Thursday, June 29, 2017

Is Sky TV's golden era coming to an end?

(A slightly abbreviated version of this column was first published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail on June 28.)

I’m feeling very on-trend at the moment, to use a fashionable expression.

I recently watched series one of the TV drama Twin Peaks for the first time. It originally screened on American television in 1990.

Okay, so it took me a while to get around to seeing it. Geoffrey Palmer was prime minister when it was made and Mikhail Gorbachev was in charge of the Soviet Union. But hey, you can’t rush into these things.

I now feel I’ve eliminated an embarrassing deficit in my cultural education, because Twin Peaks is one of those programmes that everyone who professes to be even vaguely hip has seen so many times that they can mouth the script in sync with the actors.

It’s commonly described as a cult series, which is usually a polite way of saying that a handful of arty critics raved but it was a commercial flop.

In fact series one was a ratings success. According to Wikipedia, it’s commonly ranked – in America, anyway – as one of the 50 greatest TV dramas of all time. It was only when the producers tried to stretch an already thin plot into a second series that it failed.

Twin Peaks is ostensibly a murder mystery, but to use that description is like saying Moby-Dick is a story about a fishing trip. The programme’s appeal hinges not on its storyline but on deliciously quirky characters and surreal situations.

For the 50-minute running time of each episode, you basically enter an alternative universe – the fictional logging town of Twin Peaks in Washington State – where almost everyone is seriously weird and nothing makes much sense.

The hunt for a sex killer soon becomes almost incidental as the series veers into a soap opera-style exploration of the convoluted lives and relationships of the town’s inhabitants. For all that, it’s strangely – you might almost say hypnotically – riveting.

Alas for the producers, quirky characters and surreal situations can get you only so far. By series two the weaknesses in the meandering plot were becoming all too obvious. I gave it away after just two episodes.

I see that a third series recently premiered in the United States, 27 years after the first. It includes several of the original cast members. One critic described it as “weird and creepy and slow”. So… not much has changed, then.

Why am I writing about Twin Peaks? Simply because the fact that I was able to watch it on demand, streaming it on my “smart” TV nearly three decades after it was first screened, illustrates the revolutionary changes in our TV viewing patterns.

Historically, television viewing in New Zealand can be roughly divided into three phases.

For the first 15 years, from 1960-1975, we watched one state-owned channel. Television then was a great social unifier, because everyone watched the same programmes – Peyton Place, Bonanza, Coronation Street, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Studio One, Star Trek – and talked about them the next day.   

Even when a second channel was introduced, it was still state-owned. There was more choice but the diet remained essentially the same.

It wasn’t until broadcasting was deregulated by the Labour government in 1989 that a private competitor, TV3, entered the market. But the real game-changer was the arrival of pay television with the launch in 1990 of Sky TV.

Sky TV was a perfect example of what is now known as a disrupter, using technology and a new business model to lure viewers away from the traditional free-to-air channels.

Its arrival heralded the end of television as an agent of social cohesion, because viewers were now presented with a wide range of viewing options. The days when virtually the entire population watched the same programmes were gone.

Crucial to Sky’s strategy was the acquisition of monopoly rights to screen major sporting events – a licence to print money in a sports-mad country. In this Sky was spectacularly successful, enabling it to become a dominant player in television – this, despite the company making virtually no contribution to the production of domestic programmes other than live sport.

Sky’s control of sport signalled the death of the egalitarian ethos by which all New Zealanders could share in the triumphs and disappointments of the country’s major teams.

There were now two New Zealands – the one that paid to watch the All Blacks or the Black Caps on Sky, and the rest.  People without Sky no longer feel the same engagement with national teams because they don’t get to see them play. I could trip over Sam Cane or Ryan Crotty in the street tomorrow and not recognise them.

But perhaps Sky’s golden run is coming to an end, because an even more potent disrupter has entered the market. I watched Twin Peaks on Lightbox and immediately before that I enjoyed Fargo – the TV series, not the movie – on Netflix.

I can stream television programmes using these services at whatever time of day I like and there are no commercial interruptions. Streaming elevates freedom of choice to a whole new level, and suddenly Sky TV is looking very much like yesterday’s technology. How very sad.

Sky still controls major sport, of course, and showed its arrogance and greed on Saturday night by broadcasting a commercial when we should have heard the British national anthem before the Eden Park rugby test.

