Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Not a good week for free speech

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, July 5).

New Zealand has been stricken by the most serious outbreak yet of the highly contagious condition I call acute sensitivity disorder.

Not all women were blinded by fury at what Alasdair Thompson said about menstruation affecting women's productivity. Some thought the outcry was grossly disproportionate to the supposed insult. But few people of either sex were prepared to stick up for Mr Thompson - not because they thought that what he said was indefensible, but because they were intimidated into silence by the howling of the lynch mob.

A high-profile Auckland businesswoman - a solo mother - told me she wanted to support Mr Thompson because she thought he had been unfairly pilloried, but she wouldn't take the risk of saying anything publicly.

That illustrates how easily free speech and public debate can be stifled when the vengeful mob takes over. This was Hitler's technique: to frighten opponents into submission with such an overwhelming show of force that no-one dared dissent. Mr Thompson was abandoned even by his spineless board of directors.

Worse still, elements of the media were complicit in this, stoking the flames of outrage and orchestrating the vilification of a man whose worst sin seems to be that he sometimes shoots his mouth off.

Many female journalists couldn't see past their own indignation. The professional obligation to report the issue fairly and dispassionately was discarded.

TV3 in particular savaged and mocked Mr Thompson, jettisoning all pretence of neutrality and abandoning the once-sacrosanct principle of separating reportage from opinion. Not a pretty sight.

I wonder how many of Mr Thompson's attackers - including a former prime minister who apparently suffers from the delusion that she's still the Queen Bee - took the trouble to watch the unedited version of his 28-minute interview with Mihingarangi Forbes from Campbell Live, in which he attempted to clarify his views on the disparity between men's and women's pay rates. (You needed to watch the whole thing online because TV3 broadcast only four minutes that showed Mr Thompson reacting to provocation by a reporter whose interest was solely in what he had said about women's periods.)

Nothing Mr Thompson said was belittling to women. He didn't say men were better workers (quite the contrary, in fact), and there was nothing to suggest that he thought the 12 per cent pay disparity between the sexes was a desirable state of affairs.

Much of what he said simply reflected the reality of the employment market: for example, that women are more likely than men to take time off when children are sick, and that many women's careers are interrupted by motherhood, with a consequent impact on their earning potential.

The worst he can be accused of is that he made a careless generalisation in the initial radio discussion and didn't have facts to support it. But he was howled down so deafeningly that public figures in future will think very carefully before expressing a view on anything, and good people who might otherwise be tempted to enter public life may decide it's just not worth the grief.

All of which is good for the control freaks who want to dictate what we think and say, but bad for democracy.

* * *

THE irony is that by the end of the week, much of the heat had been taken off Mr Thompson and the Employers & Manufacturers Association (Northern) by another ugly display of bullying that frightened two book chains into declaring they won't stock Ian Wishart's book about Macsyna King and her part in the death of the Kahui twins.

This edges us even closer to Nazism, which was ruthlessly efficient at discouraging people from reading things that those in power didn't like.

There is some frighteningly muddled thinking going on here. Boycotting Wishart's book won't bring back the Kahui twins, and it won't remove the stain left on the soul of the country by their deaths. Neither will a boycott prevent any more abused children from dying.

But if there's even a remote chance that the book will shed a chink of light on the circumstances that led the Kahui babies to die, and therefore help us understand how these things happen, then society stands to gain from its publication.

It has been said in defence of Paper Plus and The Warehouse that booksellers make decisions every week about what books to stock and what not to stock. True - but in this case the decision not to sell the book has been made for fear of a consumer backlash, which makes it an act of moral cowardice. It can't be because the two chains disapprove of the content, because no-one has seen it yet.

This raises the interesting question of whether booksellers, as disseminators of information in a liberal democracy, have special obligations to society that don't apply to other retailers.

All things considered, not a good week for freedom of speech.


The probligo said...

It really is tiring that so many people miss the point of all this.

Thomson was free to speak as he did - no one tried to stop him.

Wishart is free to publish anything he likes.

The point being missed is that one has to be prepared to accept the consequences of others disagreeing with you.

Case in point - are you suggesting that it should be compulsory for bookstores to have Wishart's book on sale? And perhaps for people to buy it? They have exercised their right to determine what they will and will not sell.

Another case in point - are you suggesting that public disagreement should decrease with the perceived importance of the person exercising his or her right to free speech?

Yet another - should corner dairies be required to sell Kronic and its many equivalents simply because people might want to buy it?

Karl, Thompson said one or two, perhaps three rather injudicious things. His damage control after the fact was abysmal. Instead of compounding the totally fatuous nature of his statement, I think that most of the loud voices (including those of his employers) would have been silenced if he had admitted to a rash and unconsidered remark along with an undertaking that he would be a bit more careful with his wording (an absolute neccessity I would have thought)in future.

pdm said...

Hypocrisy is to the fore with nothing to be seen in the media about Katrina Bach allegedly verbally abusing and assaulting one of her staff.