Monday, April 22, 2019

On the Israel Folau hysteria

There’s nothing left to be said about the Israel Folau affair, but I’m going to say it anyway.

■ The outrage is confected. People had the choice to either take notice of Folau or ignore him. They chose the former, presumably because it gives them an excuse to display their fury. This is the zeitgeist; the spirit of the times. By taking notice of Folau, and by parading their virtuous indignation in countless social media posts and commentaries in mainstream media, they are giving his beliefs far wider circulation than they would otherwise have had. They are therefore complicit in spreading the harm that they claim to be concerned about. This was perfectly illustrated by a commentator over the weekend who wrote that we should ignore Folau, but then contradicted his own sensible observation by devoting an entire column to him. It makes no sense.

■ If what Folau said in his Instagram post is preposterous, as all his critics say, why dignify it by taking him seriously? That makes no sense either.

■ Folau is said to be quoting the Old Testament prophet Leviticus. His views can thus easily be ridiculed as primitive biblical fundamentalism – the sort of thing that the loving, forgiving Christ of the New Testament would never have endorsed, and therefore not to be taken seriously. But Folau’s post was based on a letter from Paul to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 6-9). In other words it’s entirely in line with mainstream Christian belief – or at least mainstream Christian belief as it was generally understood until relatively recently (and still is, in many Pasifika communities). In other words, what Folau is saying is consistent with beliefs that formed the basis of Western civilisation. Seen in that context, it’s not quite the crazy, extremist fringe opinion that it’s characterised as.

■ What’s more, being a committed Christian, Folau presumably believes it’s his God-given obligation to do whatever he can to save other souls by spreading the gospel message. It might not make sense to the rest of us in an overwhelmingly secular society, but that doesn’t free him from what he would see as his duty.

■ As is obvious from all the uproar, Folau’s position is a deeply unpopular one. But since when was it forbidden to express unpopular opinions? The barrage of opprobrium that Folau has brought down on himself sends a clear signal that while we theoretically enjoy the right of free speech, fear of the baying mob will deter all but the most determined from expressing unfashionable thoughts. It’s an ominous pointer to where the pending review of so-called hate speech might lead us.

■ None of the above should be taken as suggesting that Rugby Australia has no legal right to terminate Folau’s contract. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me that if he undertook to refrain from making such statements, then he has to live with the consequences. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried about the climate of censoriousness that now prevails in the sporting and corporate worlds or about the enforcement of secular orthodoxy, which is no less threatening than the religious kind.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Horses and bikes

Cycling on country roads in the Wairarapa, I occasionally encounter people on horseback. I’m always aware of the risk that a horse will be spooked in these situations, but I’ve never been entirely sure how best to avoid it.

When cyclist and rider are approaching each other, horse and rider can see you coming and have time to react. Common sense dictates that you slow down and allow the horse plenty of room (i.e. move to the other side of the road if possible). But what if you’re approaching from behind and neither horse nor rider knows you’re there?

That happened to me this morning on a quiet country road west of Masterton. I’d exchanged greetings with the female rider on the outward leg of my ride (it’s a dead-end road) and encountered them again from behind as I was riding back home.

I adopted the same approach as usual, slowing right down and moving to the far side of the road. But the horse was spooked when it saw me out of the corner of its eye and the rider got a fright too. It took her a moment or two to get her mount back under control.

I apologised and explained that I would have called out as I approached, except that I thought the sudden sound of a voice might be enough in itself to startle a horse. But she said that’s what I should do in future, so I will.

I’ve since found this advice from Cycling UK and the British Horse Society, which only last year launched a joint campaign dealing with this issue:

Horses can react quickly when startled, so cyclists should drop their pace and call out a greeting, giving the horse and rider time to react before overtaking wide and slow. By alerting the rider and horse to their presence, cyclists run less risk of the horse reacting, and reduce the risk of injury - not just to the rider and their horse, but also themselves.

I pass on this advice for the benefit of other bike riders who might find themselves in a similar situation. Fortunately the rider I met this morning appeared to be experienced and in control of her horse. The outcome could have been different had it been a novice.

Is this the man we want to shape our human rights policies?

(First published in The Dominion Post and, April 18.)