I will dance on Sky’s grave, metaphorically speaking, if and when it loses its stranglehold.  It would be poetic justice if it was brought down by the same process of technological disruption that enabled it to thrive in the first place.

FOOTNOTE: Alert readers will notice an error in this column. I was wrong about Sky playing a commercial over the "British national anthem" before Saturday night's rugby test. A moment's thought would have told me they couldn't play God Save the Queen with Irishmen in the Lions side. Several commenters on Stuff certainly let me know about my mistake. I've left it in as a lesson to myself to be more careful in future.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

New Zealand's accountability deficit

(First published in The Dominion Post, June 16.)

When did you last hear of a judge resigning because honour demanded it, or to atone for a catastrophic error?

The most recent example I can think of is former District Court judge Robert Hesketh, who did the honourable thing by quitting in 1997 after pleading guilty to charges arising from fraudulent expense claims.

His fellow judge Martin Beattie faced similar charges but chose to fight them and was acquitted.

Beattie claimed $10,000 worth of expenses for hotel accommodation when in fact he had stayed in his own home. A jury appeared to accept Beattie’s defence that he thought he was entitled to claim the expenses and had never been told otherwise.

I believe the court of public opinion reached its own verdict, and it wasn’t the one the jury arrived at.

Beattie subsequently paid the money back, which seemed an acknowledgement that he wasn’t entitled to it in the first place, but he refused to resign despite being asked to do so by then Justice Minister Doug Graham. 

He was subsequently moved from frontline court duties, taking up an appointment as the Accident Compensation Appeal Authority. But he retained his status, and presumably his judge’s salary too.

Move on now to 2011 and the tragic murder of Christie Marceau. All murders are tragic but this one especially so, because it was committed by a man who was out on bail when clearly he represented a threat to the 18-year-old North Shore woman.

The police knew Christie was at risk from Akshay Chand and so, apparently, did Judge Barbara Morris, who had twice ruled that he should be kept behind bars for an earlier attack on the same victim.

But then Chand came before Judge David McNaughton. He wrote a letter to the judge saying he was remorseful and wanted to apologise. He later told police that his sole purpose in writing the letter was to get bail so he could murder Christie.

The ruse worked. The judge bailed Chand to live in a house just 300 metres from his intended victim – this, despite Christie’s own plea that he be kept behind bars.

Thirty-two days later Christie was dead – stabbed repeatedly in a frenzied attack by Chand, who was subsequently found not guilty on the grounds of insanity.  

Clearly, judges are human and prone to error. We can't expect them to have  the wisdom of Solomon. But some mistakes have such profoundly catastrophic consequences that the public is entitled to expect an act of atonement.

In the Christie Marceau case, a contributory factor was the apparent failure to include on Chand’s court file a record of Judge Morris’s earlier decisions to refuse bail and her cautionary comments about Chand’s mental state. Even so, there was ample evidence to justify him being kept in custody.

Once the enormity of Judge McNaughton’s mistake became obvious, it would have been fitting for him to step down. Some of us might wonder how he managed to sleep at night, let alone continue to sit on the Bench. But he did.

If it’s true that Judge Morris’s notes were never included on Chand’s court file, I also wonder whether the clerk responsible for the oversight ever faced any consequences – which brings me to the point of this column.

From top to bottom, New Zealand seems to suffer from an accountability deficit – a stubborn unwillingness by people in positions of public responsibility to fall on their swords when they are found to have behaved either badly or incompetently.

We’ve been reminded of McNaughton’s terrible mistake this week because an inquest is finally being conducted into Christie Marceau’s death. But there have been plenty of other examples.

In this column several weeks ago I referred to the e-coli outbreak caused by contaminated tap water in Havelock North. No heads rolled, despite 5000 people getting sick.

Pike River? The same. The collapse of the CTV building in Christchurch? Ditto.

The builders of leaky homes have largely escaped punishment and no one seems to carry the can when supposedly state-of-the-art, earthquake-resistant buildings are rendered uninhabitable while much older buildings are undamaged.

Only this week it was revealed that the Ministry of Social Development spent nearly $300,000 of our money in legal costs on what was clearly a butt-covering exercise after a woman killed herself following an accusation of benefit fraud which was found to be unsubstantiated.

