Thursday, December 29, 2022

Karl du Fresne: The cautionary tale of the Woodville Wire

Ever heard of the Woodville Wire? No, I hadn’t either, until a couple of days ago. It’s a newsletter that publishes community news and comment on local issues in a southern Hawke’s Bay town where nothing much happens (at least, not usually).

I'm guessing the Wire’s readership would be counted in the hundreds, at most, yet this very modest news sheet has unexpectedly been pitched headlong into the culture wars. What follows is a cautionary tale about the febrile state of Maori-Pakeha relations and the precariousness of free speech in a climate of state-sanctioned authoritarian orthodoxy.

In October last year, a local woman named Annette Nepe sent the Woodville Wire an article about a petition she had launched urging the InterCity bus service to reinstate its local bus stop. Ms Nepe prefaced her article with the greeting “Kia ora nau mai, ngā mihi nui koutou katoa”, which she explained meant “Welcome everyone, big friendly greeting to all”.

Nothing controversial here, surely. The subject of the article was one that might be described as parish-pump – i.e. of purely local concern. The tone of Ms Nepe’s email, as far as we can ascertain, was cheerful and (to use a fashionable word) inclusive. But Ms Nepe wanted the Maori greeting included with her article, “to reflect her culture”, and things turned sour when the editor of the Wire, Jane Hill, refused.

She told Ms Nepe in an email that it would have been respectful to ask, rather than demand, that the article be published. (Was it a “demand”? We don’t know, because the full email exchange hasn’t been disclosed.)

Ms Hill went on to say: “Secondly, this is not a Maori newsletter; it is a community newsletter and everyone in this community speaks English.

“I, as well as many New Zealanders am not in favour of giving one cultural group special privilege regarding their language simply because they (falsely) claim first nation status.

“Thirdly, why should we elevate the Maori language for you, when you clearly show no respect for the English language. It is extremely poor.

“I will write an article about the public transport system and encourage people to sign the petition as have I.”

Phew. Talk about lighting the blue touch paper. Ms Nepe subsequently brought legal proceedings against Ms Hill in the Human Rights Tribunal, alleging racial harassment. The case went to mediation and resulted in what might be described as a complete capitulation by Ms Hill.

According to a press release issued by the Office of Human Rights Proceedings, which is part of the Human Rights Commission, Ms Hill made the following statement:

“I, Ms Hill, acknowledge the hurt that was done to Ms Nepe by the correspondence I sent.

“I acknowledge that my choice of words was perceived as aggressive and unnecessary. It was not my intention to attack or minimise Ms Nepe’s culture.

“Now that I can see the effects of the experience on Ms Nepe, I am willing and committed to changing the way I engage with Maori in my community.”

According to the press statement, Ms Nepe thanked Ms Hill for her apology. “This is good for both of us; I’m happy that we talked. This is a good outcome and a step towards repairing and growing relationships in the Woodville community. We both agree racism has no place in Aotearoa New Zealand and we’re on the road to eliminating it.”

All settled, then. Ms Hill suitably contrite, Ms Nepe gracious in her response – although of course it’s easy to be big-hearted in victory. I imagine the Office of Human Rights Proceedings was pleased with itself too for its part in exposing and publicly shaming a supposed racist, albeit a now remorseful one.

Predictably, Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon, New Zealand’s No. 2 official finger-wagger (Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt is numero uno), weighed in with a gratuitous and patronising statement – a pat on the head, figuratively speaking – welcoming “the willingness to move forward in an informed manner”.

So ... all done and dusted. Except that the episode is likely to leave many people feeling distinctly uncomfortable about creeping authoritarianism and the imposition of a penalty, in the form of a public shaming, for speaking freely.

We don’t know what transpired behind closed doors in mediation. It’s quite possible Ms Hill had a genuine road-to-Damascus experience, as the official statement suggests. But it’s also possible that confronted with the weight of the state’s punitive apparatus and the prospect of continuing stress and controversy if she stood her ground, she felt the easiest way out was to back down. I'm guessing the signal was conveyed to her that it was the appropriate thing to do.

If so, she wouldn’t have been the first. In 2020 I wrote about the case of a Taranaki nurse who was deregistered by the powerful Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal for making derogatory comments about some of her Maori colleagues. She too found herself up caught up in an intimidating quasi-judicial process and subsequently issued what might be categorised as a grovelling apology. I wrote then that a newspaper account of the tribunal proceedings left the discomforting impression of a show trial.

In both instances, the instigators did themselves no favours by their initial actions. The nurse’s statements on Facebook were, by her own admission, impulsive and offensive, although the consequences were wildly overstated by a complainant who appeared eager to make the most of the situation.

Similarly, Ms Hill was needlessly provocative and antagonistic in her email to Ms Nepe, apparently seizing the opportunity to vent opinions that she could have chosen to keep to herself. But it’s possible to acknowledge these faults while still feeling uneasy about the way events unfolded. In both the Taranaki and Woodville cases there appears to have been a disproportionately heavy-handed response from a system that seemed keen to make a public example of the transgressors.