I did something a couple of weeks ago that I’ve never done before. I made a request under the Official Information Act.

I suppose it might be seen as shameful, as a journalist, to admit that I’ve never previously had recourse to the OIA, but there you are. I never felt I needed to.

My request was to Justice Minister Andrew Little and asked for information about the appointment of the Chief Human Rights Commissioner, Paul Hunt.

Hunt is in a powerful position to influence laws that could affect the quality of New Zealand democracy at its most fundamental level. We can assume that he will be very closely involved in the fast-tracked review of our “hate speech” laws, which has serious implications for freedom of expression.

Yet prior to his appointment last October, virtually no one in New Zealand, outside a narrow political and academic elite, had heard of him. Even now, he’s largely an unknown quantity. But what we do know about him isn’t reassuring.

Hunt is described as a New Zealand and British national, but he comes from a British academic background. He has made a career in the burgeoning international human rights industry.

His lengthy Wikipedia entry, clearly written by an admirer, describes him as a “human rights scholar-activist” and a professor of law at the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex. He has held senior appointments with the United Nations, including that of rapporteur on the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

“Rapporteur” is a fancy word for a UN official who checks to ensure that member countries measure up to the UN’s high expectations. Readers with long memories may recall that a UN rapporteur, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, was sent to New Zealand in 2005 and gave us a telling-off for our multiple human rights failings.

Countries represented on the UN commission that sent Stavenhagen here included Sudan, Zimbabwe, China and Cuba – nations internationally admired for their unstinting commitment to freedom.

Similarly, Hunt’s fellow rapporteurs 20 years ago included representatives from Russia, Belarus, Cameroon and Egypt, all of which are ranked as “not free” by the international organisation Freedom House. So we may be entitled to feel just a tiny bit sceptical about the credentials of UN officials professing to champion human rights.

But wait, there’s more. When Hunt wasn’t busy polishing his human rights credentials, he was dabbling in British politics.

To be precise, he contributed to a website called Left Foot Forward, which describes itself as “the home of political news and comment for progressives”. Hunt’s writing on social justice issues aligned closely with the policies of the Corbynite socialist (aka “progressive”) Left of the British Labour Party.

Last year, Hunt put himself forward for election to the party’s National Policy Forum. The aim was to “ensure Labour has an election-winning manifesto”. In a pamphlet, Hunt wrote that he could help strengthen and deliver Labour’s “exciting social policies”.

Of course he’s entitled to embrace whatever brand of politics he likes. But at the same time, we’re entitled to ask whether Hunt, a man steeped in British left-wing activism, is the right person to shape New Zealand’s human rights policies.

We’re also entitled to ask whether there was no suitably qualified candidate from a New Zealand background – someone with an intuitive understanding of New Zealand society and unencumbered by imported leftist ideology. This is one of the questions I’ve put to Little.

Many New Zealanders first heard of Hunt on the Tuesday following the Friday Christchurch mosque shootings, when he had an opinion article published on Stuff. In that article he warned of “violent, transnational, neo-fascist ideology” and issued a thinly disguised call for tougher hate speech laws.

He wrote passionately about the importance of protecting tolerance, diversity and equality, but strangely his polemic made no mention of one of the most fundamental human rights of all: freedom of expression.

Hunt certainly wasted no time seizing the moment. The opportunity was apparently too good to pass up. But New Zealanders might have been more impressed if he hadn’t so quickly rushed to judgment about what caused the shootings – which, after all, were perpetrated by someone from Australia – and deciding what, if anything, needs to be done to avoid a repetition.

No doubt Hunt’s CV ticked all the boxes for Labour and even more so for the Greens, but I wonder whether New Zealand First thought to challenge his appointment. The party’s supporters would surely have expected it to.

I also wonder whether the National Party raised even a squeak in protest. Probably not, since the Nats' election strategy for 2020 seems to consist of keeping their heads down and hoping not to be noticed.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Four wheels bad: why the public transport zealots hate private cars

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and, April 17.)

If you want a stark demonstration of the ideological divide between people who think the state knows what’s best for everyone and those who value personal choice, look no further than the private car.

