Should John Tamihere and Willy Jackson get forced off the air? An anguished liberal wrings his hands.

The whole Auckland rape ring (or, just perhaps (but I doubt it), fantasist Auckland rape ring) issue is like some giant chaos theory simulation, where a hurricane in the lives of some predated upon women in one place produces a butterfly's wing beat in the Radio Live broadcast studios.

By that I mean, we need to get the relative importance of issues in some perspective. Whatever happens in John Tamihere and Willie Jackson's broadcast (or other) future is not that big a deal in the circumstances. There are far, far more troubling and important (as well as individually devastating) parts to the overall story that matter a whole lot more.

That said, I'm moved to post on something Josie wrote in her last contribution to this site. Josie said:

I can’t do better than Tim Watkin’s comprehensive refutation of the call for a ban (in the comments of my blog post, where Andrew Geddis has also drawn the line at banning, and makes the point that big corporates like banks and supermarkets shoudn't be telling us what we can and can't talk about).

While her first point can safely be generalised into "[No one can] do better than Tim Watkin", I'm not quite sure her second claim fully reflected the discussion in the comment thread referred to. I had, it is true, said I was "uneasy" with the idea of Jackson and Tamihere's future being (in effect) decided by the corporate advertisers on their show. But it was more of an anguished liberal handwringing than an out-and-out defence of their "right" to continue as presenters.

The fact is, I'm twisting every which way on this one - and this post will be a sort of attempt to try and work out what I think about it. I'm not sure I'll make it work, but here goes.

The first point I'd note is that if we haven't been here before, we've certainly visited the next suburb along from it. Back in 2011, the publication of Macsyna King's book by Ian Wishart sparked calls by consumers for bookshops to refuse to stock it; calls which many stores then followed. Ian Wishart labelled this "censorship" by a lynch mob, to which various commentators replied "rubbish", "yeah - like he said, rubbish", and (stroking chin) "possibly rubbish ... but maybe not ... and won't someone think of the Bill of Rights Act?"

At that time, I had a bit of a debate in this comment thread with (who else?) Graeme Edgeler about the free speech implications of the issue. It's fair to say I was dismissive of the argument that the boycott threat raised free speech issues at all. Sample comment:

I have to say, Graeme, that your vision of civil society (“don’t impose any penalty on anyone else based on what they say for fear that one day others will impose a penalty on you for what you say”) may be one in which anyone can say anything … but it’s a pretty impoverished one. There is no room for real response and consequence, wherein the complete rejection of an idea/viewpoint is allowed for. Because just as a person may be free to say something, I am free to reject it (and to refuse to have nothing to do with them). Why is that last freedom to be removed from me?

If that was what I said then, why would I now have any "unease" at advertisers telling Radio Live they don't want their messages played during Jackson and Tamihere's show? After all, aren't the advertisers just responding to the views of those individuals (well - one individual, in particular) who contacted them and asked what their reponse to the infamous "Amy interview" was going to be? And just as Jackson and Tamihere have a "right" to approach the whole rape ring issue through their (purported) West/South Auckland working class lens, so too do advertisers have a "right" to say they don't want their brand associated with such viewpoints (lest it result in a consumer backlash against them). Why would any of this be a cause for any "unease" on my part, if I had no problem with the way Wishart's book was treated?

Partly, I must admit, my current "unease" is at seeing two of the few Maori voices in mainstream media - and Maori voices that reflect something of a class that plays precious little part in contemporary discussion - being threatened by large corporate enterprises, concerned to protect their bottom lines. Something about that picture just pushes all my latent socialist buttons. But I also accept that a concern that the voiceless aren't further silenced can't be a complete get-out-of-jail free card for Jackson and Tamihere; especially when the "threat" to their position comes about as a result of they themselves using their privileged postions to further disempower and belittle a young woman.

So maybe I just need to get over my discomfort and accept that even Maori "working class" hosts can be held to account by wider society. After all, Paul Henry faced the same fate when advertisers fled TVNZ after his racism became just a bit too obvious to ignore any longer. So it's not as if "the man" is out to get rid of Jackson and Tamihere because they can't handle their truths - rather, they just crossed a line of offensiveness that applies to everyone irrespective of their whakapapa or class origins.

