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A decent proposal

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    A decent proposal - 7-Oct-2006
    In his first job, Bill Hastings was a film destroyer. At age 16, in a Toronto warehouse, his daily task was to run films - mainly the old silver nitrate inflammable kind - off their reels into bins for destruction.

    Film studios like Paramount stored old movies in such places and after keeping them for a required period, simply got rid of them. Many were priceless - "Old Japanese Godzilla things, old Laurel and Hardy, old Elvis movies - I managed to take a few home."

    From his office on the fourth floor of BP House overlooking a blustery Wellington Harbour, Hastings tells the story as a quirk of fate. Not that he had any idea then that he would end up here. At that stage he wanted to be a doctor.

    "It's kind of interesting that I'm now chief censor which is also about destroying films."

    It's kind of interesting too that he's about to go before a panel to be interviewed for his own job. Hastings is seeking a third, three-year term in the top job at the Office of Film and Literature Classification which he was appointed to in 1999. It's a role that walks a fine line between what's injurious to the public good and freedom of expression. Controversy is never far away - the latest is Hastings' involvement in the R15 classification of the Aramoana mass murder film Out of the Blue.

    Why does he want to continue? "There are still a few things left to do." That includes seeing through the completion of the New Zealand Censorship Decisions Database going back to 1916. Almost a century of decisions - bans, cuts and the reasons given - that need to be preserved. He's keen also to prepare the office for new media technologies, already coming fast and furious. Plenty to keep him busy in a job he obviously loves.

    "The main enjoyment I get is feeling that I've done something. Whenever you ban some piece of child pornography or depiction of sexual violence, it's not going to change the world necessarily, but you've done a little bit to make it better."

    He didn't always feel that way. Hastings' first foray into hands-on censoring - part-time in 1989 at the Video Recordings Authority - was a disaster. "I quit after three weeks. It was horrible. I had heard of 'B grade' videos, but not C, D, and E grade videos."

    But he showed an aptitude for the task.

    As a practising barrister and lecturer in international law at Victoria University, Hastings was horrified there was no overt or systematic reference to legal principles. So he wrote up a sheet - a checklist of classification criteria that applied the law at the time. The same principles are applied today - except that the consideration sheet is now 36 pages.

    As well as working part-time for the authority which convinced him to return - "I've always succumbed to flattery" - Hastings also sat on the Indecent Publications Tribunal, joining in 1990. "We met every six weeks and there were bags and bags of crap novels and crap magazines to read before the hearing." Here he came into contact with the late Patricia Bartlett, the Catholic pro-censorship campaigner and founder of the Society for Promotion of Community Standards.

    "Actually, I had a lot of time for Patricia Bartlett. We [Hastings and other tribunal members] took tea with her. She had odd ideas, but they were always consistently odd."

    In 1991 the tribunal presided over the landmark Penthouse case which ushered in a sea change in New Zealand censorship - allowing images of consensual, non-violent adult sexual activity and banning demeaning depictions. "The single models that weren't having sex, but were just looking out with their drug-addicted dead eyes into the void - we began to ban those. Depictions of sex began to become more natural - as natural as these things can be in a Penthouse magazine."

    Bartlett was not impressed. She complained about the foreign influence in New Zealand censorship, a clear reference to the Canadian-born Hastings, who came to New Zealand in 1984 after finishing a Masters of Law at the London School of Economics.

    Today Hastings lives in central Wellington with Jeremy, his partner of nine years who is about to take up the job of executive director at the Industry Training Federation. Hastings shares parenting of his three children - Sarah (20), Chloe (18) and Toby (12) - with his ex-wife Loretta. "My house half the time looks like a teen drop-in centre." He shows off a photo of his children with fatherly pride, recounting a long list of their various achievements. "I just pinch myself every morning. I'm so lucky - they are beautiful, they have great personalities and they are smart."

    While Hastings wants another chief censor's term, a small, but vocal group wants him gone. The Society for Promotion of Community Standards says he and his deputy Nicola McCully have become desensitised to the injurious nature of hardcore porn and graphic violence. The attack is part of the society's ongoing campaign against Hastings. He has been described as a "self-confessed gay", a "self-proclaimed practising homosexual", a "self-advertising practising homosexual" and an "experienced homosexual man".

    Hastings points out that as chief censor, he's more involved in management and doesn't do a lot of censoring. That falls to the six men and 10 women in the office's classification unit.

    The restriction on having a censor serve no more than two terms was removed in 1999 in favour of giving censors job security and keeping institutional memory.

    "You have to be able to do this job day in, day out. You can't look at a picture of child porn and then become blitheringly unstable. There has to be some degree of professionalism that you apply to really awful, horrific, toxic images and depictions which enable you to continue to do the job."

    If anything, Hastings says censors become a bit trigger happy. "We're always having to find that balance between getting so fed up some days, you just want to ban everything, with the freedom of expression which is contained in the Bill of Rights."

    All censors also get access to a psychologist and there are weekly debriefing sessions with colleagues. The key to coping with toxic imagery is to acknowledge it's there. "There are images in my head which I'll never be able to get rid of which the rest of New Zealand doesn't have to see because they've been banned. My technique is to see them sealed in little watertight compartments that don't leak and leach into my mind to affect everything else that I do."

    It also helps to put what's being viewed in perspective - something that came home during the classification of Out of the Blue. He says the film wasn't as traumatic as some he's seen, but it was nonetheless moving and had impact. "We talked to people who were families of victims as well as people who had survived being shot. I was talking to some, for example, who had their 6-year-old son murdered - this job is nothing compared to that."

    Do the personal attacks by the society affect him? Hastings says he has to develop a thicker skin. He remembers the hurt of his mother after she read some vitriolic letters to the editor about him - "Billy, why do they hate you so much?" Then there was the dread about his kids seeing a newspaper billboard - "Morals campaigners out to get gay chief censor."

    Hastings does get incensed by what the society says - not by the personal references, but by the half truths and warped logic. That, for example, what he is doing is part of the homosexual agenda "to have sexually explicit and degrading films available as widely as possible". Or that there is "a very strong link between paedophilia and homosexual lifestyle".

    Many of the society's attacks go back to the banning of two Living Word videos by the Review Board in the late 90s. The fundamentalist Christian videos promoted a thesis about gay men being paedophiles who became parents and teachers so they could have sex with children to avoid getting Aids. The ban was eventually overturned by the Appeal Court, which led to some definition changes in the censorship law and an inquiry into hate-speech legislation.

    Hastings says such videos wouldn't be banned today - mainly because they represent such a dated view. He has similar perspective about the R18, film-festival-only rating given to Baise Moi which so enraged the society. "It's a crap film - there are a lot of better films you could have this [freedom of expression] argument about."

    Hastings has often wanted to respond to society press releases and has sometimes drafted a response, but never sent them. It was thanks to a colleague who stressed the importance of a crown entity and a public servant maintaining the middle ground. "If I was to reply to them with equal and opposite force from the other side of the debate, we would lose the middle ground and it would become vacant and available to them to claim."

    Looking to the future where the internet bypasses censorship controls, Hastings sees the office's role as arming people with the information they need to be their own classification office. "I don't know if this will ever happen, but you can see a rosy sunny day when we don't need this office any more because everyone will know about, or not demand, the stuff that harms them."
    Ref: - NZ Herald


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