The real nanny state | The Jackal

24 Jan 2012

The real nanny state

On Friday, the Waikato Times reported:

A raft of issues has been raised in the aftermath of TV3's screening of a controversial documentary about child poverty just four days before the general election last year.


The agency is reported to be displeased with TV3's timing, obviously because political displeasure was communicated. Board minutes show the December meeting decided to seek legal advice on whether the broadcast covenant could require broadcasters "not to screen programmes likely to be an election issue within the election period as defined in the Broadcasting Act".

The media's disclosure of that decision has triggered accusations of the state wanting to control political discussion.

Those accusations are not readily rebuffed, because NZ on Air board member Stephen McElrea is Prime Minister John Key's electorate chairman and the National Party's northern region deputy chairman. The records show he asked if the agency was aware the documentary would be scheduled four days before the election.

NZ on Air's handling of the issue raises the spectre of documentaries being censored or rejected by party pooh-bahs. This fortifies the case for politically neutral appointees to state boards. But poverty will be vanquished long before governments relinquish their long-standing practice of giving board jobs to their mates to reward loyalty.

Pooh-bahs is right. The lead up to an election when people's political radar is switched on is the perfect time to broadcast political documentaries and other relevant information... because we want people to be well informed of their decision on who they elect. Unfortunately most of the time such relevant programming is on late at night or not at all.

There is no doubt that further restrictions on truthful political programming is designed to keep people uninformed and in the dark. Unfortunately it's a tactic also used for online content... to remove factual information that makes the government of the day look bad.

This callous attempt to repress information is undertaken because arguments based on misinformation can only gain traction in the absence of the truth.

It's a bit like a criminal destroying evidence of their crimes... with any relevant information that remains often speculative in nature because the majority of evidence has been hidden. Without the full picture, an argument can be less convincing. That's why it often appears the debate is speculative and purely built on opinion, when it should always be based on facts.

Restricting people's right to communicate their factual arguments because they don't conform to a certain political ideology is a clear violation of freedom of expression. Section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (BoRA), states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.

I might not like a lot of people's opinions, especially when it's based on misinformation... but I will defend people's right to be allowed to express their opinion in any form when it's within the law.

That's why it's concerning to see the Electoral Commission disregarding the BoRA by restricting what messaging is allowed to be produced.

Today, the NZ Herald reported:

The advisory opinions also show several groups which were not political parties were stopped from going ahead with some of their election plans. Teachers' union the New Zealand Educational Institute submitted scripts for television and radio advertisements but was told that references to the Government cutting early childhood funding and the words "speak up for education" meant they could not be broadcast because they encouraged people not to vote for National. Strict broadcasting laws meant they could not be played.

Save TVNZ 7 - a group set up to campaign against the decision to cut TVNZ 7 - was thwarted from running a radio ad urging people to "vote to save TVNZ 7" and saying "the bad news is the National Government's going to scrap it".

A radio network was told a Sensible Sentencing Trust advertisement which referred to the trust's website was in breach because the website was likely to contain election material.

Environmental group The Renewables was told the use of "vote for the planet" was too close to the Green Party's slogan in 2008, making it an election ad which would require Green Party permission.

And handing out copies of the Hollow Men book at Wellington Railway Station was ruled to be "treating" - giving gifts to influence voters.

Controlling the message is a dangerous manipulation that should be consigned to histories mistakes. Institutionalising restrictions on freedom of expression will undermine politics and ensure the public's opinion is built on speculation. Clearly a society cannot function properly on misinformation.

The question is do we really want a nanny state insulting our intelligence by repressing relevant political information? In my opinion the overwhelming answer to that question is no!