Friday, March 5, 2021

On freedom of expression and that $55 million media handout


It seems I’ve achieved the great distinction of being deleted from Reddit. A friend emailed me recently to advise that my Spectator Australia article – ‘NewZealand is being transformed, but not in a good way’ – had been uploaded to Reddit several days previously, but had then been taken down. A notice explained: “Sorry, this post has been removed by the moderators”. This was followed by what appeared to be a standard explanatory note: “Moderators remove posts from feeds for a variety of reasons, including keeping communities safe, civil and true to their purpose”.

Who are these moderators? They’re not identified. Neither did the weasel-word explanatory note say exactly what the problem was with my article. I’m left to conclude that the anonymous moderators deemed it “unsafe” – but in what way?

We should be very suspicious of the word “safety” when used in this type of context. It has become another cover for the Stalinist authoritarianism that infects public discourse and seeks to silence and marginalise dissenters. “Unsafe” used to apply to situations where one’s health or physical wellbeing was at risk. Generations of New Zealanders grew up being told that it wasn’t safe to play with matches or go too close to the water. Then we started hearing the phrase “cultural safety”, especially in the context of health care. An invention of neo-Marxism, it broadened the definition far beyond its traditional and accepted meaning. Ensuring “cultural safety” became a coded synonym for purging the health system of supposed institutionalised racism. Notions of power and identity were central to this approach. Nursing students who pushed back against the doctrine, insisting that the same standard of care should apply to all patients regardless of ethnicity, paid a price for their defiance. Some readers of this blog may recall the celebrated case of Christchurch Polytech nursing student Anna Penn, who was branded as “culturally unsafe” – a term then new to most of us – by the polytech’s kaumatua in 1991 for daring to challenge the denial of her right as a woman to speak on a marae. Penn failed the “culture and society” component of her course and was subsequently described in a vindictive Polytech report as having demonstrated “such flaws of judgment and behaviour that she would not now be welcome back as a nursing student”. (She later graduated in Brisbane.) Soviet-style suppression of dissent was emerging even then, and today is nowhere more rampant than in the health sector, where the New Zealand Nurses’ Organisation – to take just one example – has been convulsed by bullying race politics.

Since the Penn affair, this highly inventive concept of “safety” has widened even further, to the extent that it’s now invoked if there’s a risk that some fragile soul might feel offended or psychologically damaged by something written or said. But in the case of my Spectator article there’s more to it than that, because talk of “safety” is, of course, a red herring. The only threat my article presented is that it challenged the woke Left’s attempt to control the public conversation.  That’s what we’re really talking about here.

And how interesting that the sanctimonious moderators should mention the need to keep things civil. Let’s examine that for a moment.

My article wasn’t abusive or insulting.  It didn’t use offensive language, it didn’t attack anyone personally and it didn’t seek to incite hatred, violence or ridicule. It merely expressed opinions that the people who control Reddit think should be suppressed.

Yet the same moderators who took down the link to my column, supposedly out of concern for safety and civility, were obviously untroubled by some of the comments that appeared beneath it, which they left on the page. These included one (anonymous, of course – aren’t they all?) that attacked me in terms so coarse that I refuse to dignify my attacker’s words by reproducing them here. Civil? Pffft.

This was my first encounter with Reddit, and it seemed to validate my impression that much of what we inaccurately call “social” media is a seething, toxic snake pit. Reddit, which Wikipedia describes as a social news aggregation and discussion platform, is supposedly the world’s 18th most visited website. But like many “social” media platforms it seems infested by angry, raging cowards hiding behind puerile pseudonyms.

It probably doesn’t need to be said that I won’t lose any sleep over my article being pulled, and still less from the accompanying comments. When something I’ve written provokes a keyboard warrior into anonymously responding with infantile vituperative, I take that as a moral victory. But the deletion of my article, and the conveniently vague and self-serving justification given by the Reddit moderators, says something about the profound change in the tone and scope of public conversation in New Zealand.

