Thursday, August 9, 2018

Karl du Fresne: Arthur Miller's epigram no longer holds true


One of the most striking points to emerge from the free-speech furore has been the failure of the media to reflect public opinion.

In my column in the Dominion Post today, I noted that a Newshub poll – not a scientific opinion sample, but still an indication of what the public was thinking – showed that 78 percent of New Zealanders thought Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux should be allowed into the country. (This was when their immigration status was still in doubt.)

It can be inferred from this that the majority of people believed the Canadians should be allowed to speak here – and more to the point, that we should be allowed to hear what they had to say so that we could make up our own minds about whether their views were harmful or hateful.

But you would never have guessed this from commentaries in the mainstream media, which were overwhelmingly hostile to Southern and Molyneux. As I wrote in my column, an outsider would have formed the impression that New Zealanders were united in their distaste for the visitors. Those who spoke out in defence of free speech, such as Don Brash, were generally caricatured by the media commentariat as pathetic dinosaurs and even as a threat to public safety.

There is a jarring disjunction here. The American playwright Arthur Miller famously defined a good newspaper as a nation talking to itself, but something has gone seriously wrong when the media seem so demonstrably out of touch with what ordinary people are thinking – and worse, when some in the media treat those they disapprove of with sneering contempt, lazily labelling them as racists without attempting to answer their arguments.

There is no rule that says the media should fall into line with popular opinion (God forbid), but they do have some obligation to reflect it, especially if they wish to remain credible.

To be fair, the picture improved markedly with media coverage of Massey University’s decision to ban Brash, which resulted in some spirited (if somewhat belated) defences of free speech. But Massey’s authoritarian edict was such an egregious affront to democracy that it could hardly be ignored.

And even then, some in the media couldn’t help parading their bias. Today’s Morning Report included a travesty of a panel discussion in which the three participants, egged on by Susie Ferguson, all piled into Brash – like-minded leftists united in smug, bigoted, intellectually snobbish groupthink.

Radio New Zealand, as a public broadcaster, has a special duty to observe principles of balance but it is routinely ignored, and rarely more shamefully than this morning. RNZ seems to have decided that it need only cater to the demographic group known as chardonnay socialists, and to hell with everyone else. I feel sorry for the employees there – there must be some – who take its charter obligations seriously.

Incidentally, we’ve heard a lot of semi-hysterical hyperbole in the last few weeks about something ill-defined called hate speech, but the great irony is that the New Zealander most subjected to hateful vilification is the very man who’s constantly accused by the left of fostering it.

Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of the Dominion-Post. He blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz

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