Friday, April 29, 2022

On the threats to free speech

I delivered the following speech (little of which would be new to regular readers of this blog) at a meeting of the Free Speech Union at Victoria University last night. Most of the approximately 80 people who attended were middle-aged or older, suggesting freedom of speech isn’t exactly top of mind for the students the FSU had hoped to attract. On the other hand, it’s possible the poor student turnout had something to do with the fact that posters advertising the meeting were repeatedly taken down and replaced with ones saying “Stop Hate Speech” and labelling the FSU as “racist, homophobic and transphobic hypocrites”. It’s hard to engage meaningfully with that level of undergraduate bumper-sticker mentality, but at least they didn’t try to disrupt the meeting.

My old friend and former journalism colleague Barrie Saunders, who’s also a member of the union and is here tonight, sent me an email last week ahead of this talk.

Barrie has always written very concisely and his email consisted of just one line. “Karl”, he said, “did you ever think ten years ago you would be speaking about free speech?”

The answer, of course, is no. Ten years ago we smugly believed that all the big debates about freedom and democracy had been won and we could all relax. Ha! More fools us.

The American political scientist Francis Fukuyama even wrote a book about it, called The End of History and the Last Man, in which he postulated that with the end of the Cold War, humanity’s ideological evolution had reached its end point and we could all bask forever in the sunlit uplands of liberal democracy.

How wrong he was, and how naive we were to believe it. Because in the past 10 years or so – and that’s how quickly it has happened – all our comfortable convictions about the unassailability of free speech have been turned on their heads. Suddenly we find ourselves fighting again for rights we assumed were settled.

We’ve become accustomed to hearing the words, “I support free speech, but ….” New Zealand is full of people in positions of power and influence who purport to defend free speech, but always with the addition of that loaded word “but”. You can’t say you support free speech and then, in the next breath, put limitations around it beyond the ones that are already clearly established in law and broadly accepted, such as those relating to defamation and incitement to hatred or violence,

We’ve been introduced to phrases unheard of a few years ago: cancel culture, speech wars, hate speech, gender wars, safe spaces, culture wars, trigger warnings, transphobia and no-platforming. We’ve acquired a whole new vocabulary.

We’ve seen the creation of multiple no-go zones where no one is permitted to say what they think for fear of offending someone or oppressing a supposedly vulnerable minority group.

We’ve seen the emergence of a media monoculture in which all mainstream media outlets adopt uniform ideological positions that effectively shut out alternative opinions, even when those marginalised voices may represent mainstream opinion.

We’ve seen traditional ideological battle lines totally redrawn as people on the left and right of politics unite around the need to save freedom of speech from a new and powerful cohort of people who have co-opted the term “hate speech” as a pretext for banning any opinion that they dislike.

We’ve even seen radical feminists, who were once at the cutting edge of politics, demonised as dangerous reactionaries who must be shut down because of their opposition to a virulent transgender lobby that appeared to spring out of nowhere.

All this has happened within a remarkably short time frame. Mainstream New Zealand has been caught off guard by the sheer speed and intensity of the attack on free speech and as a result has been slow to respond. But what’s at stake here is nothing less than the survival of liberal democracy, which depends on the contest of ideas and the free and open discussion of issues regardless of whether some people might find them upsetting.

I could recite a long list of incidents, but to save time – and for the benefit of people here who may not have closely followed the free speech debate – let me just remind you of some of the better-known ones:

First up, Don Brash – barred from speaking at what was intended to be a low-key Massey University seminar where he was invited to talk to political science students about his political career. Now regardless of what you think about his politics, the civil and scholarly Brash is no one’s idea of a dangerous demagogue. Yet the vice-chancellor of Massey, who as an Australian veterinary professor is eminently qualified to decide what opinions New Zealanders can safely be exposed to, cancelled Brash, citing “security” concerns – a fashionable pretext, as we’ll see shortly.

It later emerged that in reality, the vice-chancellor didn’t want Massey to be seen as endorsing what she described as “racist behaviours”. This was a reference to Brash’s involvement in the group Hobson’s Pledge, although Hobson’s Pledge is expressly opposed to racism and in any case had nothing whatsoever to do with the planned seminar.

Emails subsequently released under the Official Information Act showed the vice-chancellor frantically casting around for spurious “mechanisms” under which she could legally ban Brash from speaking. Even people fiercely opposed to Brash’s politics were appalled by this flagrant curtailment of his right to free speech.

Now let’s move on to the Canadians Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, who were barred from speaking at an Auckland Council-owned venue following the intervention of a grandstanding mayor – again, under the pretext that protesters might disrupt the event.

We still don’t know what poisonous beliefs the Canadians were supposedly peddling because we were never allowed to hear them. That cancellation was a catalyst for the formation of the Free Speech Union, which has taken a case all the way to the Supreme Court in an attempt to clarify whether threats of disruption should be allowed to override free-speech rights. The outcome of that case is currently pending.

The union has made it clear, incidentally, that it neither supports nor opposes whatever it is that Southern and Molyneux stand for. The point at issue is the right of New Zealanders to be exposed to opinions and ideas regardless of whether people like the mayor of Auckland and the Massey vice-chancellor personally approve of them.

The right of free speech, after all, means the right to hear as well as the right to speak. Our Bill of Rights Act doesn’t just talk about the right to speak freely. It refers to “the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and opinions of any kind and in any form”. That seems pretty clear-cut and unambiguous. To deny New Zealanders the right to hear opinions that some politicians and public officials don’t like is a flagrant abuse of power and must be challenged at every turn, which is exactly what this union is doing.

Now, another notable case – notable for all the wrong reasons. Seven distinguished academics wrote a letter to The Listener questioning the notion that matauranga Maori, or traditional Maori knowledge, should be given the same status as science. That triggered what was possibly the most shameful demonstration yet of intolerance toward ideologically unfashionable ideas.