(While we're on the topic ... my main substantive concern with Jackson and Tamihere is not just with the initial interview (which was very bad). It is rather their refusal to learn anything from the near-universal criticism that the interview attracted that really condemns them. After all, the argument for allowing them to speak is so that there can be a rebuttal, from which they can learn and grow, thereby helping to challenge and break down preconcieved prejudices. But there's precious little evidence of this happening in their case; instead, they kicked Matthew Hooton out of their studio for his criticisms (hey - what happened to "free speech"?), and then went into bunker mode in the hope everything would just blow over. That makes their behaviour even worse than Richard Prosser's, in my eyes.)

Well, then, perhaps my "unease" comes from a broader, generalised worry about the effect of pressure-group created advertiser boycotts on the sorts of things that can and can't get said in our commercial media. Maybe companies are highly risk averse and don’t want to have their “brands” associated with any “controversy” at all, irrespective of how wide the offence caused to the general public really is. In that case, it won't just be really, really offensive things that are amenable to this sort of advertiser boycott response.

We might then consider both the formal notion of “free speech”, and its practical reality in a society like ours. Sure, in a legal sense, no one is “stopping” Tamihere and Jackson from saying anything; their rights as against the State aren’t threatened. But what does it really take to “speak” in an effective way? We can all blog and comment and whatever – and maybe (at most) a few thousand of us will see the resultant fruits of our labour. But to really get heard/noticed, you have to speak from a commercial, mainstream media platform, which are finding it harder and harder to make that business model work.

So, put this together – activists (of any stripe) seeking to punish forms of speech that think harmful/despicable, risk averse corporate holders of the purse strings, and media organisations increasingly desparate for cash – and you may have a recipe for a fairly bland and innocuous public sphere.

Well, maybe. Or, maybe not. That then becomes a set of empirical questions: how likely is it that advertiser boycott calls will be issued in reponse to every mildly controversial thing that gets said via the radio/TV/newspaper? How likely is it that they will be successful? How effective will they be in practice? Because, of course, there is always the countervailing fact that controversy attracts eyeballs/ears ... which is why people like Jackson and Tamihere got put on the air in the first place.

So, again, maybe I'm being too sensitive to risk - at least, until there's some more evidence that such risks are real ones, as opposed to possibilities. And anyway, what would result from a conclusion that advertiser boycotts are in fact harmful to the public discourse? We can't force advertisers to keep spending money to sponsor media shows in which offensive things get said. So should we have a duty to pretend not to be offended by media shows, in order that advertisers don't boycott them? Are we actually obligated to threaten to boycott advertisers who threaten to boycott shows we find offensive? 

From working through this, I think my initial "unease" has lessened into more of a "if Jackson and Tamihere do end up off the air, they probably brought it on themselves" position. I'm not going to go so far yet as to say I think they should be off the air: that's another whole debate over how much they helped to perpetuate rape culture, and I do wonder if concentrating on their one show isn't distracting us from a wider conversation. A couple of trophy heads on the wall won't do much except give us something to show off to the guests.

There's then one very last thing to put into the mix, before I post this up and go to bed. Coming out strongly against Jackson and Tamihere being forced off the air would require me to agree with Karl du Fresne. And I just don't know if I can ever bring myself to express the same view as a man who has written:

Punk and the Velvets were both essentially anti-music in the sense that they made records for people who didn't like, or at least weren't interested in, music.

For how can someone so utterly, utterly wrong about this one thing possibly be right about anything?

 

Comments (13)

by Graeme Edgeler on November 11, 2013
Graeme Edgeler

So should we have a duty to pretend not to be offended by media shows, in order that advertisers don't boycott them?