At the dawn of the Internet era, we were encouraged to think of social media platforms as anarchic and liberating. They were supposed to free us from the shackles of the “old” media, where editors (who were routinely caricatured as old, conservative white men) served as gatekeepers controlling the dissemination of news and comment. That promise now stands exposed as fraudulent; a giant con. Many social media platforms have turned out to be far more controlling and authoritarian than the despised “legacy” media they displaced, which were committed to principles of fairness, accuracy and balance.

As Chris Trotter (an old-school socialist, but a courageous champion of free speech) wrote recently, “citizens determined to spread ‘unacceptable’ ideas can no longer rely upon the major social media platforms for their dissemination. Increasingly, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are ‘de-platforming’ individuals and groups (including a former President of the United States!) whose beliefs have been anathematised by the woke”.

There’s an irony here. The young(ish) entrepreneurs who control social media, such as Mark Zuckerberg, are infinitely wealthier, greedier, more powerful and more controlling than the reviled press barons of old, the sole survivor of whom is Rupert Murdoch. They exercise their power in a way that acknowledges no public accountability or responsibility for the consequences of the harm they do. They use their resources to influence public opinion in a far more direct and active way than the “old” media. Yet they seem magically immunised against criticism.

The crucial difference, presumably, is that in age and appearance they are not dissimilar to the commissars of wokeness. They wear jeans and tee-shirts rather than suits and ties, and they give the impression of being anti-establishment (which they are, though not in the sense that the term was originally used a generation ago). Perhaps this makes their ruthless style of capitalism acceptable.  

Unfortunately the malaise isn’t confined to social media. In a recent blog post about Magic Talk’s sacking of John Banks, I wrote that both the range of subjects New Zealanders feel free to discuss, and the language they may use in discussing them, is constantly being narrowed down. Authoritarian wokeness is increasingly crowding out alternative conservative views, even where those views may represent mainstream thinking.

Since Banks’ sacking, of course, Sean Plunket has been added to the list of deplorables – not because of any fresh complaint against him (the one upheld by the Broadcasting Standards Authority in December related to a broadcast last May), but because Magic Talk, panicked by pressure from woke vigilantes and virtue-signalling advertisers, threw him under the bus.

Peter Williams, as the only surviving high-profile conservative host at Magic Talk, must now be feeling rather lonely and exposed – the more so since deputy prime minister Grant Robertson announced he would no longer be making his regular weekly appearance on Williams’ show because he objected to the host’s valid questions about the so-called Great Reset, which Robertson huffily dismissed as a “giant conspiracy theory”.

Jordan Williams of the Free Speech Coalition called the decision petulant and suggested Robertson should harden up. “Maybe Mr Robertson should seek the advice of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who has fronted often extremely hostile interviews with Mike Hosking,” Williams suggested. “Would she enjoy such grillings? Unlikely. But the PM clearly understands that she has a duty to not only address misinformation, but to engage with Kiwis on the other side of the political fence.

“We counter bad ideas with better ideas, and address misinformation with facts. This is why free speech is so central to democracy: bad and false ideas can be freely aired precisely so they can be addressed by more informed speech.”

Amen to all that. But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Robertson’s decision was the timing, which made it look like a calculated attempt to undermine Williams (who, incidentally, is no-one’s idea of a far-Right ranter) when his position already seemed precarious following the defenestration of his fellow hosts. That would be contemptible.

It’s in this worryingly censorious environment that the government recently announced funding of $55 million for the news media. Broadcasting minister Kris Faafoi framed the decision as one driven solely by noble public interest motives, aimed at helping the media through a rough patch. But an alternative view is that virtually all politicians secretly dream of controlling the media, and it’s possible this government has cynically chosen an opportune moment to ensure the industry’s co-operation in achieving it.

Don’t be fooled by seductive talk of the government wanting to subsidise “public interest” journalism. Any journalism that provides citizens with “the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies and their governments”* is, by definition, public interest journalism.  But when used by left-wing academics in journalism schools, the phrase has a much narrower and more ideological meaning. In that context, “public interest journalism” is code for journalism that attacks power structures – that “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable”, to use a definition much favoured by those who see journalism principally as a form of activism, and who believe the only journalism worth supporting is that which has an ideological purpose.

