada, except in times of war. The British government managed censorship of military matters until 1915 when Canada passed the War Measures Act. Among other things, the Act allowed for a federal Chief Censor, also known as the Chief Press Censor.

As the title implies, the primary goal of the Chief Press Censor was to ensure newspapers did not print information that might be useful to the enemy, such as troop movements and ship departures. A secondary goal was to keep morale up, by ensuring newspapers printed only positive (or fabricated) stories about the war effort and England. In some respects news in Canada was more heavily censored than news in England. Wounded soldiers in bloody, lice infested uniforms, and first hand reports from the front, were common in England but rare in Canada, and the press cooperated with the military in ensuring Canadians were sheltered from the realities of trench warfare.

The War Measures Act did not extend federal censorship powers to films until 1917, but the provincial censors cooperated informally prior to that. There was widespread support for maintaining a positive image of the war and a negative image of the enemy. Items such as intense battle scenes were routinely cut from American films.

Once the United States entered the war, most American films were ideal for propaganda purposes, but some were cut or banned for suggesting the enemy was powerful. One film, The Last Zeppelin Raid (aka The Zeppelin's Last Raid), concerning a mutiny on an airship, was banned because it humanized enemy soldiers by showing they had a conscience.

During World War II, federal censorship was a government bureaucracy under the tight control of the Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, and his justice ministers. Post World War I revelations about the extent of censorship during that conflict left both the press and the populace less comfortable with censorship.  Over a dozen newspapers were banned or shut down for their opposition to the war.

Press censors in British Columbia, who like most censors had a journalism background, fought hard to defend a Japanese paper. The RCMP shut down three Japanese language papers, leaving only the English language New Canadian serving the Japanese community. With the assistance of the censors, the New Canadian bought Japanese type from one of the closed papers, and became a bilingual paper. Censors worked closely with newspaper staff to help them meet deadlines and publish despite the many restrictions on Japanese businesses, and frequently defended the paper against racist government officials.

Radio had to be censored too. For the duration of the war, radio stations were prohibited from playing listener requests, or passing on items such as dedications and birthday greetings. The government was concerned that requests and announcements could be used to pass on secret messages.

The main concern of provincial film censors was American newsreels. Prior to American involvement in the war, these sometimes contained material from German military film units. In 1940, the provincial film censors were formally recognized as press censors. Although the United States was divided on support for the war, major film studios, many with Jewish executives, were firmly on the side of US intervention and as a result there was minimal requirement to censor Hollywood films.

The War Measures Act was replaced by the more limited Emergency Measures Act in 1988. Under that act, the government may make "such orders or regulations as the Governor in Council believes, on reasonable grounds, are necessary or advisable for dealing with the emergency." The only thing not permitted under this clause is conscription. In theory, we could once again see federal film censorship, but in the last hundred years our notions of war and society have changed enough that I think it unlikely.

For more information, check out my sources for this piece: Propaganda and Censorship During Canada's Great War, by Jeffrey A. Keshen, and The Fog of War: Censorship of Canada's Media in World War Two, by Mark Bourrie.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Censoring the Sizzle

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, is due for release in August. The Weinstein Company has released a series of promotional posters featuring each of the stars, but the sixth, featuring Eva Green's character in a transparent top, was deemed inappropriate by the MPAA. Take a look for yourself. Apparently a new poster is being prepared. Most reports of this poke fun MPAA's prudishness, but others recognize a publicity stunt when they see one. 

Regardless of this little tempest, it's a fair question to wonder why film rating boards care about advertising, when there are other agencies dedicated to advertising standards. All the boards in Canada have the legal right to review film advertising, and it is occasionally exercised. The Ontario Film Review Board banned the poster for Yana's Friends in 2000. This right was not so much a power grab by the Boards as a way to stave off complaints.

Back in 1920, the Ontario Board of Censors was receiving a lot of complaints. It was not that people disapproved of film censorship, even though it was widespread: the approval rate was 60%. People found the board was too lax. A few years earlier the Board had tried abandoning rigid standards in favour of judging each film on its own merits, but public outcry led to the return of standards, including any prohibiting films which were "degrading, immoral, improperly suggestive, harmful, or indecent."

Other 1920 reforms included new rules about attending screenings, to end the practice of office boys and the postman dropping in, and the Board appointed a female censor. A number of moral reform associations had complained to the Board that only women could properly judge the morality of films, and the chair recommended appointing a female censor to address that concern.

Another common source of complaints was the posters promoting films. Ordinary decent people walking down the street would see posters promising or suggesting all manner of decadence in a film, assume the film delivered what the poster implied, and complain to the Board. The Board decided to review and approve the advertising, to eliminate these complaints. In hindsight it seems silly to censor the sizzle, but perhaps some viewers were spared disappointment by more restrained posters. The rules are still in place, and the boards still get complaints about being too lax, often from people who have not seen the films they are complaining about.   

