Once again we see how fragile free speech really is in this supposedly liberal democracy. The lesson from Alisdair Thompson’s crucifixion in the media this week couldn’t be clearer: express an opinion at your peril.
In the deafening barrage of righteous indignation that followed Thompson’s comment that some women take sick leave when they have their periods, everyone was too busy taking offence to take much notice of what he actually said or the context in which he mentioned it.
The reference to periods came in a radio interview prompted by Green MP Catherine Delahunty’s bill that would require employers to provide information about pay rates, therefore testing whether there is sex discrimination in the workplace. Thompson’s main concern was that this would burden business with more bureaucracy and compliance costs.
Toward the end of the interview, on Mike Hosking’s NewstalkZB breakfast show, Thompson asked rhetorically: “Who takes most sick leave? Women do.” Some had to look after children at home, he said; others had a “sick problem” once a month.
He went on to say it wasn’t their fault, and perhaps there were issues they needed to sort out with their partners.
Not that anything mattered after he mentioned menstruation. At that point rational debate ceased as elements of the media, abandoning all semblance of objectivity, lashed themselves into a shark-like feeding frenzy.
It seems to me that Thompson can be accused of two things. He expressed an opinion – clearly a very dangerous thing to do these days – and he appeared to base it on information from his own workplace, which may or may not be indicative of the wider situation.
Hardly hanging offences, you might think. Freedom of speech includes the right to get things wrong, if indeed Thompson was wrong (we don’t really know). Yet in the ensuing hysteria, the CEO of the Employers and Manufacturers Association (Northern) was pilloried as if he were Pol Pot, Hitler and Idi Amin collectively reincarnated
Thompson subsequently tried to salvage things in a 28-minute interview with Mihingarangi Forbes from TV3’s Campbell Live. Faint chance. Once television has decided it wants your bloodied head on a spike, you’re a goner.
Among other things, Thompson tried to clarify his position by saying that women take more sick leave than men (a point that appears to be confirmed by public service figures, though the difference isn’t huge). They take time off to look after kids. Some have period problems. Some take maternity leave and may not come back to work for several years.
He mentioned all this in an attempt to explain why women’s productivity, which is central to the setting of pay rates, may be lower than men’s – which in turn might explain why women on average get paid 12 percent less. For the life of me, I can’t see why any of these comments should be considered exceptionable. He was simply saying that women employees have to deal with issues that don’t confront men, and that this can interfere with their careers and therefore prevent them from reaching the same pay levels as men. That seems to me to be a simple statement of fact.
Crucially, Thompson didn’t say he approved of this state of affairs, or that it was the fault of women. On the contrary, he emphatically declared himself to be in favour of equal pay for equal productivity, equal opportunity and flexible workplaces. He believed pay should be based on productivity, not sex, and he added that he thought the total productivity of women, taking into account their home life as well as their paid work, was higher than that of most men. He agreed it was odd that there are so many female schoolteachers yet so few female principals (a point raised by Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly on the Hosking programme, though it wasn’t directly related to the issue under discussion). He even saw merit in the objective of Delahunty’s bill, if not its remedy. These don’t strike me as the views of a sexist dinosaur, to use the two terms of abuse repeatedly hurled at Thompson in recent days.
Just as crucially, Thompson acknowledged that there was a pay gap between women and men. The real issue, he said, was whether the Delahunty bill would fix it, and British experience with similar legislation suggested it wouldn’t.
This was an attempt to bring the discussion back to where it had started, but Thompson might as well have been speaking in Swahili for all the notice Forbes took. She seemed interested only in skewering him over his comment about periods. (That, and whining repeatedly about her heroic efforts as a working mother with three children. At times you got the impression the interview was all about her.)
I’ve seen some outrageous TV interviews but this was one of the worst. Most of the time Forbes gave the impression she either wasn’t listening, didn’t understand what Thompson was saying or wasn’t interested. Perhaps all three.
It reached a point of almost comical absurdity when Forbes suggested Thompson should resign “because you cannot represent half of the population”, adding: “You certainly don’t represent me very well.” Thompson’s response – that his job was actually to represent employers – seemed lost on his dim-witted, self-absorbed interrogator, as was just about everything else he said.
Media coverage of the Campbell Live interview made much of the fact that at one point, Thompson stood up, walked over to Forbes and confronted her in what could have been interpreted as a a menacing manner. Shown in isolation, this certainly looked bad. What wasn’t clear was that Thompson was acting out of sheer frustration after spending 25 minutes trying to explain himself to someone who clearly paid no attention to anything he said. Watch the unexpurgated interview (it’s available at TV3 on Demand) and you’ll see what I mean.
If anything, Thompson was admirably restrained. I would have slung Forbes and her crew out of the office long before that point.
But perhaps Forbes shouldn’t be held solely to blame for her disgraceful performance. She was, after all, taking her cue from most of her colleagues in the electronic media, who jettisoned all pretence of balance, fairness and neutrality. When there’s a choice between playing sexual politics and observing professional journalistic standards, we now know which will win.
We also know what a media gang-up looks like, and it’s not an edifying spectacle. Want to stamp out New Zealand's bullying culture? Perhaps we could start here.
Watching TV3's highly partisan news coverage of the issue last night, I got the distinct feeling they won't rest until they can brandish Thompson's scalp. Signing off at the end of her item, the reporter said: "It's fair to say this is not the end of the debate." Yeah, right; I'm sure TV3 will see to that. It's a shame that a network that does so many things right should allow its professional judgment to lapse so badly on occasions like this.
But then it’s hard to identify anyone who emerges from the furore with any credit. I wonder how many of the illustrious public figures who lined up to condemn Thompson took the trouble to listen to what he said, in its entirety. Bugger all, I'd guess. Too busy being outraged.
Shame too on the business leaders who ran for cover or stayed silent when Thompson was being hung out to dry. Will the EMA cave in and sack him in response to the vengeful cries for blood? It will be a black day for business and for freedom of speech if they do.
Helen Kelly shrewdly made the most of the situation, playing on the EMA’s embarrassment in an obvious attempt to secure political leverage. Her father Pat, a union firebrand who died in 2004 and whose anniversary fell on Friday while the row was at its height, would have approved.
For his part, Thompson handled the affair clumsily. His first mistake was to panic and make what looked like an insincere apology. He shouldn’t have to apologise for a genuinely held view. Perhaps some nervous nellie in the EMA got in his ear and urged him to back down, but it only made things worse. Apologising doesn’t deter attackers – on the contrary, it encourages them because it makes the apologiser look weak and indecisive.
His performance led comedian Raybon Kan – described on this occasion as a media commentator – to suggest on Campbell Live that the entire affair was an ad for media trainers. But no amount of media training could prepare anyone to deal with the sort of vicious onslaught Thompson faced.
In the end we are all losers, because every time someone is publicly savaged for having the temerity to speak his or her mind, the rest of us take note and make a mental resolution to button our lips in future for fear for incurring similar punishment. How gratifying that would be for the control freaks and tut-tutters who want to banish all opinions that don’t conform with their own. And how ruinous for democracy.
Saddest of all, the very institution that should be protecting freedom of speech, the media, is busily imperilling it.