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Censor Uses Listener Column To Slur The Passion

P.O. Box 13-683 Johnsonville E-mail

Press Release 2 April 2004
For immediate release ………………

Chief Censor Uses Listener Column To Slur The Passion.

In an article in the Listener (27 Mar. – 2 Apr., 204 p. 12) entitled “What I’m Reading”, Bill Hastings, the Chief Censor of Film and Literature, made comments that raise serious questions about his suitability to hold this statutory appointment. He wrote:

“…Actually, what I have been thoroughly reading are the four gospels, directly because of The Passion of the Christ. Man, I had to know them inside out! This ‘historical accuracy’ stuff is such a bogus red herring. And did you see the Mel Gibson interview with Diane Sawyer? He became a bit psycho, actually. I’m grateful that he has films as an outlet for his violence…”

The Society’s president Mr Mike Petrus says: “Mr Hastings is to be commended for thoroughly reading the gospels which provide the broad historical basis for this film, while many of the film’s detractors have clearly not done so. However, in his statutory role as Chief Censor he must knows that he has overstepped the mark by his public slurs made against a film director/producer and his film which is currently the subject of a classification review.”

The Office of Film and Literature Classification that he heads registered its classification decision on Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, on Friday 20 February 2004 and that decision is now the subject of a review being dealt with by the Film and Literature Board of Review, initiated by the film’s NZ distributor, Hoyts Distribution (NZ).

The Board of Review met on Monday 15 March 2004 to view the film and hear oral submissions from interested parties with respect to the film’s classification. Mr Hastings made a written submission dated 11 March 2004 to the Board on behalf of the Classification Office. The Society presented a detailed written and oral submission on 15 March. The Board has not yet issued its decision on the reclassification of the film, which is breaking box office records all over the world and is already one of the most popular films of all time.

Mr Petrus says: “It is imperative that this important process of review by the Board, the outcome of which is critical not only to the distributor, but also to wider community interests, is not tainted by tenable, ongoing questions about the ability of the Board to act independently of the Chief Censor’s influence. Mr Hasting’s persistent public statements expressing his personal and negative reactions to the film and Mr Gibson, both before the classification decision was registered and after the film classification became the subject of a formal review, raises the real possibility of apparent bias and concerns that he has displayed undue disfavour towards this publication. The Chief Censor holds a statutory position that demands the highest standards of impartiality. The same standards need to be demonstrably applied by the Board as an independent censorship authority.”

Background to Mr Hasting’s antagonistic state of mind

While Mr Bill Hasting’s personal moral convictions, or particular characteristics and life-style orientations, would be seen by him to be irrelevant to the substantive question of any apparent bias, his very personal and public statements on a film and its director/producer during its classification review process are. Consider a recent High Court decision that disqualified Justice Laurie Greig from participating further in the case of Algerian asylum seeker Ahmed Zaoui. His statements in a Listener article dealing with asylum seekers were found by Justices Harrison and Salmon as revealing “a state of mind arguably antagonistic to Mr Zaoui”. This in spite of the fact that they stressed that there was in fact no evidence of actual bias on Justice Grieg’s part; that they reached their conclusion “with great reluctance”, as Justice Grieg had a reputation as a judge, of absolute integrity, independence and fairness; and that their decision therefore turned on the need for the office to be seen to be independent rather than on the discovery of any substantive evidence that it had not been so.

Mr Hastings, by contrast, has already established a track record of apparent hostility to more than one Christian publication. He not only sat on the body which participated in an unprecedented attack on civil liberties in this country with the total banning of two Christian opinion-piece videos (distributed by Living Word) which contained no violence, sex, horror or cruelty whatsoever, but he was unrepentant when an astonished Court of Appeal unanimously recorded its incredulity that the censorship legislation should be so twisted. The Court of Appeal, in effect, obliged the censorship body to un-ban the two videos, which had offended only against the political correctness represented by Mr Hastings: a political correctness with an alarmingly short fuse when presented with legitimate dissenting viewpoints on gay rights activism.