It's clearly not a duty, but we could be offended by statements/people in commercial media without holding it against the advertisers. Advertisers could still choose to withdraw advertising from an offensive show if they wanted to, but wouldn't face financial pressure to do so. They could seek out the audience of a particular media voice, without being seen to endorse everything that person says, especially, when it broadly fits into news and current affairs.

by Graeme Edgeler on November 11, 2013
Graeme Edgeler

I will note that I read some of your comments on this over the last few days, and was wondering whether I'd mis-remembered that discussion, and maybe I'd been taking the position I was against Steven Price or someone else :-)

by Andrew Geddis on November 11, 2013
Andrew Geddis

Advertisers could still choose to withdraw advertising from an offensive show if they wanted to, but wouldn't face financial pressure to do so.

But that's not how advertising works, is it? Advertisers want:

(1) An audience;

(2) Positive brand association.

So let's say I put up a video on line of me squashing kittens with a sledgehammer. This would probably generate lots and lots of clicks - far more than yet another dreary soliloquy on some arcane point of law or theory. But my chances (or, rather, my corportate overlord at Punditcorp's chances) of turning those eyeballs into a revenue stream are ... not great. Because any advertiser (or, rather, any advertiser with any real money) is going to see that having their name attached to my actions would do the exact opposite of what they want, which is to get people to give them more money.

So the "financial pressure" point is implicit in the judgment of "offensiveness" - as soon as a corporate advertiser thinks "gosh, lots and lots of people are going to be really upset by what this person we advertise around has just said/done!", then the reason for their wanting to advertise immediately vanishes. Look, for example, at how quickly Tiger Woods' sponsorship deals fell away after he was revealed to be what he is, without any sort of organised call for a boycott. And we can't expect corporate advertisers to be anything other than calculators of personal financial benefit/cost when it comes to supporting the speech of others - can we?

If that is the case, then what extra harm is done by calling on advertisers to boycott? Well, we might say that if Giovanni Tiso hadn't explicitly drawn the advertiser's attention to Jackson and Tamihere's comments, then maybe they wouldn't have pulled their support ... either because they don't realise the level of offence that has been caused (i.e. they misjudge how badly the public views the host's actions), or because they overlook the fact that they actually are spending money on the show (i.e. they've got such a wide advertising spend, the dollars they chuck at Jackson and Tamihere slips under their radar). But that would seem to be the most we could say: that not issuing boycott calls deprives corporate enterprises of the information they require to judge the value of their advertising, and so means that they may continue to spend money supporting speech that they would (if properly informed about its effects) not support.

Which is, I guess, something. But it's a pretty weak reason not to express your views about speech you find deeply, deeply offensive.

by Graeme Edgeler on November 11, 2013
Graeme Edgeler

But that's not how advertising works, is it? Advertisers want:

(1) An audience;

(2) Positive brand association.

I'm not sure if this is necessarily true. It is certainly true for some advertisers, but some just want an audience, and perhaps to avoid negative brand association.

One of the advertisers was Countdown. My money is on them wanting the section of the population who listen to Willie and JT to know what this week's specials are: "that's a good price for steak, will go shopping at Countdown this week". I doubt it's about brand association at all.

Certainly, for other products, it will be. Sponsorships are much more likely to be aimed that way. For the advertisers who used Tiger Woods as a spokesperson, it was about brand association. But I don't think that's always the case. The PGA allows Tiger Woods to be a member. Did the PGA suffer because of his personal life? Perhaps, but I suspect we agree it would have been unreasonable to ask them not to be seen to endorse it by allowing him to enter their tournaments. Allowing Tiger Woods into your tournaments is not an endorsement of him. I don't see that advertising during Willie and JT should be seen as an endorsement of them.

Why do some people want to think less of those who advertise to the people who listen to JT and Willie, or even to Radio Live and not JT and Willie?

People will feel how they feel; and I'm not going to try to ban that; but I am of the view that it would be better if people didn't think worse of advertisers who advertise during shows over which they should quite properly exercise no editorial control.

If people want to stop listening to Willie and JT because of what they have said, that's absolutely fine. If people want to let potential listeners know what they might be in for if they listen to Willie and JT, I can't see a problem with that. If that affects a lot of people, the advertisers will find their messages are reaching a smaller audience, but it will not be because they carry some responsibility for the content, but because the content is finding less of an audience.

by Graeme Edgeler on November 11, 2013
Graeme Edgeler

Which is, I guess, something. But it's a pretty weak reason not to express your views about speech you find deeply, deeply offensive.

