Friday, March 12, 2021

Karl du Fresne: On freedom of expression and that $55 million media handout

It seems I’ve achieved the great distinction of being deleted from Reddit. A friend emailed me recently to advise that my Spectator Australia article – ‘NewZealand is being transformed, but not in a good way’ – had been uploaded to Reddit several days previously, but had then been taken down. A notice explained: “Sorry, this post has been removed by the moderators”. This was followed by what appeared to be a standard explanatory note: “Moderators remove posts from feeds for a variety of reasons, including keeping communities safe, civil and true to their purpose”.

Who are these moderators? They’re not identified. Neither did the weasel-word explanatory note say exactly what the problem was with my article. I’m left to conclude that the anonymous moderators deemed it “unsafe” – but in what way?

We should be very suspicious of the word “safety” when used in this type of context. It has become another cover for the Stalinist authoritarianism that infects public discourse and seeks to silence and marginalise dissenters. 

“Unsafe” used to apply to situations where one’s health or physical wellbeing was at risk. Generations of New Zealanders grew up being told that it wasn’t safe to play with matches or go too close to the water. Then we started hearing the phrase “cultural safety”, especially in the context of health care. An invention of neo-Marxism, it broadened the definition far beyond its traditional and accepted meaning. Ensuring “cultural safety” became a coded synonym for purging the health system of supposed institutionalised racism. Notions of power and identity were central to this approach. Nursing students who pushed back against the doctrine, insisting that the same standard of care should apply to all patients regardless of ethnicity, paid a price for their defiance. Some readers of this blog may recall the celebrated case of Christchurch Polytech nursing student Anna Penn, who was branded as “culturally unsafe” – a term then new to most of us – by the polytech’s kaumatua in 1991 for daring to challenge the denial of her right as a woman to speak on a marae. Penn failed the “culture and society” component of her course and was subsequently described in a vindictive Polytech report as having demonstrated “such flaws of judgment and behaviour that she would not now be welcome back as a nursing student”. (She later graduated in Brisbane.) Soviet-style suppression of dissent was emerging even then, and today is nowhere more rampant than in the health sector, where the New Zealand Nurses’ Organisation – to take just one example – has been convulsed by bullying race politics.

Since the Penn affair, this highly inventive concept of “safety” has widened even further, to the extent that it’s now invoked if there’s a risk that some fragile soul might feel offended or psychologically damaged by something written or said. But in the case of my Spectator article there’s more to it than that, because talk of “safety” is, of course, a red herring. The only threat my article presented is that it challenged the woke Left’s attempt to control the public conversation. That’s what we’re really talking about here.

And how interesting that the sanctimonious moderators should mention the need to keep things civil. Let’s examine that for a moment.

My article wasn’t abusive or insulting. It didn’t use offensive language, it didn’t attack anyone personally and it didn’t seek to incite hatred, violence or ridicule. It merely expressed opinions that the people who control Reddit think should be suppressed.

Yet the same moderators who took down the link to my column, supposedly out of concern for safety and civility, were obviously untroubled by some of the comments that appeared beneath it, which they left on the page. These included one (anonymous, of course – aren’t they all?) that attacked me in terms so coarse that I refuse to dignify my attacker’s words by reproducing them here. Civil? Pffft.

This was my first encounter with Reddit, and it seemed to validate my impression that much of what we inaccurately call “social” media is a seething, toxic snake pit. Reddit, which Wikipedia describes as a social news aggregation and discussion platform, is supposedly the world’s 18th most visited website. But like many “social” media platforms it seems infested by angry, raging cowards hiding behind puerile pseudonyms.

It probably doesn’t need to be said that I won’t lose any sleep over my article being pulled, and still less from the accompanying comments. When something I’ve written provokes a keyboard warrior into anonymously responding with infantile vituperative, I take that as a moral victory. But the deletion of my article, and the conveniently vague and self-serving justification given by the Reddit moderators, says something about the profound change in the tone and scope of public conversation in New Zealand.

At the dawn of the Internet era, we were encouraged to think of social media platforms as anarchic and liberating. They were supposed to free us from the shackles of the “old” media, where editors (who were routinely caricatured as old, conservative white men) served as gatekeepers controlling the dissemination of news and comment. That promise now stands exposed as fraudulent; a giant con. Many social media platforms have turned out to be far more controlling and authoritarian than the despised “legacy” media they displaced, which were committed to principles of fairness, accuracy and balance.