In an unprecedented pile-on, more than 2000 fellow academics, urged on by professors Shaun Hendy and Siouxsie Wiles, signed a letter denouncing the Listener Seven and implying they condoned something called “scientific racism”.

The sheer weight and vehemence of the denunciation sent an unmistakeable message to the academic community: express dissent at your peril. Both the Tertiary Education Union and the vice-chancellor of Auckland University, who should have led the way in defending the seven professors’ academic freedom, shamefully did exactly the reverse.

What started as an academic debate on an issue of public importance thus took on the character of a 14th century heresy trial. Two of the Listener Seven faced expulsion from the Royal Society – an organisation dedicated, ironically, to the advancement of science.

Once again it was intervention of the Free Speech Union, combined with an outpouring of international derision from luminaries such as Richard Dawkins, that persuaded the Royal Society to pull its head in. Last month the union was able to announce that the society had called off its witch-hunt – but too late, I would suggest, to salvage its credibility.

Those three examples give some indication of what the defenders of free speech are up against, but not all cases attract that level of public attention. Please allow me to touch on a few others that show how insidious attacks on free speech have become.

There was a mini furore at last year’s Featherston Booktown festival, where organisers cancelled a Harry Potter quiz for fear that it might distress the transgender community, given that J K Rowling is a vocal opponent of transgenderism. In another exquisite irony, the same book festival included a panel discussion on cancel culture. As I wrote on my blog, this was the point at which real life did its best to outdo satire.

The Booktown organisers could have driven a stake into the ground and politely told the objectors to bugger off but they didn’t, and the result was another grovelling capitulation to the enemies of free speech.

In yet another exquisite irony, there was the case of the late Jim Flynn, an internationally acclaimed emeritus professor of political studies at Otago University. Professor Flynn wrote a book entitled In Defence of Free Speech: The University as Censor, but was advised that his British publishers had changed their minds about publishing it because it raised “sensitive topics of race, religion and gender”. So a book about the dangers of censoring free speech for fear of causing offence was itself cancelled for fear of causing offence.

On a lighter note, there was a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority in 2019 about an advertising sign for Streets ice cream that said “ice cream makes you happy”. According to the complainant, the sign promoted an unhealthy relationship with food. Now you might think the  authority would have politely told the complainant not to waste its time, but no; it solemnly ruled that the sign should be removed because “the implicit claim that there is a link between ice cream and happiness could potentially undermine the health and wellbeing of consumers”. The enforcers of free speech are not noted for their sense of humour.

Another case that might at first glance be dismissed as flippant involved a bulldozer in Marlborough. At the height of the Black Lives Matter crusade following the police murder of George Floyd, the bulldozer owner, obviously feeling things had got out of hand, spray-painted the words “ALM Equal Rights for Kiwi Whites” on the blade of the bulldozer – the letters ALM standing for “all lives matter”. For this dangerous act of incitement he received a visit from the local police. A neighbour had complained that the words were racist and the police persuaded the bulldozer owner to paint over them.

The particularly disquieting aspect here is the involvement of the police. There’s a very real prospect that with the proposed criminalisation of so-called “hate speech”, it would fall to the police to determine which opinions cross the legal threshold. We have ample evidence from Britain of the dangers that arise when the police are politicised and over-zealous officers take it upon themselves to decide what speech is “safe”.

Now, speaking of the police, I want to refer briefly to the blogger Cameron Slater. It emerged late last year through an OIA request that Slater had been under police surveillance. A police intelligence analyst was concerned that Slater was publishing information that denigrated Labour party policies and individuals linked to them. Another officer expressed concern that Slater was “anti-government” and a senior sergeant suggested they should pay him a visit.

In other words there are people in the police who apparently think that anyone who criticises the government should be watched. This is how police states begin. Fortunately in this case, wiser senior officers stepped in before things got out of hand.

Of course Slater is a highly controversial figure and a lot of people dislike him, but it’s cases like this that test our real commitment to free speech. As the left-wing American activist and writer Noam Chomsky has said, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” [For the record, I don't despise Slater, though there have been many occasions when I've wondered about his judgment.]

Speaking of Chomsky, a striking aspect of the speech wars is that they cut right across the traditional battle lines between left and right. It’s a fact of history that suppression of free speech has far more often been used against the left than the right, which probably explains why veteran leftists such as Chris Trotter and Matt McCarten are supporters of the Free Speech Union. Martyn Bradbury is another on the left who advocates forcefully for freedom of expression; there's no one more vigorous in his tormenting of the woke. 

The reality is that the enemies of free speech have no fixed ideology. Control is enforced with equal brutality whether it’s Nazi Germany or communist North Korea. The only thing the enemies of free speech have in common is a desire to exercise untrammelled power and to forcibly suppress any speech which threatens that power.

As it happens, the present threat to free speech in New Zealand doesn’t come from either the traditional left or the traditional right. It comes from a powerful new cohort that largely controls the national conversation. This cohort is dominant in politics, the bureaucracy, academia and the media and regards the exercise of free speech as serving the interests of the privileged. Free speech to them means licence to attack oppressed minorities and is therefore something to be deterred, if not by law then by denunciation and intimidation.

Depressingly, this group is entrenched in universities and libraries – institutions that have traditionally served as sources of free thought and access to knowledge. Libraries were at the forefront of the effort to shut down the feminist group Speak Up For Women, which was targeted by aggressive transgender activists because it opposed legislation allowing men to identify as female. It was only after this union went to court on the feminists’ behalf that libraries in several cities were forced to back down and allow them to hold public meetings.