If people find the ads "deeply, deeply offensive", of course they can speak out about them :-)

by Andrew Geddis on November 11, 2013
Andrew Geddis

People will feel how they feel; and I'm not going to try to ban that; but I am of the view that it would be better if people didn't think worse of advertisers who advertise during shows over which they should quite properly exercise no editorial control.

I think this misdescribes how advertising works, in that it assumes our reaction to the messages are something that we rationally can assess and choose. There may be an element of this - "Oh! Cheap steak! I can afford that, so I'll go to Countdown this week!" - but there's also a lot of unconscious/emotional work going on. So even the mere association of "yukky rape stuff" with "the place I go to buy the food for my family" is going to turn me off shopping there, irrespective of whether I realise what is going on.

So I don't actually think there'd be all that many people who would consciously say "Countdown chooses to put ads on those nasty rape enabler's radio show, so I won't shop there to teach them a lesson" (while anyone who consciously would take that line probably wouldn't be seen dead in Countdown anyway!) Rather, the "its quality stuff at the most affordable price" reputation that Countdown want to build up is going to be undermined by the slightly sickly feeling people get when thinking about the whole issue of "why does rape happen"? 

Which then gets me thinking that maybe I'm wrong that all calls for advertisers to boycott a show do is alert companies to the strength of feeling that certain speech has provoked. Maybe they also alert a far wider group of non-listeners to the show to the fact that a company is associated with it, thus create greater incentives for a company to cut that association. So, for example, if Giovanni Tiso hadn't done what he did, I would have no idea that Countdown, etc advertise on Radio Live. But once he did it, I did know this - which then allows the negative association ("the place I'm thinking of buying the food I'll serve to my family is being talked about at the same time as nasty rape stuff") to spread far, far wider than just the Radio Live audience.

What does that then mean? I don't know - maybe, thank goodness for National Radio?  

by Tim Watkin on November 11, 2013
Tim Watkin

So Willie and JT are off-air for the rest of the year. And probably that's it for them on Radio Live. With these things it's never just the thing itself, but the surrounding issues as well. The commercial aspect is one part (the advertiser issue, but also the chance to refresh the brand, take their ratings into account and so on). However, there's also the personal side. People who are liked, who deliver the goods most weeks, who are respected etc get forgiven for the odd mistake. It's different if you don't have that personal capital in the bank.

Andrew, an advertiser boycott will always get someone's attention because we all know the top floor cares most about the bottomline. But you're right that controversey makes plenty of money too in the long-term, so companies will rally round their on-air assets if they're getting a good return. It's all about perceived value.

And there's always a lot of pressure on what can and can't be said on air. Stuff around sexual assaults is a red warning flare to just about anyone - but when you're paid to be contoversial, sometimes you forget the line or ignore that flare. It takes a lot of discipline and prep to get it right hour after hour, day after day... which is why I get nervous about a removal like this for what obstensibly is a one-interview problem. Haven't we all over-stepped the mark at work some time or another? More than that, live media is really, really hard and mistakes are inevitable. So like you it's as much the way they responded that I find hard to stomach.

by Ross on November 11, 2013
Ross

Haven't we all over-stepped the mark at work some time or another?

Didn't JT have a crack at journalist Matt Nippert and even use his Mediaworks website to post a photo of Nippert because the latter had the temerity to question JT's personal business dealings? I find it difficult to believe that a former MP who apparently wants to be involved with politics again could be so reckless. So, yes, Tim, we possibly have all over-stepped the mark at work some time or another, but JT is turning this into an art form!

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/entertainment/news/article.cfm?c_id=1501119&objectid=10877931

by Alex Coleman on November 11, 2013
Alex Coleman

Well I;m not sure it was a 'one interview problem'. Tiso didn't move until day two, from memory, after they gave a pretty weak pro forma apology and didn't really seem to undertsand why people were upset at all. They'd had 24 hours to talk with people and work out what had happened and how they'd respond, and they chose to go with a bit of a brush off in the hope it would all die down.

