Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Censorship and the Emperor's New Clothes

Encore’s reasons for deciding not to publish my piece about the ethics of presenting real people as characters in drama has induced me to do some thinking about the way in which censorship manifests itself within the Australian film industry. There are, broadly speaking, two forms of censorship – one that is imposed from outside and one that we impose on ourselves for reasons of self-preservation. The external form can all too easily lead to the self-imposed form – as I think has happened in our industry.

The Courtiers in The Emperor’s New Clothes epitomize the dangers of self-censorship taken to an absurd extreme. To suggest that the Emperor had no clothes on was not a wise career move for a Courtier hoping for advancement in the Emperor’s court! To what extent does the Emperor’s New Clothes dynamic operate within the Australian film industry? Are we, as an industry, as a film culture, as brutally honest with ourselves as we should be? Do we fear that revelation of how few clothes we have on might make the tax-paying public wonder why on earth it is supporting an industry that, with a few exceptions (broad Aussie comedies of late), makes films that most Australian’s don’t want to see? But I digress…

An example of externally imposed censorship:  Last year, during an ‘industry forum’  at which Ruth Harley and Tania Chambers represented Screen Australia and Screen NSW respectively, Encore magazine was given permission to film Ruth and Tania’s presentations but was told that it could not film the Q & A with the audience that followed. The official reason given was that the presence of Encore’s camera might inhibit filmmakers from speaking unguardedly. The actual reason, as disclosed to me, was that Encore feared it would be sued if it broadcast, online, filmmaker’s comments that Screen Australia deemed defamatory. And what might Screen Australia deem defamatory? Hard to know and we’ll never find out because the threat was sufficient to guarantee that no ‘defamatory’ comments  or observations were recorded on tape and hence could be broadcast. 

There is not much that can be done to combat this kind of externally imposed censorship other than to stand up to it and refuse to be intimidated; to call the bluff of institutions within society that have the power to use the threat of legal action to suppress debate or to prevent disclosure of information suggestive of either incompetence or corruption. One would like to think that various industry guilds and organizations would band together to protect the freedom of important and essential speech but it is not the case.   

The threat of externally imposed censorship can easily lead to the other form of censorship that can be just as insidious – self-censorship. Yes, caution is required in writing about a case before the courts – like ‘Mac’ Buttrose’s suing of the producers of PAPER GIANTS - but how likely is it, in reality, that Encore magazine would be sued for hosting a debate about the ethics of representing real people as fictional characters in which passing (and non-defamatory) references is made to PAPER GIANTS?  This is, in my view, a form of self-censorship that is as bad as overt external censorship when it comes to stifling dialogue and debate about issues of concern to us all as story-tellers.

If you believe, dear Reader, what I write here is, in you view, nonsense, you should be free to express this opinion. Unfortunately, with the demise of Encore as a venue in which divergent opinions could be expressed, there is virtually nowhere where ‘robust’ debate occurs anymore about contentious matters of interest to Australian filmmakers.

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