People love cars for a whole lot of reasons, but their root appeal lies in the fact that they give us options. They enable us to make choices about where and when we travel, and with whom.

This enrages and frustrates ideologues who envision a Utopian collectivist society where such decisions are made by politicians and bureaucrats, supposedly for the common good.

The very existence of the private car is an affront to these zealots, because it prioritises individual autonomy over the ideal of a compliant society where people are made to do things their way.

Right now this conflict is being played out in the affluent Auckland beachside suburb of St Heliers, where planners from Auckland Transport are pushing an agenda that appears to have zero backing from locals.

The planners want to remove 40 car parks from the local shopping centre and install 13 raised pedestrian crossings. They also plan to impose a 30 kmh speed limit.

The ostensible reason is that there are too many accidents in the area: 39 between 2013 and 2017, according to Auckland Transport, including three serious injuries. But locals pooh-pooh this grim-sounding statistic, claiming that most of the reported incidents were minor and parking-related.

I believe the supposedly high crash rate is a smokescreen for the real motives of the planners, which are mostly ideological. They don’t like cars and they want to do whatever they can to deter people from using them. They think people should walk or take public transport or ride bikes and scooters.

Public transport in particular is central to their vision. But while we can all understand the benefits of a good public transport system, buses and trains can never replace the car.

That’s because the car confers the ability to go where you want when you want, via the route of your own choosing.  We know there are downsides to this freedom in the form of traffic congestion, accidents and carbon emissions, but society has decided that these are acceptable prices to pay in return for the autonomy that the car bestows.

There is a middle way here, and cities such as Auckland are slowly groping their way toward a balance between the freedom of the car and the efficiency of public transport. But it’s not happening fast enough for Greenies and ideologically driven planners. They want to bring coercion to bear. 

In their perfect universe we would all board buses and trains or ride bikes. But while this takes cars off the road, it can never meet people’s individual needs.

It just doesn’t suit most people to organise their lives around public transport timetables and fixed routes. They want the freedom to decide for themselves when it’s convenient to go to the supermarket, the movies, a restaurant, a sports event or a church service.

The planners and bureaucrats can’t accept this because it doesn’t conform to their notion of how society should function. And it doesn’t seem to matter to them that the people affected by their proposals – the local residents and business owners who pay their salaries – are united in opposition.

The planning zealots also seem pig-headedly blind to the reality that you can’t carry a week’s shopping home from the supermarket on a bike in the rain, no matter what the passionate cycling advocates say. Neither can septuagenarians, of whom there are a great many around St Heliers, be expected to walk or – still more improbably – ride a scooter to the local shopping centre to meet friends for a coffee.

This is of no concern to collectivist planners. They think people’s individual needs should be subordinate to the supposed greater good. Freedom of choice is anathema to those who think the perfect society is a tightly regulated one controlled by largely anonymous and unaccountable public officials. 

And that’s the other big issue here. Auckland Transport is officially described as a council-controlled organisation, but it’s clearly a misnomer. Elected councillors are often unaware of what their bureaucrats are doing and appear powerless to rein them in.

The lesson from Auckland is that as local government bureaucracies expand, they become ever more distant and aloof from the people they’re supposed to serve. 

The bureaucrats apparently don't even feel any obligation to explain themselves. When TVNZ's Seven Sharp asked for someone to come on the programme and talk about the traffic plan for St Heliers, AT initially agreed and then backed out. Their contempt for the public that they supposedly serve - or was it their inability to put forward a convincing case? - could hardly be clearer.

FOOTNOTE: After this column was submitted for publication, things got even worse. When a public meeting was held in St Heliers to protest at AT's plan (600 people turned up, indicating the depth of local feeling), AT declined to send a representative on the grotesquely implausible pretext that it might not be safe. There you have it: arrogance and cowardice in equal measure. What a contemptible lot. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Introducing my sister's debut novel

My sister Julia du Fresne (or Julie, as she’s known in the family) recently published her first novel, 'The Age for Love', which is available as an e-book.  I’m very happy to make this space available to her so that she can spread the word. The book is available from or for $2.99 (for a limited period only).