A common factor in these instances is the belief that people have a right not to be offended and that this right takes precedence over the right to free speech. It’s as if the woke elements in society have developed an allergic reaction to the robust democracy that most of the people in this room grew up in, where vigorous debate was seen as an essential part of the contest of ideas that democracy depends on.

If a statement can possibly be interpreted as a slur against one’s gender, race, body type or sexual identity, it will be, no matter how innocent the intention of the person who made it. Apologies will be demanded and the ritual humiliation of the transgressor inevitably follows.

The purpose is clear: it sends a message to others that they will get similar treatment if they’re bold or foolish enough to challenge ideological orthodoxy. Yet paradoxically, the same people who insist on the right not to be upset don’t hesitate to engage in vicious online gang-ups and ad hominem attacks on anyone who disagrees with them.

A recurring theme in the speech wars is the notion of safety – not safety from physical danger, which is how most people understand the term, but safety from anything that might upset people or challenge their thinking.

Some of us first became aware of this phenomenon in 1991 when the Christchurch nursing student Anna Penn was effectively expelled from her course after being branded as “culturally unsafe”. Since then the highly inventive concept of “safety” has widened further, to the extent that it’s now invoked if there’s any risk that some fragile soul might feel psychologically damaged by something written or said.

This confected notion of safety was made explicit in law earlier this year when Parliament passed the so-called Safe Areas Act, under which people can be prohibited from maintaining protest vigils within 150 metres of any place where abortions are performed.

In this case the word safety had nothing to do with real threats of violence or intimidation. A pro-life group wrote to all the country’s district health boards asking if they had received any complaints about harassment or intimidation from staff or women attending abortion clinics. None had. In any case, the Law Commission had already advised the government that the legislation wasn’t necessary because existing laws had the situation covered.

As one pro-life activist said, the law change addressed a problem that didn’t exist. It was passed solely to reinforce an ideological shibboleth.

The Safe Areas Act was a test of this union’s commitment to free speech because the union had to disentangle the implications for free speech from the polarising issue of abortion, on which many of its members have conflicting opinions. But the union emphatically opposed the legislation and said in its submission, and I quote: “It is not the speech of the majority that requires vigilant protection. It is the speech of the few that must be jealously guarded.”

Regardless of your views about abortion, there are several worrying aspects of this new law. First, it appears to introduce a highly subjective concept of entitlement to protection against emotional distress.

Second, the anti-abortion group Voice for Life is concerned that it could create a precedent under which anti-abortion opinions could be classified as hate speech under proposed new laws that the government has so far kept under wraps.

Third, it creates the impression that the right to protest is subject to an ideological test. There are now two categories of protest group – those that are acceptable and those that aren’t.

The right to protest is conditional on the protest being one that those in power approve of. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that Parliament would pass a law creating safe zones for people attending defence industry seminars. Yet in 2019 one such conference was cancelled because the organisers, citing past experience with aggressive protesters, were concerned about the safety of delegates. Needless to say the cancellation was greeted triumphantly by the disrupters.

Safety, then, is a highly elastic concept – critically important for women attending abortion clinics, even if no risk of harm exists, but not a problem if those who feel threatened are white guys in suits.

The enemies of free speech are blind to the contradictions in their position. They bang on about the right to be safe but applaud aggressive and intimidating behaviour against people they don’t like. And they demand protection against hate speech while freely indulging in it themselves on Twitter and other social media platforms, their purpose being to bully people into silence.

You don’t have to look far to find evidence of other inconsistencies. Chloe Swarbrick apparently saw no contradiction last year in writing a newspaper column eloquently extolling the right to protest while voting to deny that same right to anti-abortion activists.

Similarly, Trevor Mallard and Chris Hipkins are both proud of having once been arrested for protest activity. Yet both supported the Safe Areas Bill and apparently saw no inconsistency in denying others a right they once vigorously asserted for themselves.

But perhaps the most shameful aspect of the Safe Areas Act was that it sailed through Parliament virtually unchallenged, save for a few courageous individual MPs – none more so than three from the Labour Party – who followed their consciences and voted against it.

To their lasting shame, National and ACT, the two parties that should have fought it, waved it through. If there are any representatives of those parties here tonight, I for one would be interested in hearing why they so cravenly rolled over. If National and ACT don’t believe in such a bedrock democratic value as free speech, we’re entitled to wonder what they do believe in.

Now if I may go slightly off-topic, I’d like to talk about the New Zealand media. It’s only slightly off-topic because free speech goes hand in hand with a free press - but it’s now clear that proponents of free speech in New Zealand can no longer rely on the media for support. That was made obvious when NZME, owners of the New Zealand Herald, refused to accept a perfectly lawful advertisement from Speak Up for Women. That advertisement consisted simply of the dictionary definition of “woman” as an “adult human female”, followed by the kicker line “Say no to sex self-identification”. Wildly inflammatory stuff, clearly – too hot by far for the Herald.

I can claim to be something of an authority on freedom of the press if only for the reason that I’ve written two books about it. Back then the concern was with threats to media freedom from outside sources, principally the state. But ironically we’re now in a position where I believe the New Zealand media abuse their own freedom.

They have fatally compromised their independence and their credibility by signing up to a government scheme under which they accept millions of dollars in taxpayer funding and in return commit themselves to abide by a set of ideological principles laid down by that same government.

Defenders of the Public Interest Journalism Fund justify it on the pretext that it enables the media to continue carrying out worthwhile public interest journalism at a time when the industry is financially precarious. They bristle with indignation at the suggestion that their integrity is compromised. But it is. You need only look at the projects approved for funding to grasp that this is essentially an opportunistic indoctrination project funded by taxpayers.

From a free speech standpoint, however, it’s the ideological uniformity of the media that is of even greater concern. The past two decades have seen a profound generational change in the media and a corresponding change in the industry ethos.

