Free speech versus hate speech - there is a difference
The media's response to the Henry debacle has been interesting. Confirming the pattern of New Zealanders' attention span being about a week and a half of intense media coverage before they get annoyed with an issue and seek blame for it being brought up, Henry's outburst has been painted as an issue of free speech by Deborah Hill Cone and other commentators.
Yet there are strong reasons why this should be an opportunity to debate racism in the public arena. The first has to be for the internal health of our society. I’m not proposing a kind of socialist utopia: this is absolutely not an issue of left or right, or, as Deborah Coddington would paint it, driven by the unions. This is an issue of our ability to live together as representatives of diverse cultures. It doesn’t take a taxi driver with a PhD to tell one that the effects of this are bad: racism has real economic and social effects. One only needs to look at the statistics on earning by ethnicity to tell this, or the abuse that people encounter on an everyday basis. Not surprisingly, when seen from the other perspective, a survey only a couple of weeks ago found that immigrants felt less safe in New Zealand the longer they stay here. To put it quite simply, propagating this kind of discourse as good or mainstream television is hindering people’s ability to integrate.
The effects of racism can also be economic, as Melbourne police have discovered following the leaked email that showed a Bombay man being electrocuted on a train accompanied by the text ‘this is how we should deal with the Indian problem’. While it dropped from being significant in our news during the hunt for stories which proved other cultures were racist too, or white culture was superior (the Te Papa tapu story, the Indian beauty pageant), 30,000 Indian students left Melbourne in a week and a half threatening their education industry, which is a major problem as it is now the third largest export industry in Australia.
Like it or not, we live in a global economy now. New Zealand spends millions of taxpayer dollars on tourism campaigns. Tourism is our biggest export earner. India is the eleventh largest economy in the world and now has vast emerging middle classes. We were right in the middle of trade negotiations with the country, an agreement that Trade Minister Tim Groser described as "vital". Henry's outburst made news from The Hollywood Reporter to The Gulf News, across many cultures where cussing has a much more controversial meaning than here. Supporting Henry might be fashionable, but it also may hit us in the pocket.
The end result of racism is always violence, whether it be lyrical or physical, and there needs to be some kind of culpability or future-planning in the aftermath. Henry’s racism has had a kind of Palin-effect, with large groups forming on social networking sites such as Facebook that espouse racist dialogue as equivalent to exercising one’s rights, leaving National Radio presenters to read out expletives not worth repeating here.
Then there is the issue of free speech. The free speech versus racism one is much more complex than it has been painted. In John Gabriel's 1994 work Racism, Culture, Markets he examines the way that racism functions in the media. Free speech, he notes, is one of the most compelling arguments for supporting racism in the mainstream media, and the most controversial. Looking to the example of Salman Rushdie's publication of The Satanic Verses, a debate in which he does not take sides, he highlights that in civil society, freedom of speech must be balanced against the responsibilities that come with its exercise. While there was a strong argument to be made for freedom of speech in this instance, one also had to look at the effects of this speech, which were riots, international antagonism, 38 deaths of those related to the publisher, and a rise in unease between white and Muslim populations in the UK. Free speech is a beautiful thing, but we have to be aware of its consequences as well. While it might have won a place as a finalist for the Booker Prize, it stirred the hornet’s nest in a way that impacted many more people than just his now inhibited self. While the English debate Rushdie, we debate Henry, a fact that has got to make us look even more ridiculous through an international lens as Henry is not really saying anything of substance.
Interestingly, the United Nations distinguishes between the right to free speech and racism in its 2001 Durban Convention on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, to which New Zealand is a signatory. Racism, the convention argues, is one of the primary causes of instability and warfare in society, and therefore should be distinguished from the right to free speech. The convention mentions in particular the plight of immigrants, recognizing them as a group vulnerable to these discourses. While many commentators have argued that Henry's ability to make racist comments on breakfast television is an issue of free speech, it is crucial to note that in many other democracies he would not have been granted the same kind of immunity. The BBC, for example, would have sacked him or at least issued a warning, as they did when Colin Murray said that a Sheikh looked like a "serial killer". Ricky Sanchez was fired instantly by CNN in the US for saying that Jews run the media. Even in France, which tops the polls for xenophobia in Europe, Henry's comments could have attracted criminal charges.
TVNZ should take some of the responsibility for pushing what was essentially xenophobic views in order to gain ratings. The broadcaster’s position and reluctance to relieve Henry was underlined in Andy Brotherston’s unfortunate press release that claimed that Henry “reflected the opinions of New Zealanders”. Television has long been recognized for its ability to socialize and cement perspectives, a notion reflected in the public service broadcasting model of our television, and also in the numerous laws that, for example, regulate advertising to children and alcohol for adults. This is one reason why states up until the advent of digital have sought to control their national cinema. This was also one of the arguments behind the adoption of the TVNZ Charter, which although National are seeking to scrap it is an important document for precisely these reasons, and also for its continuation of the film and television industry.
Sure, the Charter has been applied weakly in the past, such as when Rick Ellis argued that Police Ten-7 was an example of Maori representation, but it was at least some safeguard against purely commercially oriented television. And if we further towards this model we can expect more Henrys and more reality television as they are forced to appeal to ratings rather than quality broadcasting. This is one reason why we need to be addressing to Jonathan Coleman the merits of a BBC-styled public service model rather than one purely driven by commercial concerns.