Sheela Tree is the “strange name, a name for keeping strangers company”, chosen for a career in theatre by Marie Cassegrain. Marie is the only daughter of Neils, a New Zealander of Danish Lutheran extraction, and Leila, also born in New Zealand but steeped in Irish Catholicism.

It’s a mix described by a prominent psychologist as a recipe for disaster, an opinion echoed by Sheela’s analyst Max Hatfield, “who thinks she’s just a lush”.

Her years of growing inside what amounts almost to a pale - a Catholic parish in a Hawke’s Bay town in the ’50s and a pre-Vatican II boarding school - are revealed during treatment in her 20s for drug and alcohol addiction.

The “strangers” she comes across include would-be thespian Barrie Gore (with whom she becomes only too familiar), whose father Cosmo is “chairman of the vestry at St Cuthbert’s and a pervert” and his mother Violet, “a collector, a bully and a snob”.

Mystic Graham Mikes reads Juvenal and experiences “divine dazes”; Patrick Blackmoor, director of the NZ Theatre Company, is “a pimp of the sophisticated kind”. We also meet Father Edmund, a monk much given to giggling; Xavier, a French set designer and “man of passions”, and Dr Grayson Lamb, who finds the patients he refers for illegal abortions in Christchurch “passive, even submissive”, and makes the most of the opportunities they afford.

Even Sheela’s family are strangers, or so they seem to “the broom brigade”, the shopkeepers and accountants of the Chamber of Commerce - and to the Power Board, Neils’ employer in “the quintessential Nazareth” of Potangotango.

Her mother’s forté is fainting, often rehearsed but sometimes not; her engineer father  might be described as charming, if that were “a word with currency in Potangotango”, while her difficult, disruptive brother Laurence is bipolar and bisexual.

The Catholic Church is examined at a time when, like bulimia and hate speech (not yet invented), there was no whiff of sex abuse.  A priest can be ‘fab’ or ‘choleric’, wear a roman collar and get away with it. Sex outside marriage is sinful – and indulged. “You knew people did it, and incredible though it seemed – imagine Mrs Redmond-Hogg, so thin and mild, or Mr Rozbicki with his gumboots, his accent and harelip – even Catholics did it.”

We glimpse New Zealand’s academia in the days of Roger Hall’s Middle-Age Spread and its runaway success; the city of Cologne during WWII, and the hidden life of a little NZ monastery.

Seen through the eyes of a family like the Cassegrains, small-town New Zealand in the ‘50s is anything but dull and grey, as that era is now said to be.

Incidents of a troubled childhood – one of which her mother forbids her to mention - prefigure a teenage pregnancy and illegal abortion. Years later, at the Mas de l’Ange, a commune in France frequented by theatre types and governed in the spirit of Eros by her lover Xavier, Sheela is confronted by a similar dilemma, this time resolved in that same spirit by Xavier, in the US.

But Sheela, who in New Zealand had barely registered the existence of a tangata whenua, is eventually surprised by a “yearning for something unique to Maori” which brings her home again, to the hill where her father had said the sun always came out, in “the most beautiful place in the world”.

Making a vineyard here, guided by the mystic Graham Mikes and an unlikely newcomer, Sheela finds the lives she had lost and new life for herself - but one which those earlier losses mean she may still lose.


Julia du Fresne attended Bill Manhire’s Short Fiction Workshop in its heyday, where her writing was compared favourably with poet Kate Camp’s and playwright Duncan Sarkies’.

“Forget the short story “,  said Manhire,”write the novel”.

So she did. Tucked into corners of her life, du Fresne having been surprised by fifth-time motherhood at age 46, it took her all of the 10 years which is the average gestation for a first novel.

Naturally, she submitted The Age for Love first to Bill Manhire, at Victoria University Press.  Manhire turned it down. Because, he said - although giving high praise to her writing - not many VUP readers would identify with “the distorted world-view” of the chief character. “Distorted”, that is, because Sheela is highly atypical of VUP heroines: as a cradle Catholic, in her 20s she becomes an apostate but  eventually is reconciled with the Church. In other words, politically it’s completely incorrect.

During the years of writing her MS was scrutinised, admired and cheered on by first cousin, short story giant and novelist Yvonne du Fresne. To du Fresne's knowledge The Age for Love is the first in the genre of literary fiction in New Zealand to examine the agonised issue of abortion, suppressed and kept sub rosa as it is by media, publishers and the writing fraternity, all seemingly dominated by ladies of the liberal left.