Mr Hastings has gone even further stating:

"We don't touch expression that does society good, nor do we touch expression that does society neither good nor bad. By banning only expression that is toxic to a tolerant society, and by educating people about how to limit the power of damaging expression that isn't caught, eventually we will create a society that places a premium on tolerance and difference rather than on conformity." [Emphasis added]

… "For me, the best thing about being gay is more about being out than being gay. Being out allows me to show anyone who wants to see that being openly gay will not stop you being the chief executive of a Crown entity, being the Chief Censor, being a father, raising a happy family of three kids, having a wonderful stable relationship, trying to live a life that makes the world a better place, or being a good person. Of course being openly gay attracts more than its share of battles, but I view these battles as opportunities to demonstrate in public that intolerance, fundamentalism and bigotry will never win in the long run. " {Emphasis added]

[See: ]

In effect he has clearly signalled that he will seek to crush the Court of Appeal’s defence of Christian expression and freedom of expression generally (by “banning only expression that is toxic to a tolerant society”), by support for promotion of so-called “hate speech” codes in censorship legislation These codes would have a similar effect to the Living Word bans on the Christian videos: to outlaw dissenting opinion on gay rights activism.

Most reasonable people would conclude that Mr Hasting’s’ comments in the Listener and on public radio reveal a state of mind arguably antagonistic to Mr Gibson and his film. A Chief Censor, as well as each Board member, must enjoy a reputation for absolute integrity, independence and fairness. The rub-off from Mr Hastings' derogatory comments on public opinion are immense, as he holds the warrant as gate-keeper to protect society from violent publications injurious to the public good.

He issued his personal criticisms of the The Passion on 17 February 2004 in a live radio interview before he had engaged in any consultations outside his Office on the film and before the Office’s decision had even been registered (NewstalkZB 20/2/04. Interview with Larry Williams). He sought no written submissions on the film (a process which would have allowed careful consideration on the part of consultants).

Speaking to Tony Field on TV3 News, Mr Hastings made some extravagant claims:

“Whatever spiritual message this film was trying to convey … I think the violence – the high level of violence was in danger of overpowering any spiritual message… We thought the violence was so high level that we just couldn’t find the words that would adequately warn parents about the violence in the film”. [Emphasis added].

The question-begging nature of Mr Hasting’s bizarre assertion may be best illustrated by an example. If a critic, with a strong aversion to Christianity, were to be presented with a widely acclaimed documentary on the spiritual impact of Mother Teresa’s ministry in the slums of Calcutta, and to rule out in advance any spiritual message being able to transcend any images of filth and squalor, then such a claim would be rightly suspect. Consider a chief censor’s response in this case:

“Whatever spiritual message this film was trying to convey … I think the offending images of squalor, filth and high levels of human suffering depicted was in danger of overpowering any spiritual message…. We thought the squalor and suffering depicted was so high level that we couldn’t find the words that would adequately warn parents about the human degradation depicted in the film.”

Bill Hastings misrepresents the film

After an application was made to the Secretary of Internal Affairs on 20 February 2004 to have the classification reviewed, the Chief Censor advanced more highly critical personal comments on the film in the media, some containing outright errors of fact that, based on anecdotal evidence, had the effect of putting many people off from viewing the film. For example, after viewing the film and studying the gospels, he dogmatically asserted to a journalist:

“In the movie Christ’s eyes are pecked out by a raven while he is still alive. That is not in the Gospel”, says Chief Censor Bill Hastings, as quoted in the NZPA report published today in The Dominion Post (25 Feb. p. A2).

However, in the film a raven does not peck out the eyes of Christ while he is alive or dead. A raven does not touch Christ. The Society responded to Mr Hasting’s errors in a press release on 26 February 2004:

“If Mr Hastings can not distinguish between the impenitent thief on the cross and Christ, something other viewers of the movie have had no difficulty doing when commenting on the same incident on talk- back radio, and if the theological expertise he has claimed to have on tap in his Office [in his Newstalk ZB interview with Leighton Smith 17/2] and elsewhere is unaware of the wealth of symbolic import traditionally attaching over centuries to the figure of the raven in Christian art and architecture, then one can have little confidence in Mr Hasting’s ability to sift the fern seed of the more subtle considerations of this important film.”

