New Zealand, under Jacinda Adern has taken a leaf out of the copybook of 1930’s Stalinist Russia along with denunciations and informers (with the sole difference that people are not being taken round to the back of a shed and shot in the back of the head, but reputations are being actively destroyed.
Be careful what you wish for: silencing others in the name of ‘stopping extremists’
As Simon Sinek famously claimed ‘people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.’ Why do we stand so passionately for free speech, which necessarily includes speech we fundamentally disagree with? Because history has shown us that time and time again, the alternative to free speech, ultimately, is violence.
Unfortunately, this may be what we are re-learning in New Zealand.
Two weeks ago, Stuff released an investigative documentary into the disinformation in New Zealand which allegedly led to the protest at Parliament in March: Fire and Fury. Stuff reporter Paula Penfold considered the role of organisations like Counterspin and Voices for Freedom, and prominent individuals such as Chantelle Baker, Carlene Hereora, and Kelvyn Alp in manipulating hundreds of thousands.
In an op-ed Penfold wrote on the documentary, she opens by saying ‘The Stuff Circuit documentary Fire and Fury is a confronting watch.’ Well, at least we agree on one thing- but probably for different reasons.
Not only is this documentary confronting, frankly, it was an unpleasant hour as Penfold essentially progresses a thesis that hatred, violence, and the death of democracy are inevitable if individuals like those named above get to keep saying their piece. It seems that in all the reporting on anger against the Government, or journalists and media, it has never occurred to Penfold and her team that the reason there is such anger is because people feel their voice is being taken away.
The anger and frustration has not come out of being allowed to express themselves openly- it has come because they believe they no longer have this liberty.
As Rachel Stewart wrote, ‘I forced myself to watch but it was a tough task. Seeing something so amateur, blatantly biased, and borderline defamatory from a journalist who was once respected, wasn’t easy. The gleeful “othering” of her fellow New Zealanders was also deeply nauseating, and the emotive music steered you decisively towards the “bad guys”.’
Penfold intentionally didn’t hear from the other side. She claims, ‘We didn’t approach them. That’s a really unusual editorial decision and I don’t know that we’ve ever taken that decision before, I think it is unprecedented for us. But it was obviously a very considered decision because in this instance we wanted our documentary to be the right of reply to what they’ve already said in the public domain.’
She continued on to note ‘When you’re reporting on far-right dangerous speech you do not give them a right of reply because that elevates them.’
Who gets to decide what constitutes ‘far-right dangerous speech’? Penfold, obviously. She gets to decide.
In an article on The Platform, journalist Graham Adams claims, ‘Rather than investigate the myriad and complex reasons for the “mistrust and anarchy” she witnessed in Wellington, Penfold’s single drum beat was the notion that most of those opposed to the mandates or who went to the protests were in thrall to right-wing extremists and white supremacists’.
All this begs an obvious question, what of those who were not from the Right at the protest? What about those who were not white, like former-Maori Party MP Marama Fox? What about those who weren’t extremists, or did simply supporting the protest make you an extremist? It’s worth remembering the results of a Horizon poll published on February 18 that showed 30 per cent of New Zealanders supported the protest. As Adams notes, ‘That’s well over a million New Zealanders who the documentary makers imply were deluded, along with the thousands who camped outside Parliament for more than three weeks.’
‘You’d have to say that a lot of the footage she presented revealed a crew of very brown white supremacists. Of course, Penfold had a predictable explanation for that awkward fact — they were obviously duped by the aforementioned white supremacists and right-wing extremists.This would be a dangerous conclusion for a white woman to come to but, fortunately for her, that deeply patronising view of Maori had a champion in the form of Khylee Quince, the Maori dean of law at AUT.’
Let me be clear, the Free Speech Union is disturbed and concerned by commentary like Fire and Fury, though not because we were in favour of the protest or opposed mandates. We were neither, as we don’t take positions on substantive issues. We are disturbed by this documentary because whenever so much effort is put into discrediting the speech or perspectives of others by labelling and name-calling, rather than through reason and dialogue, free speech is a casualty.
