Of speech and its consequences

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?