March 16, 2016
Why is the Irish censorship board banning its first obscene book in 18 years?
by Liam O’Brien
Ireland’s Censorship of Publications Board is back at work! The controversial censoring body has issued their first full ban on a book due to obscene content in almost two decades.
Michael Barry reported for the Irish Times:
The book, The Raped Little Runaway, by Jean Martin, was deemed “indecent or obscene” by the board. The decision prohibits the sale and distribution of the book in the State.
The Censorship of Publications Board voted to prohibit the book at a meeting on March 1st. The ban came into effect on Friday, when it was published in Iris Oifigiúil, the official State gazette.
Wayne O’Connor over at the Irish Independent delves a little deeper into the offending book’s content:
The book was brought to the attention of the board who banned it because it contains numerous explicit descriptions of the rape of a child.
Board chairman Shane McCarthy said the decision was unanimous among the five board members.
“It was the only resort,” said Mr. McCarthy. “We either ban it or allow it. It isn’t like a film where you can put in an age restriction. It is black or white.”
He said there were only a small number of books that were banned in Ireland and said that prohibitions were an extreme and rare occurrence.
O’Connor also notes that while the Board has not banned a book or magazine for obscenity in 18 years, they have banned books for advocating abortion, which remains illegal in Ireland. This would appear to be just the latest development in Ireland’s longstanding culture of censorship. However, beneath the surface, this story gets much stranger.
The Board is what’s pejoratively referred to in UK and Irish politics as a “quango,” which sounds like some sort of camelid but is actually an initialism for “Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organization.” Quangos receive funding from the government but operate independently, and they’re often used as political punching bags in legislative arguments against government waste.
The Board consists of five members appointed by the Minister of Justice, and its protocols are enigmatic to say the least. Originally given the much-cooler name of “Committee on Evil Literature,” it was officially expanded and renamed by the 1929 Censorship of Publications Act, which decreed that the Board would have to consider “every complaint referred to them.”
However, the Board’s power has been expanded through subsequent acts passed over the years, and can still currently ban the sale of all editions of any book ruled “indecent or obscene” for the a period of twelve years. And while the cultural climate of Ireland has become more liberal over the last century, the body’s previous rulings remain in effect, including nearly 600 total books and magazines, many now defunct and out of print, all with lifetime bans. The Board’s seeming lack of discretion, combined with the fact that their sessions are closed to the public, has led to widespread criticism that the Board has long outlasted its usefulness or efficiency.
There was even a bill considered by the Irish legislature in 2013 that set out to abolish the Board altogether on just these grounds. And at first, this seemed doable; the Board hadn’t banned a book in a decade, and hadn’t even been convened for five years. But the bill ground to a halt in 2014 once the Board was formed to its current iteration, in order to consider a complaint about an allegedly obscene novel written by Alan Shatter, who was, believe it or not, the then-current Minister of Justice himself. The novel, Laura, centers on a politician who tries to force his mistress to have an abortion, and it features a particularly terrible sex scene.
The idea of a government-enabled censoring body being used as a political and cultural weapon against the exact person whose job it is to appoint the body sounds like almost too perfect an example of bureaucratic absurdity. But does the Board’s most recent decision make any more sense? Yes, the title and content of The Raped Little Runaway sound repugnant and offensive. But this is, at best, a weirdly (or not-so-weirdly) arbitrary book on which to spend government resources taking out of circulation.
Here’s where it gets even stranger. The government lists the book’s publisher as an American company, STAR Distributors Ltd. STAR appears to have a nearly nonexistent Internet presence, which in the book trade indicates that the business is likely closed. The Raped Little Runaway has no entries on Amazon, and the lone entry that comes up on Abebooks.com is credited to a “Sherry Murkin.” Yes, it’s entirely possible that this book was published under multiple pseudonyms, but even so, why is the Irish government funding the ban of a book that is, by all accounts, incredibly hard to find in the first place? Doesn’t the Board’s acknowledgment of the book therefore make it hugely more visible than it would have been otherwise? And why do governments keep doing this? The answer may lie in the fascinating history of STAR, which includes a few familiar figures.
STAR, which operated out of an office on 150 Lafayette Street in New York, was originally founded as a pinup magazine publisher before being acquired in the late 1960s by Robert “DB” DiBernardo. DiBernardo was a prominent member of the Gambino crime family and a major figure in the mob-controlled porn industry of the 1970s, and he turned the company into a hardcore porn publisher that the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team referred to as “one of the largest distributors of pornographic material in the country.“ They apparently also did a brisk trade in erotica, with multiple imprints focused on sadism and torture.
In 1977, STAR was implicated in a state probe into child pornography and organized crime, though they remained in business. In 1984, they made headlines again after it came to light that they had rented warehouse space in a building managed by a company owned by John Vaccaro, the husband of then-vice-presidential-nominee Geraldine Ferraro. The association with STAR and the mob, combined with other accusations about her finances, were used as political ammunition against her during her subsequent failed Senate bid.
DiBernardo was murdered by the mob in 1986, and the business lost its lease one year later. There doesn’t appear to be any further news in the life of the company after this date, and Abebooks.com lists the most recent STAR publications as 2003 (though, eerily, a “Star Distributors Ltd” that was classified by Yelp as a “Print Media” company recently occupied space right around the corner from Melville House; it’s not at all clear if this was the same company.) STAR’s disappearance can likely be chalked up to its troubled history, as well as the Internet’s takeover of porn production, but the question remains: how the hell did they run afoul of the Irish government as many times as they did?
The Board lists more than a dozen STAR titles on their banned publication list as of 2007, all of them out of print. It could mean that by virtue of STAR’s sheer volume of output, financed with Mob support, some of their products made their way to Ireland and the Board is still dutifully making its way through a severe backlog of ban-worthy titles.
But if that’s what’s happening with The Raped Little Runaway, it’s not their official story. In his response to my question as to why and why the Board chose Martin’s book now, Daniel Sugrue of the Irish Film Classification Office (they do for films what the Board does for print matter) said:
With regards to your query on The Raped Little Runaway, the Censorship of Publications Board considered this book following a complaint. This book had not been previously considered by the Board as no complaint had previously been received.
So, if this is true, who would complain about a nigh-on impossible-to-find book of smut? Is it possible that someone(s) is trolling the Board or making a political point by sending them complaint after complaint about obscure porn, every single one of which the Board is legally required to consider?
If that’s the case, it’s working. This new ban is nothing but a resoundingly empty gesture made by an increasingly useless quango, and if any specific instance of wasted time and money should provide justification for abolishing the Board and its many numbskulled decisions, let it be this.
Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.