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KARL DU FRESNE: My experience of censorship and what it tells us about the new culture of journalism

The Free Speech Union held its annual general meeting last weekend in Christchurch. I was part of a panel that discussed free speech and the media. The following were my introductory remarks, which refer to incidents previously covered on my blog.

Two years ago I was invited to write a regular opinion column for the National Business Review, a paper for which I had once worked in the distant past. A contract was signed and I duly submitted my first column.

It was also my last. The co-editors of NBR disagreed with a couple of points I had made and wanted to delete two crucial paragraphs. I refused, the column never appeared, and the contract was torn up.

My column, ironically enough, was essentially about the culture wars and their chilling impact on public debate. In it I said, among other things, that a truly honest debate about race relations in New Zealand would acknowledge that while Maori had suffered damaging long-term consequences from colonisation, they had also benefited from the abolition of slavery, tribal warfare and cannibalism.

I also said that an honest debate would acknowledge that race relations in New Zealand had mostly been harmonious and respectful.

One of the two co-editors proposed to delete those two paragraphs. I was told by email: “We want to avoid a hostile response for no real gain”. Now there’s editorial courage for you.

In fact it turned out that the real problem was that he disagreed with what I had said. It was his opinion that cannibalism, slavery and tribal warfare would have ended anyway regardless of colonisation, and he disputed my opinion that race relations had been mostly harmonious – this from a Scottish expatriate who had lived in New Zealand only a relatively short time, so had limited experience on which to base his opinion.

I invite you to consider the irony of my being contracted to write an opinion column, presumably because it was felt I had something worthwhile to say, and then being censored because my opinion was one the editor didn’t share.

In a past life as an editorial executive with a metropolitan daily newspaper, I spent more than 10 years dealing almost daily with columnists of every conceivable political stripe. In all that time, no column was censored because the paper disapproved of what was said. All that concerned us was that the columns shouldn’t be defamatory or factually incorrect.

It seems that on NBR, two other factors must be considered: the column must be one the editors agree with, and it mustn’t risk offending anyone.

My second example of censorship occurred last year. Some of you will be familiar with NZ Politics Daily, which is a collection of political news stories and opinion columns compiled by the respected political scientist Bryce Edwards and distributed every day by email. It’s an influential guide to what’s happening in politics.

A senior political journalist, a member of the parliamentary press gallery, objected to the fact that NZ Politics Daily sometimes included pieces that I had written and surreptitiously emailed Bryce Edwards urging him not to publish them.

This journalist described me as a racist and a misogynist. He concluded with the line: “I think your readers would do well not to be served up this trash.”

This was another first for me. It’s hardly unusual for journalists to disagree with each other or engage in bitchy personal rivalry, but to call for someone to be cancelled because you don’t approve of what they write crosses a very perilous threshold.

This journalist’s sneaky, would-be hatchet job – which Edwards rightly rebuffed – reinforced my suspicion that some journalists are more than merely ignorant of the importance of free speech in a liberal democracy. They are actively hostile to it.

To return to the NBR episode, I should say here that I absolutely defend the right of newspaper owners to decide what they will or will not publish. They must be free to say what they want, within the law, and even to suppress material they don’t like. That is part of the package of rights known as freedom of the press. But they must accept that it comes with a proviso.

Media owners need to understand their vital role in a liberal democracy as enablers of robust public debate. They also need to accept that if they abandon that role by taking it upon themselves to dictate and restrict the opinions the public is allowed to read and hear, they risk relinquishing whatever credibility and public respect they enjoy.

I’ve written two published works about press freedom in New Zealand, one in 1994 and another in 2005. When I wrote those, any threat to press freedom was seen principally as likely to come from the state.

But here we are in 2023, and press freedom is being steadily undermined from within, by people who seem not to value the traditions of openness and free speech that give the media their legitimacy and moral authority. They have repudiated a tradition of balance and fairness that has existed for the best part of one hundred years, and in the process they have fatally compromised their own standing. I don’t think anyone saw this coming.

The key problem here, as I see it, is that the media have abandoned their traditional role of trying to reflect society as it is. Instead they have positioned themselves as advocates for the sort of society they think we should be. This almost inevitably requires the exclusion of opinions that stand in the way of that vision.

Public opinion has become largely irrelevant. The media have set themselves above and apart from the communities they purport to serve, and in the process they have severed the vital connection that gives them their legitimacy. They have so compromised themselves that I think their future must be in doubt. Thank you.

Karl du Fresne blogs here

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