Sunday, July 10, 2011

Karl du Fresne: Not a good week for free speech

New Zealand has been stricken by the most serious outbreak yet of the highly contagious condition I call acute sensitivity disorder.

Not all women were blinded by fury at what Alasdair Thompson said about menstruation affecting women's productivity. Some thought the outcry was grossly disproportionate to the supposed insult. But few people of either sex were prepared to stick up for Mr Thompson - not because they thought that what he said was indefensible, but because they were intimidated into silence by the howling of the lynch mob.

A high-profile Auckland businesswoman - a solo mother - told me she wanted to support Mr Thompson because she thought he had been unfairly pilloried, but she wouldn't take the risk of saying anything publicly.

That illustrates how easily free speech and public debate can be stifled when the vengeful mob takes over. This was Hitler's technique: to frighten opponents into submission with such an overwhelming show of force that no-one dared dissent. Mr Thompson was abandoned even by his spineless board of directors.

Worse still, elements of the media were complicit in this, stoking the flames of outrage and orchestrating the vilification of a man whose worst sin seems to be that he sometimes shoots his mouth off.

Many female journalists couldn't see past their own indignation. The professional obligation to report the issue fairly and dispassionately was discarded.

TV3 in particular savaged and mocked Mr Thompson, jettisoning all pretence of neutrality and abandoning the once-sacrosanct principle of separating reportage from opinion. Not a pretty sight.

I wonder how many of Mr Thompson's attackers - including a former prime minister who apparently suffers from the delusion that she's still the Queen Bee - took the trouble to watch the unedited version of his 28-minute interview with Mihingarangi Forbes from Campbell Live, in which he attempted to clarify his views on the disparity between men's and women's pay rates. (You needed to watch the whole thing online because TV3 broadcast only four minutes that showed Mr Thompson reacting to provocation by a reporter whose interest was solely in what he had said about women's periods.)

Nothing Mr Thompson said was belittling to women. He didn't say men were better workers (quite the contrary, in fact), and there was nothing to suggest that he thought the 12 per cent pay disparity between the sexes was a desirable state of affairs.

Much of what he said simply reflected the reality of the employment market: for example, that women are more likely than men to take time off when children are sick, and that many women's careers are interrupted by motherhood, with a consequent impact on their earning potential.

The worst he can be accused of is that he made a careless generalisation in the initial radio discussion and didn't have facts to support it. But he was howled down so deafeningly that public figures in future will think very carefully before expressing a view on anything, and good people who might otherwise be tempted to enter public life may decide it's just not worth the grief.

All of which is good for the control freaks who want to dictate what we think and say, but bad for democracy.


Ray said...

Is it possible that the EMA got rid of him merely to remove any possible link between what he said and what the some EMA members practice in business?

John C - Whangarei said...

Meanwhile another gaggle of hens (aka New Zealand College of Midwives) laid a few eggs in their tizz over the cover of the North and South.

Way to go girls, how to wave the professional women's flag, with balls like men's, in the pursuit of equal pay. Not!