Sunday 11 December 2016

Repulsive book, but is censorship right?

The banning of the first publication in 18 years has reopened a debate as old as the State itself

Published 20/03/2016 | 02:30

A book has been banned in Ireland for the first time in almost 20 years.
A book has been banned in Ireland for the first time in almost 20 years.

The ghosts of Ireland's past were conjured this week with news that the official state censor had, for the first time in 18 years, banned a book. The Raped Little Runaway was deemed unfit for publication or distribution in Ireland on the grounds that it graphically describes sexual violence against a minor.

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"This book contained graphic descriptions of the rape of a minor," says censorship board chairman Shane McCarthy. "It wasn't just [one] description of the rape of a minor. It described a number of rapes of a minor. It was the unanimous view of the board that it was a vile publication.''

The provenance of The Raped Little ­Runaway is deeply murky. It is thought that the credited author, "Jean Martin", is a pseudonym, while the publisher, Star Distributors, was a prominent promulgator of extreme pornographic novels through the 1970s. Other titles in its roster included Lusty Nympho, Forced to Love and Health Spa Orgies.

"Even among the dozens and dozens of individual book lines issued under the Star banner, they were all united by a shared sensibility embracing the farthest edges of sexual fantasy and experimentation," says the ­VintageSleaze website of Star's output. "Simply put, they are at the bottom - the nastiest, most twisted, most sleazy of all adult publishers."

Still, though the book appears on the face of it straightforwardly reprehensible, there will be widespread unease over the fact it has been banned (on foot of a complaint from a member of the public).

Many countries have an uncomfortable history of censorship. In Ireland, however, the flinging of books on to a ­metaphorical pyre is intimately intertwined with the stultifying ­religiosity of the immediate post-­Independence era, when the State, under the persuasive sway of the Catholic hierarchy, saw guardianship of public morals as among its core duties. The taint of British ­cosmopolitanism was to be cured, a Catholic nirvana in its place.

This led to the creation in 1926 of a Committee on Evil Literature, which, despite its rather Father Ted-esque title, caused long-term damage to freedom of expression in Ireland. The definition of "obscenity" embraced by the committee was wide-ranging, encompassing Vogue, Woman's Weekly and the News of the World, which remained technically prohibited until it ceased publication.

Sweeping censorship was, by 1929, ­established on a full-statutory basis with the Censorship of Publications Board, the same organisation which this week prohibited the Little Raped Runaway. The operating principle of the board through its initial decades was that, to quote Éamon de Valera, the arts in Ireland should live up to the "holiest ­traditions" and would be censured when falling short of such ideals.

A powerful voice against freedom of expression at the time was the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland (CTSI), which regarded itself as leading a crusade against the moral corruption of the country. Its tactics were often extra-­legal, such as when it organised a boycott of a Co Clare newsagent who refused a request from a local CTSI representative to cease selling the Daily Express on the grounds "life in a country village like this is dull enough without being told what to read in one's spare moments".

Yet, while the censorship of the period may seem shocking today, it should remembered that Ireland was profoundly conservative, groups such as the CTSI a manifestation of widely held beliefs. Indeed, some commentators have argued the desire for a pure and innocent Ireland was an unconscious response to the traumas of the struggle for independence. "An increasingly pious set of public opinions on morality, sex and belief… had formed very quickly after the foundation of the Free State as if in a reaction to the anarchy of revolution and its aftermath," wrote Robert Welch in The Abbey Theatre 1899-1999.

Whatever the cultural contexts, books were banned with abandon. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy and JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye were among the novels proscribed on the grounds they were indecent or obscene (this was ironic in the case of Salinger, subsequently placed on the curriculum for the Leaving Certificate).

Still, as Ireland matured and its religiosity dwindled, so censorship seemed to fade into the twilight. Which is why the news of the latest banning has caused disquiet.

"It's long past time to abolish the ­Censorship of Publications Board," says Dr Eoin O'Dell, Associate Professor at the Trinity ­College School of law, who blogs about free speech and privacy at Cearta.ie. "In my view, we don't need one at all… These kind of bans are entirely impractical now. If you particularly want a book that is officially banned, you can order it online. Why have legislation in force that can be made so ridiculous so easily?

"The usual answer as to why have impractical legalisation is that we want to send a signal - even if we can't enforce it across the board… That raises the issues of principle, then, as to whether the maintenance of a Censorship of Publications Board is the kind of signal we want to send."

O'Dell also argues that a censor's board ­facilitates "unnecessary mischief", such as when a complaint was made (and ­subsequently dropped) against Alan Shatter's steamy novel Laura when he was appointed Minister for Justice. "Banning something we are challenged by is a function of fear," O'Dell says. "What are we scared of when we ban it? If we are using legislation to send a signal, then the signal we are sending is that... we are scared of something. That is not a good signal to be sending."

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