One thing we do very well in this country, besides rugby, is evasion of responsibility. We get reports and inquiries, hollow apologies and hand-wringing ... and then it's back to business as usual.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The politicisation of food

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, June 14.)

It seems nothing is safe from the scourge of identity politics.

If you haven’t heard of identity politics, it’s the fashionable ideology that breaks society down into minority groups which identify themselves according to their point of difference, whether it be based on culture, ethnicity, disability, sexual preference or whatever.  Often these groups define themselves not only as different, but as disadvantaged and even oppressed

It’s from identity politics that we get the notion of cultural appropriation – the dogma that each culture retains exclusive rights of ownership over its own traditions, and that anyone else who tries to imitate or borrow them is guilty of theft.

This is surely one of the more spectacularly wrong-headed manifestations of political correctness.

It provides perfect fuel for displays of liberal white middle-class guilt. An example was the woman who protested at the inclusion, in last year’s Christchurch Christmas parade, of a float with a “culturally insensitive” Native American theme.

I wrote a column at the time pointing out that if we carried the idea of cultural appropriation to its extreme, we probably wouldn’t celebrate Christmas at all. Because virtually everything we associate with Christmas – the music, the food, the decorations, even Father Christmas himself – is borrowed from other cultures.

It doesn’t seem to matter that supposed acts of “cultural appropriation” are often a mark of respect or admiration for the culture that’s supposedly being stolen. What seems to be considered intolerable is the thought that someone might make money from it.

As with many other fashionable political causes, whether it’s global warming or anti-liquor hysteria, the underlying theme is often hostility to capitalism.

But when people start talking about this thing called cultural appropriation, they’re wading into very muddy water. Because virtually everything we do – the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the music we listen to, the books we read – involves cultural appropriation, often on a large scale. This is truer than ever in a globalised world where cultural boundaries are becoming irretrievably blurred.

As the American novelist Lionel Shriver recently wrote: “Cultures blend and overlap and can’t be fenced.”

Who decides when it’s not acceptable to emulate aspects of another culture? This seems to depend on whoever decides to feel aggrieved.

Nothing illustrates the inconsistencies and contradictions in this debate better than food, which has become –perhaps inevitably – the latest ideological battleground in the culture wars.

A recent BBC radio documentary questioned whether it was acceptable for people to cook food from another culture. It went on to ask whether it was okay to profit from such food, or to tamper with recipes so that the dishes were no longer wholly authentic. The implication seemed to be that this was all, in varying degrees, cultural appropriation.

But even the most unexciting food has been culturally appropriated somewhere along the line. Porridge, for example, came from the Scots.

If the enforcers of culinary correctness had their way, presumably the dozens of New Zealand fish and chip shops owned by Greeks and Yugoslavs – and now increasingly by Asians – would be outlawed, since fish and chips are a traditional English dish. Chips, come to that, are a French invention. See how crazy it could get?

A black American chef and food writer on the BBC programme acknowledged that “cultural diffusion” was a natural and healthy process in a multicultural society. He probably had to say that, since he wouldn't have got far as a professional chef without cooking a lot of exotic (i.e. non-American) dishes. So when does it become “appropriation”, which he clearly regarded as repugnant?

Alas, he never really explained. Appropriation, he said, was about “asserting power and control”. He seemed to be saying that cultural borrowing was okay up to the point where white people made money from it, but his reasoning was vague and woolly.  

I suppose, for argument’s sake, you could understand him resenting the fact that a big corporation such as KFC profits from fried chicken, a dish once associated with poor blacks, but he didn’t explain how black Americans were disadvantaged by it. That’s surely the test.

And if a middle-class white celebrity chef such as Jamie Oliver or Rick Stein devotes a TV series or book to the food of another country and puts his own spin on the recipes, so what? It creates a wider awareness of that cuisine and thereby opens up opportunities for more authentic cooks. That’s got to be a win-win.

Ultimately the key point is this: civilisation is built on cultural appropriation.  Every society absorbs influences from other cultures, often cherry-picking the best of what’s on offer. 

This process cuts both ways, because disadvantaged societies learn from more advanced ones. It’s not all about exploitation.

Those who seek to outlaw what they arbitrarily define as cultural appropriation would condemn us to a monochromatic, one-dimensional world in which we would all want to kill ourselves out of sheer boredom – and one in which New Zealanders would be reduced to eating tinned spaghetti on toast, since it’s one of the very few dishes we can call our own.