So here, for what it’s worth, is my take on the proposed government media bailout:

■ If I could be confident that the government was truly and wholly committed to a vigorous, balanced, independent, non-partisan media;

■ If I could be confident that media owners were capable of resolutely asserting their independence while simultaneously accepting state funding;

■ If I could be assured that most media bosses weren’t already ideologically aligned with the government on such crucial issues as climate change and hate speech;

■ If I could be confident that media bosses were truly and wholly committed to the principles of editorial balance and freedom of expression;

■ If I could be confident that government politicians could be trusted not to exert influence over where the money went, and what type of journalistic activity it supported;

■ If I could be confident that government appointees charged with deciding how the money should be spent could be trusted not to worry about getting offside with their political masters should they give it to the wrong people;

■ If my confidence in the media were not already gravely undermined by journalists who consistently confuse journalism with activism and advocacy, and who bombard us relentlessly with their own opinions;

■ If I could be confident that some of that $55 million wouldn’t be used to further swamp us with fashionable wokeism;

… then I might think the proposed state bailout of the media was a good thing. But that adds up to a lot of worrying “Ifs”, and somehow I don’t think my misgivings will be easily assuaged.

*The definition comes from The Elements of Journalism (2001), by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. I’ve yet to see a more succinct description of what journalism should be about.


Handsome B. Wonderful said...

It might help to note that "Reddit" is really a collection of "sub-reddits" each with their own moderators who are typically drawn from the active members of each individual sub-reddit. So you're article is likely posted to multiple sub-reddits, and one presumes that it is still available on those of a conservative bent, and less likely to have remained standing in enemy territory. This is to say that Reddit is therefore a confederation of echo chambers, but as far as social media goes it's more of a Wild West than Twitter or Facebook.

Karl du Fresne said...

Why is it that whenever I read about how social media platforms function, and the bizarre jargon involved, I get the strange feeling that the whole darned shooting box is run by aliens?

Handsome B. Wonderful said...

I get a similar feeling reading about how everything functioned before the internet.

Phil said...

Last week The Government passed through the controversial legislation related to Maori Wards on Councils and I didn't even see a report on it through the TVNZ news. So the Government suppressed it from their manifesto, suppressed the submissions process and finally suppressed it from state media. This is a corruption of democracy as we know and doesn't give me any faith that their promotion of public service media is anything other than an extension of their propaganda machine.

Karl du Fresne said...

To Mahjoun, whoever you are: thank you for drawing my attention to that Reddit post, which confirms much of what I said above. (For the benefit of other readers, this anonymous commenter - clearly not a fan - found my Spectator article elsewhere on Twitter and suggested this negated my 2000-word "rant". The link to my article was predictably accompanied by an outpouring of vitriol that could accurately be classified as hate speech - but not, I fear, the type Andrew Little intends to crack down on.)

Trev1 said...

The New Zealand media with few exceptions are shamelessly prostituting themselves for the current regime. Meanwhile standards of literacy are collapsing in our schools while at the same time our National Library is purging "foreign" books from its collections - one match away from book burning as another writer has put it recently. And right now "hate speech" laws to suppress dissent are being drawn up. All this has happened very quickly under a government of student politicians who got lucky with COVID in more ways than one. "Petulant" is a good word to characterize how they respond to being challenged. Will the scales fall from New Zealanders' eyes? I am pessimistic. I think it is likely to get worse. But thanks for keeping up the awareness of what is happening.

Hilary Taylor said...

After David Farrar posted a link to the Don McNeil NYT story, what a tale, I'm reeling. It's incredibly depressing, this puritanical clime we're living in where good folk are cruelly demonised...for nothing...NOTHING. For being human, humane & interesting. For being wise, experienced and opinionated. For being clever & giving. For having foibles, quelle horreur, and funny ways. In his case he was betrayed by snot-nosed teen cowards & their enablers, & unforgiveably craven treatment at the hands of his long-time employer, who all deserve really, really bad karma.

Karl...thank you for keeping at it in this mad, mad world.

Andy Espersen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CXH said...

It would seem Michael Bassett has joined the 'bad' group. I wonder how long before his books are dragged from the shelves and burnt in the street.

