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April 16, 2018 | by  | in From the Archives Opinion |
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From the Archives

Growing up, hearing or seeing a swear word felt like a rare and slightly dangerous treat. Occasionally the humble “shit” might infiltrate the six o’clock news, injecting some unexpected excitement into current affairs. The more brutish “fuck” was seldom heard before 8.30pm, but all bets were off during Saturday night features. According to schoolyard chat, two uncensored uses of the word fuck were allowed per movie on broadcast TV, a yarn I was never able to substantiate but seemed to ring true.

Maybe I just got older, but it feels like these rules have loosened recently. Swearing in print or TV seems more common and less jarring. It’s a trend that would suggest that, for better or worse, the arbitrary limitation of certain basically harmless words is declining in relevance. Still, no doubt there is a decent proportion of the country clutching their pearls at this degradation of polite society. After all, it wasn’t always like this.

Once upon a time, media of all kinds in New Zealand were subjected to more rigorous restrictions. In the decades after the Second World War, the good citizens of New Zealand needed protecting on two fronts. At the same time that Reds Under the Bed were disseminating communist propaganda, the sexed-up pop culture of the United States was rotting the minds and morals of New Zealand’s youth. The Censor’s Office banned and redacted liberally, to maintain the moral integrity of God’s Own Country. Furthermore, commercial printers were legally liable for any seditious, defamatory, or obscene content they printed on behalf of their clients. Printers exercised caution, often refusing to print sections or entire issues of publications to avoid a costly scandal.

The case of the 1969 issue of Cappicade, Victoria’s annual graduation magazine, demonstrates how even the vaguest, most obscure reference to obscenities risked drawing the ire of the Censor. Salient reported that Wellington printers Organ Brothers refused to print sections of Cappicade after receiving legal advice that they were “possibly libelous or obscene”. David Smith, the editor, accused the printers of contravening their contract, having essentially printed a magazine with gaping holes throughout.  

Salient, in its tireless commitment to the tenets of freedom of speech and challenging journalism, published one of the offending pieces:

“My first is in roof but not in root,

My second is in lump but not in hemp,

My third is in cove but not in love,

My fourth is in kemp but not in demp,

I will always bring you luck,

Read the answer is [sic] you’re stuck”

Take some time and a piece of paper if you need to. The astute reader will note that solving this cunning riddle produces the word ‘fuck’ (though flck is technically also valid), which I think we can all agree is a Jolly Good Jape and A Bit of Fun.

Salient itself has frequently been subjected to censorship and interference in its eighty years. Sometimes there has been a storm in a teacup made over something as harmless as the 1969 Cappicade riddle — the coerced retraction of a clearly fictional satirical interview with our Chancellor in 2016 springs to mind. Others have been more serious. Roger Steele, Salient editor in 1974, wrote in the seventh issue of that year that:

“About politicians there are so many things that need to be said but cannot. In New Zealand the gap between what is being preached and what is being practised is widening every day, largely because the press, especially the radical press, cannot touch it for fear of lawsuits.”

Was New Zealand ever some kind of dystopian police state? Probably not. But it’s worth reflecting on these moments in our history when the press has been challenged and restricted. We are fortunate in New Zealand to have a relatively free press. It’s not perfect, but make no mistake – there’s good journalism being done every day in this country. Plus we get to do swears now, which is pretty fucking hype.

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