A History Of Australian Censorship #2

Part Two: Technology, War & the Media Industry 
Words by: Jonathon Davidson

This is part 2 of an ongoing series. To read part 1, click here

If we want to discuss the current state of censorship within Australia, we’ve first got to look at it in the past. Fun fact: there’s a lot instances of it occurring.

In the last article, I talked about how the first media publication printed in Australia was censored. Then I talked a bit about how that whole thing went down, throwing in some sly shoutouts to the seventeenth century and the impositions of ordinances. That brought me all the way to the recently leaked ACMA internet blacklist which, as far as is discernible, has never been operationally implemented but still exists; acknowledged by the authorities for some number of years now but still lacking any wholesome official comment.

Right now, we’re going to wind back a bit once more, and I’m going to talk to you about Australian censorship throughout the twentieth century – and you know what that means. World War One & Two, motherfucker. 

But first, a side note: before the halfway point of the 20th century, many Australians already held sentiments of mistrust towards the Government at large and its respective relationships with the press. Perhaps this was because of heavy censorship imposed in 1914 under The War Precautions Act. WW1 changed Australia in a lot of ways. A year after the war in 1919, the state government of QLD declared open hunting season on Koalas. In truth, those two events probably aren’t related, but Queenslanders culled a goddamn shitload of Koalas that year. Over one million.

My point is everybody in Australia was a little twitchy after the war. And perhaps for good reason.

Those Australians who weren’t overseas at the time dying, or killing, or helping the wounded kill some more people; had some good material on which to base a mistrust for government. Wartime increased the pressure on already strenuous relations. In August 1916, the offices of left-wing newspaper Labor Call were raided by Australian authorities and the company had its printing press shut down under order of the Army. This was in response to Labor Call publishing papers criticising the WW1 conscription policy. The raid was legally viable due to powers granted by The War Precautions Act.

It would be foolish to attempt to address the historical development of censorship in Australia without giving some consideration to The War Precautions Act of 1914, and the amendments made to the Act in 1915. Perhaps the most important piece of information a contemporary reader ought to take away is that Australia’s first government intelligence agencies were created under powers granted by the 1915 revisions. The first agency synthesized under the laws was the Australian Special Intelligence Bureau, arranged by the British authorities to be the official Australian branch of the Commonwealth intelligence services. In 1917, the Commonwealth Police Force was established. That same year also saw the Australian Navy adopt an intelligence office into its operational framework. The War Precautions Act of 1914 also allowed for the internment of ‘aliens’ within Australia, which would be repeated in World War 2 when all Japanese Australians were indoctrinated into internment camps as a long-questioned means to prevent spying and counter-intelligence within the civilian population.

I’m getting off topic here, so here’s what you need to know:

a) The War Precautions Act was directly responsible for the creation of the first Australian intelligence agencies in 1916-1917.

b) In 1916, the same year intelligence agencies manned by police officers across the states were created, the offices of a left-wing publication were raided and had their printing apparatus dismantled, as well as imposed financial damages.

c) The War Precautions Act 1914/1915 saw immigrants (read: Non European Australians) sent to internment camps in Australia for the first time in history, if you discount years of unfathomable oppression and forcible indoctrination into institutions heaved upon the Indigenous inhabitants of Australia.

By now, you’re probably getting a little sick of war. So am I, and we haven’t even gotten to World War 2 yet. And trust me – that’s where it starts to get really good. So lets take a break from the war, and dicsuss another type of Australian censorship in the twentieth century: the censorship of literature. Did you go through your entire primary and high school education thinking that, “hey, sure, some books are banned like mein kampf; but it’s not like Australia has a history of fascist-level censorship on creative fiction, right?” I did. I went through school thinking that.

And I was wrong.

Before I talk about literary censorship in Australia, we need to talk about ASIO. Fun fact: the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation has been monitoring “writers, literary groups and intellectuals” since 1949. Trends of surveillance swapped from a focus on censoring communist pieces in the 30s – though this still sort of just went on forever – before ASIO was conceived. This communist-press-monitoring was taken on board by a number of censorship boards and committees that came and went as the nation expanded across states. Slowly, through shifting political climates – and the inception of ASIO in 1949 – surveillance trends quickly became pointed towards any literary work to do with female sexuality and the enjoyment of it endorsed by females authors. This enjoyment of sex – referred to by authorities on censorship boards as ‘salacious…appealing to the sex excitement…‘ rendered them obscene, and via obscenity laws they were able to be censored.

Kathleen Wilson’s Forever Amber, for instance, was banned in Australia in 1944 up until 1958 when the ban was lifted, but only after receiving the stern aforementioned comments from the head of the censorship board at the time, who – fun fact: would later come to have their role replaced by the Classifications Board. But that’s a different article.

If you go to the National Archives Website by clicking this link here, you will see a disclaimer telling you that there are still documents ASIO haven’t made public. Under the Archives Act 1983, sensitive information from bodies such as ASIO is eligible to be subjected to an FOI request, or admission into the national archives. Long story short: writers are still being monitored. As surveillance and security begin to become more and more intertwined in our modern day by the technologies of internet and data; one must not consider one without the other. And that’s where this article is headed. The more research I do, the more I wish I was wearing a tin foil hat. Anyway, here’s some more on literary surveillance:

The Australian Book Society was monitored from 1952-1958

Fellowship of Australian writers were monitored from 1953-1963

The New Theatre League were monitored from  1936-1965

Judith Wright, famous Australian poet known for establishing feminist power in the rural bush ethos, was monitored by ASIO from 1954-1961.

Throughout most of the 20th century, three qualifying categories determined the banning of books in Australia, of which many instances are researchable. The above information regarding ASIO monitoring is legal under the Archives Act 1983. Those qualifications for censorship were:

A) blasphemous, indecent or obscene works or articles
B) literature unduly emphasising matters of sex or of crime or calculated to encourage depravity
C) seditious publications

Fairly similar to today’s “child porn and terrorism tho” arguments made in favour of web censorship and surveillance. Anyway, to wrap this segment up, because now I’m just ranting: Australia has partially censored books, banned books, censored theatre shows and banned theatre performances. Lets not even talk about film and video games. Some estimates suggest that in the early decades of the twentieth century up to 5000 books were banned in Australia across the poorly constructed system of reasons that justified censorship to the relevant authorities, often those with strong ties to the motherland Commonwealth. 

Now lets get on to World War 2 … in the next installment of this series.