On second thoughts, scratch that. Spaghetti’s Italian. 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

So now it's the job of the police to enforce monopoly business interests

One of the most extraordinary pieces of New Zealand legislation enacted in my lifetime was the Major Events Management Act 2007 – a bullying, control-freak statute passed to oblige powerful commercial sport sponsors. You could almost describe it as fascist in the way it uses the power of the state to crush any impertinent gnat who threatens to upset the cosy collusion between government and big business.

The Act sets out, in nit-picking detail, the hoops that organisers of designated major sports events – such as the current Lions tour – must jump through to ensure the precious interests of sponsors are protected. Among other things it enables the creation of “clean zones” where anything resembling non-approved advertising must be wiped from the public’s field of vision for the duration of the event. Anyone who contaminates a clean zone – which includes transport routes to and from venues – risks a criminal conviction and a fine of up to $150,000. The Act also outlaws “ambush marketing” – the term used for attempts by non-approved companies to muscle in on the event.   

The laws are policed by “enforcement officers” (even the language has a vaguely fascist tone) who are empowered to execute search warrants and issue “cease and desist” orders.

The Act was passed in preparation for the Rugby World Cup in 2011 and has always struck me as a case of massive – you might say oppressive – overkill. At best, it sits very uneasily with the right of free speech. But it’s consistent with the gradual process by which wealthy broadcasters and corporate interests have stolen sport from its rightful owners, the people.

Why am I bringing up this subject? Because today’s Dominion Post reports that the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, working in concert with the police, has seized goods from people allegedly selling unauthorised merchandise before Lions matches in Christchurch and Dunedin. Since when, you might wonder, has it been the function of the New Zealand police to enforce the monopoly interests of big corporations? Since the politicians passed the Major Events Management Act, that’s when. But that doesn’t make it right.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

I wrote this 11 years ago, and it's pretty much all still true

In a very distant past life I played bass guitar in the house band at Wellington’s fabled Majestic Cabaret. One of the two resident singers there was the gorgeous Marise McDonald. (The other was Alan Galbraith, later to become a record producer of note and now a maker of hand-crafted “cigar box” guitars.) Marise’s younger brother Nick was a journalist in Masterton to whom I devoted the following tribute in 2006, when I was providing occasional commentaries on Radio NZ’s Mediawatch. I dug it out a few days ago after Marise mentioned to me that she hadn’t heard it. Reading it again after all this time, it occurred to me that apart from the references to Palestinian elections and Don Brash’s speech to the Orewa Rotary Club, it’s all still true and relevant today. In fact if there’s going to be a revival of the newspaper industry, it could well start at the local level.

I recently attended the funeral of a journalist whose name would be unfamiliar to most of this programme’s listeners. He was Nick McDonald, managing editor of a community paper called the Wairarapa News, who died suddenly aged only 51.

His funeral took place in the Masterton Town Hall, and it was full. Journalists may rate poorly in public opinion surveys, but here was one who obviously enjoyed the respect and affection of his fellow citizens.

I had never met Nick but I attended his funeral because I admired a whimsical column he wrote called Take It Easy – a column that I thought deserved a bigger audience. On occasions I emailed him to say how much I had enjoyed his latest piece, and I always received a courteous reply.

But there were lots of things I didn’t know about Nick until I heard the tributes at his funeral service. I learned from these that he came to journalism relatively late in life after a few false starts in other careers. I learned that he started out by acquiring an old printing press and producing a news sheet for local rugby fans. That got him a part-time job writing feature stories for the Wairarapa Times-Age and eventually he became a full-time reporter, rising to become deputy chief reporter of that paper before taking over as editor of the Wairarapa News, a weekly paper that goes into virtually every home in the region.

I also learned that he had become a bit of an identity through his calls to a local talkback station, where he assumed the persona of a hard-case bucolic character named Larry and soon acquired a cult following.

He was obviously a man who made a deep impact on his local community, both as a personality and as a journalist.

Why am I telling you this? Because Nick McDonald represented a breed of journalists who deserve more recognition than they get. I refer to those who toil in the unglamorous field of community and suburban newspapers – those papers that turn up free in your letterbox every week.