News outlets that previously took pride in being “broad church” – in other words, catering to and reflecting a wide range of interests and opinions – are now happy to serve as a vehicle for the prevailing ideology. They have abandoned their traditional role of trying to reflect the society they purport to serve. The playwright Arthur Miller’s definition of a good newspaper as a nation talking to itself is obsolete. The mainstream media are characterised by ideological homogeneity, reflecting the views of a woke elite and relentlessly promoting the polarising agenda of identity politics.

The implications for free speech are obvious. What was previously an important channel for the public expression of a wide range of opinions has steadily narrowed. Conservative voices are increasingly marginalised and excluded, ignoring the inconvenient fact that New Zealand has far more often voted right than left.

Dissenters still succeed in getting the occasional letter to the editor published, but most are forced to turn to online platforms; hence the growth of websites such as Kiwiblog, the BFD, Breaking Views and The Platform, which now fill the yawning gaps created by the mainstream media’s highly selective management of news and comment.

But it’s worse than that, because the prevailing ideological bias doesn’t just permeate editorials and opinion columns. Its influence can also be seen in the way the news is reported – in the stories that the media choose to cover, and perhaps more crucially in the issues they choose not to cover. The Maori co-governance proposals in Three Waters, for example.

Underlying this is another profound change. From the 1970s onward, journalism training – previously done on the job – was subject to academic capture. Many of today’s journalists were subject to highly politicised teaching that encouraged them to think their primary function was not so much to report on matters of interest and importance to the community as to challenge the institutions of power.

Principles such as objectivity were jettisoned, freeing idealistic young journalists to indulge in advocacy journalism, push pet causes and sprinkle their stories with loaded words such as racist, sexist, homophobic and misogynist. In the meantime, older journalists who adhered to traditional ideas of balance and objectivity have been methodically managed out of the industry.

Worse even than that, we now have mainstream media outlets that actively suppress stories as a matter of official editorial policy, and even boast about it. I’m thinking here of climate change, a subject on which major media organisations have collectively agreed not to give space or air time to anyone questioning global warming or even the efficacy of measures aimed at mitigating it. This would have been unthinkable 20 or even 10 years ago. People are bound to wonder what else the media are suppressing.

I want to conclude by saying I’ve been a journalist for more than fifty years and I’ve never felt that freedom of expression in New Zealand was in greater danger than it is now. Robert Muldoon was a tyrant who tried to bully the media into submission, but eventually journalists and editors stood up to him. In the past few years, however, we've gone backwards. We now live in a climate of authoritarianism and denunciation that chokes off the vibrant debate that sustains democracy, and tragically the media are part of the problem.

There are positive signs however, and this meeting is one of them. As I said at the start, the sheer speed and intensity of the culture wars caught the country off-guard. Ours is a fundamentally fair and decent society, eager to do the right thing and rightly wary of extremism. For a long time we stood back and allowed the assault on democratic values to proceed virtually unopposed. We were like a boxer temporarily stunned by a punch that we never saw coming.

But the fightback has begun and is steadily gaining momentum. In giddy moments of optimism I even sense that the tide might be turning in the media. Even the most cloth-eared media bosses must eventually realise they have alienated much of their core audience, as reflected in steadily declining newspaper circulation figures and in opinion surveys measuring trust in the media.

To finish, and to remind us of what’s at stake, I want to quote words that may already be familiar to some of you. They came from the courageous Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller, who spent time in Nazi concentration camps for his opposition to Hitler’s regime:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist.

“Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.

“Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

“Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Thank you.

Footnote: ACT MP James McDowall, who was at the FSU meeting, responded to an invitation from Jonathan Ayling of the FSU to explain why ACT MPs all supported Louisa Wall’s Safe Areas Act. The combination of a muddy microphone and my lousy hearing meant I didn’t clearly hear what he said, but I gather he defended his party by pointing out it was ACT that engineered the removal of the Safe Areas provision from the original Abortion Legislation amendment bill when it came before the House in 2020, citing concerns about the need to strike the right balance between defending free speech and protecting women from harassment. My response to that would be: having done that, which was laudable, why then perform an apparent about-face by voting for Wall’s bill when it came before the House as a separate piece of legislation? ACT apparently believed the Wall bill got the balance right. I disagree, and so did nine National MPs, to their great credit. It struck me as a pragmatic move on ACT’s part, inconsistent with the party’s supposed commitment to individual freedom, and I can’t help wondering whether it had something to do with David Seymour’s antagonism toward the anti-abortion lobby.

You can join the Free Speech Union at www.fsu.nz

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Journalists' offence detectors were switched off

When Scott Morrison says he was blessed not to have any disabled children, there’s an outcry. The media are constantly waiting to pounce on the Australian prime minister for any injudicious word or phrase, no matter how harmless the intent.

Yet when Jacinda Ardern is reunited with a former Japanese homestay pupil who stayed with the Ardern family 30-odd years ago and comments that “I grew up to be taller than you”, no one thinks to complain that she has belittled short people.

Of course no one should, because it was an innocent remark. Yet the contrast is revealing.

Morrison wasn’t callously asserting some imagined privilege or suggesting that parents with disabled children weren’t themselves blessed. Only people who are ideologically programmed to take offence – which, unfortunately, means most journalists – would have interpreted it that way.

Politicians are constantly at risk of making make off-the-cuff comments without considering how they might be wilfully misconstrued by opportunistic opponents and hostile media. They’re human, after all. But obviously the reporters who witnessed the meeting between Ardern and Madoka Watanabe had turned off their offence detectors for the day.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Making it up as they go

I sent the following letter this morning to my local paper:

Two phrases bring out the cynic in me. One is “joined-up government”. The other is “wrap-around support”. Both are ideals that are more easily talked about than fulfilled.

