Ever heard of the Woodville Wire? No, I hadn’t either, until a couple of days ago. It’s a newsletter that publishes community news and comment on local issues in a southern Hawke’s Bay town where nothing much happens (at least, not usually).
I'm guessing the Wire’s readership would be counted in the hundreds, at most, yet this very modest news sheet has unexpectedly been pitched headlong into the culture wars. What follows is a cautionary tale about the febrile state of Maori-Pakeha relations and the precariousness of free speech - freedom of the press too, come to that - in a climate of state-sanctioned authoritarian orthodoxy.
In October last year, a local woman named Annette Nepe sent the Woodville Wire an article about a petition she had launched urging the InterCity bus service to reinstate its local bus stop. Ms Nepe prefaced her article with the greeting “Kia ora nau mai, ngā mihi nui koutou katoa”, which she explained meant “Welcome everyone, big friendly greeting to all”.
Nothing controversial here, surely. The subject of the article was one that might be described as parish-pump – i.e. of purely local concern. The tone of Ms Nepe’s email, as far as we can ascertain, was cheerful and (to use a fashionable word) inclusive. But Ms Nepe wanted the Maori greeting included with her article, “to reflect her culture”, and things turned sour when the editor of the Wire, Jane Hill, refused.
She told Ms Nepe in an email that it would have been respectful to ask, rather than demand, that the article be published. (Was it a “demand”? We don’t know, because the full email exchange hasn’t been disclosed.)
Ms Hill went on to say: “Secondly, this is not a Maori newsletter; it is a community newsletter and everyone in this community speaks English.
“I, as well as many New Zealanders am not in favour of giving one cultural group special privilege regarding their language simply because they (falsely) claim first nation status.
“Thirdly, why should we elevate the Maori language for you, when you clearly show no respect for the English language. It is extremely poor.
“I will write an article about the public transport system and encourage people to sign the petition as have I.”
Phew. Talk about lighting the blue touch paper. Ms Nepe subsequently brought legal proceedings against Ms Hill in the Human Rights Tribunal, alleging racial harassment. The case went to mediation and resulted in what might be described as a complete capitulation by Ms Hill.
According to a press release issued by the Office of Human Rights Proceedings, which is part of the Human Rights Commission, Ms Hill made the following statement:
“I, Ms Hill, acknowledge the hurt that was done to Ms Nepe by the correspondence I sent.
“Now that I can see the effects of the experience on Ms Nepe, I am willing and committed to changing the way I engage with Maori in my community.”
According to the press statement, Ms Nepe thanked Ms Hill for her apology. “This is good for both of us; I’m happy that we talked. This is a good outcome and a step towards repairing and growing relationships in the Woodville community. We both agree racism has no place in Aotearoa New Zealand and we’re on the road to eliminating it.”
All settled, then. Ms Hill suitably contrite, Ms Nepe gracious in her response – although of course it’s easy to be big-hearted in victory. I imagine the Office of Human Rights Proceedings was pleased with itself too for its part in exposing and publicly shaming a supposed racist, albeit a now remorseful one.
Predictably, Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon, New Zealand’s No. 2 official finger-wagger (Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt is numero uno), weighed in with a gratuitous and patronising statement – a pat on the head, figuratively speaking – welcoming “the willingness to move forward in an informed manner”.
So ... all done and dusted. Except that the episode is likely to leave many people feeling distinctly uncomfortable about creeping authoritarianism and the imposition of a penalty, in the form of a public shaming, for speaking freely. It should also be viewed as a direct attack on press freedom, given that it undermines the right of an editor to determine what she should publish.
We don’t know what transpired behind closed doors in mediation. It’s quite possible Ms Hill had a genuine road-to-Damascus experience, as the official statement suggests. But it’s also possible that confronted with the weight of the state’s punitive apparatus and the prospect of continuing stress and controversy if she stood her ground, she felt the easiest way out was to back down. I'm guessing the signal was conveyed to her that it was the appropriate thing to do.
If so, she wouldn’t have been the first. In 2020 I wrote about the case of a Taranaki nurse who was deregistered by the powerful Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal for making derogatory comments about some of her Maori colleagues. She too found herself up caught up in an intimidating quasi-judicial process and subsequently issued what might be categorised as a grovelling apology. I wrote then that a newspaper account of the tribunal proceedings left the discomforting impression of a show trial.
In both instances, the instigators did themselves no favours by their initial actions. The nurse’s statements on Facebook were, by her own admission, impulsive and offensive, although the consequences were wildly overstated by a complainant who appeared eager to make the most of the situation.
Similarly, Ms Hill was needlessly provocative and antagonistic in her email to Ms Nepe, apparently seizing the opportunity to vent opinions that she could have chosen to keep to herself. But it’s possible to acknowledge these faults while still feeling uneasy about the way events unfolded. In both the Taranaki and Woodville cases there appears to have been a disproportionately heavy-handed response from a system that seemed keen to make a public example of the transgressors.