As Chris Trotter (an old-school socialist, but a courageous champion of free speech) wrote recently, “citizens determined to spread ‘unacceptable’ ideas can no longer rely upon the major social media platforms for their dissemination. Increasingly, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are ‘de-platforming’ individuals and groups (including a former President of the United States!) whose beliefs have been anathematised by the woke”.

There’s an irony here. The young(ish) entrepreneurs who control social media, such as Mark Zuckerberg, are infinitely wealthier, greedier, more powerful and more controlling than the reviled press barons of old, the sole survivor of whom is Rupert Murdoch. They exercise their power in a way that acknowledges no public accountability or responsibility for the consequences of the harm they do. They use their resources to influence public opinion in a far more direct and active way than the “old” media. Yet they seem magically immunised against criticism.

The crucial difference, presumably, is that in age and appearance they are not dissimilar to the commissars of wokeness. They wear jeans and tee-shirts rather than suits and ties, and they give the impression of being anti-establishment (which they are, though not in the sense that the term was originally used a generation ago). Perhaps this makes their ruthless style of capitalism acceptable.

Unfortunately the malaise isn’t confined to social media. In a recent blog post about Magic Talk’s sacking of John Banks, I wrote that both the range of subjects New Zealanders feel free to discuss, and the language they may use in discussing them, is constantly being narrowed down. Authoritarian wokeness is increasingly crowding out alternative conservative views, even where those views may represent mainstream thinking.

Since Banks’ sacking, of course, Sean Plunket has been added to the list of deplorables – not because of any fresh complaint against him (the one upheld by the Broadcasting Standards Authority in December related to a broadcast last May), but because Magic Talk, panicked by pressure from woke vigilantes and virtue-signalling advertisers, threw him under the bus.

Peter Williams, as the only surviving high-profile conservative host at Magic Talk, must now be feeling rather lonely and exposed – the more so since deputy prime minister Grant Robertson announced he would no longer be making his regular weekly appearance on Williams’ show because he objected to the host’s valid questions about the so-called Great Reset, which Robertson huffily dismissed as a “giant conspiracy theory”.

Jordan Williams of the Free Speech Coalition called the decision petulant and suggested Robertson should harden up. “Maybe Mr Robertson should seek the advice of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who has fronted often extremely hostile interviews with Mike Hosking,” Williams suggested. “Would she enjoy such grillings? Unlikely. But the PM clearly understands that she has a duty to not only address misinformation, but to engage with Kiwis on the other side of the political fence.

“We counter bad ideas with better ideas, and address misinformation with facts. This is why free speech is so central to democracy: bad and false ideas can be freely aired precisely so they can be addressed by more informed speech.”

Amen to all that. But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Robertson’s decision was the timing, which made it look like a calculated attempt to undermine Williams (who, incidentally, is no-one’s idea of a far-Right ranter) when his position already seemed precarious following the defenestration of his fellow hosts. That would be contemptible.

It’s in this worryingly censorious environment that the government recently announced funding of $55 million for the news media. Broadcasting minister Kris Faafoi framed the decision as one driven solely by noble public interest motives, aimed at helping the media through a rough patch. But an alternative view is that virtually all politicians secretly dream of controlling the media, and it’s possible this government has cynically chosen an opportune moment to ensure the industry’s co-operation in achieving it.

Don’t be fooled by seductive talk of the government wanting to subsidise “public interest” journalism. Any journalism that provides citizens with “the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies and their governments”* is, by definition, public interest journalism. But when used by left-wing academics in journalism schools, the phrase has a much narrower and more ideological meaning. In that context, “public interest journalism” is code for journalism that attacks power structures – that “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable”, to use a definition much favoured by those who see journalism principally as a form of activism, and who believe the only journalism worth supporting is that which has an ideological purpose.