The film visually contrasts the penitent thief with the impenitent one in a highly stylised manner, so much so that even without the subtitled dialogue the two men, the impenitent one crucified on Christ’s left and the penitent one on His right, may be distinguished without difficulty. Yet Gibson’s film goes further and has the penitent thief reproach the impenitent one by name, underscoring the contrast further still. The penitent thief seeks to be remembered when Jesus comes into His kingdom and receives the assurance that he will be with Jesus in Paradise. The impenitent thief then again reproaches the Christ and is immediately attacked by the raven. The camera tracks the raven from above all the way to the impenitent thief, highlighting the distance between the three crucified figures and making a confusion of the object of the raven’s attack all but impossible, particularly as the Christ is the central figure and is streaked with blood and wearing a crown of thorns while the thieves are not.

The symbolic contrast between the dove which the Christ sees in the sky in the film, a bird widely recognised as a symbol of peace and the Holy Spirit, and the raven, traditionally “a symbol of the indifferent and impenitent sinner” (Glossary of Christian Symbol Terms) and of unrest, is therefore lucid. It is part of the stock-in-trade of those who review and pronounce on film to often pride themselves on being particularly alert to such symbolisms. Indeed they often reproach moralists for supposed narrow-mindedness and for perhaps being philistines when the latter seem to miss even obscure or highly speculative instances of such, as symbolic import is often held to almost magically confer redeeming artistic merit on a violent or salacious publication.

Interestingly, Collins (Symbolism Of Animals And Birds) writes, ‘Confession and penance are like ravens, which pull out the eyes of covetousness from the soul which is dead in trespasses and sins,’ and the Emmerich material, which Gibson has drawn on in places, represents the impenitent thief as receiving divine mercy as well. Not only has a fundamental error been made by the Chief Censor but the opportunities for in-depth theological consultation, which might have helped him and his staff avoid such errors, were not taken. A highly controversial film of this stature, with near-universal appeal, would clearly merit such consultation with recognised church leaders (no Catholic church leader or Christian theologian was consulted).

Beyond even the charges of anti-Semitism levelled at the film, which the Chief Censor considers no reasonable person would make, and even the fall-back charges of “ultra-violence”, The Spectator reviewer Dean W. Hudson in the 23 August 2003 issue highlights the real offence of this film – one which has little or nothing to do with the censorship Act. “The real scandal remains the Gospel”, and “In my view this controversy tells us more about anti-Christianity than it does about anti-Semitism.” Mr Hudson, is one of many reputable reviewers who hold The Passion to be “a great work of art.”

Mr Hasting’s Listener comments

Turning to Mr Hasting’s comments in the Listener concerning the interview with Mel Gibson by Diane Sawyer on Primetime ABC News, he describes the matter of the “historical accuracy” of the film is “a bogus red herring”. His disdain towards any meaningful consideration of historical considerations is revealed in the OFLC decision, which states:

“The historical setting in which this violence takes place has little direct relevance to a modern audience. This could induce a level of detachment even amongst those few who are unfamiliar with the story”.

On the contrary, if the film-maker has genuinely sought and achieved an account that does real justice to the historical records (the Gospel accounts and other historical data), then for the average viewer, not to mention those educated in history and theology, the issue of historical accuracy is not “a bogus red herring”. It is a relevant mitigating or counterbalancing factor in the consideration of the effect of the depiction of any high level violence on the average viewer for whom the publication is intended. In fact, the Classification Office, demonstrated its own self-contradictory stance when it stated in its decision:

“Older teenagers, adults and those possessing theological and historical knowledge will be better able to place the depictions of violence into historical and religious context”.