Andy Espersen said...

Sorry Karl – but even granted the 8 conditions you present to us for agreeing with tax-payers funding the 4th estate, this must never happen. Governments exist for the sole purpose of drafting and enacting legislation that will better the life and increase the freedom of its citizens. Any funding of private businesses should only be undertaken if it obvious it would benefit all citizens. Funding the print media certainly is not in that category.

My suggestion, for what it is worth, is that we (and hopefully all other governments) legislate to prohibit all on-line news media agencies and blogs from cancelling or withdrawing any post, any article, any item – once it has been published on the free internet. In effect, this would amount to the prohibition of any “burning of books”.

No anonymous writings should be allowed – owners of the “platforms” should be held responsible in court for anonymous items published. On line agencies (by the way, including your blog, Karl!) would be forced to compete more fairly with the printed media – who cannot withdraw articles once published.

Karl du Fresne said...

Another troll – this one writing under the pseudonym Shut Up Karl, which possibly says something about his/her tolerance of views he/she doesn’t like – has tried to post a comment on this site claiming that my Spectator article is still on Reddit, so what’s my problem? (although he/she didn’t put it quite so politely).
So someone posted a link to my article on Reddit and moderators took it down, supposedly because it wasn’t safe or whatever, but another link apparently still exists elsewhere, accompanied by another stream of toxic (but of course anonymous) personal attacks on me. To have known this I would need to be more familiar with how Reddit operates, and I have no desire to go there. I would sooner dive into a sewer outfall.
The point remains that someone took the post down, for the stated reasons, so everything I’ve said above stands. Shut Up Karl can slither back under whatever slimy rock he/she (although I bet it's a male) hides under.

CXH said...

Karl, it is a pity society no longer considers debate as a way to learn. It has been replaced by nasty abuse and refusal to try and rebut someone's opinion.

This he/she/it has obviously set up a special Shut Up Karl name, thinking it makes them look clever to their friends. What it does tell us is they don't have the ability to formulate a cognitive response. Sad, but normal in today's Western society.

Keep up the good work, I do not always agree with you, but I appreciate the reasoned arguments you put forward as it helps to question your own beliefs from time to time.

Andy Espersen said...

Sadly, Karl, many of the on-line platforms that remove articles already published on the free internet are decent, well-thought of news media agencies. And they do it, bless their cotton socks, to “keep communities safe, civil and true”. Above all : nothing must offend.

I had an article pulled a couple of years ago – an article I was quite proud of, and which the editor thought was great when I sent it in. I cannot prove it but I am 100% sure that the Mental Health Foundation and/or similar NGOs orchestrated a campaign for individuals to send in complaints about it - and the editor caved in just because she was advised it caused offence. Here is a link to my article – and what you will find when you Google it. Following that you can read the kind letter the editor sent to me to explain.

Dear Andy,
I'm afraid we received multiple complaints about your article. It was described as 'inaccurate', 'stigmatising', 'discriminatory' and 'offensive'. One individual contacted Like Minds, Like Mine Media Watch.

While I am generally keen to stimulate debate with a diverse range of opinions, given the gravity and quantity of the complaints in a very short space of time, we made the decision to remove the article.

You are welcome to pursue publication in a different publication or forum.

Kind regards,



hughvane said...

Don't, Karl! Don't respond in any way, shape or form to the puerile desperados who write crudely defamatory ordure about your blogs. It is precisely what they seek/want. Very, very sad. Freud would have found a precise analysis of them.

I wonder how many other of your regular readers view YouTube. They may notice the Likes vs Dislikes battle. Reacting in dismay to a Dislike is fuelling the fire. The cellar-dwellers express disapproval purely for the maligned kick they get out of irritating someone else.

Meanwhile, Ecclesiastes 1:9. In my own words, what has come to pass will pass, let's hang in there!

Andy Espersen said...

