Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 25 March 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht
Censorship of Publications Board: Chairman Designate
We will now discuss the appointment as chairman designate of the Censorship of Publications Board of Mr. Shane McCarthy. I welcome Mr. McCarthy to the meeting. I must read out a matter of procedure which is somewhat technical. Bear with me for three or four minutes and thank you for your attendance today.
I wish to draw your attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if you are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in respect of a particular matter and you continue to so do, you are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege. You are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and you are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, you should not criticise or make charges against a person or persons or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. The opening statement and any other documentation you submit to the committee may be published on the committee website when we have adjourned.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
Mr. McCarthy has been nominated as chair designate of the film censorship board of Ireland. I invite him to make his opening statement.
Mr. Shane McCarthy:
I thank the Chairman. It is an honour and a privilege to be before the committee today. By way of introduction, I am a solicitor based in Skibbereen in west Cork. I have a general legal practice with a particular emphasis on judicial review. In addition to my role as a solicitor I have served on several regulatory boards, including the Garda Síochána Complaints Board, the Law Society of Ireland, the Parole Board and the chartered surveyors regulatory board. I have extensive experience in regulatory matters.
I examined the role of the chairman of the Censorship of Publications Board and took the view that the experience I had gained in the written reports that I had prepared for the other boards, the academic articles that I had written and the research I had completed on legislative change and proposed legislative change formed a skill-set particularly suited to this position. I applied for the position having seen it advertised on publicjobs.ie. I was pleased to receive the invitation to come before the committee today and I look forward to answering any questions that any Deputies or Senators have.
Mr. McCarthy is most welcome. I find this appointment interesting. Would anyone be qualified to be a censor? This is the 50th anniversary of Brendan Behan's death. Several of his publications were banned in Ireland at the time. Mr. McCarthy will probably review Laura, published by the current Minister for Justice and Equality and whether Mr. McCarthy bans it is at his discretion. How does Mr. McCarthy see himself fitting into the role?
Let us consider the historical context. Many publications published in previous decades are now looked at as works of literary merit. I am not suggesting that the book of the Minister for Justice and Equality has literary merit but I have not read it and therefore I will not pass any comment.
Mr. Shane McCarthy:
I have not read Laura. I understand my first role will be to read that book. I agree with Deputy Humphreys. Society has changed a great deal. The last Censorship of Publications Act was enacted in 1967. Undoubtedly, there have been major changes in every aspect of Irish society not least of which is the availability of technology. The banning of books will raise queries relating to availability and the possibility of ordering books over the Internet, if people so desire, as well as obtaining them through other electronic means. However, my understanding of the role at the moment is that there is a specific complaint in respect of a particular book. I take the view that due process means this complaint should be dealt with. Whatever changes come subsequently in the legislation will be a matter for the Oireachtas. I consider the role of the censorship board to review the book with the legislation that is currently in place as the complaint was made under the current legislation.
I was trying to get a sense of that from Mr. McCarthy. In the case of any future legislation we will be consulting with Mr. McCarthy given his role. Whether we are discussing film or a publication, is censorship outdated? The majority of the public has access to any publication, film or whatever online. At this stage, does Mr. McCarthy believe it is past its sell-by date?
The Chairman misled me. Anyway, it is the same point. In the case of any publication there is access right across media. Whatever the categorisation in Ireland an online purchaser will not necessarily see it the same way and he or she still has full access. We cannot really control it. Should we even be attempting to do so any longer? That was what I was asking Mr. McCarthy.
Mr. Shane McCarthy:
I will take the question as to whether there is still a role for censorship. My view is that the Act is outdated. It has not been amended since 1967. Undoubtedly, changes will be forthcoming. If I become chairman of the Censorship of Publications Board I would welcome the opportunity to come back to the committee and contribute to any debate on proposed reforms.
Mr. McCarthy is welcome. I do not envy his position because it is onerous. I presume his terms of reference will include wide reading. I note that no book has been banned in Ireland since 2003. If we had another board that did not have anything to do or that had no positive recommendations since 2003, then we might be getting concerned. On the other hand, we can see whether there is a need for oversight. Obviously, Mr. McCarthy will have a major role in oversight to ensure that there is no free-for-all and whatever. That is a debate for another day.
I welcome Mr. McCarthy to the meeting. From his credentials and what he has read out in his curriculum vitae-----
I do. From what I can see, it is a matter of qualification. It is worth putting on the record for Mr. McCarthy and the board to consider. Let us recall the age of censorship of Edna O'Brien and The Country Girlsand Brendan Behan. As someone said, they would not even raise an eyebrow in "Fair City" now, never mind in a book.
Things change with time.