Far from being a “a bogus red herring” the general issue of “historical accuracy” of a publication is one of a number of issues, along with cultural, artistic, and educational merit, that a competent censor should consider under s. 3(4) of the Films, Videos and Publications Act 1993. It clearly cannot be used as a blanket defence for the depiction of all or any form(s) of extreme and gratuitous violence, but it is a factor to weigh up when considering the effect of certain depiction(s) on an audience for whom the publication is intended.

Mr Hasting’s view that Gibson “became a bit psycho” in the Diane Sawyer interview gives considerable insight into the antagonism of his mind towards Mr Gibson and his film. Many viewers have been impressed and many profoundly moved by the evident sincerity and considerable theological acumen, self-deferential humour and refreshing candour of Mr Gibson in the Sawyer interview, which saw him visibly transcend the stereotypes erected by his vocal detractors. TV3 fielded a large number of calls seeking that the programme be repeated (which TV3 agreed to) and talkback radio comments generally reflected the view that Gibson had explained himself well. Indeed, the only point where Gibson could fairly have been said to have showed any hint of being less than relaxed, amicable and eloquent, was when Sawyer tried to drive a wedge between him and his father over their respective views on the Holocaust.

Asked if the Holocaust represented a "particular kind of evil," he told Sawyer it did, but added, "Why do you need me to tell you? It's like, it's obvious. They're killed because of who and what they are. Is that not evil enough?"

Ms Sawyer then went on to try and get him to condemn his father, who has been accused by some critics of The Passion, as being a “Holocaust denier”. Mel Gibson affirmed that he dearly loved his father and was not intending to allow Sawyer to try and drive a wedge between him and his father.

MEL GIBSON: Do I believe that there were concentration camps where defenceless and innocent Jews died cruelly under the Nazi regime? Of course I do, absolutely. It was an atrocity of monumental proportion.

DIANE SAWYER: And you believe there were millions, six million, millions?


DIANE SAWYER: I think people wondered if your father's views were your views on this.

MEL GIBSON: Their whole agenda here, my detractors, is to drive a wedge between me and my father and it's not going to happen. I love him. He's my father.

DIANE SAWYER: And you will not speak publicly about him beyond that.

MEL GIBSON: I am tight with him. He's my father. Got to leave it alone, Diane. Got to leave it alone.

Few families indeed lack a “black sheep” or embarrassing member, from the beer-drinking Billy Carter, brother of the US President Jimmy Carter, down to the most humble. No one may justly be held responsible for any off-beat view their father may hold to and yet Sawyer seemed intent on getting Mel to condemn his father. Mel showed a resolute and compassionate spirit and anyone who has ever deeply loved their father would understand that his reaction to Sawyer was neither “psycho” or disrespectful. On the contrary it was to be admired and was in keeping with his balanced and spirited account of Mel’s Christian faith.

“I’m grateful that he [Gibson] has films as an outlet for his violence” wrote Hastings in the Listener. Such a bizarre public slur lends little credibility to the integrity of the Chief Censor’s Office. It is very surprising to find Mr Hastings apparently confusing Gibson’s professional roles – as actor and film-maker - with Gibson’s perceived personal views and passions as interpreted by Hastings, who is not a psychologist. If a moralist film critic were to thus confuse an actor’s part with his personal passions, Mr Hastings would surely be the first to rebuke him as being simple-minded and naïve.

Mr Hasting’s has described The Passion of the Christ on public radio several times as so full of “unrelenting violence” that it is traumatising to viewers. He effectively personalises his attack on the film by calling into question Gibson’s state-of-mind, effectively accusing him of having an unhealthy predisposition to violence. Viewers of his film The Passion, must, by implication, be similarly afflicted.

Mr Hasting’s failure to speak out, let alone say anything by way of criticism or warning, on the increasing numbers of films, videos and DVDs and other publications containing depictions of extreme sadomasochism, sexual violence (Baise-Moi, Irreversible), necrophilia, sexual acts involving human excrement (Visitor Q), graphic violence (Kill Bill - Vol 1) and other offensive content injurious to the public good, all of which he has cleared for adult viewing, is in stark contrast to the seemingly unrelenting campaign he has launched through the media against The Passion of the Christ.


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