Bravo, hughvane : “the cellar-dwellers express disapproval ..........” - I like that. What we are in fact experiencing is a primitive, ideological movement of counter-Enlightenment. Our woke world is reverting to pre-Enlightenment times. With the amazing wave of the rational, intellectual and humanistic understanding of our human condition which swept over Europe and the rest of the world from the mid-18th century (all boldly initiated by elderly, white males, by the way), the world emerged from “humankind’s self-incurred immaturity, and its submission to the dogmas and formulae of religion or political authority” (Immanuel Kant). The cornerstone of European Enlightenment was Freedom of Thought and Speech.

Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Andy

Slightly off topic if Karl will permit, but I hear so much nonsense about our culture being the product of the Enlightenment, as if it just appeared from nothing, created out of a vacuum in the mid 18th century.

The Enlightenment was birthed out of a Judeo/Christian understanding of what it means to be human, and the virtues that are explicit within the Christian faith. So yes, there were religious wars, and dogma's, but the dignity of the individual is an expressly Christian understanding. You won't find it in Islam or any other world religion, consequently there has been no 'Enlightenment' in Islamic countries, and there never will be while Islam is dominant.

What we are going to find Andy, is that the Enlightenment values in our culture will disappear under the new woke religious ideology as Christianity is finally washed out of the public square. This new religious ideology views Karl's moderate conservative writings as being too dangerous for publication. The point is simply this; Enlightenment values cannot be sustained outside the cultural framework that gave birth to them, something we are all beginning to discover.

Alan said...

Surely our government’s main legislative purpose is to keep itself in the seat of power?? To hell with the citizens!

Andy Espersen said...

You are not one bit “off topic”, Brendan - and I really appreciate hearing your ideas about Enlightenment. The removing of offensive articles, the “cancel culture”, is exactly what Karl is up against – which represents counter-Enlightenment with bells on.

How right you are when saying that “The Enlightenment was birthed ..........[from] the Christian faith”. The dignity and all important value of the Lonely Individual before God is an expressly Christian understanding (cf. Kierkegaard). But we had Christianity for almost 2000 years before an “Enlightenment” could occur. Yes, it started with Martin Luther – but it could only achieve its political, its societal, ramifications together with the added factors of industrialised cities, increasing material wealth and the printing press. Here individual people for the first time ever could be “free”. The old Germans put it succinctly : “Die Stadt macht frei” (the city makes you free). Here, for the first time in the history of humankind, the amazing creativity of the individual human being could blossom and bear fruit - no longer shackled by tribal and family culture, myths and tradition.

But how wrong you are when postulating that “....the Enlightenment values .............will disappear Christianity is finally washed out of the public square. Fact is that European Enlightenment values and goals have now permeated all other cultures and societies. We here in the West are now busy demolishing our inherited European Enlightenment values (not for the first time, by the way – viz. Nazi-ism and Communism). I do not think for a moment that we will succeed (was Trump’ism perhaps the first feeble (and quite ineffective)attempt to fight counter-Enlightenment??) - but if we do, we now have other great civilisations in China, Japan and India to take over where we faltered. Remember, we are not long out of the jungle. It is early days for humankind.

Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Andy

I appreciate your gracious response, I thought afterwards (as one often does) that I may have been too personal and too forthright in my post. We are probably closer on this question than it may first appear, although I do struggle with your statement: "Fact is that European Enlightenment values and goals have now permeated all other cultures and societies."

I have traveled a bit, as I guess you have, (back when we could) and contrary to your assertion, I have viewed first hand many cultures that show no sign of "Enlightenment Values". I don't think of either China or India in terms of "a great Civilisation", when judged by Western Civilisational standards although 21st century Japan may qualify, I simply don't know enough about it. As to it being "early days for mankind", with the implication (being not long out of the jungle) that we are on some upward evolutionary trajectory, I can only pause in wonder. How do you measure the 20th century on the progressive Enlightenment trajectory?

Woke dogma is antithetical to the Christian faith. There will be no peaceful co-existence between these competing worldviews. Furthermore, there will be no comfortable middle ground, and if you are in corporate or government employment, no place to hide. You will be an ally or an enemy. We haven't seen this in the west for a long time, but it is now a growing and present reality.

Johno said...

Seems like they're not getting their $55m worth from Bazza:

Brutal. But fair.

Unknown said...