Reading the extraordinarily vague and woolly explanation of how the new health system is supposed to work, I fully expected to see at least one of those expressions.

Sure enough, there it was: “For example, it will be easier for someone’s GP to work with their in-home care nurse and pharmacist so they receive the wrap-around care they need” (Health New Zealand “interim localities lead” Martin Hefford).

From my observation, “wrap-around care” rarely lives up to its promise. Reality usually gets in the way. But we have a generation of politicians and bureaucrats who seem to think that as long as they get the jargon right, everything else will fall into place.

All reformist politicians have an urge to re-invent the wheel and thus bestow their own legacy, but I think we should be deeply sceptical about the extravagant promises being made for the new system.

Based on what we’ve been told so far, it looks as if its creators are making it up as they go. Good luck with that, as they say.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Free Speech Union event; the only catch is that you have to listen to me

Readers of this blog who live in or near Wellington may be interested to know that the Free Speech Union, of which I’m a member, is hosting an event in the city next Thursday evening. 

I’m the speaker, but please don’t let that put you off attending. I can’t recall a time when the defence of free speech – a cause that cuts across the usual dividing lines between Left and Right – was more urgent.

The event will be held in Lecture Theatre 2 at the Pipitea campus of Victoria University (aka Rutherford House, the high-rise building immediately adjacent to the bus shelters near the railway station). I understand the doors will open at 5.45 for a 6pm start and it should all be over shortly after 7pm. Admission is gratis.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Hallucinatory moments of optimism

Notwithstanding everything I wrote on this blog site yesterday about contemporary journalism (none of which I resile from), there are days when, in insane moments of giddy optimism, I imagine that the tide might be turning after years of largely sycophantic media coverage of the government.

Take last night’s edition of Newshub’s 6 o’clock news, in which the first item put the heat on the government over the alarming and apparently uncontrollable surge in inflation. Here was a news outlet doing exactly what the media are supposed to do in a liberal democracy: namely, report on issues that affect the community and hold those in power accountable.  

That report was followed by politically damaging coverage of the government’s refusal to ease harsh MIQ requirements, with heartbreaking consequences for the thousands of people affected, even after Ministry of Health officials had advised that it was safe to do so.

Later came an item asking why the government was dragging the chain over the resumption of economically beneficial cruise ship visits when comparable countries, notably Australia, have given them the green light.

All this seemed to represent a striking change in tone from Newshub’s usual political coverage. Admittedly the channel has exposed politically embarrassing issues before – most notably the glaring discrepancies between the government’s glib assurances about the steps it was taking to contain Covid-19 and what was actually happening on the ground, as revealed repeatedly by special issues reporter Michael Morrah.

But otherwise in the four and a half years since Jacinda Ardern became prime minister, it’s been hard to shake the impression that Newshub’s political journalists, along with those in other media organisations, have consistently given the government an easy ride while mercilessly hounding some of Ardern’s opponents (shamefully in the case of Tova O’Brien’s pursuit of the hapless Judith Collins).

Though it may be hallucinatory on my part, there have been other occasions recently when I thought I detected a subtle change in the tone of political coverage overall. I get the impression the media generally are now more actively publishing news that reflects unfavourably on the government (such as the scandal over multimillion-dollar tourism grants that appear to have been handed out selectively to companies that didn’t need them) when previously they were disinclined to do so.

If that’s the case, it could be due to a couple of things. Perhaps media decision-makers have taken note of recent surveys showing a continuing decline in public trust in the media, which has never been high even at the best of times. Alternatively, the sheer weight and volume of anti-media comment online may have reached a level they can no longer ignore. There must come a point, after all, when the self-preservation instinct kicks in.

A caveat to all the above is that the media continue to let the government off the hook over Covid-19 in one very specific respect. In the early stages of the pandemic, a single death was headline news. Now deaths occur daily in double figures and the total figure creeps steadily upward – to 602 at latest count, although we still compare favourably internationally (110 deaths per million compared with 263 in Australia).

Given the country’s continuing fixation with Covid, the media fleetingly pass over the death toll in a strikingly matter-of-fact tone, almost as if it’s no longer of any consequence. We are given no details other than age bands and location by region; nothing to show how many deaths were due to Covid or merely happened to coincide with the presence of the virus, and nothing to indicate whether those who died had pre-existing conditions and if so, what they were.  

I’ve heard it speciously argued that this is a matter of respecting people’s privacy, but privacy rules apply only where individuals might be identified – not an issue in this instance, since no one needs to know the names of those who have died.

It seems nothing changes in politics and the bureaucracy. Just as the Official Information Act is still constantly thwarted after 40 years, so secretive officials continue to use the Privacy Act as an excuse to suppress information of public interest. So much for the open society.

Deaths from Covid are a matter of public importance. Why does the government appear to be drawing a veil over them, and why do the media let them get away with it?

 

 

 

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Journalists then and now

It seems to be the season for journalism memoirs.

My old friend and former colleague Jon Morgan recently published Newspaper Man, a book covering a long career that culminated in a stellar turn as farming editor of the Dominion Post (a position that no longer exists, despite the paper’s wide rural distribution). Jon’s book initially had a very limited circulation list but I gather there’s a reprint on the way.

Now another old mate, Jim Tucker, former editor of the late, lamented Auckland Star and tutor to hundreds of journalism students, has weighed in with Flair and Loathing on the Front Page, Volume One of an intended three-volume memoir. (Only three, Jim? Surely you can do better than that.) Readers of this blog may have heard Jim interviewed by Kim Hill on her Playing Favourites segment last Saturday.

Both books are self-published and unlikely to be best sellers, but will be of interest to journalists and ex-journos of a certain age, along with the type of people who follow this blog and regret the passing of an era when journalism adhered to values and principles now too often considered a quaint hangover from what's patronisingly labelled "legacy" media.