But just as The Age for Love was rejected by what du Fresne thinks must have been the very last of the shrinking list of print publishers, the first ‘indie’ ebook was launched on the internet.  With other demands on her time, especially now as a blogger on the causes and effects of the crisis in the Catholic Church, it’s taken her several more years to get to the launching pad.

So du Fresne believes that at age 73, she might be New Zealand’s oldest-ever  writer  to publish a debut novel in the genre of literary fiction.

Although graphically detailing abortion and its effects, The Age for Love is not a polemic. It may infuriate you, it may surprise you - and it may even make you laugh.


No one knew, at the Mas de l'Ange. And if they did would they care? At the Mas de l'Ange their common indifference was a construct of the utmost seriousness. At the Mas de l'Ange, there was nowhere for her to go but into the arms of an angel.

         She remembers screaming, as scarily demonstrated by Leila as a rational woman's first defence against any assailant (in high register to avoid damage to the vocal cords); she knows she screamed as she ran into the night, that starless European night which is never truly dark but always in some quarter illuminated by a baleful pall of electric and neon lighting. She remembers leaving the dining room that evening, closing the door quietly and carefully behind her before breaking into a run, before opening her mouth to scream, after Xavier had gone from the table between the grilled tuna and the cassoulet with Françoise, to take her as Sheela needed no telling, briefly to bed.

When an hour or so later Xavier found her and carried her back into the house, Francoise and Stan going by her pallor and lack of vital signs decided she was dead, but Xavier knew better and phoned for an ambulance. Soaked to the skin and hypothermic, she was unconscious only - as she would have preferred to remain.
“La betise,” he said. “She’ll survive.”
And she did - after a fashion. So did her child - for a time.

To buy The Age for Love, go to or

Author’s bio:

Julia du Fresne is a sometime journalist, painter and actor, lately an organist and still a passionate gardener, wife of Hamish Kynoch, mother of five adult children, grandmother of seven, fully-professed lay Carmelite and blogger at




Friday, April 12, 2019

Guess what? Hate speech can be punished using existing laws

The moron who shouted abuse at Muslim worshippers outside the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch on Wednesday now faces a possible prison sentence, and so he should.

Why the police officers stationed outside the mosque didn’t arrest this odious exhibitionist hoodlum immediately is a question only they can answer, but at least someone higher up later thought better of it.

Anyway, Daniel Nicholas Tuapawa has now pleaded guilty to a charge of behaving in an insulting manner likely to cause violence and has been remanded on bail for a pre-sentencing report. He says he has no recollection of the incident.

There’s scope for endless argument about the definition of hate speech, but even a free-speech advocate like me has no trouble deciding that someone who allegedly kicked photos of murdered Muslim worshippers while shouting “Fucking Muslims, they all need to get the fuck out of New Zealand” and “All Muslims are terrorists” – and this outside the mosque where more than 40 people were killed – has crossed the line.

The police who let him get away with it were just plain wrong to decide that he was simply exercising his right to free speech. They should have detained him straight away for a breach of the peace and left it to a court to decide.

But here’s the thing: the charge belatedly brought today shows that the police were able to deal with the offence using existing laws. The lesson is that notwithstanding all the squawking from the opportunistic neo-Marxist Left who insist we need special hate speech laws, there’s ample scope already for deterring people who behave in a threatening way toward minorities.

Friday, April 5, 2019

And in breaking news from Eketahuna ...

The Wairarapa Times-Age reports today that in response to concern about vehicles exceeding the speed limit through Eketahuna, two members of the Eketahuna Our Town Committee carried out tests with a speed gun supplied by the NZTA. "The test results showed that cars were not speeding through the town and that the fastest vehicle to pass through Eketahuna was a tractor."  This is my Story of the Week.

The enemies of free speech have seized the moment

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, April 4.)

Changes to the gun control laws are a mere trifle compared with what else might come down the legislative pipeline following the Christchurch mosque massacres.

