"Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press"

Just what is there in Whanganui's water that makes people there act like morons?

I don't think anyone would disagree that Michael Laws has a rather healthy ego, or that he takes his job as mayor of Whanganui exceptionally seriously. This is the guy, after all, who proclaimed his “constitutional responsibility to fight this decision [to officially name his town Whanganui] until there is no fight left in my body.”  Stirring stuff, indeed!

But if you are going to go around laying claim to “constitutional duties” as the mayor of a rather small river hamlet, perhaps it would be a good idea not to seek to trample over such constitutional basics as freedom of the press and informed criticism of those in power?

I refer, of course, to Mayor Laws’ apparent attempt to kneecap what he sees as a overly critical local newspaper, the Wanganui Chronicle and its weekly giveaway Midweek, by withdrawing some $100,000 of council advertising from its pages. The Chronicle claims that this move is an effort to punish it for running editorials like this one, or this one, that take issue with Mayor Laws’ leadership style. Instead, he wants to spend the money advertising in a rival publication, the River City Press – a publication that already places his smiling visage right next to its front-page logo in each issue.

While I have no doubt that Mayor Laws will claim that his move is driven by ensuring public funds are spent in the most efficient fashion, there are a couple of reasons to be suspicious of such an explanation. First, his hostile relationship with the Chronicle makes it awfully… convenient that the “most efficient” use of ratepayers money happens to involve taking it away from the paper.

Consider this recent missive from the mayoral desk:

You need to lift your game, Mr Pringle. The Chronicle already has a reputation as a poor provincial newspaper with an unhealthy preoccupation with cat and dog stories. But misrepresenting council policy and practice is a new low even for the Chronicle.

Or his failed Press Council complaint in 2008 when the paper had the temerity not to publish his letter to the editor.  Given this background, don’t claims that this is no more than an accounting decision seem a little dubious?

Or, to put it another way, what would Mayor Laws’ response have been had the previous Labour government announced that all Whanganui’s roading funding was going to be switched to Palmerston North – but that this move had nothing to do with Mayor Laws’ views on Labour’s social policies… goodness no… it was just that “the efficient use of resources” required the decision.

Second, the alternative council advertising strategy apparently involves using ratepayers’ money to increase the circulation area of the River City Press, so as to enable all ratepayers to see the council’s advertisements in this publication. In other words, the council will subsidise one commercial enterprise to enable it to provide a service that already is being provided by another enterprise. At the least, this apparently inefficient use of resources would appear to require some explanation. At worst, it may be downright illegal.

(As an aside, I just haven’t had the time to look into the legal niceties around this particular issue. Graeme Edgler/Dean Knight/anyone else out there got any thoughts on this? That’s what the comments box is for! Update: The comments function seems to be offline at present, but Dean Knight has posted his thoughts here.)

But even if what Mayor Laws wants to do is within the technical bounds of the law, it still has a distinctly fishy odour. Of course local politicians are going to get pissed off with the local rag – there would be something deeply wrong if there wasn't a continual tension between what the elected figures think the ratepayers should read and what the newspaper thinks it should write.

And it's not as if Mayor Laws is without resources of his own in this tussle. There's the small matter of the nationwide soap-box afforded to him by Radio Live for three hours every morning. While for all he may think that the Chronicle is biased against him, a quick perusal of its webpage shows plenty of stories reporting verbatim his repsonses to its coverage.

So perhaps Mayor Laws could lay off the "it's my way or the highway" act and pay heed to Thomas Jefferson's dictum:

No government ought to be without censors, and where the press is free, no one ever will. If virtuous, it need not fear the fair operation of attack and defence. Nature has given to man no other means of sifting out the truth whether in religion, law or politics. I think it as honorable to the government neither to know nor notice its sycophants or censors, as it would be undignified and criminal to pamper the former and persecute the latter.