Novels and books play a part in creating a debate or a discourse among the public that might not be in political debate or in other fora. Somebody mentioned the Minister, Deputy Shatter, who is a good author as well as a good Minister. Novels play a role in bringing a debate into public discourse. Would Mr. McCarthy see that as part of his role as well?
Mr. Shane McCarthy:
Novels certainly would have important role, as would literature generally. The fact that there are so few books referred to the censorship board or which lead to complaints from members of the public would show that society has certainly become accepting and tolerant of the views of others on what they feel is acceptable to have available as literature.
Times have certainly changed since the Act was drafted in 1967. There will undoubtedly be changes coming. When the complaint was made about the publication, this was the system in place at that time. In that regard, I would consider the role of the censorship board to consider the complaint under the Act that is still current. However, I agree wholeheartedly that literature, books and novels are a very important part in discourse.
I welcome Mr. McCarthy to the committee. Clearly, he is well known in Cork as a man in very good standing and experience, particularly in the regulatory area. He is the ideal candidate for the job and I am delighted to see him before us. It struck me today that the last time censorship was debated in these Houses was possibly in the 1920s in the Seanad, when the protagonists at the time were W.B. Yeats and a Professor McGuinness, one on the left and one on the right. Then we had terrible censorship at the time of Kate O'Brien and Seán Ó Faoláin, even right up to McGahern's time. To his credit, the one politician in the country who did a lot to undo that damage was the late Brian Lenihan senior. As Minister for Justice, he lifted the ban on a pile of books. All those books were banned mainly on the grounds of sexual content, which is extraordinary in Ireland. Books in other countries were banned because they may have been politically subversive, or they may have challenged preconceived notions in areas of life other than sex. The main concern of Mr. McCarthy's job will be with the availability and the different ways in which people can access that kind of stuff. My own feeling is that the less censorship, the better. Is it right for anybody to tell an intelligent adult that they cannot read this or that, other than child pornography or something that would lead to the abuse of children? Other than that, I would be very liberal in that respect.
I hope that Mr. McCarthy's tenure is a success. I have no questions, just observations, and I wish him every success in his position.
I welcome Mr. McCarthy here this evening. I read with interest his substantial CV and I have no doubt that all of his qualifications will stand him in good stead in his role. Books will obviously be his main focus. How does he distinguish which books are suitable to scrutinise? Are they specifically published here, or can they be published abroad and sold here? Is there a distinction involved? Will he consider magazines, magazine articles or anything to do with newspapers?
Mr. Shane McCarthy:
The Act sets out which publications are subject to the views of the board. It is quite specific whether they are obscene, whether they promote crime or whether they promote the procurement of abortion. These are the three categories of publications that we will be reviewing. There is a sunset clause of 12 years on any ban, so unless the ban is renewed, it will automatically be lifted. My understanding is that no book is currently banned, but a number of publications are prohibited because there is not such a sunset clause for them. Any books available on the market here are books that can be reviewed by the censorship board if a complaint is made about them.
If anyone is qualified, then Mr. McCarthy is as qualified as anyone else for this role, because I do not know what the specific qualification would be for this position. I would like the committee to ask the Minister to review the Censorship of Publications Act 1967, because it is long overdue. Society and technology has moved on to such an extent that this committee should recommend that the 1967 should be reviewed as soon as practicable.
A book was banned in the 1930s because it referred to a navel. At the time we had a completely different society. We have had profound social change in this country in the last 20 years, not to mind the last 60 or 70 years. Not too far from where you and I live is a beautiful townland called Garrynapeaka, outside Gougane Barra, and a lovely homestead of the tailor Buckley and his wife, Anastasia. A book was written by Eric Cross and published in 1942 called The Tailor and Ansty. It was banned by the Censorship of Publications Board and was also the subject of a hugely divisive and controversial Seanad debate. A motion was passed that still needs to be rectified. I was in the Seanad for two terms and I regret the fact that I never attempted to amend the record, but that book was about simple country life. The parish priest called and demanded they burn the book. The book was banned and it remained in force until the late 1960s, and that era always intrigues me. Any time I go to Gougane Barra for a drive I point out the cottage in which the tailor and his wife lived. His granddaughter is a neighbour of mine and we are close family friends. I find it intriguing to this day to think that an organ of the State, and an Act of the State, would ban a book that was so innocent in depicting rural life. In the books he mentions the sow farrowing, and this was considered to be complete heresy for those of conservative views.
It was an obsession with containment of sexual culture within society in general, and it led to that book being banned even though it was about honest country living. We have no doubt that if such obscene stuff would cross your desk, that you would deal with it in a manner befitting 2014 and not 1942 or the late 1960s.
The committee is always available if Mr. McCarthy, in his capacity as chairman, believes we can do something to advance or promote with the Minister an issue concerning how the system functions. I thank Mr. McCarthy for his attendance this afternoon.