GUILTY MEN? Tried and convicted in the Court of Public Opinion for their insensitive questioning of "Amy", a friend of one of the "Roastbusters'" victims, Maori broadcasters Willie Jackson and John Tamihere were taken off the air. Radio Live's decision was assisted by massive criticism from social media and direct pressure on the radio station's advertisers. But, were Willie and JT's failings personal or cultural? Is it pure coincidence that their Pakeha colleagues - also guilty of insensitivity in relation to the Roastbusters scandal - have escaped Willie's and JT's fate?
AM I ALONE, amidst all the liberal self-congratulation at the silencing of Willie Jackson and John Tamihere, in experiencing a chill of foreboding? Has no one else on the Left paused for a moment to consider what manner of precedent this appeal to advertisers may have set? Has no thought been given to how – or even if – the demise of The Willie & JT Show can be reconciled with the NZ Bill of Rights’ guarantee of freedom of expression?
Because there can be little doubt that the decision by so many businesses to withdraw their advertising from Radio Live was prompted by the implicit threat of a consumer boycott of their products if they didn’t. Bluntly, the proposition put to Radio Live amounted to: “Take these guys off the air, or, first off, we’ll hurt your advertisers; and then we’ll hurt you.”
And it worked. Messrs Jackson and Tamihere have been silenced and their show shut down for at least two months. They have been tried in the Court of Public Opinion for expressing opinions and evincing attitudes that a great many New Zealanders deem to be not only objectionable but dangerous. They have been found guilty and punished.
But, when you think about it, they didn’t really get a fair trial – did they?
In a fair trial they would have been asked why they treated the young woman caller, Amy, the way they did. Were their questions about her friend’s attire and the amount of alcohol she’d consumed framed deliberately, to inflict maximum harm and humiliation? Or were they merely reflective of the values and assumptions that characterised the circumstances in which her inquisitors were raised?
At a fair trial, someone might have posed the question: “Is it more or less likely that Willie’s and JT’s alleged “misogyny” reflected a predisposition toward deliberate cruelty? Or, was it the product of deeply ingrained misconceptions about sexuality and gender?” And, if we’re willing to concede that it might have been the latter, then hasn’t the discussion moved on from failings that are personal, to responses that may be cultural?
At a fair trial, Willie’s and JT’s defence attorney might even have tried to turn the story around to where it was no longer about sexism but racism. Because the charge of rape, when levelled against a black man, carries with it all manner of disreputable historical baggage.
What did Willie and JT see when 3 News broke the Roastbusters story? Two young brown faces. What did they hear? Middle-class Pakeha liberals baying for their blood. To what did their first thoughts turn? Rape Culture or Lynch Law?
And the sad fact is, there could have been a fair trial – or, at least, a free exchange of views about the many issues raised by the Roastbusters scandal. Had the first instinct of Willie's and JT’s critics been to ask Radio Live for an opportunity to go head-to-head with them on air; to challenge their ideas about young women and rape; then the result might well have been a week’s worth of productive and progressive dialogue. But that is not what happened. Rather than korero, the left-wing social media’s first instinct was to condemn, threaten, punish and shut down.
And now that they have tasted blood; now that they have fixed the heads of these two high-profile Maori “misogynists” above the gates of their virtual Utopia; listen to what some in the left-wing social media believe it to mean:
“Old media Radio Live have been damaged by the new media blogs. The power of Twitter and Facebook allows a focused roar from the crowd to descend with crushing force on whatever target it decides to destroy. It’s trial by social media.”
Now, I’m pretty sure that the author of those sentences, The Daily Blog editor, Martyn Bradbury, did not intend them to sound quite so triumphant. Because the situation he is describing in no way merits self-congratulation. Nor is it one which any leftist worthy of the name will approach with equanimity.
Freedom of expression is absolutely basic to any movement which places challenging the status quo at the core of its political practice. In denying that freedom to Willie Jackson, John Tamihere and Radio Live, the Left has set a precedent upon which, at the first opportunity, a vengeful Right will pounce.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 November, 2013.