Tucker and Morgan have both paid their dues, in American parlance. Their books capture the tone and ethos of a time when budding journalists entered the trade (as it was then commonly regarded) straight from school and learned on the job. They were trained to observe principles of fairness, thoroughness, accuracy and balance and if they fell short, were sharply pulled into line by bosses who today would almost certainly be fired for bullying. (Not all, incidentally, were male. Both Tucker and Morgan mention a legendary Taranaki Herald martinet named June Litman – Tucker in admiring terms, Morgan less so.)

Many became journalists for no better reason than that they were good at English in school, or at least better at English than any other subject (that was me), and thought journalism sounded more interesting than being a school teacher or bank teller, albeit not as well paid. They had no academic pretensions and wouldn’t have dreamed of inserting personal opinions into their work. That was strictly reserved for editorials.

The two books also capture a time when many reporters began their careers on provincial papers and even in branch offices, working in towns such as Hawera and Taumarunui. There was nothing remotely glamorous or exciting about reporting meetings of county councils or catchment boards, but that was what the job typically entailed, and it served the vital purpose of keeping communities informed on matters of local importance. Branch office reporters were expected to provide knowledgeable coverage of sporting fixtures too, since sport – and especially rugby – was a defining aspect of community identity.

No one had heard of Woodward and Bernstein then – and even if they had, no lowly reporter nurtured fantasies about bringing down governments or acting as an agent of political change. The days when aspiring journalists were taught that their mission was to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" (a popular refrain among politically motivated journalism lecturers in a later era*) were yet to come.

The reminiscences of Tucker and Morgan also recall a time when newspaper newsrooms were, in some important respects, more diverse demographically than now. For one thing, there was a much wider age range. Ambitious young thrusters were counter-balanced by the influence of older, more mature heads. On the first papers I worked for, reporters’ ages ranged from teenage (I started at 17) to 60-plus. And while women were under-represented, it’s a myth that female journalists were confined to the ghetto of the women’s pages. Some occupied key news reporting roles or (as in the case of June Litman) worked on the "top table" or the sub-editors’ desk.

Reporters’ copy was subjected to unsparing critical scrutiny by sub-editors, most of them old hands, who checked for accuracy, clarity, balance and grammatical correctness – a vital form of quality control swept away in the 21st century in the fanciful expectation that reporters could edit themselves. Proof readers, the last line of defence against error, were declared superfluous too. We are now presented every day with abject evidence of how well that experiment turned out. (A small example from my local paper this morning: “edition” instead of “addition” in the first line of a news story. Oh, and "hair and hound" from Saturday's Dominion  Post.)

And here’s another thing. Many of the journalists I worked with during the first decades of my career came from working-class or lower middle-class backgrounds. Many grew up in state houses. They had limited educational qualifications (in some cases, none at all – not even School Certificate) and no academic aspirations. Indeed, they often took pride in journalism being described as a trade rather than a profession. 

It was the tail-end of the era of the self-educated, working-class intellectual, a good few of whom found their way into journalism. University degrees were rare and those who held them were viewed almost with suspicion. When I joined Wellington's Evening Post as a teenager in 1968, there were several dozen journalists in the newsroom and I can think of only one (Geoff Walker, who later became a leader of the anti-Springbok tour movement and a high-profile figure in publishing) who may have had letters after his name.

But from the 1970s onward, journalism training was progressively subjected to academic capture until eventually the traditional career path straight from school was cut off altogether. No one can guess how many potentially good journalists were put off because they didn’t fancy spending a year in the classroom, too often under tutors of poor quality who had little track record in journalism themselves.

If anything, the process known as credentials creep (i.e. the constant cranking up of the required qualifications) has become even more pronounced in recent years as vocationally-oriented one-year diploma courses are supplanted by full-blown degree courses with a more academic focus. Has there been a commensurate improvement in the quality of journalism? You be the judge. On matters of basic general knowledge and even in their command of the English language, many of today's reporters appear bone-ignorant.

By comparison with the past, and contrary to the prevailing fetish for diversity, today’s newsrooms (and I’m not talking only about newspapers) appear strikingly homogeneous, dominated as they are by journalists who are overwhelmingly youngish, university-educated and who come, I suspect, from predominantly middle-class backgrounds. Older journalists who brought balance, maturity and perspective to news coverage have been deliberately and methodically eased out. Old-school scepticism (another former colleague of mine, the late Frank Haden, reckoned journalists should “doubt everything with gusto”) has been replaced by bright-eyed idealism that is conveniently compatible with “progressive” politics.

This is not exclusively a New Zealand phenomenon, as American journalist Batya Ungar-Sargon makes clear in her recent book Bad News: How Woke Media is Undermining Democracy. Ungar-Sargon, the deputy opinion editor at Newsweek and a Marxist, writes: “The story of 20th century American journalism is essentially the story of a status revolution. Journalism used to be a blue collar trade; it was a working class job that you didn't go to college in order to learn how to do. You picked it up on the job, and it was considered a sort of low status job. And journalists very much saw themselves as being outside the system, fighting for the little guy. But then journalists started to increasingly go to universities and climbed up the status ladder. Essentially today's journalists have become part of the system. They are part of the American elite. Journalism is now produced for and by elites as opposed to a journalism once produced by and for the working class.” (You can hear Ungar-Sargon interviewed by RNZ’s Jesse Mulligan here, in a rare example of the state broadcaster giving air time to someone who is implicitly critical of its own unabashedly elitist culture.)