Does anyone, I wonder, consider that the personal consequences might greatly outweigh the perceived offence? In the Taranaki case, the nurse subsequently struggled to find work. She was effectively blacklisted. Now I note that in both the Stuff and New Zealand Herald stories about the Woodville Wire episode, Ms Hill is described as the “former” editor.

What does this mean? Did she quit in disillusionment? Did she feel so bruised by the unpleasantness of the complaint procedure that she decided it wasn’t worth going on? Or was she fired for bringing the Wire into disrepute? I know nothing about the management and ownership structure of the Wire, so can’t say. She may, of course, have been planning to leave anyway.

But what I would say is this: Someone, perhaps Ms Hill herself, took a punt in establishing the Woodville Wire, presumably because they saw it as providing a useful service to the community. They would have committed their own capital to the venture, to say nothing of their labour and skill, with no guarantee of a financial return. Now a person with no stake in the enterprise has been able, with the help of a busybody government agency, to exert power over it and subject the editor to a demeaning quasi-judicial process, possibly even to the extent (this is pure conjecture on my part) of triggering her departure. Hands up all those who think that’s fair.

Furthermore, the Woodville Wire is presumably a private undertaking. Ms Hill broke no law. She is therefore not answerable to government functionaries. Yet she was subjected to a humiliating and very public ticking-off (public because the Office of Human Rights Proceedings made it so) which, by implication, painted her as a racist. Where is the justice in that?

Would Ms Nepe have pursued her complaint had Ms Hill responded more diplomatically? We don’t know. But as things stand, it seems the worst Ms Hill can be accused of is impoliteness and candour. Last time I checked, being rude and forthright didn’t breach any law.

Certainly, Ms Hill’s behaviour falls far short of “racial harassment”, which is how the Office of Human Rights Proceedings described the case. Lest there be any doubt about the gravity of Ms Hill’s supposed offence, the Office’s press statement was headlined “Racial harassment case settles”.

Harassment? Really?? My New Zealand Oxford Dictionary defines the verb “harass” as meaning “to trouble or annoy continually or repeatedly” (the italics are mine). All Ms Hill did, evidently, was send a single email to which Ms Nepe took offence. How does that amount to harassment? A good lawyer would surely have moved for the complaint to be dismissed outright as a nullity.

Here’s the thing. Ms Hill was entitled to decide what to publish, and by logical extension what not to publish. As editor, she was legally responsible for the content of the Woodville Wire. That imposes obligations but it also carries rights, including the right of refusal to publish a statement in te reo. People may legitimately disagree with her decision in this instance, but it’s hers to make.

Incidentally, I can’t help wondering whether the Media Council would have been a more appropriate forum for resolving the issue. I’m speculating again here, but perhaps the state human rights apparatus was preferred because there was a better chance of a favourable outcome for the complainant. The Media Council has been known, after all, to uphold the autonomy of editors.

And here’s another thing. Will activist lawyers and Maori language advocates regard the Woodville Wire case as a precedent, opening the way to future insistence on the publication of statements in Maori? You can bet they will. And will timid or woke editors now consider themselves obliged to publish submitted content in te reo even though only a tiny minority of their readers can understand it? Very likely.

I have asked myself whether I, as a former (very former) newspaper editor, would have published Ms Nepe’s Maori greeting. I probably would have, because it was charming (am I permitted to say that?), quirky and harmless. But that’s not the point; Ms Hill was entitled to decide as she did without then being pressured, through the intervention of an ideologically driven government agency, to recant.

The whole affair leaves a bad taste. There is a balance to be struck between use of the English and Maori languages, and New Zealanders are steadily working towards that goal. Note the increased frequency with which Maori words and phrases (kapai, whanau, waiata, kuia) have naturally been absorbed into everyday speech. But a sullen resistance sets in when people perceive that te reo is being imposed on them by compulsion rather than evolving organically, as is happening now.

The Woodville Wire case, however, is about much more than the use of te reo. More disturbingly, it stands as a lesson that anyone bold or rash enough to challenge prevailing orthodoxies risks being publicly pilloried, with the state’s active complicity. This is true regardless of whether Ms Hill had a genuine and sincere change of heart.

Observing the fate of someone who did no more than exercise her editorial prerogative in what she no doubt thought was a private email, people will reasonably conclude that the only safe course in New Zealand is to keep potentially contentious opinions to themselves or express them only to trusted friends. That can only have a chilling effect on public debate, which of course is exactly the intended outcome. If you sometimes sense the pincers of censoriousness gradually closing around you, it’s probably because they are.

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


EP said...

Get it completely Karl (I don't listen to RNZ any more - after a lifetime -because of the forced inclusion of te reo) But I'm with you. It was nothing but surly to refuse a genuine issue appropriate to air in a local paper because of a friendly greeting. Yes, it was a great hoo-ha that followed - OTT- but gosh Jane, not only not politically correct, just unfriendly.