I enjoy your columns Karl. About the middle of this one you were discussing Grant Robertson cancelling his regular weekly appearance on Peter William's show and then you quoted Jordan Williams of the Free Speech Coalition as follows:-

"Jordan Williams of the Free Speech Coalition called the decision petulant and suggested Robertson should harden up. “Maybe Mr Robertson should seek the advice of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who has fronted often extremely hostile interviews with Mike Hosking,” Williams suggested. “Would she enjoy such grillings? Unlikely. But the PM clearly understands that she has a duty to not only address misinformation, but to engage with Kiwis on the other side of the political fence."

Jacinda apparently did discuss with Grant regular appearances on radio shows where they are held to account, and she took his advice, and yesterday cancelled her weekly appearance on Mike Hosting's ZB show at 7am on Mondays, as reported by Mike in the Herald.

Advice as to I could have made that link live welcomed.

Jacinda was obviously expecting a grilling on the recent seven day lockdown and she ran for the hills.

Best quote in Mike Hosking's article above.

"Hosking told listeners this morning: "To be honest, I'm pleased. The management here not quite as much. They argue accountability is important. And they're right, but what I argue [is] the PM is a lightweight at answering tough questions."

CXH said...

Andy, most of the world's population has no inkling of the concept of our enlightenment values. China is probably the most onvious case in point. In reality they are more often used against us than worked towards.

Karl du Fresne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karl du Fresne said...

I agree with Johno (above). An excellent column from a press gallery veteran who's seen it all.

Andy Espersen said...

CXH and Brendan. You both pick on China as the proof of my being wrong. Isn’t amusing to contemplate that communism itself is one of the myriads of fertile offshoots from the Enlightenment- milieu - where free people could freely disseminate thoughts and ideas. It is a 20th century tragedy of Shakespearian proportions that millions of people became communists from the noblest and most idealistic of reasons - and then lived to see their life’s dream crumble. “From each according to his ability – to each according to his need”. Who could oppose such beautiful sentiment?

The constitutions of most countries in the world now embody legislation, copying the enlightened ideas from Old Europe. Yes, in many countries (including China) it amounts to only lip-service - but I have no doubt that Enlightenment ideas are alive and working everywhere – and that eventually they will win through. Do we not hear of protests in so many places?

Rome wasn’t built in a day.

CXH said...

Andy, having spent a couple of decades working in China, I would feel that not only is there no lip service the the ideals, they are not enshrined in law. It is party first and foremost, to behave otherwise would be a dangerous activity.

The whole ideals of enlightenment and freedom for all is, so far, a small blip in our history. Some of the behaviour seem today makes me believe its demise is not that far off. They have made us weak and places like China are licking their lips in anticipation.

Brendan McNeill said...

Expanding upon the new religious neo Marxist forces at work in our 'secular' culture; those that oppose the kind of moderate conservative reflections of people like Karl, Rod Dreher has an article today quoting black athiest academic John McWhorter. McWhorter explains in some depth the religious aspects of the SJW / anti-racism movement that now holds sway in both academia and the corporate worlds, and why older conservatives fail to grasp the significance of this movement.

Andy Espersen said...

You are very convincing, CXH. You (and Brendan) may be right about China.

But I was surprised when reading your bland, pessimistic expectation that the “[demise of enlightenment and freedom for all not that far off]”. Here you are dealing with a different, philosophical question altogether, namely the future of the human species. It took Homo sapiens sapiens 100,000 years to reach our present stage. It took us 90,000 years to reach the level where the concept of “freedom for all” even makes sense – and only over the last 200 years have we experienced societies where Enlightenment and Freedom can be said to exist to a degree.

You now claim wearily and nihilistically that this achievement is just, “so far, a small blip in our history” - and even (with Nietzsche) claiming that harbouring such ideas “[has] made us weak”. You appear to not understand the tremendously important impact on human existence European Enlightenment had – and has.

Graham Hill said...

Who are the moderators? John Milton posed a similar question about the capabilities of the book licensing readers. The unfortunate problem was that it took until the 1690's- some 50's years' later- for parliament to repeal the Act in question.