[UPDATE: Media outlets are confirming today that Sean Plunket has left Magic Talk amid the familiar, ritualistic "I would like to thank Sean for his contribution to the station" bromides. Nothing in the Mediaworks statement allays the misgivings outlined in this piece.]
Where do I start? Okay, let’s begin with Sean Plunket.
Reports suggest the Magic Talk host has been, at the very least, put on gardening leave while his employers consider his future. This follows the sacking of John Banks for not challenging a caller who said Maori were a Stone Age people.
The self-anointed arbiters of what’s permissible on air, such as Duncan Greive of The Spinoff and Hayden Donnell of RNZ’s Mediawatch – both of whom are dancing, metaphorically speaking, on Banks’ grave – now assert the right to decide what line talkback hosts should take. Whatever this is, it’s not free speech.
Attacks on freedom of expression are coming from multiple directions: from a government that proposes to place new limits (conveniently vague at this stage, so as not to cause too much alarm) around what people may say on subjects such as race and religion; from woke vigilantes in mainstream and social media who campaign for the defenestration of non-woke broadcasters; and from cowed media bosses and corporate advertisers who show no commitment or loyalty to the values of the free, capitalist society in which they operate, and for whom defence of democratic values is less important than winning brownie points on left-leaning social media platforms.
It was inevitable that with Banks gone, the vigilantes would be emboldened to go after Plunket – not for anything he’s said or done lately, but for historical transgressions. The existence of even one right-wing talkback host is an affront to the avenging angels of wokedom, who won’t be content until ideological homogeneity applies across the entire media.
In Magic FM and its owner, Mediaworks, they picked a company that was unlikely to put up much of a fight in defence of free speech. Mediaworks’ television arm, Three, has long been captured by the woke left – a fact apparent to anyone watching Newshub’s 6pm News or The Project – and its radio holdings consist almost entirely of music stations. Plunket must feel very isolated and vulnerable.
And I’m sorry, but I have to take issue here with something David Cumin of the Free Speech Coalition said recently about the Banks sacking. Cumin rightly rebuked Vodafone, Spark and Kiwibank not only for pulling their advertising from Magic Talk but for threatening to use their commercial power to influence the station’s future choice of hosts. But he also said, of Banks’ firing: “On the face of it, this seems to be a private company making a choice about who it employs, which it has every right to do” (the italics are mine).
I agree only partly. Companies operating in the field of news and current affairs have a responsibility not shared by purveyors of other commodities. As shapers of public opinion and providers of information of vital public interest, the news media perform a role central to the functioning of democracy. This imposes obligations of fairness, accuracy and balance; but as long as we profess to be a free and open society, it also requires them to reflect the full spectrum of public opinion.
So while it may be true in a general sense that companies are entitled to employ whoever they like, in the news media this right is tempered by public interest considerations. Old-style media companies understood this and took their role very seriously; it was ingrained in the industry culture. I doubt that this remains true in 2021, when the traditional media business model has been blown to pieces and the focus is on survival.
Media companies must also be prepared to stand up to bullying advertisers, which brings me to a relevant anecdote. In the late 1980s, not long after I became editor of The Dominion, the chief executive of the newly corporatised Telecom – then the paper’s biggest advertiser – objected to the tone of the coverage his company was getting in our business pages and pulled all its ads. The boycott tore a gaping hole in our budget - this at a time when trading conditions were tough already - and caused the advertising manager to have conniptions. Pressure was applied on the board of INL, the Dom's parent company. But Mike Robson, then the managing director of INL and a seasoned newspaper man, backed the paper and stood firm. Our coverage of Telecom’s affairs continued unchanged and in due course, the company’s advertising resumed.
Would the same happen today? I’m not so sure. The general manager of Mediaworks, Cam Wallace, came from Air New Zealand – a corporate culture far removed from that of news and current affairs. Would a Magic FM manager be confident that Wallace would back him if a big advertiser tried to dictate the choice of hosts or their editorial line? Hmmm.
So John Banks' exchange with his caller about "Stone Age" Maori offended people. I found it offensive too (as well as plain stupid), but that’s one of the prices we pay for living in a free society. The people we have most to fear from are not shoot-from-the-lip provocateurs like Banks, but the authoritarian zealots who insist that they be silenced. The threat these censorious prigs pose to a democratic society is potentially far greater and more far-reaching than anything a bigoted talkback host might say to his limited band of followers. As the British columnist Bernard Levin once put it: “Any legally permissible view, however repugnant, is less dangerous promulgated than banned.”