For many young reporters, a stint on a community paper is a stepping stone to bigger things – a rite of passage that has to be endured before they have enough experience to step up to a bigger paper. But Nick appeared to have found his niche in community papers and seemed content doing what he was doing – reporting the generally unexciting community news of a provincial town, while providing himself with an outlet for his writing skills through his column. He was clearly capable of bigger things, but as far as I can tell he had no aspirations to wider fame. 

There is a temptation to regard journalists like Nick as being well down the food chain in the journalistic eco-system. They’re not national names and they don’t break sensational stories that destabilise governments. But no journalists are closer to their communities or their readers. And as much as we focus on the big national and international stories of the day, local news is often the news that impacts most directly on the reader. The local cinema that’s being restored; the street that’s being closed to traffic for a day to accommodate a bike race; the couple around the corner who’ve just celebrated their golden wedding; the heroic effort of the local rugby team against a vastly superior visiting side – no stories are closer to the daily lives of people in a small community.

It’s in the community paper that people read about people they know and institutions that they are intimately familiar with.

It’s these stories, in fact, that help create a sense of community. The early European settlers recognised this, which is why newspapers were often among the first businesses to be set up in newly established towns.

If anything, the role of the community journalist has taken on new importance as mainstream news outlets have withdrawn from the field of local news. Television has almost abandoned the local story, and under-resourced radio stations make only a token stab at local bulletins. Even daily newspapers no longer have the space or resources to cover the minutiae of community life that once filled their pages.

That leaves the field to the community paper – and here’s an interesting thing. While many daily newspapers struggle to maintain readers in the face of consumer indifference and aggressive competition from other news outlets, circulation figures show that most community papers have posted healthy gains in recent years.

What does this tell us? I think it confirms that for many people, news about an increase in local swimming pool fees, or an outbreak of vandalism in the local park, is at least as relevant to their daily lives as Orewa 3 or the Palestinian elections. I know of many people who don’t bother to pick up a daily paper or watch the TV news, but who will always skim through the community paper.

Pat Booth, arguably New Zealand’s most distinguished journalist, chose to spend the last few years of his career on suburban papers. He points out that in our bigger cities, some of these papers now engage in quite sharp, aggressive reporting on important local issues – and the politician who ignores them does so at his or her peril, given that they reach hundreds of thousands of readers.

Yet as Pat points out, it’s still the local paper that people will go to if they’ve lost their dog, or want to save a notable tree that the council has decreed must come down.

There’s no glamour in reporting these stories, but someone has to do it. And the job demands a particular type of journalist.

It has to be someone who doesn’t feel it’s demeaning to report what some would consider to be parish-pump news. To some extent it requires a suspension of ego, since the journalist must accept that he or she is never to be going to be famous and still less rich. And it helps if the journalist actually belongs to the community he or she is reporting and understands its concerns and interests.

Nick McDonald seems to have been that sort of person. By all accounts he was an everyman who loved his family, who enjoyed a beer and a punt on the horses, but who retained a sharp and perceptive eye for everything that was going on around him.

And here’s something else that I think is significant about Nick. He had no formal training in journalism, but learned by doing it. That was once the norm in the news media, before we became obsessed with tertiary courses and qualifications.

I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that such courses be dismantled and the qualifications abolished. But the question should be asked: was Nick poorer as a journalist for having no formal qualifications? Unquestionably I think the answer must be no. He reminded us that there is, in fact, no great mystique in journalism that can be learned only in lecture rooms. That’s a relatively recent misconception.

An inquiring mind, a degree of tenacity, a facility with words and a commitment to report honestly and impartially – these are some of the key attributes of a good journalist. Some journalists never acquire them, no matter what courses they complete, and some possess them naturally. Nick McDonald was clearly in the latter category, and I believe it’s essential that the news media always keeps the door open for roughies like him.

And I don’t use that word “roughies” in a pejorative sense, but in the horse racing sense – to indicate someone who’s a bit of an outsider. I’d like to think that Nick, as a keen student of the turf, would take that as a compliment.

Monday, June 5, 2017

"Most trusted" - except, perhaps, by many of their own people

(First published in The Dominion Post, June 2.)

I recently wrote a column in this space about the St John Ambulance organisation. It was prompted by a Consumer survey of emergency survival kits which rated the one marketed by St John as the worst of those tested. Ironically, it didn’t include a first aid kit.

I wondered how an organisation with St John’s proud history and reputation could have exposed itself to such public embarrassment, and I attempted to answer my own question by speculating that it had been corporatised – and in the process, become disconnected from its roots.