Through Fire and Fury, and other similar attacks on provocative or unconventional opinions, Penfold and her fearmongering colleagues unfortunately are setting the scene for a self-fulfilling prophecy that does lead to great polarisation, and potentially more violence. The best alternatives to this are found in open dialogue, by giving the other side a chance to speak, and by avoiding name-calling and playing the argument and not the speaker, the ball, and not the man.
Justice delayed, justice denied? Ministry of Justice don’t want to talk about the hate speech consultation
After 13 months of putting pressure on the Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Justice has finally released the numbers of those who were for and against the hate speech proposals that were put out in July last year.
The responses make for an interesting read. Unfortunately, they were only given to us under the condition that we not share them until a report on the consultation process is released. Transparency at its finest.
In both New Zealand law and international human rights law, free speech guarantees the right to access information. The results of this public consultation have been hidden away for 13 months, and then only partially released after the Ombudsman required it. Is it just me or does it make you think they have something to hide?
When the hate speech proposals were first released, the Minister of Justice wanted them to be law before Christmas. 14 months later, and the Government still can’t confirm whether they intend to scrap them or not. One thing’s for certain, though, the results to the proposals (read, Kiwis’ views on the proposals) weren’t what they wanted.
We’ve already told you that the Free Speech Union coordinated 80% of the submissions against the hate speech laws, calling on the Government to respect their free speech. If the Government lines up to take another grab at what Kiwis can think or say, we’ll have the exact same response ready to go- bugger off.
Meeting with senior leadership at Massey University a positive step forward
Following the release of our University Ranking Report, which following our First Annual Academic Freedom survey in March, the Free Speech Union was invited last week to sit down with Vice-Chancellor Jan Thomas at Massey University to discuss a redrafting of their Free Speech Policy.
Despite ranking 6th out of 8 universities in the country, we were very pleased to see Massey University using this opportunity to address weaknesses in the ways they have dealt with free speech in the past. Of course, Vice-Chancellor Thomas was personally responsible for Don Brash being barred from speaking at Massey University in 2018, and earlier this year, 33% of academics at Massey rated their ‘ability to discuss ideas related to the Treaty of Waitangi’ as 0-2.5 out of 10; effectively ‘very unfree’.
While there’s still work to do with Massey, and each of our universities, where so much antagonism against free speech is taught, the Free Speech Union is making meaningful progress, sitting down with the most senior leaders to make sure this is a priority.
Podcasts and articles from the Free Speech Union
– This week on the Free Speech Union podcast, volunteer Daphna Whitmore sits down with the Executive Director of the Maxim Institute, Tim Wilson (of TV1 fame) to discuss his article No Womb, No View, exploring how and why open debate about abortion is so fraught.
– Free Speech Union Council Member, Dane Giraud, also penned a spicy article for The Platform following the attack on Salman Rushdie: The only killers who deserve our respect are those who kill on the page.
– Some content from one of our younger supporters, Tomas O’Brien, a second year law student at Otago University, reflects on our recent Union meeting and the need for everyone to contribute for free speech to meet its potential (this is one you want to read).
– If you’re looking for some content on free speech from futher abroad, this article in the Atlantic advances a central theme to our work here at the Free Speech Union ‘Freedom doesn’t belong to a political party, and it’s not the tool of the powerful; it’s the tool of the powerless.’
Whether its meeting with senior university leaders, holding the Government to account on legislation, representing employees in disputes with censorious bosses, or arguing for free speech in content we release, the Free Speech Union is hard at work. For the size of our team, we’ve had massive wins, but we can’t do it without you.
Penfold’s Fire and Fury is just one example of of those who want to undermine free speech and silence dissent. Our commitment is that we’ll stand with you, to be able to use your free speech to argue your case, if you keep standing with us. Would you pitch in today to keep our work going? Whether $50 or $500, this fight takes all of us.
Thank you for your support.
Free Speech Union
P.S. Protecting free speech isn’t free. Unlike so many of the opponents of free speech (like the media with their $55 million slush fund), we are not funded by the Government or politicians. We’re relying on your support.