Sunday, May 25, 2014

"Sit on it!"

With all the bad news coming out of Russia, a new censorship law is a minor item, though symptomatic of a state flexing its muscles over people and culture. As reported by the ITAR-TASS News Agency, "Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a law prohibiting explicit language in literature and arts, mass media products, at concerts, theatrical performances, entertaining events, and in film."

Films will be refused a distribution certificate if they have obscene language, however DVDs with obscene language can be sold if they are sealed and labelled. The different treatment appears to be due to the law's concern with public performances, and DVDs are generally for private consumption. In a nod to nationalism, films cannot be considered truly Russian if they contain foul language. The law is not retroactive.

I'm not opposed to some limitations on swearing, as I noted in this post and this post, though fines and the possibility of imprisonment are harsh. Restrictions on foul language on TV brought us the memorable phrases "sit on it" and "up your nose with a rubber hose," as well as the infamous "melon farmer." Such a law is certainly repressive, but in the scheme of things more a nuisance than a  harm. The likely effect will be more creative and meaningful expressions replacing meaningless intensives.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Silly Censorship

People often assume that because I study censorship at university, and write a blog on censorship, I am opposed to it. If I did not want to take a stand, I'd say that whether one is for or against censorship is irrelevant: It exists, and is worthy of attention to gain understanding of how it works and what it does. But I can go further, and say that censorship can be appropriate and beneficial. Unfortunately there are no shortage of examples of silly censorship.

The Toronto Public library has a review committee that considers requests to withdraw materials from library holdings. To their credit, they recently dismissed seven requests, including a request to withdraw the Dr. Seuss book Hop on Pop. According to the request, the book is violent and encourages children to be violent with their fathers.

Fathers have some legitimate beefs when it comes to their portrayals in the media. We are stereotypically distant, and when it comes to children we vary from weak or useless in fairy tales to weak or useless in commercials. Hop on Pop normalizes children playing with their father, albeit in a stereotypically masculine manner, but it was written in 1963. Besides, dad is rescued (weakness again) and social order restored with the line "Stop! You must not hop on Pop!"

There might be gender problems in some Seuss works, but nothing on the level of the Dick and Jane readers, and nothing that encourages violence against fathers. Small children do enjoy hopping on pop, at least in my experience and according to Laura Bush, but it's play, and that's a good thing. Fortunately and appropriately the library rejected the request to ban the book.

Meanwhile, at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, the student newspaper has to find a new printer for their current issue. The usual printer refused the job due to the nudity on the cover. It is of course the right of the printer to refuse the job. Just because you are allowed to say something does not mean others have to listen. However, the printing company claims they are scared of litigation. The legal right to free speech is useless if fear prevents it. The full issue, including the beautiful cover art, is available online.

The x-rated comic book Omaha almost ran into printing problems. According to artist Reed Waller, when he took the first copies to local printers:
One blanched when he saw the material. "I don't know if I can do this," he said grimly.
"What is it, all the sex?"
"No," he answered, "all the black."
Hopefully Acadia can find a printer with neither technical nor topical fears.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Keeping it Decent

Censorship is often presented as a struggle between artists who want to express themselves and a repressive government. Others take sides, either arguing that they have a right to be protected, or that they have a right to see whatever they want. Striking a balance is challenging. It's even harder when the material facing censorship is news, not entertainment.

The Toronto Star recently asked its readers whether profanity should be spelled out. The response was overwhelmingly in favour of the status quo: Use the first letter, and dashes for the rest of the word. Readers felt it was not necessary to spell things out. I find this a curious position. Almost anyone who can read knows what is meant by f---, so who benefits when it is not spelled out?

The Star's Newsroom Policy and Journalistic Standards Guide states that “swear words and sexually charged terms" should never be used except in direct quotations. This is a sensible policy. Journalism should never resort to swear words, not out of respect for readers, but out of respect for language. There is always a better word choice than a swear, and since they are usually used as meaningless intensives, the writing is of better quality without them.

The Guide goes on to state "Even in quotes, they should be used sparingly (i.e. only when the words -- and the speaker -- are central to the story)." This is a less sensible policy. I believe a person's use of language, including swearing, reveals character. When the Star edits people's language, especially public figures, it distorts their character. Similarly, soft-pedaling their language, even when it is just by using the first letter and dashes of a word, is an attempt to clean up the speaker's phrasing. If Justin Trudeau swears, let's not pretend it did not happen. In any event, swearing is not the worst sin of politicians - they can be offensive on many levels.

However, a democracy, or a public facing organization such as a newspaper, has to bow to the will of the people. It seems the majority of the Star readers who care about such things want swear words to continue to be suggested but not spelled out. For better or worse, there is popular demand for censorship. I can always read the Economist or the New Yorker - two respected journals that aren't afraid to call a s---- a spade.