I pointed out that it wouldn’t be the only worthy organisation to have succumbed to the ruinous cult of managerialism, with all the attendant trappings of bloated hierarchical structures, marketing and PR flannel, expense accounts and flatulent corporate jargon.

The column prompted a mixed reaction – one predictable, the other unexpected.  I’ll deal with the predictable one first.

Andrew Boyd, St John’s central region general manager, wrote a defensive letter to the paper pointing out, among other things, that a St John first aid kit was available as an extra to the $200 “Emergency Grab Kit”.

This seemed to confirm the suggestion by a disgruntled St John veteran – one of many who contacted me – that the omission of a first aid kit, thus requiring that it be purchased separately, was a calculated commercial decision.

“Profit first!” as one commenter on the Stuff website put it. “St John are more interested in growing the wealth of the organisation.”

As someone else pointed out, the fact that St John sold first aid kits separately was no excuse for not including one in its emergency kit. This person also said you’d assume the kit would include emergency rations and water – but the bright sparks in the St John marketing department apparently didn’t think of that.

Boyd’s letter went on to say that “All St John products are regularly clinically assessed”. Not very rigorously, obviously, or the emergency kit wouldn’t have got such a shellacking from Consumer.

In fact Boyd went on to reveal the kit had been removed from sale while it was “re-evaluated”. What’s that, if not an admission that it was a crock?

But there’s a much bigger issue here, which brings me to the unexpected reaction.

My column uncorked a bottle of disenchantment, cynicism and distrust among the frontline rank and file who represent, for most New Zealanders, the public face of St John. One insider said I had described the organisation “to a T”.

Both in online comments and emails to me directly, St John volunteers expressed dismay at the way the organisation has changed: at the proliferation of middle managers and the layers of sclerotic bureaucracy that get in the way of good people trying to do something they love for the good of the community. These are all hallmarks of corporatisation.

Even more striking was a very real fear that internal critics of the organisation would face repercussions if they were identified. “St John is very touchy about bad publicity,” said one.

That’s another defining characteristic of corporatisation: an obsession with public image and a desperate desire to prevent negative messages getting out. Journalists dealing with corporate communications flunkies see this every day.

Boyd pointed out in his letter that St John was recently voted New Zealand’s Most Trusted Charity in a Reader’s Digest survey, but this didn’t impress one St John stalwart. “He appears to be basking in the ‘most trusted’ reputation when this is actually provided by those of us who work at the coalface – the people who work in the community who the public see and relate to,” this long-serving volunteer wrote in an email.

I received many other comments in a similar vein. One commenter on Stuff said St John had become top-heavy and added: “The petty attitude towards the coalface staff is what gets me. Management think they ARE St John.”

Either the St John hierarchy doesn’t know about this underbelly of discontent, or chooses to ignore it. Either way, something’s wrong.

Is it unfair to single St John out for criticism? Perhaps. Several people named other not-for-profit organisations that have been transformed by corporatisation, and not in a good way. One commenter suggested the problem lies partly with the demands imposed by charities legislation.

Perhaps St John just had the misfortune to come to public attention because of a spectacularly incompetent marketing exercise. But clearly its bosses have some repair work to do. 

Friday, June 2, 2017

The crisis in the print media - and what's at stake

My apologies to anyone who followed a link here expecting to see my Listener article on the crisis in the print media. After posting it, I realised I might be depriving the Listener of revenue from anyone wanting to read it behind their paywall. And since they paid for me to write the story, that wouldn't be fair, so I've taken it down.  You can see from this that I'm still getting to grips with the digital environment ...

The totalitarianism that taints public debate

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, May 31.)

Free speech is a cornerstone of democracy, but we can never take it for granted. On polarising issues, its limits are constantly tested.

Dr Lance O’Sullivan got up on stage at a Kaitaia screening of the controversial anti-vaccination documentary Vaxxed last week and told the audience that their attendance would cause babies to die.

O’Sullivan is a much admired doctor in Northland – he was New Zealander of the Year in 2014 – and an impassioned champion of vaccination programmes.

The makers of Vaxxed claim the vaccine that immunises children against measles, mumps and rubella can cause autism – a theory discredited by medical authorities. O’Sullivan wanted the audience to know that he has held dying children who would have survived had they been immunised.

