John Banks can be a hard man to defend, but defend him we must.
The former cabinet minister and mayor of Auckland has been banished in disgrace from radio station Magic Talk, where he was filling in for regular morning talkback host Peter Williams, after suggesting Maori were a Stone Age culture.
According to a report on the leftist news and commentary site The Spinoff, a caller identifying himself as Richard said Maori were genetically predisposed to crime, alcohol and educational under-performance. “Richard” said he was not interested in his children learning about Maoris’ Stone Age culture, to which Banks reportedly responded: “Your children need to get used to their Stone Age culture because if their Stone Age culture doesn’t change, these people will come through your bathroom window.”
The response was drearily predictable. Social media lynch mobs called for Banks’ head. Magic Talk advertisers Vodafone, Kiwibank and Spark virtually fell over each other in their eagerness to display their woke credentials by pulling their ads, while NZ Cricket joined the pile-on by threatening to review Magic Talk’s broadcast rights to Black Caps matches played in New Zealand.
I’m struggling to decide which was more objectionable: Banks’ statement or the nauseatingly sanctimonious platitudes from advertisers parading their commitment to “diversity and inclusion”.
Of course Banks issued the standard obligatory apology, in which he tried to shift responsibility for the furore onto his caller before acknowledging, almost as an afterthought, that he had made some negative generic comments about Maori “that could have been misconstrued as racist”.
None of this would have surprised anyone who has followed Banks’ turbulent career as a politician and radio host. He has a long history of running off at the mouth and making impulsive errors of judgment that he later had cause to regret. He seems unable to help himself. But Magic Talk management must have known this when they offered him the slot. They’re as culpable as he is.
The important question here is this: which poses the greater threat to our liberal, open democracy – Banks’ inflammatory statement, or the rush to shut him down?
He expressed a provocative opinion that’s possibly shared by some of his listeners. Yanking him off air doesn’t get rid of the opinion. On the contrary, it can only accentuate the perception that freedom of speech is under attack, and intensify the resentment of those who feel excluded from the public conversation.
To put it another way, we have far more to fear from the prigs and bigots trying to silence him than we do from Banks himself. We live in a robust democracy that has demonstrated over many decades that it’s perfectly capable of dealing in a civilised way with contentious opinions. The free exchange of ideas is how democratic societies evolve and advance. What has changed is not the existence of such ideas, but the frightening insistence that they be stifled.
This is happening with the connivance – indeed, encouragement – of virtue-signalling corporate advertisers, and more alarmingly with the enthusiastic backing of mainstream media outlets that should be manning the barricades in defence of free speech. The promiscuously loose use by reporters of subjective terms such as “racist”, a word for which there is no settled definition, is proof of the media’s abandonment of traditional journalistic principles.
Meanwhile, to their everlasting shame, gutless politicians, intimidated into silence by the venomous rhetoric of neo-Marxist activists, look the other way.
Both the range of subjects New Zealanders feel free to discuss, and the language they may use in discussing them, are being constantly narrowed down. George Orwell saw all this coming, but if he were still alive I don’t imagine he would derive any satisfaction from seeing how right he was.