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Tuesday, 7 August 2007

More on satire and free speech in New Zealand.

After writing my last blog post, I knew I'd been neglecting my duty as a citizen by not writing letters about the ban on using parliamentary footage for satirical purposes. So I sat down to write an email. But who to write to? My local MP? I hate Gerry Brownlee. Well, all right, not hate hate, but I don't really think of him as representing my views and writing to him as if I cared about the finer points of what he thinks felt a bit dishonest; I'd never vote for him. Helen Clark as head of the Labour government? Ha! Fat chance. I have considerable respect for Helen Clark, but she's a pragmatic politician and I can't imagine any argument I might make counting for much beyond a chalk mark in one direction or the other. In this I may or may not be being unfair.

So I wrote to Jim Anderton, leader of the Progressive Party with its single seat in government, closely aligned with Labour and holding a seat in cabinet, not in Labour because he split with the party in the 1980s when they weren't being particularly Labour-ish, and in, it has been noted, his 'fourth political incarnation' (the other two changes of party allegiance being a merger and, more recently, yet another split).

Notwithstanding his occasional apparent difficulties with strict party allegiance, Anderton's a good politician. Someone asked Helen Clark, when she was elected for her second term and Jim Anderton had just been demoted somewhat, becoming the leader of a much smaller party than the one he's previously been leader of, if she'd still keep him in cabinet and she said something to the effect that she'd be silly not to use a person like that, given that the talent was available. She meant it.

My letter went as follows:

Dear Mr. Anderton,

I'm not quite in your electorate -- wrong side of Riccarton Road. But yours is one of the parties I'd consider giving my party vote to, so I figure you have reason to listen to me. I was sorry to read that the Green Party was the only party with sufficient conscience to vote against banning satirical use of footage of parliamentary debates. I confess I might have expected better of you. Did you really have to fall in line on this one?

It's a free speech issue, and it's not just a technicality. When I look at the current state of American politics, there's a lot to despair about in the behaviour of George W. Bush's administration, and it's easy to get frustrated with the media coverage, straight-facedly reporting politically-motivated firings, illegal wiretapping and all the rest of it, with no easy way to express the enormity of the accusations. Enter satire in the form of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show. The former Deputy Attorney General reports to Congress on an incident that basically involved coercion of the then Attorney General when he was groggy after an operation, and a member of Congress says (with typical political cautiousness) "Hearing your testimony, I almost gulped". It's really important that the Daily Show was able to air that clip of a parliamentary session, air it and follow it with "You ALMOST gulped? What -- do they have to sodomize the Declaration of Independence in front of you?" Vulgar, perhaps, but I'd say it's a necessary way of conveying disgust and outrage. Sometimes satire is the only sufficiently powerful way to say something really important.

You have disappointed me.

Yours sincerely,

Recently I received the following reply:

Dear [Lynet]

Thank you for your message of 30 July objecting to the prohibition of the use
of vidoe footage of parliament's proceeding for satirical purposes. I share
your views on the importance of free speech as being central to the operation
of any democracy. It is for this reason that I am opposed, for
example, to what
is termed 'anti-hate' legislation banning material which denigrates groups in
general such as homosexuals or ethnic minorities. Problems of tolerance are
best resolved by open and robust debate. Why then, as you rightly ask, would
I support such legislation as that to which you object? Let me make three

The first is that the right to free speech is not an absolute right in all
circumstances. As the US Chief Justice Holmes once sagely remarked it does
not, for example, include the right to cry 'fire' in a crowded theatre. Sometimes
there can be other considerations to be taken into account.

The second, flowing from that, is that in this case the ban is on the use of
recorded material for 'satire, ridicule or denigration' of the House. As you
may know, historically parliament in England from which we inherit our
pariamentary traditions, has always been very jealous of its dignity, as
well it might be as what is essentially the highest court in the land and the
fount of all laws. Insisting on that dignity as a crucial element in its
independence is also one of the key bases of parliamentary democracy, and
has been since the seventeenth century when its independence was fought
for and established. And so, in banning satire, ridicule and denigration,
the House is also protecting parliamentary democracy and that must be
balanced against the right to absolute free speech. It is a mootpoint
whether or not the word 'satire' is necessary in that context; it might be that
the other two words suffice. But this parliamentary standing order is for
this session only and will be reviewed at its end. That leaves open the
prospect that a change will be made to a more suitable form of words (as
some would see it). That remains to be seen. In the mean time it needs to
be borne in mind that the full standing order opens up the options for
citizens to view parliament at work much more widely than at present and
actually contributes to, rather than subtracts from, freedom of reportage.

The third point is merely to remark that I would be more impressed by the high
moral tone adopted by some of ther media towards this provision if they were
taking full advantage of their freedoms to report as they stand now. Largely
all we get of parliament on television in particular is Question Time when a
conflict occurs. Very good copy I have no doubt. But Question Time is
deliberately set up as an adversary situation to dramatise the issues of the day
and no-one should be surprised if it gets a bit lively from time to time. However,
it also occupies a mere fraction of what happens in parliament, most of which is
conducted on a largely bi-partisan basis i.e. parliamentarians do actually spend
most of their time now 'getting on with running the country' as many of our
critics so loudly demand we should.. The purpose of broadcasting parliament is
to better inform citizens of what is happening in government - an objective I
thoroughly endorse - but it is a bit hard to see how insisting that showing
pictures of MPs yawning or reading the paper advances that object, or should
be given precedence over the reporting of e.g. Select Committee
proceedings, which is allowed under the rules but which rarely makes it into
the news.

I should finally comment that it is not my practise to take political positions
solely on the basis that people will vote for me or the Progressive Party. I
hope that they will, but I prefer that should happen on the basis of our policies
overall rather than our stance on this issue or that of the day.

I trust that covers your concerns but please feel free to write to me further if
you continue to have concerns.

With best wishes

Yours sincerely
Jim Anderton
MP for Wigram and Leader of the Progressive Party

Damn, he's good. I'm still not sure
about the idea of
safeguarding parliament's dignity -- the dignity of
parliament most definitely stands or falls on the integrity of
its members (it wasn't until I read Michael King's history
of New Zealand that I realised that the deep scorn and
distrust of politicians that I was aware of as a small kid
probably has some of its roots in Ruth Richardson's 'mother
of all budgets' that left many destitute, and the less than
benevolent Labour government that preceded it). Still, he
argues well, doesn't he?


Kelly Gorski said...

This proves to me that I need to study more about Australian government and the socio-political climate. How I have neglected my "down under" friends. :(

L.L. Barkat said...

At least he had what seemed like good reasons. Though I'm not sure the answer is in banning. It seems that perhaps the answer would lie in getting citizens to participate more deeply, have a sense of ownership. And then maybe they won't even want to make fun of something they feel a part of!

Alon Levy said...

Lynet, to add to Kelly's comment, can you remind me which state of Australia New Zealand is in?

More to the point, if I had a kiosk of the type Stentor has on Debitage, I'd place in it anyone who justifies censorship by bringing up yelling fire in a crowded theater. The analogy only works if you bring evidence that the speech is harmful. Vague appeals to a kinglike sanctity Parliament must enjoy aren't evidence; even at the height of absolutism, kings recognized that continual flattery led to hubris and employed jesters.

Lynet said...

Lynet, to add to Kelly's comment, can you remind me which state of Australia New Zealand is in?


L.L. Barkat said...

Yes, I thought that was funny too. (Kind of goes with Stewart's statement that no country is an island, well...)