Two opinion pieces written by Wairarapa residents in the past week have tackled the current state of free speech in New Zealand and the media’s role in [a] how we got here and [b] how we might resolve the present impasse regarding what is and isn’t considered acceptable discourse.
The first was a blog post written by Masterton man Karl du Fresne, who also happens to be a former editor of The Dominion [his blog can be found at karldufresne.blogspot.com].
The other was an email missive sent to those who’ve signed up for the newsletter of the Free Speech Union [FSU], and was written by that organisation’s chief executive, Jonathan Ayling, who lives in Carterton.
The piece by du Fresne examines the coverage the coalition government has thus far received from New Zealand’s major mainstream media outlets. Rightly or wrongly [you’re encouraged to read it yourself and draw your own conclusions], it argues the stories focused on [the scrapping of some smoke-free policies and Winston Peters’ arguably hyperbolic claims that media accepted a “bribe” from Ardern and co], as well as the angles applied to them, strongly suggest that much of the Fourth Estate had a strong preference for the policy aspirations [if not the actual outcomes] of the previous regime. As such, Du Fresne reckons much of our media is increasingly – and increasingly obviously – out of step with the sentiment of the majority of voters who expressed their desire for a change of government on election day, a state of affairs that’s likely to further undermine the public’s already declining trust in journalism.
Ayling’s email, meanwhile, outlines three controversial subjects [the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, the appropriateness and effectiveness of NZ’s covid-19 policies, and the teaching of ‘Gender Ideology’ in schools] he claims were largely presented by both the previous government and media as “settled” but which are now apparently up for debate again due to the advent of the new administration. [Unless you’re on the FSU newsletter list, you unfortunately won’t be able to assess the veracity or otherwise of Ayling’s points, although similar observations and arguments are available at www.fsu.nz].
Ayling contends that “the media insist that to have a discussion about these questions is irresponsible; racist, conspiratorial, and hateful, even.”
A similar tack is taken by du Fresne, who references “modern heresies such as climate change scepticism or covid-19 vaccine hesitancy” as examples of topics that have been decreed off-limits: “The media have taken a dangerous leap into new territory by acting as if contentious issues are definitively settled when in the public mind they may not be. In effect, they have assumed a mantle of omniscience.”
In effect, both men appear to be pretty much correct – and the result is ultimately bad for a democratic society and also, ironically enough, threatens the ongoing viability of media outlets at a time when they’re already battling plummeting revenues.
As to the cause, it’s your columnist’s view this attitude isn’t driven by media arrogance but by journalists taking on board the theory – popularised several years before the pandemic – that attempting to debunk ‘bad’ information simply serves to spread ‘harmful’ ideas even further, so the responsible thing to do is not to cover them at all [how ‘wrong’ info is identified in the first place is another story].
In other words, it’s an approach that was adopted with the best of intentions, and now unintended consequences have come home to roost.
Regardless, there certainly seems to be a compelling case for a course correction – and quickly.