A bob both ways: commercial argument for free speech
Today’s column by Dita De Boni on the Free Speech Union and NZME unfortunately illustrates the name-calling and guilt-by-association which characterises so many contentious public conversations today. FSU has chosen to respond to the article and to its credit, NBR has agreed to publish it.
In my view, opinion columns such as De Boni’s today, which go beyond the factual and into speculative accusations, inhibit constructive debate. This doesn’t serve the commercial interests of anyone.
In response to our work calling on NZME to operate as an impartial publisher and maintain a commitment to free speech (apparently these are controversial requests) De Boni writes: ‘One would think that… the FSU might agree that NZME has the right to publish precisely what it wants, and take money from whom it wants, safe in the knowledge there would have to be a very good reason if not.’
She is absolutely correct we would and have admitted exactly this on a number of occasions. In a series of conversations with NZME CEO Michael Boggs and the NZME board, we have consistently recognised the right of NZME to carry whatever legal material it wishes and to decline whatever adverts it wants. A simple phone call or email would have allowed us at the Free Speech Union to clarify this.
However, in the long run, no one benefits from limiting debate and silencing opposition on critical social questions. No matter which side of the debate you sit on, whether it is your opinion that trans women are literally women or if you maintain a traditional feminist’s view of sex and gender, limiting the debate is unhelpful. (NB: the Free Speech Union doesn’t take a stand on this issue or any other - we simply insist that free speech is the most peaceful and productive way forward for all parties.)
Despite De Boni’s claims, the commercial interests of NZME, or any business, will indeed be undermined by avoiding all controversy or fearing the appearance of being out of vogue. Selective censorship hands a big stick to the noisiest and most aggressive mob of the day and suggests that by excluding some views, NZME implicitly endorses every perspective they do choose to platform.
In the long run, no one benefits from limiting debate and silencing opposition on critical social questions.
A principled dedication to simply allow a diversity of opinions would avoid such inferences and allow for vigorous debate to lead a path forward. You may call this having a bob both ways, but impartiality and balance is essentially just that. When the alternative is name-calling and cancel culture, surely this is by far the superior option.
However, it must be noted that De Boni is not representing the stance NZME actually took. NZME did not attempt to make the argument for avoiding controversy to protect commercial interests. Along with Chief Executive Michael Boggs, NZME General Counsel Allison Whitney claimed that to run gender critical material would be to “place our staff in an unsafe working environment.”
This suggestion ignores the fact that the work of the Fourth Estate, in general, is frequently controversial and uncomfortable. Protecting all NZME staff from opinions they don’t share will result in a very narrow scope of reporting. De Boni should have reported on the facts of the situation, which is that this is a dispute about “safety” and protecting adults from opinions that upset them, not about commercial interests.
De Boni also made the claim that the Free Speech Union “is an organisation with unknown funding sources and an alignment with international far-right and libertarian causes.” (Reference to ‘far-right’ has been subsequently removed). The Free Speech Union would have been happy to discuss with De Boni that we are fortunate enough to have the support of a large number of small donors and members here in New Zealand. Had she placed even one phone call to confirm or correct her assertions, she would have found her claims about our funding to be demonstrably incorrect.
Additionally, the many Left-wing, Liberal, and progressive Kiwis who are members of the Free Speech Union, including prominent individuals like Chris Trotter, Matt McCarten, Dane Giraud, and Daphna Whitmore, would likely be aghast to hear of the so-called “alignment with international far-right.. causes.” Thankfully, this accusation is easily put to bed.
Every dollar we have received to date has come from one of our 75,000 Kiwi supporters. Very few donations are over $1,000. We are the essence of a grassroots campaign funded by everyday New Zealanders who have just about had enough of the base pontificating, moralising, and name-calling that undermines respectful debate. The irony of it all though, is if someone tried to silence De Boni, we’d still defend her speech.
We extend the invitation to journalists at NBR, and beyond, to speak with our representatives at the Free Speech Union to find out more about who we are, what we do, and why we do it. We will, of course, defend their right to publish their honest opinions about us.
Jonathan Ayling is the chief executive of the Free Speech Union.