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Vigilance is required to maintain essential freedoms


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Adam started thinking about the issue of free speech and related matters after reading Karl du Fresne’s interesting and thoughtful post “God save us from those who would protect us‘ which is about a recent public forum on the media.

When a government ministry sponsors a public forum on the media at which one of the key speakers is the Race Relations Commissioner, a high-ranking public servant holding an office that I regard as a threat to media freedom, I get uneasy. My unease is compounded when I note that there’s not one media representative on the advertised panel of speakers; not one person to speak up for the importance of a free and independent press. How balanced is that going to be?

Topics included the Danish cartoons of Mohamed, Deborah Coddington’s Asian Angst article in North & South and Dr Clydesdale’s report on Pacific Islanders.

As noted by Mr du Fresne:-

all of which gravely breached the tenets of political correctness.

A well thought through piece.

Of especial interest to Adam were these paragraphs:-

The greatest threat to the healthy process of disclosure and debate that followed the Clydesdale story is the belief that the state must protect us from harmful ideas because we’re not mature and intelligent enough to deal with them. Underlying this is a fundamental distrust of democracy. Which brings me back to Joris de Bres.

One of the points de Bres made following publication of the Clydesdale paper was that it encouraged the bigots who phone talkback shows. Well, hello. That’s called democracy, and these bigots were exercising their rights of free speech.

I suggested at the forum that bigots are better out in the open, where we can all see them, than forced underground.

But control-freak government can’t resist trying to assert control over unsavoury ideas, and I suspect that some apparatchiks in the more ideologically charged branches of the bureaucracy would like to put a halter around the unruly beast known as the media too. Nothing disturbs their sense of order more than ornery journalists and commentators freely disseminating information and opinion without regard for prevailing political morés.

De Bres’s behaviour as Race Relations Commissioner should be seen in this context. His urge to meddle in issues such as the Danish cartoons and Clydesdale issues, on the pretext that he is trying to create understanding and tolerance, is dangerous. It represents state intervention in an area where the state has no business. He has inserted himself needlessly, and patronisingly, into an area where people of intelligence, goodwill and sound judgment are quite capable of working things out for themselves, as they have done in the past.

In the final extract from this section, du Fresne writes:-

Now we have moved on to the point where government ministries are holding forums at which the press – an institution far more crucial to democracy than Commissioners of Race Relations – is subjected to a form of ex-parte trial with officials like de Bres in the role of prosecutor. And bugger me if journalism schools don’t seem to be playing along with it.

Adam perhaps may be overly suspicious, but he thinks he sees a common theme here:-

1 Our beloved Prime Minister was condemnatory of the media in a recent speech to, Adam thinks, journalism students

2 Politicians of all persuasions attempt to ‘spin’ stories

3 Deputy Prime Minister Cullen has made threats in the past against the NZ Herald for editorial lines it has pursued as has the Prime Minister

4 Chris Trotter a left wing commentator frequently attacks those he sees as having betrayed the true faith by writing other than articles which espouse the left’s causes

5 Now we have officials sponsoring fora such as the one discussed above, which Ms Coddington may not even have known about if not for Mr du Fresne. Why should officldom sponsor such events? What is the agenda underlying such sponsorship?

6 We have some journalists and others decrying the blogosphere

7 Overseas in Europe there are looming attempts to control what is said on the internet

8 Here in NZ we have already had the EFA

9 There has been from memory some passing mention of hate speech laws, which have a pernicious ability to curtail freedom of expression

10 There have been the extensive threats made by the likes of Winston Peters regarding journalists and the media.

11 A disconcerting willingness by some in government, the media, academia and elsewhere to be prepared to limit freedom of expression so as to avoid giving offence to one sector group or another for example the recent book by one Mr Moon on cannibalism amongst Maori, or the furore over Dr Clydesdale’s paper because it did not fit a received view, or Ms Coddington’s article for it’s perceived negative views of Asians.

There seems to be a climate developing in favour of ‘regulating’ free speech. Nonsense many will say, this is New Zealand – a democracy. Well yes we are a democracy, but one where the executive, especially the Prime Minister wields immense power. A democracy without a written constitution, where ill thought out and considered law is regularly put through the legislature. A democracy where political correctness is rife. A democracy where to avoid regulation the media and others may fall into the habit of self regulation and censorship, if they have not done so already. Indeed the blandness of much of what passes for the media suggests that this may well be the case.

So Adam thinks we need to be alert to the creeping danger in our midst.

We should have a robust written constitution, one which has free speech and a free press as a key component. This constitution should severely restrict the power of the Government to pass laws on matters such as free speech and electoral matters, unless there is a majority from all sides of the house. Extensive and all party consultation as well as public consultation should be mandatory on such matters for a start.

Until we achieve this position constant vigilance is required.

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