There are an estimated 250,000 New Zealanders with a firearms licence. Of those, we can assume only a small proportion of gun enthusiasts will be directly affected by proposed changes covering military-style semi-automatic weapons.

Changes to what we can say, write, read and hear, on the other hand, could threaten the essential nature and quality of our democracy. Ultimately they would affect everyone. That’s why we should all be extremely uneasy about the pending review of laws governing so-called “hate speech”.

A review was due this year anyway, but Justice Minister Andrew Little says it will be fast-tracked following the Christchurch atrocities.

I don’t believe that Little is necessarily an enemy of free speech, but no one should be in any doubt that the climate is perversely ripe for a crackdown on freedom of expression.

Authoritarian ideologues on the far Left know that if there’s ever going to be a moment when New Zealanders can be persuaded to accept restrictions on what we can say, it’s now, when the country is looking for ways to atone for the appalling atrocities – although they were not perpetrated by us – on March 15.

Before that happens, we should insist on answers to some crucial questions. Here are a few:

■ In what way are existing “hate speech” laws inadequate? Respected legal academics point out that we already have laws that prohibit statements inciting racial disharmony or hostility against minorities. There is nothing to indicate these laws have failed. In fact they are rarely used, which suggests the problem is not as pressing as hate-speech lobbyists claim.

The Human Rights Commission is concerned that current laws cover race, colour and ethnicity but not religion, which means they don’t protect Muslims or other religious minorities. But that should be easily fixed without imposing wider restrictions on speech.  

■ How would tougher speech laws have prevented the killings? That isn’t clear. They might limit the rights of ordinary New Zealanders while having no effect on fanatics like the Christchurch shooter (who, we shouldn’t forget, was Australian). And they would risk driving potentially dangerous opinions underground, where they are harder to counter.

This latter point was made to me last year by Professor Paul Spoonley when I interviewed him for an article on “hate speech” in The Listener. Spoonley, an authority on extremism, questioned the need for tougher laws and described himself as an ardent proponent of free speech. He now seems to have had a change of heart – as he’s entitled to do, although it seems a sharp about-turn.

■ How is hate speech to be defined, especially when one person’s hate speech is another’s legitimate expression of opinion? And crucially, who will do the defining?

One person who can be expected to wield influence over the review is the Chief Human Rights Commissioner, Paul Hunt.

Never heard of him? No, many New Zealanders haven’t. He was appointed last October as part of a cleanout that followed a sexual harassment scandal at the Human Rights Commission.

Hunt was recruited from Britain. He is an academic, a human rights careerist and an activist whose adulatory entry in Wikipedia makes much of his work with the United Nations. He is also aligned with the Corbynite socialist Left of the British Labour Party.

Is he someone we should entrust with the job of influencing what New Zealanders can be permitted to read, hear and say? I don’t think so. Not for a moment.

■ Could a review result in police being given power to launch what would effectively be political prosecutions against people for saying the wrong things, as happens in Britain? That would be a radical extension of police powers and one that New Zealanders must oppose.

■ Most important, how is the notion of hate speech to be reconciled with freedom of expression – a fundamental tenet of democracy, and a right guaranteed to New Zealanders under the Bill of Rights Act?

New Zealand is internationally admired as a liberal, open democracy. We pride ourselves on respecting freedom of religion, and never more so than in the weeks since the Christchurch shootings.

Freedom of speech is part of the same bundle of rights, but paradoxically we are now being told that one freedom must be restricted to protect another. It doesn’t add up.

The enemies of free speech want to contain political debate within narrow parameters dictated by them, and are prepared to exploit a tragedy to achieve that goal. They must not be allowed to get away with it.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

There's no reason why free speech can't be civil

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and on, April 3.)

Some good has come out of the awful events in Christchurch on March 15.

Ordinary New Zealanders came together in an overwhelming display of support for the victims and their families – confirming that, contrary to inflammatory statements by a couple of Green Party politicians, ours is fundamentally a decent society. That was a big plus.

In the wake of the shootings there was also a general recognition that ethnic minorities are an integral part of the New Zealand community; that they have a right to be here and to follow their chosen faiths without hindrance, even when some aspects of those faiths may be at odds with the views of the liberal, secular mainstream. Another plus.

