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The touchy topic of our classification system.

2 September 2011 No Comment

The touchy topic of our classification system.

A reliable means of gauging broad public opinion is needed.

Clearly many Australians want to have their opinions heard on how, in the foreseeable future, official censorship in this country will be administered. The proof of that is that the Australian Law Reform Commission has received a record 2451 submissions to its inquiry into Australia’s Classification Scheme.

About 10per cent of respondents were from industry groups who use the scheme to derive an income, while another 10per cent were from morals groups keen on restricting material they deem unworthy. Only about 1per cent of submissions were from civil-liberty groups who were trying to increase the amount of material available to the public. The rest of the submissions were from individuals with a wide variety of motives.

The morals and religious groups relied heavily on claims of being ”offended” by certain material. They allege that certain types of information and entertainment are intrinsically offensive, in the same way they consider some things intrinsically evil. I don’t consider being ”offended” as relevant to the legislative framework and I question whether the Classification Act should take into account such personal value judgments.

In 2011, the fact that an image or a bunch of words may offend someone and is therefore a reason to ban or severely restrict them is a Draconian and intolerant position. I’m offended by lots of things these days – Question Time, alcohol and cigarettes sold in supermarkets, reality TV and religious fundamentalism – but I don’t use this as a reason to try to ban these things merely because it’s just my opinion.

And who is being ‘offended’ under the Commonwealth Classification Act anyway? Is it the ”reasonable adult” that is so often referred to? Or is it some minority group? Who is the ”reasonable adult” these days anyway? Clearly, ”he” or ”she” is a metaphor for ”community opinion” but then how does the Classification Board determine community opinion? Under the current scheme, it ultimately devolves to the personal opinions of eight state and territory attorneys-general and one federal one, acting as the Standing Committee of Censorship Ministers.

But are they truly representative of the average Australian? The recent roll-call of state and federal attorneys-general includes a number of morals campaigners like the former NSW attorney-general, John Hatzistergos, who struck out the artistic merit defence on child porn charges and sent an adult shop owner to jail for selling X-rated films, and the High Anglican from South Australia, Michael Atkinson, who held up an R-rated category for computer games for nearly a decade. Victoria’s current religious Attorney-General has changed that state’s Equal Opportunity Act to grant unlimited rights to religious organisations to discriminate against gays and lesbians, single mothers and people who hold different spiritual beliefs.

Not all attorneys-general are like this. But because of the way in which our system is structured, if a book or film ”offends” the personal or religious views of a few of these people, it is likely to be banned or restricted.

The Classification Board needs to develop a reliable and consistent polling process for gauging public opinion. The whole system should not be based on whether people have had their feelings hurt or been made to feel resentful or upset by a published statement, opinion, photo or website. Last December the Minister for Justice, Home Affairs, Privacy and Freedom of Information, Brendan O’Connor wrote a passionate piece defending his support for a new R-rated computer games classification. He used independent polling results extensively to back his claims. The adult media sector have used almost identical support levels in independent polling to back their claims that the states should allow legal X18+ films but it has fallen on deaf ears.

Although all the state attorneys-general have now agreed to an R rating for computer games, there are no guarantees that people in South Australia, NSW or Western Australia will see them legalised. Legitimate evaluation of a majority community opinion by the Classification Board should be the final arbiter in these matters and it needs to be built into the Classification Act somehow.

One of the main reasons for the Government asking the ALRC to inquire into the Classification Act was the effect that the internet has had on bringing potentially offensive material into the lounge rooms of the nation.

There are millions of potentially offensive websites out there, which means there are potentially millions of ways that people can be offended. Evaluating this should no longer consume taxpayer’s money.

In reading through the Terms of Reference and the proposed topics of debate that the ALRC put forward for respondents, it becomes clear that there was very little on the sexualisation of children – an issue that has been front and centre in public debate.

Interestingly, the only two submissions that had to be banned or have warnings placed on them were from pro-censorship groups with agendas around sex and children. The Kids Free 2B Kids submission is said to contain images not appropriate for the ALRC website and Family Voice Australia had warnings placed on its submission regarding song lyrics.

These days, recommendations about this area of censorship and classification are more likely to be made by politicians reacting to pressure groups, rather than large organisations who synthesise evidence-based research. Many MPs have young children of their own and call on their personal experiences and those of parents in church or social groups that they are part of to advocate policy.

One submission that stood out in this area was from Queensland University of Technology academic Alan McKee, who argued that ”anecdotal accounts from psychologists, youth workers, parents and so on are valuable but do not have the same status as methodologically rigorous academic research.” He claimed that community research showed that the majority of Australians did not consider that general advertising fostered the sexualisation of children. He also claimed that research on anorexia nervosa, depression and the lowered age of first sexual experience showed clearly that none of them were caused through exposure to sexualised media.

Probably McKee’s most important point and one for the ALRC to include in its recommendations to government was that ”Children need comprehensive, age-appropriate information about sex at all ages as part of a healthy sexual development”.

This will be the new censorship battleground in the years ahead.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith Universit and the author of 35 books, most recently the co-authored satire ‘Fools’ Paradise: Life in an Altered State’ and his memoir ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’.


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