 

I'll also note that Marama Davidson had been offerrring directly and repeatedly to come on and discuss issues around rape culture, she was ignored. These are choices that they made. They were happy enough to be playing something similar to the 'PC Gone Mad' people in the controversy right up until it turned on them. 

They are also on pretty good money for all accounts, so yeah, it's a tough job. But giving 'Amy' a cross examination was pretty far over the line I would think. 

 

by barry on November 11, 2013
barry

It is not a question of free speech so much as to who gets given a platform for it.

At the moment the platforms are handed out by corporates.  In most cases they are motivated by money (i.e. who is going to attract the most advertising and that is governed somewhat by the most listeners).  However there are many pundits that only (or at least largely) get their opinions paid for because they agree with the owners of the magazine/radio/tv station.

Willie and JT were the only maori on commercial radio, partly because they say outrageous things that get an audience, but also because they served the interests of the media giants.  Why not put Tame Iti on radio live?  Isn't it an affront to free speech that he isn't paid to express his opinons?

It is all very well to say that they are only saying what the shopping listeners think, but I always live in hope that radio can be edifying.  The hosts can be quietly and slowly encouraging some light to flow into the brains of the listeners instead of reinforcing the dark that is already there.

by Matt Smith on November 11, 2013
Matt Smith

We can all blog and comment and whatever – and maybe (at most) a few thousand of us will see the resultant fruits of our labour. But to really get heard/noticed, you have to speak from a commercial, mainstream media platform, which are finding it harder and harder to make that business model work.

I agree, but I think this makes it clear that having such a platform fropm which to speak is a privilege, not a right. Their right to speak is totally uninfringed. Their privilege to speak to loads at people at once and be noticed is being taken away. And that's what happens when you act like total dickheads.

 

On the boycott, I think Countdown et al are just trading audiences. I wouldn't think less of them for carrying on advertising on the show, but I will think more of them for pulling their advertising. How many times before this has Countdown featured so heavily in the comments thread of the blogosphere? They're counting on getting more positive press from people who didn't like the show (whether they listen or not) than they'd get from carrying on advertising.

 

by Jane Beezle on November 12, 2013
Jane Beezle

Wow.

This is like talkback for intellectuals.

Who would have thought?  Such stupid, dodgy comments by Willie and JT could lead to such extended waffle.  And all in the name of free speech and those CURSED EVIL CORPORATE GIANTS.

There's a lot in here to make me pull out the vomit bag.  More "qualifying apostrophes" than I have seen for a long time.

But I have to say.  Your bit about them being Maori "working class" pushing your latent socialist buttons.  That REALLY cracks me up.

It must be comfortable being a latent socialist at the top floor of the Hocken.  Less so for rape victims at the bottom.  Some posts, Andrew, are just best left unwritten.

by Andrew Geddis on November 12, 2013
Andrew Geddis

Jane,

I am both confused and concerned by your last paragraph;

It must be comfortable being a latent socialist at the top floor of the Hocken.  Less so for rape victims at the bottom.  Some posts, Andrew, are just best left unwritten.

I'm confused, because I'm not sure how anything in my post may have made life for rape survivors any worse. As I noted at the outset of the post, the topic is of only marginal importance when compared to their much greater demand on our attention (and to the issue of how sexual abuse occurs and is dealt with in NZ generally). But two things:

(1) I'm not an expert on the issue of sexual assault, nor do I think that I have any particular insights into how the issue may be combatted in NZ. I do, however, have some expertise in the area of free speech (and have written quite a lot about it on this blog in the past). So given that a discussion about the "free speech" (more apostrophes!) rights of Tamihere and Jackson had arisen as a minor sideline in the whole story, it doesn't seem entirely improper for me to address it.

(2) Having accepted that I'm writing on a minor sideline issue, I don't then see how writing this post in any way diminishes or belittles the experiences of rape survivors. Reading back over it, I can't see any obvious triggering phrases or passages.

I'm then concerned, because obviously making the life of rape survivors worse would be a pretty shitty thing to do. When I get accused of it, I want to know what I did wrong.

So if you want to come back and further explain your comment, I'd appreciate it. Thanks.

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