So here, for what it’s worth, is my take on the proposed government media bailout:

■ If I could be confident that the government was truly and wholly committed to a vigorous, balanced, independent, non-partisan media;

■ If I could be confident that media owners were capable of resolutely asserting their independence while simultaneously accepting state funding;

■ If I could be assured that most media bosses weren’t already ideologically aligned with the government on such crucial issues as climate change and hate speech;

■ If I could be confident that media bosses were truly and wholly committed to the principles of editorial balance and freedom of expression;

■ If I could be confident that government politicians could be trusted not to exert influence over where the money went, and what type of journalistic activity it supported;

■ If I could be confident that government appointees charged with deciding how the money should be spent could be trusted not to worry about getting offside with their political masters should they give it to the wrong people;

■ If my confidence in the media were not already gravely undermined by journalists who consistently confuse journalism with activism and advocacy, and who bombard us relentlessly with their own opinions;

■ If I could be confident that some of that $55 million wouldn’t be used to further swamp us with fashionable wokeism;

… then I might think the proposed state bailout of the media was a good thing. But that adds up to a lot of worrying “Ifs”, and somehow I don’t think my misgivings will be easily assuaged.

*The definition comes from The Elements of Journalism (2001), by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. I’ve yet to see a more succinct description of what journalism should be about.

Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at


DeeM said...

Maybe I'm naive, but I always thought that democratic governments were elected to fairly represent and enact the wishes of the majority. Unfortunately we have a voting system (MMP) which does not support that basic democratic principle. What an oversight (or was it?) by those who approved the mechanism whereby the party with the largest % of the vote is left out of office.
That aside, my first sentence should still stand. Not with this government though. Never before can I recall a regime so mired in propaganda and so intent on an agenda favouring minority control.
The key to achieving this is government by stealth which relies completely on a compliant left-wing media, hence the $55m fund (only the beginning). As Karl says, Robertson has bailed on the Williams interview, but so also has Ardern bailed on the Hosking interview. I'm sure this shows an increasing confidence and arrogance that our senior ministers think they can get away with pretty much anything these days. Let's face it, they can rely on the media keeping the public in the dark.
When government's hide their real agenda from the public and extinguish all dissenting voices we should all be alarmed. They no longer rule for the majority and care nothing about representing them. They are zealots and fanatics who believe only in their way and they will take all steps to impose it.
By far, Ardern's lot are the worst NZ government in living memory, if not ever!

maic said...

I wonder if we are becoming more like East Germany before the Wall came down. It seems that you are free to speak your mind as long as you say the right things - the right things being what the ideologues say is right. If your job and/or promotion prospects depend on your conformity and your silence and even your pretended support and agreement then naturally you are going to be very careful about what you say.
Better to say nothing perhaps. We should bear in mind that many people in this position need to have their qualifications passed and they cannot afford to have their university assignments downgraded or rejected for expressing the wrong attitudes and conclusions.
Those in work have bills to may and a family to raise. They
need the job that they have.
All that being said those of us who have some measure of financial independence should speak up.
In his article the writer touches upon the new meaning given to words such as "safe."
Another word in this category is "misinformation."
In the minds of the free speech deniers misinformation has become comments and ideas that they don't like and therefore these comments and ideas can be justly suppressed.
I am sure I am not the only citizen unhappy with the way New Zealand is going but until enough voters elect enough representatives who will promote and safeguard genuine freedom of speech and thought I can't see things getting any better.

w W

Ray S said...

Good article, but I would not be confident of anything the current government does.
On a similar note, a good friend is about to renew his firearm license, he regularly posts to various blogs and has middle of the road views about a range of topics. He wonders if blog postings are read by authorities who wish to know who is out there and who is saying what.
Possibly also applies to blog site owners like yourself.

Anonymous said...

Earlier this week the "stuff"group report on a decision of the boroadcasting council re complaints over the use of te reo which contains derisive comments on english as a language ,the persons making the complaint ,then a very juvenile comment by the so called head of the maori language commission,dismissing complainants by belittling them According to her ,a tactic originated by the CEO of vodafone when someone complained about being greeted in maori when they contacted vodafone.
if ever there was a group of syncophantic sickly pakeha enablers "stuff reporters are it" the gem is"Nz has only two official languages maori and sign language ,english is not official.well excuse me ,our judicial processes are based on english ,our law is written in english and imstill willing to bet a hell of a lot more people on planet earth speak /understand english ,than maori