He subsequently explained to John Campbell of Radio New Zealand that he was worried that immunisation rates in Northland were declining because of erroneous anti-vaccine propaganda – hence his decision to speak at the screening of Vaxxed.

When I first heard a radio report about the Kaitaia incident, I wondered whether O’Sullivan had stepped out of line. The report seemed to suggest that he wanted to prevent people seeing the film.

That would have been an unacceptable intrusion on freedom of expression. Section 14 of the Bill of Rights Act rightly protects the right to free speech, “including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form”.

The moment we start suppressing opinions, no matter how overwhelming the arguments against them may seem, we are on a slippery slope. The true test of free speech is our willingness to uphold the right of people to say things that we don’t like.

As the American political activist Noam Chomsky put it:“If you’re really in favour of free speech, then you’re in favour of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favour of free speech.” It's possibly the only thing Chomsky ever said that I agree with.

But when I watched a video of O’Sullivan speaking from the stage at Kaitaia, he didn’t appear to be making any attempt to stop people watching the film. He just wanted the audience to know that he believed Vaxxed was based on fraudulent misinformation. In other words he was asserting his own right to free speech.

He reportedly performed a haka, which seemed gratuitously confrontational, but otherwise he seemed calm and respectful. His statement to the audience that their presence would cause babies to die may have been a theatrical exaggeration, but you could see where he was coming from.

Unfortunately, O’Sullivan later spoiled it all by saying, in an interview with the Stuff website, that health professionals who reportedly attended the screening should be sacked.

This time he did step over the line. It’s not for O’Sullivan to decide what opinions other health professionals should hold, or be exposed to.

At this point, his legitimate espousal of the pro-immunisation viewpoint transmuted into an authoritarian insistence that anyone who didn’t fall into line with the officially “correct” view should be punished.

This is bullying. It produces the type of cowed, conformist groupthink that we see at its most extreme in places like North Korea.

In any case, who knows what motives other health professionals might have had for attending the screening? It could be argued that it’s their duty to acquaint themselves with false propaganda so that they are then in a better position to counter it when advising patients. “Know your enemy,” the saying goes. 

But the key point is this: liberal democracies are based on a contest of ideas, and we can have that contest only if competing ideas are publically weighed and debated. People can usually be trusted, when presented with the evidence, to figure out which argument is the correct one.

Stifling free speech by suggesting people should be sacked for deviating from the approved view is a denial of democracy and intellectual freedom. Unfortunately, however, it’s typical of the ideological totalitarianism that increasingly taints public debate – the more so since social media platforms made it easy to gang up on dissenters and intimidate them into silence.

We see this manifested in all sorts of ways. Climate change doubters are constantly shouted down on the spurious basis that “the science is settled” (it’s not). In Australia, family-owned brewery Coopers was recently subjected to an angry boycott simply because it sponsors the Bible Society, which opposes gay marriage.

Intolerance of dissent takes a variety of forms, but the ultimate aim is always the same: to silence the dissenters. I saw another example last week when Wellington’s Dominion Post published an article by former MP Gordon Copeland, a devout Christian and pro-lifer, urging that the principle of informed consent should be applied when a woman is considering an abortion - hardly a radical proposition when, as Copeland pointed out, informed consent has been entrenched in medical practice since the Cartwright inquiry of the 1980s.

It was a thoughtful, sympathetic and carefully argued piece that acknowledged the complexity of the abortion issue. But a letter in response, from an abortion rights activist, attacked Copeland’s article as a “paternalistic and sexist rant”. He had committed the ideological offence, as a male, of writing about abortion, which some feminists consider none of men’s business.

Whatever anyone thought about Copeland’s argument, there was no way his article could be described as a rant, which my dictionary defines as an angry tirade.

But the enforcers of ideological orthodoxy have little respect for semantic precision. If you want to disparage an opinion you don’t like, you label it a rant. We can add this to the repertoire of tactics used to deter anyone foolish enough to exercise their right of free expression. 

FOOTNOTE: This column was written before a hysterical row broke out in Australia over tennis legend Margaret Court's public opposition to same-sex marriage. Court's personal opinion, which she was perfectly entitled to express in a free society, was seen as so threatening to the prevailing ideology that people wanted her name removed from Melbourne's Margaret Court Arena. What next, I wonder - public book burnings?