The head of the Christian lobby group Family First said he never demanded the award-winning book Into the River be banned.

Bob McCoskrie told Radio NZ this morning that Family First had wanted censors to reinstate the book's R14 rating, which had been removed last month, and require that the book carry a warning sticker.

YOUR SAY: Should Into the River be banned?

The censor has slapped an interim ban on the book, the first such ban in New Zealand in 22 years, until a final decision is made, possibly at the end of the month.

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Mr Dawe said he was "blindsided" by the ban, which was sought by lobby group Family First after deputy chief censor Nic McCully removed a previous R14 restriction on the book on August 14, making it totally unrestricted.

Mr McCoskrie said: "We're not calling for it to be banned and we never have," Family First national director Bob McCoskrie told Radio New Zealand. We'd just like an age restriction in the same way that a movie has an R16 or R18.

"If you want to blame anyone for the book being banned, blame the censor's office because they went against due process."

He added: "It has sexually explicit material and it's a book that's got the c-word nine times, the f-word 17 times and s-h-i-t 16 times."

'Unhelpful precedent'

Bernard Beckett, who was chief judge of the Book Awards the year Into the River was named Book of the Year, said the rating Family First wanted was an "incredibly unhelpful precedent".

He told Radio NZ: "Something we're trying to do is increase literacy, especially amongst young males from educational deprived backgrounds, and we're looking for material to engage with them. As soon as you put R14 on it, you have to ask who are the people who have heft in society to go through the process and get their value system imposed."

A rating system would be a "logistical nightmare", he said.

Labour's arts and culture spokeswoman Jacinda Ardern says those responsible for classifying books need to be very careful before censoring books in New Zealand and should err on the side of freedom of speech over a ban.

Into the River: the first book to be banned in New Zealand in 22 years. Photo / Supplied
Into the River: the first book to be banned in New Zealand in 22 years. Photo / Supplied

Ms Ardern had not read Mr Dawe's book and a final decision on the book was still being considered. "I think there is a reason for us to be concerned. It's something that's happened very rarely in New Zealand and for good reason. So we should be somewhat alarmed about this decision."

She said caution was needed when it comes to curtailing freedom of speech. "We haven't seen that in New Zealand for more than a couple of decades."

She said it was "counter intuitive" that a book which had won a NZ Book Award would be banned.

"We would be very concerned about books that should be enjoyed for having been awarded from being stopped from being put into our schools or stopping children reading those books. So I hope this isn't a final decision."

Education Minister Hekia Parata said she did not know the detail of the decision, but it should be up to parents to decide what books were suitable for their children. "I absolutely believe in the right of choice and the choice to read a book - yes."

Attorney General Chris Finlayson says the Government should consider reviewing the law around the classification of books after the interim ban on Ted Dawe's teenage novel Into the River.

Mr Finlayson said the decision to ban the sale and supply of the book for teenagers until a review of its classification was done seemed an "extreme step."

"Banning books is not really the sort of thing we do in New Zealand is it? I would think if that's the case maybe it's time we looked at the legislation because that does seem an extreme step. I don't know a thing about the book but interim banning raises some pretty interesting questions about freedom of speech and freedom of expression."

As Attorney-General, Mr Finlayson is charged with Bill of Rights Act vetting of legislation. He said banning a book risked have a "chilling effect" on freedom of expression.

Told the book was aimed at teens and included drug use and swearing he said "oh well, that's the way the world is these days isn't it?" Asked if he had read any edgy books when at secondary school, Mr Finlayson quipped "the Book of the Apocalypse."

Will I get burnt next?

Into the River's author Ted Dawe said yesterday he was "blindsided" by the ban.

"It's extraordinary," Mr Dawe said. "I've had quite a few emails from people who share that sense of outrage. Do we live in a country where books get banned? I'll get burnt next."

He accused Mr McCoskrie and the president of the Film and Literature Board of Review, Dr Don Mathieson, of overstepping the rules of a democratic society.

"Those two individuals are united in their determination to establish this as a line that will not be crossed. I feel they have wildly overstepped the whole mechanism of looking at art and making judgments on it," he said.

"New Zealand has taken a giant step towards that sort of regulatory moralising that I think most people felt we had left far in our past."

He said it was not easy to write a book that teenagers would want to read, or to get it published.

"People involved with teaching boys, especially English teachers, know how important books like this are because they speak to boys about the things that other boys' books don't have the firepower or the vitality to do effectively," he said.

"The book was never about sex and drugs, it was always about bullying people and how that damages people for the rest of their lives. That is really the underlying theme, everything else is just the trappings that go along with that."

"Thinking back to the classic school texts, Catcher in the Rye started it all," he said. "A Clockwork Orange is as brutal as they come, and is frequently taught in senior school."

Libraries Association director Joanna Matthew said Auckland Libraries submitted a British graphic novel Lost Girls to the censor this year because it included images of sexual activity by children. The censor rated it R18.

But she said libraries generally supported freedom of speech and saw the ban on Into The River as "a tragedy".

"If we censor literature that talks frankly about some of these issues, then I think we run the risk of burying them," she said.

"We would be much more effective as a society if we worked to counter the problems that the book articulates rather than trying to restrict the book."

The NZ Booksellers Association has placed a notice on its website warning bookshops that they face fines of up to $3000 for an individual or $10,000 for a business if they supply the book.

However the book is still on sale on Amazon at US$24.99 in paperback or US$9.99 on Kindle.