A further consequence of the Christchurch shootings was that many of us became more conscious of the ways in which we unthinkingly perpetuate racial stereotypes – for example, by making jokes about the supposed characteristics of ethnic minorities. Even when no malice is intended, jokes about race can have the effect of magnifying potentially negative perceptions of “otherness”.

These are all changes for the better, but March 15 brought about another significant outcome that can only be positive. 

As New Zealand recoiled in shock and anguish at the violent deaths of 50 innocent people, attention focused on the role of so-called social media in promoting hatred and division.

Not for the first time, Facebook – the platform used by the Christchurch shooter to live-stream his monstrous act – was squarely in the frame. But whereas Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet behemoth has sometimes given the impression of being largely indifferent to the harm it causes, and so powerful as to be virtually untouchable, this time it was shamed into taking at least token action.

Whether Facebook’s newly announced ban on content promoting “white nationalism and separatism” will be effectively enforced remains to be seen. Many commentators are sceptical – understandably so, given Facebook’s record.

But in the meantime, there have been important changes much closer to home. New Zealand’s biggest digital news platform, Stuff, and the long-established Kiwiblog have both announced long-overdue changes to their comments policies. It’s no coincidence that this happened so soon after the Christchurch atrocities, which can at least partly be blamed on the proliferation of hateful online rhetoric.

Comment sections, for those unfamiliar with them, are spaces where readers can express their own thoughts on whatever has been posted online.

In theory, comments are moderated – that is to say, someone is supposed to check them to ensure they’re not defamatory or offensive. But even on a mainstream site like Stuff, which says it rejects roughly one-third of the comments submitted, the comments section is too often a toxic cesspit.

Kiwiblog, the website of conservative political pundit David Farrar, is even worse. The primary content, most of it written by Farrar himself, is usually reasoned and restrained, as you’d expect of someone who is naturally personable and polite. The Kiwiblog comments section, however, can be a fetid swamp.

I must declare an interest here, because I’ve been the target of savage attacks on both Stuff and Kiwiblog – as I am on other anti-social media platforms such as Twitter and Reddit, where I’ve been abused using language so inventive that it almost commands my admiration.

Someone on Reddit recently called me a “motherf**king odious s**tgibbon”, which even I have to admit has a certain vigorous ring to it. 

The common denominator here is anonymity. As long as people are allowed to hide behind pseudonyms, as the most rancid commenters do, then they feel emboldened to say whatever they like.

Sociologists call it disinhibition – a lack of restraint and a disregard for social convention. It happens because these commenters feel safe behind their online identities with their idiotic cryptic names.

Who knows what these fearless keyboard warriors would be like if they had to identify themselves? It wouldn’t surprise me if they were as meek as lambs.

Newspapers learned decades ago that the quality and tone of letters to the editor improved overnight once writers were required to provide a name and address. It’s a great shame Stuff didn’t adopt a similar policy online, but I guess it reasoned that people would be less likely to post comments if they had to name themselves.

Now the site has made changes aimed at cutting out “comment pollution” and Kiwiblog has done much the same. Farrar has written an admirable exposition of what’s acceptable, what’s not, and why. 

Eyebrows will be raised at Stuff's decision to place certain hot-button issues - such as 1080, immigration and fluoride - off-limits to commenters altogether, but otherwise both sites' moves should be welcomed. After all, there's no reason why free speech shouldn't be exercised in a civil and respectful way.

Monday, April 1, 2019

The attack on free speech: important update

I've put this message from the Free Speech Coalition on my blog because I believe it's a matter of the utmost importance. I've contributed and I urge others to as well.

