Censorship in the 1920s, still on the books?

The Radio 1 History Show recently had an interesting segment on the prosecution of a Waterford newspaper editor.

In the new Irish Free State, low levels of sexual immorality and sexual crime were viewed as two indicators of this nation’s health. The reporting of sexual crime was to remain largely off limits to Irish journalists up to the 1940s and beyond.

A prosecution brought against a newspaper editor in 1929 did much to establish this status quo. The editor in question was D.C. Boyd of the Waterford Standard. He had reported explicit details of a case in which a local business man was accused of raping a 13 year old girl.

You can listen here to Myles Dungan’s interview with Dr Tony Keating, who gave a lecture on the topic in Waterford.

Dungan says that “reporting of sexual crime was to remain largely off limits to Irish journalists up to the 1940s and beyond.” I was curious to learn how far that “beyond” stretched and what became of the offence Boyd was prosecuted with.

Section 14(1) of the Censorship of Publications Act 1929 provides:

It shall not be lawful to print or publish or cause or procure to be printed or published in relation to any judicial proceedings:

(a) any indecent matter the publication of which would be calculated to injure public morals, or

(b) any indecent medical, surgical or physiological details the publication of which would be calculated to injure public morals.

Section 15 says that an offence is punishable by a fine of up to £500 and/or up to six months imprisonment (which could include hard labour). In light of current debates about ISP and website operator liability for online content, it is interesting to note that section 15 specifically provided that the liability for the offence extended to proprietors, editors, publishers and “master printers”.

So, when was it repealed? It wasn’t. Sections 14(1) and 15 remain on the books.

According to Keating, Boyd’s case was the first prosecution of this type and was described by the trial judge as being exactly the type of case the law was introduced to deal with. One can only hope that it remains in force due to oversight rather than principle.

Dr Keating says that the maximum fine of £500 in section 15 would, in today’s money, be £22,000 (I am assuming he was referring to sterling). The Fines Act 2010 means that the offence is now subject to a Class A fine, currently up to €5,000.

I’m not aware of any more recent prosecutions but in 1953 Joseph Blowick TD was asking the then Minister for Justice Gerald Boland whether he had submitted a newspaper report on the murder of a judge‘s daughter in Northern Ireland to the Attorney General with a view to having it prosecuted under section 15.

Surely the Minister will agree that the publication of the sordid details referred to in the particular paragraph should not go at least without protest from the Minister provided that he is not statutorily debarred from making a protest to the Censorship Board? In the interests of the clean journalism practised in this country, very laudably practised I must say, surely the Minister should not allow the publication of sordid details like these to pass.

The Minister informed Mr Blowick that his officials had considered the publication but did not believe it could have been calculated to injure public morals.

It is difficult to see how the prohibition on publication is compatible with the Constitution or the European Convention on Human Rights. Even if freedom of expression were not an issue, the prohibition itself refers to both “indecent matter” which would be defined quite differently today than in 1929. Another difficulty, as was the case with Mr Blowick’s complaint in 1953, would be in proving that the publication was “calculated to injure public morals”. It is a mystery how Mr Boyd was found to have done so in 1929.

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