No free speech in New Zealand?

An interesting media release on the Scoop site today.

At the opening of the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ) annual conference, former newspaper owner Matthew Horton made some interesting comments about freedom of speech in Aotearoa. There are elements of anti-political correctness and pro-National bias present in the quoted comments and a demonstrable lack of understanding of the power of social media.

I don’t think I’m breaching any copyright rules if I just paste the release in here. But Selwyn, if you don’t like it let me know and I’ll take it down.

PRINZ Conference Opens With Free Speech Challenge

This morning Matthew Horton of Horton Media opened the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand conference with a controversial challenge to the popular concept of free speech.

He said that the court system, defamation laws, and the Electoral Finance Act have combined to suppress freedom of information in New Zealand – and that contrary to popular belief, the digital media will not be the saviour of free speech.

He said that the justice system has increasingly suppressed defendants’ names and details of their crimes, often without good reason, thus denying the public their right to know.

Mr Horton said that the next most common tool used to undermine New Zealander’s freedom of expression is the defamation law, which has “perverted one of the fundamental principles of law so that defendants aren’t entitled to the presumption of innocence.”

“The result is that the media’s chances of beating even plainly dishonest plaintiffs are uneven at best. There have been more than a few cases where the media has lost a defamation action at great cost only for the plaintiff to later be convicted of the same transgression.”

A more insidious method of intimidation, he says, is cultural sensitivity, often relating to statements about Maori and Polynesian issues.

And perhaps the saddest thing, he said, is New Zealanders’ apathy in the face of these gradual incursions into our legislated liberties.

“The Electoral Finance Act is a case in point. Apparently, according to the Act’s preamble, this encourages public participation in parliamentary democracy.

However, he said, “It is clearly not an attempt to encourage public participation in elections. Nor is it drafted to confer transparency upon the process. Rather, it is designed to impose cost, difficulty and criminal consequences upon those who might try.”

And Mr Horton holds out no hope that the emergence of the essentially uncontrollable online media will save the day.

“Within ten years of the internet’s popular acceptance, we have more blogs, web pages, digital TV and radio stations than we can count. Millions more chat and text away on their mobile phones or download podcasts onto their multi-function portable electronic devices.

But online media is not free speech, he argued, because the internet is not yet the most popularly accepted means of imparting information and discussion.

“However much information you can obtain, it has no practical use unless it can be freely exchanged and discussed within the popular culture.”

We are social animals. Our most valuable experiences are those we can share with others. We mostly watch the same TV shows read the same newspapers or magazines and listen to the same radio programmes.”

Most people will choose to consume the media that most other people are consuming because the legitimacy of a medium is defined as much by its acceptance as its content.

One Response to No free speech in New Zealand?

  1. truthseekernz says:

    Defamation cases are rarely widely relevant. I think the law is framed to put the (alleged) defamer at a disadvantage and in our small community I don’t have a problem with that. If you’re going to say something horrible about someone you best be able to back it up beyond all doubt, or don’t say it.

    Name suppression is fraught. In order to second-guess it, you need to know everything you’re not supposed to know. It comes down to whether or not we trust our judges – or a particular judge. If a problem arises, we can pursue it via political means…and this has been done.

    As for the EFA, I want to prevent the Exclusive Brethren or a modern version of the the 1993 so-called “Campaign for Better Democracy” (Peter Shirtcliffe) spreading lies and disinformation, funded by anonymous millions, with the clear intention of effectively perverting elections or referenda. That has already happened and it was wrong.

    The EFA does not prevent free speech. It does constrain the capacity to broadcast without being effectively accountable. I have no problems with it so far as it has absolutely NO effect whatever on the speech I have always exercised. Nor will it.

    The EFA has a huge exemption: the media. All you need to do is own a newspaper, radio or TV station and you can publish good news all day about the parties you favour and bad news about those you don’t. Give copies away for free 3 days before the election to every house in the country. Make it your election issue where you recommend voting for Party X. “Just marketing to gain share.” No one can stop you and there is no limit to your spending. The people currently exempt in this way are the foreign billionaires and banks who own the media groups that own almost all commercial media in New Zealand. There is no legal obligation on any media outlet to be fair, impartial or objective that I know of. Complain to the press Council of you dont’ like it. Media can be openly partisan. So if you want to escape the application of the EFA on your speech amplified by millions of dollars, just establish a media outlet. Bob’s yer uncle.

    I thought it funny the Herald was leading this campaign as the EFA doesn’t apply to their speech. Just their advertisers.

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