For the first time in over 20 years, the government is preventing Kiwis from accessing a book. The bad news is that this censorship isn't happening in a third world dictatorship, but is happening right here in New Zealand. The not-so-bad news is however that the ban appears to have already failed.
The book, “Into the River” by Ted Dawe tells the story of a 14-year-old Te Arepa Santos, who wins a scholarship to a posh boys' school. The story is aimed at teens and has sexual references, depicting drug taking and gosh darn it, even offensive language.
Complaints from the conservative group Family First, (who objected to the sexual content portrayed the book), has seen Into the River subjected to an interim restriction order.
This means that until the Film and Literature Board of Review decides what to do with it, Into the River is not able to be sold by bookstores or borrowed from libraries, effectively banning readers in New Zealand from getting hold of a copy.
The move seems a tad heavy handed and raises some big questions. First and foremost, I wonder if anyone from Family First has actually bothered to read it fully before inflicting their views on the rest of us.
Into the River has been targeted despite the fact that there are other far more racier titles widely available. Books such as Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, the Bible and even Mills and Boon titles all make frequent reference to subject matter that'd be deemed "unsuitable" by Family First.
Secondly, why is it that a small group is able to tell us what we can and cannot read? Surely a classification system similar to what is already in use with movies and video games would be a smarter move instead of what effectively equates to heavy handed censorship?
It isn't just books either. Has anyone from Family First ever tuned into a soap opera, watched a music video, or even spent any time online? They're all sources of “mature” and potentially objectionable content - should we seek to ban those too? Where does this madness end???
Nowadays, the media is liberally slathered in sex, drugs and rock n roll. The moral rights and wrongs of this may be debatable, but the reality is that this stuff sells. It is already a part of the wallpaper of our daily existence – there is no going back.
Now that Family First have got an interim restriction order placed on one book, I wonder how long will it be before they decide to target another? Let's face it, there's plenty for them to choose from.
While Family First congratulate themselves on this win, they seem to have failed to grasp that censorship is a largely ineffectual measure in a digital age. Just ask the UK government about their failed attempts at blocking internet access to websites they'd deemed as aiding copyright infringement.
Before the ban was announced, Into the River was already available for purchase by anyone either in an e-reader friendly format or as a paperback from Amazon.com. For US$24.95 (NZ $39.72), plus shipping, anyone can get a copy. While it isn't yet listed on file sharing sites, this is arguably only a matter of time.
That said, should you decide to buy a hard copy from Amazon, customs could in theory intercept your copy and confiscate it. However, there's little that they can do to stop you from downloading an e-book copy.
After all the fuss by the media, I'd wager that a growing number of digitally savvy teens are probably keen to download a copy, just to see what the fuss is all about. On the plus side, there'll at least be a positive spin-off in terms of teen literacy levels.
So now that Into the River is available online, the odds are good that an interim restriction order will be about as effective as a screen door on a submarine.
Even if the government filters and blocks internet access to the book on services such as Amazon, anyone using a VPN or other easy to-set-up countermeasures will be able to obtain a copy. As history has repeatedly shown, once the digital genie is out of the bottle, it is next to impossible to put back in.
Perhaps a smarter approach for Family First would have involved focusing their efforts on educating people about parenting skills and teens about safe sex rather than telling us what we can and cannot read.