How Penguin and Portnoy’s Complaint helped topple Australia’s book censorship system

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While many booksellers and publishers have battled Australia’s literary censors over the years, it took a secret mission to illegally publish a sexually explicit tale to bring the system to its knees.

Portnoy’s Complaint, a 1960s international bestseller by the late American author Philip Roth, details the sexual history of its protagonist, Alexander Portnoy, and includes graphic details of masturbation.

It wasn’t the first book to break our censorship laws.

But its distribution by Penguin Australia, then headed by John Michie, encouraged other publishers to challenge rules about what people could read in the final years the system was in place.

Penguin Australia's former managing director sitting at a desk in an office holding papers in his hands
John Michie challenged a system of censorship that predated federation.(Supplied)

“John Michie is quite a courageous fellow in this respect,” Patrick Mullins, a writer and academic at Canberra University, tells ABC RN’s Late Night Live.

“Michie had this wonderful idea that Penguin was going to publish work that would influence Australia’s culture, would help it wake up, in effect.”

A history of censorship

These days, it’s very rare for books to be banned by the Classification Review Board. But things were very different up until the 1970s.

Even before federation, customs officers prevented the importation of books by French realist writers like Balzac and DuPont and charged local booksellers for trying to distribute them.

Mr Mullins says Australia’s censorship system was grounded in the mindset that Australia needed to “populate or perish”, and to forge a national identity based on a single set of values and ideals on race, religion, and sexual morality.

Yellow background with the book title Portnoy's Complaint in black letters and author's name Philip Roth in red letters
Portnoy’s Complaint was an acclaimed bestseller in the US and UK, but was banned in Australia.(Wikimedia Commons)

“We needed to be white, we needed to be Christian, we needed to be observing Anglo-Saxon standards of reticence, which was even a phrase used by the Literary Censorship Board in the 1950s to describe its mission,” says Mr Mullins, author of The Trials of Portnoy.

Federal law allowed the Department of Customs to regulate all books entering Australia by ship or plane. Customs officers were tasked with preventing “obscene” literature from being imported into Australia, back when the local publishing industry was in its infancy.

“They could go through your suitcase and they could take out anything that was going to be emphasising sex or violence, that would be discussing seditious politics, or that might bring into contempt God and Jesus Christ,” Mr Mullins says.

State governments also prevented the “dissemination of obscene and indecent material”, giving police powers to seize books from stores, burn them, charge publishers, booksellers and writers.

“That’s how we wiped out, basically, the Australian-produced work that discussed sex or lampooned Christianity,” Mr Mullins says.

What is ‘obscene’?

Australia’s censorship system went further than the British system it was modelled on.

In England, Lord Chief Justice Alexander Cockburn ruled in 1868 that the legal test for obscenity was whether the material tended to “deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to immoral influences”.

“So it would apply to children, to women to people of the lower and working classes, the uneducated,” Mr Mullins says.

But when customs officers assessed the decency of the books, they used their personal beliefs to assess “what was usually considered objectionable in the household of the ordinary self-respecting citizen”.

“Given that the customs clerk was usually Catholic, and usually of the lower middle class, that led to a certain kind of view of what was going to be objectionable,” Mr Mullins says.

He says customs officers often went beyond the standards for obscenity as they evolved under Australian law.

“In 1888 [NSW Supreme Court] Justice Windeyer actually ruled that information about contraceptives was not obscene, was not illegal. And yet customs clerks for a long time continued to snatch this stuff away under the reasoning that it was obscene because it interfered with natural functions of the body,” Mr Mullins says.

Until 1958 the list of banned books was itself a secret, he says.

“The secrecy is one of the big reasons why censorship was able to thrive for so long,” he says.

“Attempts to wrestle with it … were always made really difficult by these by the secret work of customs clerks banning stuff without question, without oversight, and at times going against what was already written down in law.”

A system ‘coming under sustained attack’

From the 1930s to the 1950s, a wide range of material was censored for being potentially seditious, from modernist novels, like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, to international fashion magazines, like Harper’s Bazaar and Cosmopolitan, which published articles about the Easter Rebellion in Ireland during World War I.

“The government was really quite afraid of the influence of this literature might have the idea that it might kind of provoke uprisings and promote problems,” Mr Mullins says.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that the Literary Censorship Board began to relax its decisions. Bans on books like Lolita and Lady Chatterley’s Lover were reversed during this time, and student journalists at university newspapers like UNSW’s Tharunka challenged state censors by publishing sexual material.

“The system was coming under really sustained attack. And some of those moves to liberalise and set free some books were in response to that,” Mr Mullins says.

After the NSW government refused to prosecute one of the publishers of Lady Chatterley’s Lover with a crime because of his celebrated service as a WWII veteran, the federal parliament established a uniform censorship agreement with the state governments in 1968.

This required all states to follow suit if one state banned a particular book. It also obliged all state governments to prosecute a publisher if the ban was broken.

The push for Portnoy

Telegram from Penguin's managing director John Michie to Customs Minister announcing they will publish banned novel
In 1970, John Michie sent the customs minister a telegram announcing that Penguin was going to publish Portnoy’s Complaint.(National Archives of Australia NAA: A425)

In 1969 the Australian government had announced it would ban the critically acclaimed Portnoy’s Complaint, which had sold 400,000 copies in the UK and the US its first year, eclipsing The Godfather.

Penguin’s non-fiction editor John Hooker came up with the idea to sell the book, at the risk of fines and jail time.

The publisher was fighting for the future of its industry, Mr Mullins says, with concerns about the censors’ limiting role and “idealistic about the role literature could play”.

In 1970, Penguin’s finance manager, Peter Froelich, arranged for 75,000 copies of the book to be printed in Australia illegally by Halstead Press, then owned by Gordon Barton.

“Barton’s view was that they had to do it, that their reputation would suffer if they allowed the police to tell them what books they printed and what books they did not,” Mr Mullins says.

Mr Froelich also planned for the books to be quickly distributed from the secret warehouse where they were printed to stores around Australia, to make sure they weren’t seized by police.

Michie confessed his plans to then-customs minister Don Chipp, who threatened to jail him, though the minister was a strong advocate for the reform of censorship laws.

But 75,000 copies were printed anyway. They sold out within two weeks.

“This is at a time when selling 10,000 copies of a book in a year is enough to make it a bestseller,” Mr Mullins says.

“But of course the police swoop as well.”

The Department of Customs sent a telegram announcing the removal of the ban on Portnoy’s Complaint in 1971. (National Archives of Australia 72/4378)

Ultimately, Penguin was only convicted of breaching censorship laws in Victoria and fined $104.50, with 300 copies of the book seized by Victoria Police.

The South Australian government refused to prosecute over the distribution of the book, defying the uniform censorship agreement reached with the other states and Federal Parliament just years earlier.

The move influenced other publishers such as Angus and Robertson to publish banned books in defiance of the censorship system, before the Whitlam Labor government dismantled the censorship system after it took office in 1972.

“I think in many ways, this moment where they publish Portnoy’s Complaint and set up this showdown with a censorship system is so much to their credit,” Mr Mullins says of the trio of managers at Penguin.

“They really are giants for this and they deserve to be known as heroes.”

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