“Never waste a good crisis” is attributed to Churchill, referring to the political activist’s opportunity to panic people during a crisis into accepting changes they would otherwise reject. The enemies of free speech have it front of mind. Claiming compassion, they’ve seized the Christchurch attacks as a licence to attack free speech rights. Without the slightest evidence they are linking the massacre in the public mind with free speech rights, or free speech supporters (like us).
Meanwhile, the Government is setting dangerous precedents as it urges censorship (see below).
Political leaders may be well-intentioned. Most will be genuinely anxious about further hurt to victims. They want to represent our horror. But it is easy for politicians to make grand gestures. Few countries and people fail to share genuine horror and sympathy. But such political statements often prove to be hollow. The short-lived “We are Charlie Hebdo” unity in France after an attack on journalists who exercised free speech to criticise a religion, meant little a few months later when censorship was proposed for publications offensive to religion.
What has long distinguished New Zealand democracy has been calm resolution to hold to core values, and not be rattled by risk and the emotion of the moment. We are asking you to help defend that value, and our long-held commitment to free speech.
The Free Speech Coalition believes that our heritage, and true compassion, are best served by assuring all who live in New Zealand, not that they will be protected from unwelcome argument or criticism or social judgment, but that they will be protected from violence and coercion whatever their views and however unpopular they may be.
To date, we have seen little government interest in assuring us that New Zealanders will remain free to speak frankly, to debate and to criticise without threats from the state or privately. Instead, we see increasing signs of opportunist intention to use state power to suppress New Zealanders’ access to ideas that are not blessed by elite consensus.
While our court case with Auckland Council remains set down for September, it is clear we may have a bigger battle to fight in the meantime. Efforts to protect free speech are becoming more pressing and important.
The Free Speech Coalition is standing firm against knee-jerk Government censorship. Will you contribute to pushing back on the politicians now supporting activists who have long sought to suppress conversations they find unwelcome?

New Zealanders told we are not trusted to read the terrorist’s manifesto

To me the most vital part of freedom of speech is our right to receive and seek information. The speaker’s rights are essential but secondary.
That’s why I am putting so much time into working with the Free Speech Coalition. We’ve taken the principled position that no New Zealander should be at risk of going to jail for accessing the Christchurch terrorist’s manifesto. It is normal, and commendable, for people to seek their own understanding of the motivations behind the evil acts. It is prudent to mistrust the authorities in such matters. After all, they too may consider this a crisis and a national outpouring of emotion that they should not waste.
It is completely alien to our history and our democratic strength (as a self-ruling citizenry) to be told that we must rely on those in power to interpret what an evil person has written.
The Chief Censor’s office says we should not fear. He has power to release the manifesto to approved members of the media and academia. That shows an insufferable elevation of elite privilege, and lack of trust in ordinary New Zealanders.¶
Our efforts to challenge the Chief Censor have attached media attention here, and around the world. We are still waiting for the Chief Censor to legitimise access to the document. Without that can anyone in New Zealand discuss intelligently without breaking the law, the political claims now being made about the evil shooter, and what has influenced him?

The push for new ‘hate speech’ laws

Activists like Lizzie Marvelly are blaming hate speech, and even the concept of free speech, for the shootings. This has led Police Minister Stuart Nash to say he’s open to strengthening speech laws. On Saturday, reported:
Hate crime law review fast-tracked following Christchurch mosque shootings
Justice Minister Andrew Little is considering making hate crime an offence in the wake of the March 15 Christchurch terror attack.
[...] Little said he was fast-tracking a widespread review of New Zealand's existing hate speech legislation.
[...] "I certainly think that the laws dealing with what we call 'hate speech', and human rights law, are woefully inadequate," Little said.
New Zealand already has strong laws against the incitement of violence. Who is intended to define what counts as ‘hate’, and how many peaceful New Zealanders will find themselves targeted?
UK experience shows that so-called 'hate speech' laws can be effectively blasphemy laws in a new guise. They can be used to gag anyone expressing views a media pile-on considers unfashionable.
We will not roll over to those who try to suppress unwelcome views with the trite label ‘hate speech’. We will make sure that New Zealanders understand how ‘hate speech’ laws overseas have actually been used. Most recently UK  Police have arrived at homes to seize phones and computers of people who have been uncowed enough to criticise men being allowed into women’s toilets.

Our work relies on your support

Last year, the Free Speech Coalition exposed Massey University's chancellor, got Don Brash onto campus, and showed up Phil Goff for his dishonesty. Will you donate $500, $250, or even just $50 so we can continue?
We are up against activists like Lizzie Marvelly, politicians like Andrew Little, and academics like Massey’s Vice-Chancellor. Your support means the activists and politicians can’t push their anti-speech message without a fight.
Thank you for your support,

Stephen Franks