Does anyone, I wonder, consider that the personal consequences might greatly outweigh the perceived offence? In the Taranaki case, the nurse subsequently struggled to find work. She was effectively blacklisted. Now I note that in both the Stuff and New Zealand Herald stories about the Woodville Wire episode, Ms Hill is described as the “former” editor.
What does this mean? Did she quit in disillusionment? Did she feel so bruised by the unpleasantness of the complaint procedure that she decided it wasn’t worth going on? Or was she fired for bringing the Wire into disrepute? I know nothing about the management and ownership structure of the Wire, so can’t say. She may, of course, have been planning to leave anyway.
But what I would say is this: Someone, perhaps Ms Hill herself, took a punt in establishing the Woodville Wire, presumably because they saw it as providing a useful service to the community. They would have committed their own capital to the venture, to say nothing of their labour and skill, with no guarantee of a financial return. Now a person with no stake in the enterprise has been able, with the help of a busybody government agency, to exert power over it and subject the editor to a demeaning quasi-judicial process, possibly even to the extent (this is pure conjecture on my part) of triggering her departure. Hands up all those who think that’s fair.
Furthermore, the Woodville Wire is presumably a private undertaking. Ms Hill broke no law. She is therefore not answerable to government functionaries. Yet she was subjected to a humiliating and very public ticking-off (public because the Office of Human Rights Proceedings made it so) which, by implication, painted her as a racist. Where is the justice in that?
Would Ms Nepe have pursued her complaint had Ms Hill responded more diplomatically? We don’t know. But as things stand, it seems the worst Ms Hill can be accused of is impoliteness and candour. Last time I checked, being rude and forthright didn’t breach any law.
Certainly, Ms Hill’s behaviour falls far short of “racial harassment”, which is how the Office of Human Rights Proceedings described the case. Lest there be any doubt about the gravity of Ms Hill’s supposed offence, the Office’s press statement was headlined “Racial harassment case settles”.
Harassment? Really?? My New Zealand Oxford Dictionary defines the verb “harass” as meaning “to trouble or annoy continually or repeatedly” (the italics are mine). All Ms Hill did, evidently, was send a single email to which Ms Nepe took offence. How does that amount to harassment? A good lawyer would surely have moved for the complaint to be dismissed outright as a nullity.
Here’s the thing. Ms Hill was entitled to decide what to publish, and by logical extension what not to publish. As editor, she was legally responsible for the content of the Woodville Wire. That imposes obligations but it also carries rights, including the right of refusal to publish a statement in te reo. People may legitimately disagree with her decision in this instance, but it’s hers to make.
Incidentally, I can’t help wondering whether the Media Council would have been a more appropriate forum for resolving the issue. I’m speculating again here, but perhaps the state human rights apparatus was preferred because there was a better chance of a favourable outcome for the complainant. The Media Council has been known, after all, to uphold the autonomy of editors.
And here’s another thing. Will activist lawyers and Maori language advocates regard the Woodville Wire case as a precedent, opening the way to future insistence on the publication of statements in Maori? You can bet they will. And will timid or woke editors now consider themselves obliged to publish submitted content in te reo even though only a tiny minority of their readers can understand it? Very likely.
I have asked myself whether I, as a former (very former) newspaper editor, would have published Ms Nepe’s Maori greeting. I probably would have, because it was charming (am I permitted to say that?), quirky and harmless. But that’s not the point; Ms Hill was entitled to decide as she did without then being pressured, through the intervention of an ideologically driven government agency, to recant.
The whole affair leaves a bad taste. There is a balance to be struck between use of the English and Maori languages, and New Zealanders are steadily working towards that goal. Note the increased frequency with which Maori words and phrases (kapai, whanau, waiata, kuia) have naturally been absorbed into everyday speech. But a sullen resistance sets in when people perceive that te reo is being imposed on them, as is happening now, by an elite political/academic/media caste rather than being allowed to evolve organically.
The Woodville Wire case, however, is about much more than the use of te reo. More disturbingly, it stands as a lesson that anyone bold or rash enough to challenge prevailing orthodoxies risks being publicly pilloried, with the state’s active complicity. This is true regardless of whether Ms Hill had a genuine and sincere change of heart.
Observing the fate of someone who did no more than exercise her editorial prerogative in what she no doubt thought was a private email, people will reasonably conclude that the only safe course in New Zealand is to keep potentially contentious opinions to themselves or express them only to trusted friends. That can only have a chilling effect on public debate, which of course is exactly the intended outcome. If you sometimes sense the pincers of state control gradually tightening around you, it’s probably because they are.