Not enough has been written about this transformation and its profound impact on how public opinion is shaped. The “woke” takeover of journalism, as Ungar-Sargon characterises it, permeates almost every aspect of news coverage and commentary, from what the media choose to cover (and just as crucially, what they decide to ignore) through to the way the news is presented and the editorial tone in which it’s reported, all of which tends to reinforce prevailing ideological orthodoxy.

But the picture is not entirely bleak. The mainstream media are still capable of presenting us with exemplary journalism that tackles big issues thoroughly, impartially and fairly. Christchurch Press reporter Philip Matthews’ examination last Saturday of the Three Waters project was a case in point. It was all the more impressive because I believe the natural inclination of the journalist concerned (who occasionally pays me the great compliment of sniping at me on Twitter) is to lean sharply to the left.

Such stories happen often enough to keep alive the hope that traditional journalism values are still honoured – at least some of the time – and even that some people in the media, realising how much they have alienated their core audience, may now be trying to engage reverse gear. But whether they happen often enough to reverse declining trust in journalism is another matter.

*The expression originated with a fictional character and was used chiefly for humorous effect, but bizarrely came to be regarded as a serious journalistic maxim.

 

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

The steady march of American vernacular

On a scale of atrocities running from one to 10, misuse of the language usually warrants no more than a 2. Yet New Zealand English is a defining aspect of our unique culture and one I believe the media should try to honour and preserve.

One linguistic irritant that I see with increasing frequency is the American term “lawmaker”. Even when referring to the British House of Commons, New Zealand media now routinely refer to “lawmakers” as opposed to Members of Parliament.

It’s lazy form of journalistic shorthand that has gained currency because of the all-pervasive reach of American media. There are no MPs in the United States, so for the benefit of their domestic audience, American journalists writing about politics in other countries use the same term that they apply to senators and members of the House of Representatives. The word then finds it way into our news columns and bulletins via American news services.

There was a time when conscientious New Zealand sub-editors coming across “lawmaker” as a synonym for MP in overseas news stories would have changed it to conform to local usage, but media outlets no longer bother with such niceties. It’s probably only a matter of time before our own press gallery reporters, eager to appear ahead of the curve, start using the same terminology to describe our elected representatives (that is, if it hasn’t happened already).

The march of American vernacular is as relentless as that of American fast-food brands. Thus yachts become sail boats, walking and cycling tracks become trails, swimming tournaments become swim meets, biscuits become cookies, mates become buddies and trampers (a term that Microsoft Word doesn't recognise) become hikers. I’ve even heard the folksy “oftentimes” used as a synonym for “often”.

As I wrote in a column in 2013, New Zealand has developed its own rich, colourful and often highly inventive vocabulary – a variant of the English language that’s uniquely ours. We should do all we can to repel intruders.

Monday, April 11, 2022

Break out those Tui billboards

Well, hello. The latest Edelman Trust Barometer contains possibly the least surprising research findings so far this century. It confirms that New Zealanders are losing, or have already lost, faith in the media.

The barometer, which surveyed 36,000 people in 28 countries, found that governments and the media internationally are fuelling a “cycle of distrust”. Both institutions are seen as divisive, a finding unlikely to come as a revelation to any vaguely sentient human being.

Perhaps most significant is the finding, reported here by Pattrick Smellie of BusinessDesk [paywalled], that 55 per cent of New Zealanders regard the media as a divisive force, against 23 per cent who see it as unifying. The corresponding split globally is 46/35, meaning New Zealanders are far more likely than citizens of other countries to view their media as agents of polarisation.

This underlines a striking trend in recent years for the mainstream media in New Zealand to align themselves consciously and deliberately with causes that they must know alienate a large proportion of their readers, viewers and listeners. Call it slow-motion suicide.

The bigger picture is that the media have abandoned their traditional role of trying to reflect the society they purport to serve in favour of advocating on behalf of divisive and often extremist minority causes. By doing so they create a perception of New Zealand not as a cohesive, stable society made up of diverse groups with vital interests in common, but as one characterised by aggrieved minorities whose interests are fundamentally incompatible with those of a callously indifferent (or worse, deliberately oppressive) majority.  

Media outlets that once tried conscientiously to provide a platform for a range of opinions and ideologies now unashamedly attack, or just as insidiously ignore, views and beliefs that run counter to the narrative favoured by the leftist cabal that controls the institutions of power. The most obvious example is the collective undertaking by major media organisations to ignore any opinion, including those of distinguished scientists, that runs counter to the “approved” narrative on climate change or the effectiveness of policies intended to ameliorate it.

Such flagrant suppression of news would have been unthinkable not long ago. Now it’s official editorial policy.

The Edelman Barometer confirms that overall trust in the New Zealand media remains low at 41 per cent (although it’s up slightly on recent years) compared with 50 per cent internationally. Again, this is hardly a surprise when media independence has been fatally compromised by the industry’s acceptance of tainted government money via the Public Interest Journalism Fund, aka the Pravda Project.

This rort hasn’t gone unnoticed by the public. The latest findings of the Auckland University of Technology annual Trust in Media report, which are also reported by Smellie, reveal a continuing decline in trust – down from 53 to 45 per cent – and quote some respondents as saying the reason for their distrust is that the media are funded by the government and politically influenced by it.

One finding of the Edelman report that should particularly alarm media leaders (but won’t, because they are in denial) is that 64 percent of respondents thought New Zealand journalists purposely tried to mislead people by saying things they know are false or grossly exaggerated. This is a predictable result when journalists are given licence to use the news columns as platforms for their ideological agendas.

As an occupational group, journalists have long tended to lean to the left. Earlier generations of reporters countered this by restraining their natural impulses, knowing that media credibility hinged on public confidence that events and issues would be covered fairly, accurately and impartially. That professional discipline is long gone, along with the moderating influence exercised by editors who insisted on the now highly unfashionable principle of objectivity.