I constantly hear and read things that offend me, but I don’t react by insisting I should be protected from them. All I demand is that there should be room in the public conversation for a multitude of competing voices. That’s how democracy works: by exposing people to a range of views and trusting them to make up their own minds.
Trust; that’s a crucial factor here. The Left has always had a problem with trust. Leftist apparatchiks fret that people who are left to make up their own minds will make the wrong choices, so seek to lead them by limiting the range of ideas and opinions they are exposed to – which is why freedom of expression is such a crucial battleground in the so-called culture wars.
But of course there are other looming threats to liberal democracy, and none more urgent than Nanaia Mahuta’s proposal – disgracefully kept secret until the 2020 election was safely in the bag, and now being bulldozed through Parliament under urgency– to impose Maori wards on city and district councils by removing voters’ right to veto them.
This idea is obnoxious and anti-democratic on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to start. It strips away the majority’s right to determine the form of local government representation, it provides Maori (or more correctly, part-Maori) candidates with a short cut to power by bypassing the need to win popular support, and it will result in the election of candidates who feel responsible only to constituents who claim Maori ancestry. In all these respects, it subverts democracy.
It also promises to solidify the Left's grip on local government, since Maori candidates mostly lean left. If there were such a historical figure as Gerry Mander, he’d be quietly whistling with admiration.
The Maori wards proposition is built on a deliberate and dishonest falsehood. The argument goes that because there are not as many Maori councillors as the promoters of Maori wards think there should be, the only possible explanation is that a racist voting system is loaded against them.
But as Don Brash has pointed out: “The proportion of councillors who identify as Maori has been steadily increasing in recent years, and now almost exactly matches the proportion of Maori New Zealanders in the total population – 13.5% of all councillors were Maori in 2019, while according to the 2018 census Maori New Zealanders made up 13.7% of the total population.”
In other words, there is no deficit when it comes to Maori representation in local government. Democracy has done its job admirably by ensuring that Maori representation is almost exactly proportionate to the number of Maori in the general population.
And even if that weren’t the case, the answer wouldn’t lie in rigging the system to favour Maori candidates. All that’s required is for more Maori to stand for office, and for other Maori to support them; or as an exasperated Kelvin Davis put it following council elections in 2016, “to get off their arses and vote”.
In fact the record has shown time and time again that where good Maori candidates put themselves forward, non-Maori voters too will support them and propel them into office. That rebuts the specious proposition that a racist system is loaded against them.
Here’s another canard: the reason voters have rejected Maori wards whenever the issue has been put to a referendum is that voters are racist. But I don’t believe for a moment that people vote against Maori wards because they don’t want Maori councillors. They do it because they intuitively understand that democracy is supposed to be colour-blind, and that candidates should get elected on the basis of merit rather skin colour. Voters get that, even if the Year Zero cultists in the government don’t.
Yet another patently false argument is that since voters are not able to veto geographically based wards, allowing them that right in respect of Maori wards can only be racially discriminatory. But the crucial difference is that geographical wards are created and arranged for reasons of administrative efficiency and equality (as far as possible) of representation. That has long been the case, not just in New Zealand but in democracies the world over. Exclusive Maori wards introduce another, entirely different, dynamic. It’s a huge leap from geographical wards to race-based ones, and I’m sure Mahuta is smart enough to know it.
Oh, and here’s another thing. If I were Maori, I would regard the creation of Maori wards as patronising in the extreme, since it assumes that Maori are incapable of getting elected without a leg-up. As Simon Bridges said in Parliament, it’s an insult to suggest that Maori need special treatment.
The sad thing is that we can expect all these valid and cogent arguments against Maori wards to be dismissed as simply racist. Maori activists and their accomplices in the woke left have so distorted the definition of this word that they fling it at anyone who opposes their agenda, even for the most honourable and defensible reasons.
By promoting a fundamentally anti-democratic idea that supporters of genuine democracy feel compelled to oppose, the activists force their opponents into positions where they can then be conveniently dismissed as being motivated by blind prejudice. To paraphrase Edmund Blackadder, it's a tactic so cunning you could pin a tail on it and call it a weasel.