Anonymous said...

Time to go back to basics? If an article on transport incorporates Maori, it should be limited to traditional Maori transport ie by foot or by canoe. Any other form of transport simply has a beneficial impact on Māoris and so can rightly be in another language to the exclusion of Maori, if so desired. The more so since Maori had no concept of a wheel.

Robert Arthur said...

My guess is that Ms Hill realised she was setting herself up for serious cancellation. There are probably many idle and semi idle maori/trace maori in the area, a local propogandising marae, and a Maori Studies graduate or few artfully stirring. There are sure to be Mongrel Mob in the area, and even if she has not heard the remarkable definitive Sean Plunkett interview, it is likely Ms Hill has a grasp of Mob mentality. Apart from the threat to car tyres and other property, ostracism from much of the population would not be pleasant in a small town. And, from the risk of cancellation extending, many non maori would feel compelled to also shun. This threat of cancellation gives maori immense power well before theoretical co governance. When the full prospect of cancellation dawned, all recent objections to maori have effectively been withdrawn. (council wards, Kaipara mayor, Ms Hill etc etc.)

Kiwialan said...

The Maori words you mentioned Karl haven't been naturally absorbed into our every day speech. They have been forcibly rammed down on us from the so called news on TV and radio, crap local TV shows, the paid for brainwashed print reporters who just copy the govt press releases etc, etc. I don't need an unwritten stone age language to replace my cultural language that has evolved over a couple of thousand years and is the International business language, International flight and Air control language plus the most used language for international communication. Kiwialan.

*** said...

The likely pressure required to produce a groveling apology from Ms Hill is only one step away from making her wear a yellow star on her chest and having a number tattooed on her arm.

EP said...

Good Lord Anonymous and Robert! You are ridiculous! So sue me! A woman writes a perfectly reasonable request for a community paper to shed light on an issue of relevance to many, and because she is Maori you bring in the Mongrel mob! Refuse her the right to wheeled transport because her forebears had not invented the wheel? Oh shucks -I am as far against co-governance as it it possible to be, but with people like you on this side of the argument-phffft!

Anonymous said...

Robert Arthur: well said. Cancel culture. Refer article on vaccines. More cancel culture.

Robert Arthur said...

It is not that the request was not perfectly reasonable; it is that the refusal was also perfectly resonable. But being seen as a matter maori reasonableness was then, in the current fashion, seen as not applicable.

AprilGuy said...

The Human Rights Review Tribunal case was against Jane Hill and a council body, Woodville Districts Vision so there would have been extra pressure to settle. The terms of settlement were confidential but obviously included the big apology. I totally support Jane Hill in refusing the demand to publish the Maori text. How disgusting that she was forced to back down. You are right Karl, it is bullying and a dire example to all media to obey their Maori masters!

Terry Morrissey said...

Both the Race Relations Commission and the Human Rights Commission are a complete waste of taxpayers' money. Just another means of trying to coerce the population into subservience. That being standard practice for this ruling cult.

Anonymous said...

EP - read the comments properly. No one is denying any one wheeled transport. But clearly it is ok for all matters Maori to be sacrosanct but for the pale fe/male and stale who are treated as violating all things Maori to make the point is ‘cancel culture’ and horror. This issue is not about buses or who invented the wheel or co-governance. It is about cultural diversity, respect, choice - not about separatism and dominance and breaking the white enemy.

Kawena said...

Shakespeare would have had a ball on this one: "{Much Ado About Nothing". As we have two "official" languages, may I suggest that Government speak Maori only on one day, and sign language on another. I have cancelled my subscription to my newspaper because I thought that the $55 million the Labour Government gave the media would have paid it for me. How naive of me! However, I will still buy the Saturday papers during the winter months because I can use it to light the fire. And instead of watching the TV news bulletins, I can read some of the 80 plus books that have withdrawn, for some reason or other, from libraries, museums, etc. about New Zealand history. He iwi tahi tatou.

Anonymous said...

Jane Hill was totally within her rights to do what she did.
This and the Taranaki example show how Kiwis are now captured by anti democratic, racist actors who wish to tear down the long held, effective structures NZ has been proud of and crush them in their quest for control.

Robert Arthur said...

EP seems sceptical of the power of cancellation. A protest rally was organised against the Kaipara mayor. The possibility the protest might include one or two Waitangi/parliament grounds type crazies, or that the sentiment might filter to any local Mob, was a real threat to property and person. So, as with all others, and Hill, the mayor capitulated.
I have several older books by Bob Jones. He formidably sent up all hypocrisies and irrational situations. Court cases little troubled him as he usually triumphed. He is personally sufficiently independent to be little affected by cancellation (except that he may need to hire bodyguards and deem it prudent to move to Hawii). But he has a business empire to consider. Little wonder he dropped his entirely rational case against the hyper sensitive maori accuser a couple of years ago. And despite the endless scope, he avoids serious lampoon of matters maori. The power of certain cancellation would appear to be immense.