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  • Michael Bassett

FREE SPEECH AND THE NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Updated: Mar 8

I have always believed strongly in free speech. So did my university teachers. I recall my professor saying to me: “I might disagree fundamentally with what you say, but I fought in the War for your right to be able to say it”.


About a month ago I noted in a blog post called “New Zealand’s Modern Cultural Cringe” that there is a strange new urgency to race relations in this country. The editor of the Northland Age, a privately-owned newspaper until 2009 when it was bought by NZME, owners of the New Zealand Herald, asked me if he could publish my article in his paper. Having known and respected his journalism for twenty years, I agreed without hesitation. It never occurred to me that by a backdoor the column would thus appear on the Herald’s website. A not very literate fellow claiming to be a “Communications Specialist” lodged a complaint with the Herald dated 4 March demanding that my column be removed from the website or he would complain to the Press Council. Three minutes after receiving it, Shayne Currie, Editor of the Herald, sent a note to his fellow editors Murray Kirkness and Rachel Ward, asking them to “review this urgently”. An hour later my column was off the Herald’s website. An apology to readers was in its place. As yet, no contact with me. In fact, I was only just discovering that it had ever been in the Herald’s hands!


At 12.30pm that day Rachel Ward sent me a terse note telling me that my column “didn’t meet NZME’s standards, shouldn’t have been published”, and had been removed. She added: “I also wanted to let you know that NZME won’t be publishing any more of your columns”. Since it was many years since anything of mine had appeared in the Herald, I wasn’t worried. My columns, for which I won the Qantas Media award for New Zealand’s Best Political Columnist in 2003, had always been in the Fairfax papers.


I suggested in reply that if my column was now down, the paper should also remove the personal attack on me by someone that was still on the website. Allison Whitney, the Herald’s in-house lawyer replied to the effect that she’d remove an observation in the letter accusing me of being a “white supremacist”, but the rest of the criticism would remain because it was “honest opinion based on fact”. She didn’t, and I suspect couldn’t, explain which fact or facts. Nor did it occur to Whitney that her website now carried an attack on me for reasons that no reader would be able to work out since my column had been removed.


In one sense the whole business has been a storm in a teacup. Fortunately, there are plenty of other ways for people to access my articles and those of my colleagues, Don Brash and Rodney Hide. Interestingly, in the last couple of days there’s been a surge of new readers on the Bassett,Brash&Hide website. But there is an important issue here which relates back to the Herald’s historical role as the purveyor of debate over the years and a defender of free speech. The alacrity with which Shayne.Currie@nzme.co.nz, Murray.Kirkness@nzme.co.nz, Rachel.Ward@nzme.co.nz and Allison.Whitney@nzme .co.nz swung into gear at the threat of a complaint to the Press Council, and battened down their hatches, suggests either that they are scared of it, or lack the backbone that Herald editors once possessed.


The allegations that I am a “white supremacist” or a “racist” are made only by people who don’t know what the words mean, and certainly don’t know me. When the Rugby Union in 1960 proposed to dispatch the All Blacks to South Africa without any Maori in the team because their presence might irk South Africa’s then white rulers, I marched in protest. As a student in the American South in the early 1960s I assisted many efforts that were made by my fellow students to de-segregate public facilities in Durham, North Carolina, where African-Americans were treated as second-class citizens. When a Springbok Team without any players of colour sought to come to New Zealand in 1973 I was an MP, and along with colleagues was delighted when Norman Kirk refused them visas. In 1981 I and my colleagues urged Robert Muldoon to do the same as a protest against South Africa’s apartheid regime. Like many New Zealanders I have always supported racial equality. It means equal rights for all our citizens, Maori, Indian, Chinese, Pakeha, everyone. A decade serving on the Waitangi Tribunal (1994-2004) provided me with a great many insights into Maori history and stimulated me to read about aspects of early culture contacts between the almost broken Maori world of 1840 and the incoming colonizers. Their urgent desire for land and a better life caused them to cut corners and renege on promises made to Maori. But they also brought peace after more than twenty years of the Musket Wars where Maori killed approximately 25% of their entire population. The settlers also brought benefits like a legal system, education and the opportunities they afforded to everyone. No other colonized group anywhere in the world was promised “the same rights and duties of citizenship as the people of England” that was Article 3 of the Treaty of Waitangi. (Sir Hugh Kawharu’s translation)


The New Zealand Herald, is an old established institution that once sometimes seemed rather staid in its opinions. Younger people called it “Granny Herald”. But it was one of the best dailies in the country. It changed its views gradually, eventually welcoming all kinds of differing viewpoints before its owners sold it in the 1990s. The Herald played a major part in educating New Zealanders about race relations. However, since Wilson & Horton sold the Herald it has fluctuated in response to growing media competition, not replacing good journalists some of whom went off to the private sector or retired, and no longer covering the many social and political areas it formerly did. Editorial viewpoints moved on a downward trajectory after the retirement of John Roughan, the paper’s long-serving deputy editor. Those in charge today as editors show little interest in the background to stories, and no respect for history, let alone those who write it.


The Herald is now a pale shadow of its former self. It was once a big beast in the media forest but today is nothing more than a nervous chihuahua.


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