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PRINZ Conference Opens With Free Speech Challenge

Public Relations Institute of New Zealand

22 May 2008

PRINZ Conference Opens With Free Speech Challenge

This morning Matthew Horton of Horton Media opened the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand conference with a controversial challenge to the popular concept of free speech.

He said that the court system, defamation laws, and the Electoral Finance Act have combined to suppress freedom of information in New Zealand – and that contrary to popular belief, the digital media will not be the saviour of free speech.

He said that the justice system has increasingly suppressed defendants’ names and details of their crimes, often without good reason, thus denying the public their right to know.

Mr Horton said that the next most common tool used to undermine New Zealander’s freedom of expression is the defamation law, which has “perverted one of the fundamental principles of law so that defendants aren’t entitled to the presumption of innocence.”

“The result is that the media’s chances of beating even plainly dishonest plaintiffs are uneven at best. There have been more than a few cases where the media has lost a defamation action at great cost only for the plaintiff to later be convicted of the same transgression.”

A more insidious method of intimidation, he says, is cultural sensitivity, often relating to statements about Maori and Polynesian issues.

And perhaps the saddest thing, he said, is New Zealanders’ apathy in the face of these gradual incursions into our legislated liberties.

“The Electoral Finance Act is a case in point. Apparently, according to the Act’s preamble, this encourages public participation in parliamentary democracy.

However, he said, “It is clearly not an attempt to encourage public participation in elections. Nor is it drafted to confer transparency upon the process. Rather, it is designed to impose cost, difficulty and criminal consequences upon those who might try.”

And Mr Horton holds out no hope that the emergence of the essentially uncontrollable online media will save the day.

“Within ten years of the internet’s popular acceptance, we have more blogs, web pages, digital TV and radio stations than we can count. Millions more chat and text away on their mobile phones or download podcasts onto their multi-function portable electronic devices.

But online media is not free speech, he argued, because the internet is not yet the most popularly accepted means of imparting information and discussion.

“However much information you can obtain, it has no practical use unless it can be freely exchanged and discussed within the popular culture.”

We are social animals. Our most valuable experiences are those we can share with others. We mostly watch the same TV shows read the same newspapers or magazines and listen to the same radio programmes.”

Most people will choose to consume the media that most other people are consuming because the legitimacy of a medium is defined as much by its acceptance as its content.


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