We are bombarded daily with politically slanted content masquerading as trustworthy and authoritative reportage. A recent example was an episode of the New Zealand Herald’s newly launched podcast The Front Page (which claims to “go behind the headlines” and ask “hard-hitting questions”), in which Herald journalists Damien Venuto and Georgina Campbell purported to examine the Three Waters project (which they reported in very positive terms) without once mentioning its most contentious feature – namely, the proposal for 50/50 co-governance with iwi.

“High-quality, trusted” coverage as promised by Herald managing editor Shayne Currie? It's time to revive the Tui billboards, surely.

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Getting away from it all (well, almost)

My wife and I have been on a two-week journey of rediscovery around the South Island/Te Wai Pounamu.

I say rediscovery because none of the places we visited were new to us, though it was a few years since we’d been to some of them and I was curious to see whether they’d changed and if so, whether the changes were for the better.

We took our time, which meant we were able to detour to places of interest that we’d skipped before – for example, the memorial at the scene of the seven fatal shootings perpetrated by Stanley Graham in 1941 at Kowhitirangi, near Hokitika, and the Hokitika Gorge, which is conveniently located at the end of the same road.

Mist hung low over the bush-clad Doughboy Hill where the manhunt for Graham was centred, creating a suitably spooky atmosphere. Graham was dropped by a single shot from a police rifle as he emerged from cover. He died in Hokitika Hospital.

The memorial, erected in 2008, stands in front of the site of Graham’s home, where the mayhem started when the police tried to confiscate his rifles. The house was deliberately burned down soon after the event but the district hall, where the manhunt was based, still stands across the road and the sleepy farming district is little changed from when Graham (who is buried in the Hokitika cemetery under a headstone that simply says “Stanley”) went on his rampage*.

A much longer detour took us to Jackson Bay, which is as far as you can drive on the West Coast. We had lunch at the Cray Pot, a cafĂ© that operates out of a shipping container on the water’s edge. I ordered whitebait and my wife had blue cod and chips, two dishes that travel writers would probably describe as iconic in this part of the world.

The West Coast towns presented a mixed picture. Some that we might have expected to be on their last legs – Reefton and Hokitika, for example – gave the impression of thriving, or at least doing okay. Both make the most of their colourful histories and are lively little places with loads of character.

Greymouth, on the other hand, was a dismal sight.  It looked drab, tired and in desperate need of resuscitation. Whatever elixir Reefton and Hokitika have ingested, Greymouth could do with some of it.

Franz Josef seemed to be holding on, but barely. The revival of international tourism can’t come too soon for towns full of motels displaying vacancy signs.

On the eastern side of the Haast Pass, it was a very different story. The Lakes District, encompassing Wanaka and Queenstown, is an area of rampant, runaway growth. I was staggered by the extent of the Five Mile development near Queenstown, very little of which existed the last time I was there only seven years ago.

Sadly but perhaps inevitably, developers appear to have done their best to eradicate any trace of New Zealandness around Queenstown. If you didn’t occasionally glance up at the Remarkables or Coronet Peak, you could be in almost any congested international resort town.

Te Anau was much more to our liking. There’s been a lot of growth there too, but the town is essentially unchanged. Long may it remain that way.

Our homeward leg took us through Dunedin (looking rundown, but still full of appealing southern character), Timaru (deathly quiet on a Thursday morning) and Christchurch (also eerily quiet in the CBD and still not fully recovered from the earthquakes, but with several funky eating and drinking precincts that were humming on a Friday night).  

What else to report? For one thing, mile after mile after mile of jaw-droppingly scenic roads that were mostly empty (great for drivers, not so good for the tourist trade). Oh, and bikes everywhere. There’s a new demographic cohort that I call oobs: oldies on bikes. Every second vehicle had a bike rack on the back or the roof and I’d hazard a guess that the owners were rediscovering the pleasure of cycling after a break of several decades. Most of the bikes were battery-assisted and their riders were accessoried up the wazoo (whatever that expression might mean).

Of course, one other great benefit of being on the road for a couple of weeks is that you can delude yourself that you’re insulated against all the vexatious things that confront you at home. But even on holiday you can’t completely escape the culture wars.

To take one tiny example, I heard RNZ’s early-morning host Nathan Rarere, whom I normally quite like (a statement that could be the kiss of death to his career), sneering at the use of the word “woke”. According to Rarere, “woke” has taken over where the phrase “political correctness gone mad” left off.  In other words, anyone using the term can safely be derided as just another angry old man shouting at clouds.

I happen to agree that “woke” is a wholly inadequate word for the wide range of noxious and divisive neo-Marxist ideologies that it seeks to capture, but until someone comes up with something better we’re stuck with it.

More to the point, it’s a classic tactic of the new Left, having vigorously (and so far, with media backing, very successfully) pushed ideas and policies that many New Zealanders find fundamentally repugnant, to then ridicule their opponents for adopting terminology – whatever terminology that might be – which attempts to alert people to the reality of what’s happening.

Language is central in the culture wars and if you invalidate the words that enable people to articulate their concerns, you strip them of an essential weapon. By characterising users of terms such as “woke” and “political correctness” as alarmist, out of touch and jumping at their own shadows, the neo-Marxist Left seeks to minimise the implications of its radical agenda. The perception that New Zealand democracy is being systematically dismantled as part of a grand ideological project can then be presented as a figment of fevered right-wing imaginations.

Conservative New Zealanders tend to be reticent at the best of times, and are even more likely to keep their views to themselves if they fear being ridiculed for using the wrong words. Some of these people may even listen to RNZ in the quaint misbelief that it exists for all New Zealanders. Does Nathan Rarere realise this? I’m sure he does.

*Manhunt: The Story of Stanley Graham, by Howard Willis (published in 1979) is an excellent account of the tragedy.