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The nature of censorship

Oxford Dictionaries define censorship as:

The suppression or prohibition of parts of books, films, news, etc that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security.

Alternatively, Mathiesen (2008) considers that censorship is an activity that is intended to:

...restrict or limit access to an expression, portion of an expression, or category of an expression, which has been made public by its author based on the belief that it will be a bad thing if people access the content of that expression.

These two descriptions of censorship suggest that it is a process involving 'suppression', 'prohibition', 'restriction' or 'limitation' – terms that all have negative connotations. Often, people have quite different views on the appropriateness of the imposition of censorship. For some, censorship can never be justified, as it represents a direct assault on the individual's right to freedom of expression. Contrariwise, others believe that censorship is an essential function of government. This may, for example, be based on religious conviction, a wish to uphold high moral standards in society or a commitment to safeguarding those who are vulnerable or who may be subjected to exploitation. Alternatively, governments may use censorship as a means of effecting control through the suppression of views that challenge their goals and actions.

Censorship can operate at many levels and can embrace all forms of communication. For example, it may be applied to:

...anything that may be composed by one person and communicated to another. This includes such things as speeches, personal communications, books, articles, compilations of data, art works, photographs and music.

Mathiesen (2008)

It is helpful to distinguish between two general forms of censorship: – referred to as 'self-imposed and externally imposed censorship (Blundell 2018). These are briefly outlined below:

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in our everyday lives, we regularly censor our communications with others. For example, we may refrain from expressing remarks that we would like to make but that we feel may cause offence. Alternatively, in the workplace, we may avoid expressing opinions that could be unpopular or controversial. For example, in meetings chaired by an overbearing or autocratic person, attendees will often self-censor their dissent. In such cases, there is no external censor – we decide what we will say and how we will act. The two key aspects of this process relate to 'what' we decide to censor and 'why' we do so.

three key aspects of externally imposed censorship: 'what' is censored, 'why' it is censored and 'who' has decided that something should be subjected to censorship. Thus, an important difference between internally and externally imposed forms of censorship concerns the fact that the latter involves an external agency. Furthermore, it is enforced through sanctions (which are often of a legal nature). Over the years, governmental censorship has become associated with the control of information dissemination during times of military conflict, repression of dissent and as an approach intended to promote the moral welfare of society. In this latter respect, censorship has frequently been used to suppress controversial but meritorious expression, and as a result it is often viewed as being contrary to free expression and therefore contrary to the advancement of society.

When applied to the promotion of moral standards, censorship can often be counterproductive. For example, in 1960, a high-profile trial took place at the Old Bailey court in London in connection with a book written by D.H. Lawrence, entitled Lady Chatterley's lover. This was viewed by many people as a contest between the traditional British establishment and the corrupting influence of an increasingly liberated society. Despite the government's attempts to censor the work through the best efforts of Mr Griffith-Jones (representing the crown and who was a highly regarded hero of World War II), the court ruled against the imposition of censorship:

No other jury verdict in British history has had such a deep social impact. Over the next three months Penguin sold 3 [million] copies of the book – an example of what many years later was described as 'the Spycatcher effect', by which the attempt to suppress a book through unsuccessful litigation serves only to promote huge sales.

Robertson (2010)

There can be little doubt that without the publicity generated by the trial, sales would have been very much lower, and, as a result, the government's case was counterproductive.

Since that time, there have been many other censorship trials in the UK in relation to the publication of books, but invariably courts have ruled against censorship and have erred on the side of liberalisation.

As censorship of traditional forms of expression has gradually relaxed in the UK, the web has come under ever-greater scrutiny. For example, given the spate of recent terrorist attacks involving explosives, it is natural to question the presence of websites that provide detailed instructions in relation to creating explosives, bombs, etc.

In fact, even if this web content was to be censored, locating a physical book that contains information of this sort is by no means difficult. Consequently, in reality, web censorship of such content would have little, if any, effect.


Watch and discuss the following YouTube video, which focuses on censorship:

How Internet Censorship Works

View How Internet Censorship Works video transcript